Antonia Wille has been with fear for a lifetime. It keeps popping up: on the subway, while traveling, in the car and at work. In the interview, the freelance journalist and blogger explains why she first had to give fear a place in her life so that she could get smaller.
BARBARA.de: In your book "Anxiety Phase" you describe what it feels like to live with an anxiety disorder, how fear came into your life and how you learned to deal with it. When did you first encounter fear?
Antonia Wille: I was a teenager, maybe 14 years old. I can't say that exactly. I wasn't aware at the time that I had a problem. I only noticed that I always got sick on school trips or in places where I was without my family – a nausea that felt different than, for example, eating too many sweets. But I only got the diagnosis when I was 17.
Why did it take so long?
Well, when you're on a school trip and you get sick in the middle of the night, you don't know exactly what it is as a teenager. You think you may not have tolerated something. But if that happens several times, you realize that this is not normal. At some point I told about it and my family suspected that it was probably more of an anxiety attack and not an upset stomach.
In your family, your mom knew about anxiety and panic attacks …
Yes, it was more or less my luck. My mother also knew panic attacks and anxiety and switched relatively quickly that this is not physical, but comes from the soul. Fortunately, I was spared the doctors' marathon. I did clarify whether everything is ok physically. But I knew that it was a completely different nausea than the one you got when you got your stomach tainted. I always knew it was different.
Your diagnosis is agoraphobia. Can you tell us briefly what is behind it?
In agoraphobia, fear is linked to very specific situations. In professional jargon, agoraphobia also means claustrophobia, but not claustrophobia in the sense of claustrophobia, but claustrophobia in the sense of fear of large spaces, fear of crowds of people or fear of public transport. This also expresses my fear in situations in which I have to surrender control, for example when the subway is in the tunnel, when I'm stuck in a traffic jam – so whenever I don't flee immediately and return to my safe environment can, but I'm caught in the situation.
How does it feel when you are in such a situation?
It is very difficult to describe and understand if you have not experienced it yourself. If, for example, the subway in which I am sitting stops in the tunnel, I feel hot and nausea increases. I am very restless and tense inside and my thoughts are only focused on: what's going on? When does it continue? And the feeling I want to get out of here. This leads to the fact that you get even more panic and think: "Oh God, I'm locked up here." It all happens on the emotional level. Of course, I know rationally, the subway won't stay in this tunnel for years and I won't starve in here. But emotionally, it feels bad – like losing control. You are afraid, you become so bad that you have to vomit, which of course is not at the rational level that you do not survive, but you are so under stress and electricity that rationality no longer penetrates you. How really bad stage fright actually. Often also wavy. For example, I have more anxiety attacks than panic attacks, which means: The fear comes, then suddenly it goes again and then I remember that I'm still in the tunnel with the subway and then it comes again.
But when you leave the situation, does it go away immediately?
Exactly. Today I always try to continue anyway – but there were times when I actually got off the subway because I was so energized and had to come down first. When I leave the situation, the physical and mental tension drops. After all, you're safe now. I'm actually exhausted all day because this adrenaline rush is so exhausting. The only problem is: when you're in a similar situation again, you think: what if that happens again. The fear of fear is coming.
In your book you describe that you also canceled trips with friends or considered excuses. You weren't on a class trip either. How was it for you, especially as a teen?
I had a great teenage years. So it's not that I was just sitting at home all the time, but was also traveling a lot in my familiar surroundings and in the district and at parties. The fear was not always there, but when it was said that we are taking the class to unknown territory, it came. And that was in the early 2000s, that is, there was no social media yet. It has not been as public to speak about mental illness as it is today. Apart from that, as a teenager it is usually more difficult to talk about it anyway. That's why I didn't say at the time: "People, I can't go with you because I'm afraid." Instead, I put forward a headache or stomach problems. Of course, that becomes apparent at some point.
At some point you gave your fear a name – you call it Katja. How does that help you?
The tip came from one of my therapists. She said: "Speak to your fear in the situations in which it comes and then drive it away." At least that was the first approach. The effect was that you don't feel so helpless against the fear of fear, but that you can speak to her in concrete dialogue and break through circles of thought. And secondly, it also helps to distance yourself a little and not just suddenly see the fear within. One is even more than that, namely a self-confident person who also knows rationally that they need not be afraid. That is often what you perceive in yourself and why I have shied away from talking about it for so long: I did not want to give myself a stamp and at the same time I did not want others to do it.
At some point, however, you stopped fighting Katja and instead learned to accept her. Did that make the difference?
Exactly, I pushed fear away from me for a long time and whenever it came: confrontation, confrontation, confrontation. So don't just put the scepter in your hand, but go through every situation. It's just incredibly exhausting and I was totally exhausted at some point. If you already have a stressful job, this double effort comes up again. Then I realized at some point that I couldn't go on like this because I was only acting at a high stress level. When she knocked again, I looked at why she was coming instead of working directly against it. That gave me the twist and I realized: Okay, fear is part of me and will always come somehow – when I don't take care of myself enough, when I always go full throttle and live as if I had this fear not. Fear belongs to me and I accept it, but I give the direction we are going and not the fear.
