Content warning: Mentions of panic, anxiety, depression and self-harm

I have anxiety. I’ve had it for since my teens. I have depression too, although it can often be hard to distinguish one from the other. It’s mostly controlled by medication, and a boatload of therapy. There are times though when it “flares up”.

I went to a conference this week, I had a “flare up”. It wasn’t pretty. I want to talk about my anxiety, how it presents, and what events should do to help people who have similar issues and triggers to me.

Like I said, I’ve been living with these conditions for years. It’s not static. My triggers and behaviours have changed over time, which means I’m always “discovering” new things about myself and how it impacts me. I have obsessive-style behaviours and triggers around unread notifications on my phone, which I didn’t have when I was a teenager because we didn’t have smartphones. Unread emails cause me physical discomfort; like a tension, a disgust I can’t ignore. My oldest trigger is the feeling of being trapped via obligation, not being able to leave a space because of the social issues it was cause. Work is particularly bad for this. Nothing is physically trapping me in the office, but I know that walking out of a meeting is a big no-no, and so it causes the panic (which ironically means I have to walk out of the meeting to have my panic attack). I also have weird things around theme music and countdowns, but that’s whatever.

The trigger that is most common though is auditory overload. I’m not even sure if that’s the right word for it. It’s not really loud noise that triggers me; it’s multiple sound sources. An example; if I’m watching TV in a room and my partner comes in listening to a podcast out loud, I have to mute the TV. If I’m in the office and multiple conversations are going on around me, I have to put my headphones in. Being in loud social environments is hard.

Yesterday, during the keynote of the conference, something about the sound set me off. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think it might have been because I was sat near the front and so I could hear the speaker’s voice from them, and over the speaker and there was probably a slight delay. There were also people talking behind me, which is a massive issue. So what happened?

First of all was the beginnings of a panic attack, something akin to extreme fidgeting. I was tapping my fingers on my arm in a 1-2-3-4 pattern over and over. I couldn’t listen to the talk, I had to focus all my attention on the count otherwise I was scared I would have a full attack (social obligation again, can’t have a freak out in public, or ask people to move so I can get out). After the talk, I knew I was close to having a very unfun time, so I asked a member of staff for a quiet space.

First piece of advice then; you need to make your staff really easy to spot. Panic really reduces your ability to process information; you need an indicator that’s big and bold and stands out. Unfortunately, the staff at this conference were wearing black t-shirts with the name of the conference on the front. Due to the cold, they were wearing black cardigans too, obscuring anything that might have been on the back. So I’m panicking; I’m in a loud crowd trying to spot someone in black (doesn’t narrow it down) with text on the front (I’ve lost the capacity to read). It wasn’t good.

Second piece of advice; please have a quiet space. Please indicate where this is with signs or mention in during the housekeeping so I don’t have to do the staff hunt in the first place. Turns out either they didn’t have a quiet space, or the person I spoke to didn’t know where it was. So I was stuck, my only hope of setting myself right wasn’t there. If you don’t have a quiet space, but someone asks you for one, then you need to find them one. Let them use your speaker room if you have one, or your staff room.

Third piece of advice: remember neurodiversity and mental health when you think about accessibility I think we forget that mental health can be influenced and cause problems in a physical environment, so we don’t consider them. Think about how your audio setup and lighting could affect someone with sensory overload or processing issues. Think about signposting that requires no higher brain function to process.

What’s the impact of not doing those things? I was still not right during the next sessions, meaning I missed half of that day despite being physically present. I had to have the breakdown in the toilets during the lunch break, which is really hard to do silently so I still couldn’t fully just let it happen. I cried. I self-harmed. Anything, anything to just get it out of my system. In the end, I had to make my own “quiet space” by finding a corner and sticking my iPod on.

I’m still recovering a day later. The lack of quiet space has lost me nearly 2 days, it lost me the benefit of going to the event in the first place. It lost me the desire to ever go back. I’m worried it’s going to lost me the respect of my co-workers because of how antisocial I was, and what they are going to think of me if they read this.

If anyone else has advice or resources for helping venues with these and related issues please tweet me (@kitation). I can’t be alone in this, and I want to help organisers do better.