Society is getting better at understanding anxiety because people are getting more outspoken about it…
…but we still have a long way to go before stigma is gone. Understanding anxiety is a difficult thing. Think about it! People who don’t get nervous for no reason can’t fathom doing so, and the people who do struggle with anxiety are afraid to explain it for fear of being judged. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. But there are some brave souls out there who are willing to share their stories in order to lessen that sigma. One of those people is Kylie.
You can find Kylie’s blog here, where she talks about her battle with understanding anxiety. When talking about what she would write for us, she realized that while she has come to understand anxiety in the sense of what made her have it, she has never really brought to light the struggles themselves. That’s what we’re going to talk about today.
At Uninspired, and specifically in the Mental Health Monday series, I’m all about helping you guys *adult* better.
As you know if you’ve been here a while, that doesn’t mean just understanding anxiety or any other mental illness. On Mental Health Monday we’ve talked about literally everything from support groups to autism to emotional support animals. And yet, there are a few things they all have in common.
For one thing, they may help you learn something about someone else. In that way, you’ll learn to communicate more effectively with the people around you, and improve your relationships. That’s better adulting! Additionally, you might learn a little something about yourself, find that there’s someone else out there just like you, or be encouraged to get help for a problem you’ve been having. Facing your tough stuff head-on, like Kylie does in her post below, is a sign that you’re a mature adult.
So, without further ado, here’s Kylie’s post about her struggle with understanding anxiety and moving on from it. She’s been through it in two different ways– generalized and then again at the hands of a particular circumstance. Read on to find out how she handled both cases.
“Today I had anxiety cause the air-con was too high in the car.
It was too warm and I felt claustrophobic. It was -5c outside but the only way to ease the anxiety was to open the window. If you can understand that, you’re understanding anxiety. It’s irrational, dramatic thoughts. Your brain is at constant battle with your body. My brain will always win because it never sleeps. Even when my body is asleep, my mind is awake. And my fight continues, 10 years after the initial attack.
I don’t know where my anxiety is rooted, but it hit me full force at the age of 20. I had all the symptoms, right out of the textbook. The sweaty palms, heightened heart rate, even the urge to use the bathroom. The latter may not seem like the worst symptom, but it was. I needed the toilet, I couldn’t find the toilet. I couldn’t find the toilet, I became more anxious. At its worst, the anxiety manifested as acute agoraphobia which continued for 6 months. The fear of the outside world was too heavy a burden to carry, so I did not leave the house unless it was absolutely necessary. I didn’t work, I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t do anything that would threaten my mental wellbeing.
As my 21st birthday approached I spent more time making excuses not to celebrate. There was no celebratory meal, no drinks with friends, nothing. My family and the people around me wanted to celebrate the milestone but I was overwhelmed by the thought of venturing out into the world. They weren’t understanding anxiety and what it was doing to me. Those 4 walls were my saviour but also my prison. It was a hell of my mind’s making and I was a slave to it’s wants and worries.
My first approach was to coax myself out of my prison.
A two minute walk to the corner shop. Five minutes to the supermarket. Ten minutes to my sister’s house. These things may seem small but it took all the energyI had just to walk out of the door. Taking those small steps made a big difference. Don’t get me wrong, the anxiety was still there. But with a lot of calming words and pep talks I was able to break the hypothetical shackles. This didn’t happen quickly.
In fact, it took months to get to that point, but the wheels were in motion and I wasn’t stopping for anyone. My next step was to seek help from the professionals. My counselor taught me the evolutionary background of all the symptoms and for the first time, it all made sense. I learnt that anxiety was our animal instinct of preparing for attack. When we were threatened, we readied our bodies to fight. We would sweat to lower our body temperature. Our heart would race to raise our adrenaline and we would ‘relieve’ ourselves to prepare ourselves for the battle. Bingo! There was a medical explanation for the turmoil my body went through. For the first time, understanding anxiety wasn’t half the battle. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel- the path to the outside world and the normality I used to feel.
Over the following months, the self-help, therapy, and daily pep-talks built my “normality.”