What has changed as a result?
It helped a lot because I was able to say: Okay, I'm restless, why is that? It just made me nicer to myself. I would have said earlier: Dear fear, but now we're pulling through the appointment, no matter how stressed I'm already and you have no right to be here now. That would have stressed me even more, which means that the risk of it getting worse is much greater than if I say well, then not today.
Whatever is stressed again and again is that sport helps. Now, of all things, you had a nasty panic attack while jogging. Then what did that do to you?
I was incredibly scared and didn't see it coming at all. It felt like she was pulling me out of nowhere and trampling on me. In retrospect, however, it did not come from nowhere. There were signs that I should have noticed that I was already over my limit, but I didn't want to see it. Then I realized that sports, yoga and meditation are good, but I can do as much of it as I want, but if I still act against my needs, it doesn't help me at all. So you have to look very closely at what I actually need and that's not always a yoga class, especially if it becomes an additional stress trigger.
What distinguishes a panic attack from an anxiety attack?
While I feel sick during an anxiety attack and I already know this nausea, I can now get it under control very easily. The panic attack, however, came with such a force that I was really afraid I would never come home. The difference is simply that a panic attack can increase massively, but also reach its adrenaline peak after about 30 minutes and then the release is over and calm returns. During the anxiety attack, the adrenaline release is at a lower level, but it can also take hours because one does not reach this peak of adrenaline, but comes one wave after the other. I really thought I was dying from the panic attack – and that's very scary.
Did you deal with yourself differently afterwards?
It was definitely a turning point. I then said: sport is good for me, but not if I make it an appointment that I have to meet. Fortunately, I have a great therapist who also recognized this and said we have to reduce the stress to zero. But that also means that we don't confront much at first. That I really relax first and only confront myself when I really have the capacity. It is important to confront fears, because otherwise they will manifest, but not at any cost.
How did your environment react to your open handling of the disease?
When I talked more openly and was really honest with myself and the others, my environment took it in really great and supported me a lot. I can always ask someone if he or she will accompany me or call me if there is anything.
Do you have a kind of emergency list of things that you do when you realize that fear is around the corner again?
What helps me is to accept that in any case and to say: Well, then I'm just a little more restless today, maybe it'll be better tomorrow. And then you'd rather do less than be constantly on the go. Sometimes exercise and fresh air also help me. And there are clearly days when somehow nothing really helps. Then I tend to look where this unrest comes from and take action against these doomsday scenarios. You always think the same, now comes the next big crisis. Then it helps to get into the here and now and think from hour to hour. So: Okay, it's like this, let's see how it is in an hour instead of thinking about what could be tomorrow, the day after tomorrow or next week.
How do you know if you have an anxiety disorder or are just afraid?
As soon as you realize that this affects you in life or your thoughts are about it, you worry that it will happen again or you restrict yourself – you shy away from taking the subway or don't like going to the supermarket anymore it's good to get help early, even if it's only a few hours with a therapist. When it comes to fears, the sooner the better. Otherwise, they like to get stuck.
Unfortunately, therapy is still a taboo subject …
… yes, it is totally powerful to get help when you realize you are not making any progress yourself. Other countries, such as the United States, are much further ahead in terms of mental health. Everyone talks openly about going to therapists. In the end, therapy is simply something you benefit from. You work on yourself, it has nothing to do with being crazy. But something is happening here – albeit slowly.
When was the last visit from Katja?
I don't really know that anymore. Sometime last winter, I think. It happens that I stand at the supermarket checkout and she suddenly taps me on the shoulder and then I tell her to please leave me alone. Fortunately, it wasn’t that bad for a long time now.
Antonia Wille, born in 1986, is a freelance journalist and blogger. After completing her master's degree in theater studies, modern German literature and Italian studies, she worked as a freelancer for Munich daily newspapers and online media such as W&V or Amazon Alexa. She has been blogging in the German blogosphere since 2008 and is one of the pioneers of the German fashion blogging scene. In 2013 she founded the blogazine amazedmag.de together with Amelie Kahl and Milena Heißerer, which is one of the most influential blog magazine formats for young women in Germany. She also works as a lecturer in social media and advises companies in the areas of branding, influencer marketing and social media.
Antonia Wille has been suffering from an anxiety disorder since she was 11 years old. She had to let go of school trips, parties, vacations and so many job offers because the panic took her breath away, the fear made her sick. She explains why she is better today, how she usually copes with everyday life and why she sometimes prefers to give up rather than overcome her panic this book, which is also her coming out as an anxiety sufferer.
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