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Heather’s Story: Fitness was the medicine I needed to manage my anxiety attacks

Heather was exhausted as anxiety attacks took over her life and she quickly found herself struggling to cope with the pressures of balancing work and caring for her family.

With no one else to turn to, Heather dug deep to seek help from her GP and knew she had to make changes herself to break the cycle.

With support through Newcastle United Foundation’s Be A Game Changer mental health awareness campaign, Heather now knows the importance of asking for support and hopes her story will inspire others to do the same.

 

By Heather Craggs

I first experienced an anxiety attack around ten years ago. I remember walking to the shop with my daughters and suddenly having an overwhelming feeling that I was going to die. I ran outside the shop, gasping for breath while my heart was racing and I was feeling extremely dizzy.

I had no idea what it was at the time, but the experience was so frightening I became consumed by the idea that it might happen again – pulling me into a vicious cycle that resulted in me having panic attacks the night before I was due to do anything, like take my daughters on the school run. It was exhausting and mentally draining and these feelings began to follow me everywhere.

I remember being at work on a till and I would often become dizzy and overwhelmed. My vision would go and this would coincide with my optical migraines which were also unfortunately a regular occurrence. If anyone asked me what was wrong, I’d just say I didn’t feel well – I didn’t know how to explain how I was really feeling. I remember feeling even worse when I overheard colleagues suggesting that I was lying about being unwell. I felt so isolated and alone in it and, progressively, it got much worse until I had to call in sick.

Reaching out for help

At this point I decided it was imperative that I saw the doctor to ask for help. They quickly diagnosed me with anxiety and severe panic attacks and I immediately blamed myself – why me? They initially prescribed antidepressants which affect people differently and, in my case, they made things worse and heightened my anxiety so I wasn’t able to take them for very long.

I remember trying to get my daughters ready for school and I felt like I couldn’t cope and rang my friend to take the girls to school and nursery for me. Then, I laid on the floor and just felt this awful feeling that I didn’t want to be here. I felt so alone.

My partner would shout at me for being the way I was and never understood me – he said it was all in my head. My life slowly spiralled out of control and I found myself losing patience with my beautiful daughters, risking my job through sickness absences, living with a partner who didn’t understand me, and I simply didn’t feel able to talk to my friends about how I was feeling. My anxiety subsequently turned into depression.

Every day I felt lost and refused to leave the house – unless it was to go to the doctors (if there was ever a season ticket for the doctors, I would have had one!) I had severe headaches and convinced myself I had a brain tumour, and if it wasn’t that I had other symptoms that really made me believe I was dying.

The realisation

I woke up one morning and it was like a switch had come on – it was a really weird feeling. I realised I needed to do something, if not for myself then for my daughters. They had seen me crying and getting angry, and I had no energy to do anything with them. Because leaving the house brought on the panic attacks, it stopped me from taking them to the park or the cinema. It stopped me having a ‘normal’ life with my kids. I started looking for alternative ways to boost my wellbeing.

I ended up rescuing two dogs – I know it sounds a bit random, but something in me decided it would help – and it did. We started to go for walks with the dogs, taking my daughters out with me for the first time in ages. Every time I went on that walk I felt as though I achieved something, and I noticed my daughters were smiling for first time in a long time too. I felt proud and that I was becoming the mam I felt I hadn’t been for so long.

Sport and fitness

From the dog walks I noticed that my energy levels were improving, and I decided to take part in fitness classes and was able to return to work. I had put so much pressure on myself previously to miraculously recover but realising that just taking small steps each day, and finding new coping mechanisms really helped. Fitness became my medicine – it’s a distraction from my anxiety and it boosts my self-esteem. So now I take part in Thai Boxing, cross fit, going to the gym, etc.

I also enjoy going to watch the football, because it allows me to socialise, getting me talking to different people whether they are there on a season ticket or it’s their first trip to St. James’ Park.

Today…

It’s been a battle – a long hard battle – and I still suffer with anxiety from time to time. However, I really feel that I have moved forward and I am able to better cope day to day with my symptoms. My increased emotional intelligence has given me the understanding but most of all the motivation to reach out to people on different levels and during different parts of their journey.

I am now a diversity champion at work which I totally embrace and my manager has been so supportive and he really believes in me which has helped me no end. I’ve also completed my Mental Health awareness courses levels 1 and 2, and I often give talks on mental health or take part in videos. Recently, I even won a regional award for my dedication to helping and supporting people. I have become a bit of a fitness fanatic so I use this to benefit charities through fundraising activities, giving me a goal to work towards.

I have turned my experience around to help others both at work and in the community because we need to keep talking to raise awareness and to stop stigma. I’m also an active participant in the Foundation’s Be A Game Changer Facebook community, starting and joining conversations about mental health – it’s a great place to offer and find peer support.

Our mental health is so important, and understanding it is a vital part of growing and learning, moulding our experiences, values and behaviours. Just asking one person who might be struggling how they are can make a big difference to someone.

Sitting here writing this makes me realise how far I have come. I look back and don’t actually recognise myself sometimes – and some days I don’t know how I got through it and that’s the truth. I hope that my story will encourage others to reach out for support and to support others and give people hope on their journey. Because experiencing mental health problems is a journey that can be difficult and challenging, but you can meet some pretty amazing people on the way once you start talking.

 

Be A Game Changer is funded by Newcastle City CouncilNorth East and North Cumbria Suicide Prevention Network and Premier League Charitable Fund to raise awareness of mental health issues and reduce the region’s suicide rates, particularly among ‘high risk’ men aged 20 to 49.

Earlier this year, Newcastle United Women captain Brooke Cochrane was announced as the first woman to become an ambassador the campaign, highlighting Be A Game Changer’s provision to support all genders within the North East’s football community.

For more information about Be A Game Changer or for help and advice from Newcastle United Foundation, visit nufoundation.org.uk/beagamechanger


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