Again, the anxiety was still there, but the further I travelled – metaphorically and physically- the more I was able to overcome the doom. Traveling on a bus became an achievement. I planned journeys in my mind in baby steps– I wasn’t going out for the day, I was taking a 20 minute bus ride to the shopping centre. Then I was doing my shopping for an hour. I was taking the bus 20 minutes home. That was the key– breaking down the task and easing each bit of anxiety that appeared before dealing with another.
There were times when things didn’t go to plan– the bus was late; I needed to use the bathroom while shopping– but there were some advantages to breaking things down. I now know the locations of all the toilets in places I frequent, and I still use that internal toilet tracker to this day. Through understanding anxiety, it was possible for me to rebuild my life, return to work, and let this anxiety become a memory. I don’t pretend it never happened, and I don’t pretend it couldn’t happen again, but now I knew I could overcome it.
Unfortunately, five years later, I would once again be crippled by anxiety.
My partner was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I was there to witness the first seizure of many and I allow those fears to override my mind again. It was different, as it was due to a specific circumstance, but as his health declined, so did my coping mechanisms. I thought he was going to die in that moment, and even as he embarked on treatment and an operation to remove the tumor, my anxiety didn’t calm down. I had nightmares so brutal that I was scared to sleep. The lack of sleep made my anxiety worse. I was distracted, irritable, and miserable. Once again, I became unable to work, unable to even form a sentence or a string of thoughts. My doctors recommended medication but due to stigma and side effects, I declined. And then the tumor came back.
One evening, I hit a wall. I knew I couldn’t cope with work and life and my partner. I was completely full of disturbing thoughts and emotions, but at the same time, somehow I felt completely empty. So I visited my doctor again, and took them up on the help they offered. I took six weeks off work and began to take the medication. If I took them, would people think less of me? There is such a stigma attached to mental illness and the surrounding treatments. Although society is more open to talking about the plethora of mental illnesses and understanding anxiety, there is still a stigma attached.
Luckily I saw my own battle as more important than the views of the outside world.
I knew that regardless of what people may say or think, my mental wellbeing was my priority. The first week on the medication was awful. I felt like a zombie and had absolutely no appetite. I also had the most horrendous heartburn. This continued through the second week but rather than quit, I spoke to my doctor again. He assured me the side effects would subside and prescribed me a tablet to calm the heartburn. Over the next couple of weeks all of the side effects settled and my mind began to ease. Within a month I was a different person. I had peace of mind. Getting up, showering and facing the world was no longer a daunting task – it was life. Such a small change had made such a huge difference. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggled sometimes, but the struggles were manageable.
My proudest moments were the recognition from family and friends. When they noted the shift in my personality I was proud of how far I had come. I felt a freeness I had never experienced before. It was a sobering thought to realise how solemn I had become and I was a shadow, not a person. I was embarrassed of the effect my moods would have had on the people around me but my new attitude and outlook compensated for this. Finally, I was fun to be around, I was spontaneous and most of all, I was a nice person again. I am under no illusion that I could have turned my life around without the medication and accepting the help, in which ever form it would be. There is no shame in asking for help and for me, it saved my life.
Over the years there have been times when a particularly stressful day or not enough sleep would burst my protective bubble.
But I am now strong enough to fight them and win. The key to living with anxiety is just that, living. There will always be times when your heart races and your palms become sweaty but its ok to feel that way. At my worst I would drive myself crazy trying to rationalise my feelings and would punish myself for succumbing to the doom but as I became stronger I realised that some things don’t need to be explained. Sometimes we can feel things without there being a reason or rhyme. Its how we deal with them that makes the real difference and that difference will allow you to live life to your own ‘normality’.
When my heart starts to race I breathe my way through it. I concentrate on my breathing. The tightness is still in my chest but instead of panicking I wait for it to subside. When I go out shopping or for dinner and drinks, I always know where the bathroom is and whether I need to or not, I will always use it before leaving. These are such small changes but they make such a huge difference. i have practiced these methods for nearly 10 years and they have worked for me all the way. The day to day stresses that life brings aren’t so scary. They don’t need to be crippling. They can just be put down to a bad day and what happens when a day ends? A new one starts. And that is what we need to remember. Life goes on and we go with it.”