A few weeks ago saw in Mental Health Awareness week and the fact that we have to dedicate a whole week to it proves that we have a long way to go in ridding the stigmas attached to these life-altering conditions.
I’ve never written a post about this before and rarely even talk about it on social media. My friends know I have anxiety but unless you’re really close to me, you probably don’t know the story. I’m in no way sympathy seeking with this post; I don’t want sympathy because I’m actually in a very good place right now and have experienced a lot of positives along my journey of anxiety. But… Like millions of people before and after me, I too want to help rid these rotten stigmas and maybe, just maybe, help someone going through the same thing.
Without going into too much detail, my anxiety started after a bout of the flu in October 2011. I’d never had the flu before (I know right, go me!) so it struck me down like a bolt of lightening. I was bed bound for about 2 weeks which completely threw me because before that I was always out and about, at work, sixth form and clubbing with my friends. After being in bed for so long, I was petrified to go anywhere in case I felt how I did when I was ill; sick, dizzy and faint.
I had absolutely no idea what anxiety or panic attacks were at this point, which is probably why I didn’t cope very well with it at the beginning. I had no idea what was happening to me and at one point, I couldn’t leave my room for about 2 weeks because I was scared of well… everything. I lost my confidence in doing things I would normally do and I lost my confidence in myself. I was my own worst enemy, I didn’t trust to be outside with myself in case something happened and that was the absolute worst feeling I’ve ever felt in my life.
I went to the doctors who diagnosed me with GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder); a disorder that means you’re generally in a constant state of anxiety, over nothing in particular, even when there’s no obvious threat. My “fight or flight” response was all out of kilter and I perceived everything, yes everything as potential danger. They sent me for CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which unfortunately didn’t work for me but then my mum found a private counsellor who I reluctantly went to see. She focused more on talking about your problems in a relaxed environment and I absolutely loved her. She worked wonders and I will be forever grateful to this woman for helping me get back on my feet.
Compared to 3 years ago when I was scared of stepping outside my own front door, I’ve come a long, long way. Although there are still some things I can’t do such as going into massive shops (like Tesco Extra, eek!) and drive on busy roads, the list of things I can do is gradually getting bigger and bigger. Anxiety doesn’t have an over-night cure and although it’s something I can admit I will probably now have my whole life, at least now I know it’s something that doesn’t define me and is something I can control (most of the time!)
Although this condition changed my life in every which way possible, there have been so many good things to come out of it. I wouldn’t have started my blog if it wasn’t for anxiety, gained all the opportunities I’ve had through it or met all the wonderful people I now know through it or started my own online business or pushed myself to start writing my own book. I also appreciate the little things in life much more now than I’ve ever done before. The little steps I can take every day to enhance my life prove to me that anxiety doesn’t have to be the centre of my world anymore.
I’m by no means saying that everyone’s experiences with anxiety, depression or any form of mental health will be like mine and not everyone will find the positives in it; which is a shame but unfortunately, reality. But what I am saying is that whatever you’re going through, you’re not alone, there is help out there and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There have been multiple times throughout the past few years where my life has felt so small and I’ve felt so powerless against my own mind but my counsellor taught me it’s the little steps you take every day; as little as going into a shop or talking to a stranger that make your world bigger and bigger are what matter.
I’m not claiming to be an expert but I’d love to share a few things that have helped me:
1. Stop comparing. Your struggle is different from everyone else’s so although it’s good to talk with likeminded people, don’t compare their journey, experiences or achievements to your own. I struggled with this by always thinking about how well other people were doing compared to myself but at the end of the day, you’ve gotta focus on yourself!
2. Talk to someone. Like I just mentioned, talking to someone about what you’re going through really helps. Doctors, family members, real-life friends, online friends, forums, helplines; there is always someone there to talk and although they might not be able to physically help, just getting your worries off your chest can work wonders, make you feel less alone and make the world feel that little bit less scary.
3. Be productive. Think about where you are in your life and what your current struggles are and work out how you can over-come them. Write down things you’d like to achieve and cut them into smaller chunks to make them more manageable; even something as little as going to the shop.
4. Do research. If you have anxiety or panic attacks and don’t know much about what’s happening, like I didn’t at the beginning, do some research and read up about what’s actually going on in your brain and body when you feel anxious. The more I found out, the more I realised it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was, just a chemical reaction.
5. Get physical. Did you know that it’s been scientifically proven that exercise helps with anxiety and can reduce stress? When I was at the peak of my anxiety, even going for a short walk made me feel 10 times better so get on your feet and do something to get your heart pumping; yoga can be extremely beneficial as it combines exercise with relaxation and breathing tips!
6. Go herbal. I’ve never taken medication for my anxiety which is something I’m extremely proud of but I know it’s crucial to a lot of people and that’s fine. But if you’re looking for alternatives, don’t hesitate to try herbal remedies. I take Kalms tablets and Bachs Rescue Remedy, which comes in all different forms. The mouth spray is ideal for keeping in your pocket!
7. Make a list of your achievements. I started doing this and every day I would write down 1 or 2 things I was proud that I did that day. Some of them were as little as walking the dog or having a friend round but they meant something to me and made me feel like I was getting somewhere and that’s what matters. By keeping a list, you’ll gradually see your daily achievements grow and grow.
8. Learn to breathe. When you panic and are extremely anxious, you breathe faster which can lead to hyperventilating. Learning how to breathe “properly” and learning breathing exercises to do when you feel yourself getting short of breath can really help because it teaches you that you can control what your own body is doing. The “7/11” method worked really well for me; breathing in for 7 counts then out for 11 to slow your breathing down.
9. Get outside. Being outside in nature and the elements always makes my anxiety decrease and helps me remember how wonderful the world is. Wind, sun, cold or snow, whatever the weather, wrap-up (or strip down!) and go for a walk, head into your local woods or the park or the beach and embrace the world. Being by the beach in particular I find extremely calming.
These are by no means “quick fixes” but they’ve all helped me and I hope beyond hope that any part of this post can help someone or at least if you’re going through something similar, make you feel less alone. But it is beyond important that if you think you’re suffering with mental health problems, seek a medical opinion.