We need to speak up about mental health. When I was a little girl I tried to bargain with God for superpowers. Eat all of my vegetables? Win a superpower. Seemed like a good deal to me. I tested this theory at stoplights with all of the power my seven year old brain could muster. If the light changed when I wanted it to, I considered it irrefutable proof of my hidden powers.
As a teenager I thought maybe I had some other sort of gift. I was certain that I could tell when something bad was going to happen. Back then I referred to it as my intuition, or my ‘bad feeling’.
The feeling started out in my stomach and filled me with a completely, overwhelming sense of dread that destroyed my appetite and ruined any chance I had of sleeping. It made me want to hide, but I was never sure what I was supposed to be hiding from. It was like I was Chicken Little and the sky was falling down. I was sure of it. Every time something went wrong I was further convinced that the reason I felt this way was because my body was trying to warn me. It was there for a reason. It was self-preservation.
There came a point when I realised that I no longer considered my bad feeling a gift. It had grown into something uncontrollable. The bad feeling no longer felt like a warning. Instead it made me feel as if something terrible was ALWAYS about to happen. The big, bad was just around the corner. And it didn’t come alone.
I developed an unfounded fear of driving. I was convinced that I was somehow breaking the law or that there was something wrong with my car. Being around people drained me and if I couldn’t escape I became unjustifiably irritable, sometimes to the point of tears. I started avoiding any and all situations that pushed this uneasiness towards the surface. Most of my fears were irrational, but even my rational fears warranted severely inappropriate responses. I didn’t understand what was happening to me or why I felt the way I did. I had no way to cope, so I retreated further into myself.
Around this time, I fell into a pretty deep depression. I had already isolated myself to the best of my ability, and even the simplest daily upkeep became impossible tasks. The only time I felt any relief was when I was asleep, so I started sleeping as often and for as long as possible. I was struggling with my self-confidence and the opinions of friends who I had pushed away. My parents referred to me as lazy. Selfish. All I wanted to do was hide.
It was around this time I started seeking help for anxiety and depression.
Two years and one therapist later, here’s what I learned…
Some anxiety is normal. There are countless day-to-day experiences that cause perfectly normal anxiety. My anxiety interfered with my daily life and was far from what most people experienced on a first date or before a big interview.
“The emotional effects of anxiety may include ‘feelings of apprehension or dread, trouble concentrating, feeling tense or jumpy, anticipating the worst, irritability, restlessness, watching (and waiting) for signs (and occurrences) of danger, and feeling like your mind has gone blank’ as well as ‘nightmares/bad dreams, obsessions about sensations, déjà vu, a trapped in your mind feeling, and feeling like everything is scary.’”
- Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
I learned that when my anxiety overwhelmed me, my depression was sure to follow.
Seeking help was a game changer for me. The more I learned, the more capable I felt. There are about 3.3 million adults in the United States and 3 million in the UK who are affected by anxiety. There is also a growing movement towards acceptance and education towards mental health which has helped pave the path for people like me to open up about their personal struggles. All of this led with the recurring, powerful message: you are not alone.
I am so grateful to be in a place where my anxiety and depression are manageable without medication (not that requiring or wanting medication makes you weak or less than in any way), but coping on my own is a never ending learning process.
These aren’t cures by any means, but here are some small things I do for self-care to pull myself back together when I feel myself becoming overwhelmed…
Take a break to relax and focus on your breathing.
Does it sound cliché? Well, like most clichés it’s around because it’s true. If I’m at work and I’m feeling overwhelmed, I take a few minutes to walk around the building or step into the break room. If I’m out and about or at a friend’s house with too much stimulus and too many people? I step away from the crowd for a few minutes. I generally put one hand on my chest and one on my stomach and make myself take deep, even breaths. When I start getting irritable like this I tend to tense up or grind my teeth, so I also try to be conscious of relaxing the muscles in my face and shoulders.
I’m the type of person who thrives creatively in organised chaos… but sometimes my chaos could stand a little more organising, if you know what I mean. Sometimes, it really is as simple as putting some laundry away to make my life feel a little less cluttered and I feel more capable when it’s time to move on to the next thing. When the little things like these start getting to you, remember to start small.
Find something that soothes you.
Some days are just bad days. As in can’t get out of bed, don’t want to talk to anyone, forever on the verge of tears or a panic attack, BAD. I’m sorry to say that I don’t have a magic pick me up to make it better, but I suggest finding something that calms you down and soothes you. For me it’s hugs and anything that smells like lavender.
Put down the coffee.
I am still an avid coffee drinker, but I’ve definitely cut back. Sometimes, I even drink decaf. *cue cries of disbelief*. Allow me to explain myself. I worked at a mental health clinic for a year (no, the irony is not lost on me), but I learned a lot. I overheard a therapist talking to herself while reading over some forms and she couldn’t believe that it wasn’t common sense that coffee has the ability to increase the effects of anxiety. So if you notice that your coffee is using its powers for evil, maybe it’s time to cut back a little bit. Think one cup instead of four.
Build yourself up.
When I was at my lowest, I couldn’t even stand to look at myself in the mirror. I hated the person staring back at me. Now that I’m past that low point, I have to remind myself to be my own biggest fan. I talk myself up. I build up my own confidence. Just like the Kate Nash quote, I wake up every morning and tell myself that I am a badass bitch, and that I’m capable of pretty much everything but breathing fire (for now).
Talk about it.
It’s hard for people to help you or be considerate of how you’re feeling if you keep it all bottled up (ahem *guilty*). Opening up about your anxiety and depression can be scary. Sometimes talking about what’s going on in our heads is the last thing we want to do and most of the time our disorders enable behaviours that push people away, so we end up isolating ourselves. This isn’t good for anyone involved. Your friends and family love you, and they want to be there for you. Let them.
These definitely aren’t cures. These are small things I do for self-care that work for me. You have to put in the time and effort to reflect on your personal needs and boundaries to see what works best for you, and PLEASE never be afraid or ashamed to seek help from your doctor or a mental health professional.