This week is mental health awareness week, in light of this I have decided to post this short piece that I have been sitting on for a while. I am not a doctor or a medical health professional so remember this when reading. I am however someone who has spent the majority of my twenties grappling with anxiety. I used to long for a miracle cure, that one remedy that would ‘fix’ me and make me feel ‘normal’ again. Now, after learning more about both myself and this condition, I am more focused on finding ways to manage and control it as well as keeping positive in the face of something that can feel overwhelming. I know a lot of people are suffering in silence during this period, this post is for you. I am going to delve a bit deeper in to my journey in the hope that you will read it and know you are not alone.
This year has been tough for us all. I have personally been far too wrapped up in my own head, focussed on the negatives and in a vicious cycle of anxiety. I suffer with pretty severe and often debilitating anxiety at the best of times but the uncertainty and scare mongering that accompanied 2020 has left me feeling metaphorically battered, bruised and clinging to my hand sanitiser like a life raft.
Health anxiety has always been one of those comedy illnesses; the mental health problem it’s OK to roll your eyes at because it’s just a bunch of silly people who take themselves off to bed as soon as they sneeze, and think every little twinge is probably cancer. I have spent hours down google rabbit holes, looking on forums with titles like ‘Headache or Brain tumour’ I will get a heat rash and earnestly roll a glass over it. It’s hard for a lot of people to take that kind of thing seriously, or to have any sympathy, so those of us who suffer from it end up keeping quiet, for fear of being dismissed or even laughed at.
So what does it feel like? For me, It is like permanently sitting on the edge of a plane, looking down at the world, about to jump in to the abyss. The churning stomach, the racing heart, the sweaty palms, the conviction that THIS will be the thing that will kill you but being helpless to stop the free fall. All of this, without the feeling of blessed relief when it’s finally over, because you know that when you do touch earth once more, you’re just going right back up in that plane again to try again.
For the last couple of years when my anxiety has been at its worst I have had every physical symptom under the sun. Headaches, palpitations, dizziness, blurred vision, brain fog, depersonalisation, numbness and even weight-loss. I have worn a 24 hour ECG 3 times, I have worn a 7 day ECG, I have been in and out of cardiac clinics, had ECHO scans and tried three different types of beta blockers. I have been prescribed two types of anti-depressants as well as different hormonal forms of contraception. All of this in an attempt to discover the cause of my physical symptoms. Every time the tests came back negative it would make it worse, I just wanted an answer, to know what was wrong with me. I thought the doctors were missing something and became totally fixated on it. Eventually after exhausting all possible avenues my doctor sat me down and told me it was all related to anxiety. I looked at him in sheer disbelief. He told me that when our body is in a constant state of anxiety, the symptoms can be relentless and come on when we least expect it, even if we feel calm in that moment. It took weeks for me to accept that this was the case and even now I often feel scared that something was missed. It seems implausible that the brain could conjure up symptoms as real and physical as those.
Anxiety removes the joy from every aspect of your life because you’re so scared of what might come that you can’t take pleasure in anything. It forces you to take yourself out of situations you used to enjoy because it is safer to be at home. This for me became, cutting out alcohol, declining parties, travelling less, avoiding social gatherings, crowds and enclosed spaces. As someone who used to be a confident and vivacious solo traveller who liked to party, it has changed my life a lot. I am telling you this not a cry for sympathy, it is a plea for understanding, it is me begging for you not to feel alone. I want you to know that nothing is too big, too complicated or too silly. Nothing is ‘just in your head’ or ‘nothing to worry about’. These feelings cannot be switched off or forgotten about. You can’t ‘get over it’ or ‘focus on the good things’. It is a mental illness. That does not mean that with the right help, it is not possible to live with this, it totally is.
So, what works for me? I will share some of the things that I do when I am at my worst. I would like to repeat here that I am not an expert BUT I have tried and tested ALOT of different fads. This is what helps ME. They MIGHT help you too.
Medication can totally help you. I know that often people are reluctant to try different forms of medication. They feel that the side affects will be too bad, that the might end up relying on the medication and have to take it forever. It might take a while to find what is right for you but there is no right or wrong answer. If you are reluctant to try. I would ask yourself the following questions. Have I exhausted all other options? Can I continue as I am? If you have tried everything and know that you need to change something then it might be worth giving it a go.
YOGA/MEDITATION or another form of exercise.
Yoga is an absolute lifeline for me. I have done it every day even at my worst. I have often had to force myself to get up and do it. I have never once finished a flow and felt worse and that is a promise.
Get outside. It is so bloody hard when anxiety is at its worst. Your natural instinct is to sit cooped up at home. I am the worst for this because in my head I am safe in the house. As soon as I leave is when my anxiety multiplies. This is a vicious cycle that you have to try and break though because without fresh air you will not feel human.
Distracting yourself is vital. For me this is often a book or audio book. Watching something easy on TV. The main thing that works for me is calling someone I love. I rarely tell them I am struggling in that moment, I just phone for a chat. That alone is a distraction that gives me a moment of calm. What works for you?
AVOIDING ANYTHING THAT EXASPERATES IT
You will begin to understand what makes your anxiety worse. For me there are a few easy adjustments I can make. Alcohol and Caffeine. These two stimulants make my anxiety intolerable and while I love wine I had to make the choice to cut alcohol out of my life, almost completely.
DON’T ALWAYS TRUST YOUR HEAD
Not every thought is true, and not every thought deserves your attention. Learning to question the foundation and validity of your thoughts can help you decide on a course of action to resolve the anxious thoughts. If you question these intrusive thoughts and find that they are not founded on facts, then you can dismiss them. If they are founded on facts, you can develop a plan to work through whatever anxiety these thoughts are causing. If the thoughts are about something that is within your power to change, then take steps to change it. If it is not within your power to change, then use one of your healthy coping mechanisms to redirect your thoughts to something more productive.
WRITE IT OUT
Writing out your thoughts and feelings can take many forms. You don’t have to be “a writer” to write about things. Sometimes it helps just to get them out of your head, even if they don’t make sense. Maybe especially when they don’t make sense. Putting words to your thoughts and feelings can help you process them. If I can organize my thoughts and feelings on a page, it helps me unravel the tangled web they create in my mind. I also do what I call a “mind dump” of everything that’s been spinning in my brain and causing me anxiety. Most of the time, these end up being scribbled lists on whatever paper is nearby at the time. Something about putting them on paper makes me feel like they’re no longer taking up space in my head.
Grounding is a technique I was taught by a therapist. It is something that can be very helpful in a moment of panic. The idea is simple. To ground yourself in the moment and not let your mind wander in to the future or focus on hypothetical ‘what ifs’. You focus on something you can see, smell, hear, taste and feel. You can repeat these things to yourself like a mantra in the hope that it will both distract you and anchor you in the moment.
It is ALWAYS better to talk. Share with someone you trust. Never suffer in silence. I am attaching some links of places that are always available to get help if speaking to a stranger sounds better for you.
Also important to remember that you never really know how someone is feeling. A smile can hide a lot. Be kind.
I would love to hear from you, drop me a message if you can relate.