Nature's Therapy

When I was first told there wouldn’t necessarily be a cure or fix to my panic attacks and anxiety, it was like receiving news that someone had passed. It had already taken around 7 years for me to find out what was wrong with me in the first place and this added blow was something that I just couldn’t accept.

At the time, it wasn’t my GP that diagnosed me, they instead gave me antibiotics and said I had a virus. I also got diagnoses involving my ear canals, diet and more. My favourite one was that because I was so overweight, it was affecting my body and causing these issues.

I eventually diagnosed myself thanks to hours (and I mean hundreds of hours) trawling through the internet.  I changed GP and went with my findings to them to find out what I could do. That was the first and potentially biggest hurdle.

Not knowing what is causing these feelings are of extreme panic, hyperventilation, disassociation, sickness and more is debilitating. Going through that on and off for 7 years further takes its toll on you mentally so instead of being diagnosed properly and using that time to improve your situation, you are making it worse. It’s like a blockage, you have to pull everything out before attending to the problem.

Over the years I have had counselling, CBTs, graded therapy and more. I have also incorporated mindfulness into my life to try and fix things. It has taken 20 years for me to realise that I am never going to be rid of this, and over the last 2 years in particular, I have finally accepted it.

I have spoken about this widely, but I suffer with PTSD and social anxiety. This is because of various reasons, but social anxiety is directly related to my body image. I have always been large, fuck knows what that means anymore to be honest, but with relation to what the media and society accept in terms of body size, I am big. This has directly affected what I feel my place is in public and when I am in situations where more focus is on me and I have no means of escape then I start to panic. Public transport is one of the worst situations for me as I am not in control, it has been a catalyst leading to some of my hardest experiences dealing with my mental health.

I have discussed previously that I had been doing incredibly well for a notable period and was using public transport successfully. Back in 2017, I had a funny turn on a bus on my way into Glasgow City and then the avoidance crept in. I then started to avoid ALL public transport again as the fear of having a panic attack on anything else was too much to handle and I didn’t want it to affect my ability to get to work and most all evolving into something that would take me back to agoraphobic episodes.

The problem this time was that taxis were even difficult for me and I needed to get from A to B. I decided to walk. I was a bit nervous as my fitness had slipped a bit and I was still feeling a bit anxious in general being outside with no means of what I classed as “safety”. I started walking the 3.2 miles to work and the first day was tough as my fitness was a bit lower, but I made it and I felt so proud. I walked home that evening and I remember having one of the best sleeps I have ever had.

A year and a half later and I am walking around 40 miles in a week and more some weeks. There have been so many positives that have come from it though.

Walking gives me breathing space. I work ridiculous hours sometimes and it gives me much needed time to think. It makes me think about my mental health, my panic, things that have happened to me over the years and lets me digest them. It’s just me, my thoughts and the fresh air. It’s almost like nature’s therapy in a strange way. I have had so many conversations in my own head and had numerous lightbulb moments because I have had those physical moments of respite and clarity to deal with them.

Walking has challenged my body. I have always hated my body. It’s very difficult to love something that people have acted so disgustingly towards, but by achieving some of the physical goals I have over the last year in particular has made me respect what it can do. That in turn has made me accept the way I look more and also deal with some of the issues I have had with my body image. More importantly, I have now realised that I don’t care if I get to a certain size. As long as I can continue to improve and live through this newfound love of walking and better health then I can live in my skin. One of the biggest realisations for me being that I didn’t really feel that I had to measure myself anymore when it came to trying to reduce my body size. I was measuring my fitness and that’s what I was getting more of a kick from, that’s never happened in all the years this burden started.

Walking has challenged my heart rate. I have always had a fear of my heart and a lot of people that suffer with panic attacks are the same. When you exercise, you have your breathing and physical exertion coupled as an added extra so when your heart rate rises rapidly, you can cope with it better. When you have a panic attack and you are stationary, it feels like you are dying. Your heart is going the same rate as if you are running and you don’t know how the fuck to control this thing. Walking has enabled me to build my heart rate in situations where I am not doing extreme activities and it has let me practice managing my breathing and in turn my panic.

All these points have helped ease my anxiety and panic more and have enabled me to challenge myself more. I went to Italy 2 weeks ago and that was a huge challenge with a lot of planning, but I did it.

This is something I live with now, it always will be. Yes, it’s a cliché that it makes you stronger and it does in ways that you can never put into words. I think the moment you stop trying to fight certain things are the times that an inner peace develops and you then work with them to make a better life for yourself. This is one of those situations.

I can’t believe it has taken me 20 years to get to this point. I wish I had invested in this sooner. I could have maybe lived my life a bit more.

BUT I am started to live it better now and through the realisation of how much walking has helped me, Respite Room started our Saturday morning walking club in Queens Park. I have met some wonderful people and I am hoping to roll this out a bit more as the summer months come in. You can find out more information about it HERE.

I know this might not work for everyone, but as someone that has suffered with extreme panic and at times agoraphobia, it is the one thing that I can confidently say has aided my mental health the most. If this is something that you are considering, then please build gradually. Go to the end of your road and back again. Build up each day and you will hopefully start to see and feel the benefits. I really want you to start living your life outside of your head.

Halina x

If you are struggling with anything mentioned above, you can find assistance in our Help and Support section and we also a list of organisations HERE.

Halina Rifai