You know when you grow up and you learn about something new, then you flashback to something that happened as a child and think “ohh, that‘s what that was”. I had one of those recently.
About four months ago I had a couple of nights of insomnia. Not unusual, but not something I’d suffered from before particularly. What (unexpectedly) followed was two months of near-daily panic attacks, constant anxiety, and a whole load of side effects too (depression, digestive issues, headaches/muscle pain, to name a few). I had to take a month off work, and my PhD is now part-time for my final year. I don’t know whether I’m out of it now, to be honest (and it almost feels like a jinx to write this post!), but I am getting better, and I haven’t had a panic attack in weeks (except when I was on a really rocky boat in Croatia, but that was because I was convinced we were all about to die). I’m getting better thanks to a combination of NHS and University mental health services, friends and family, and getting to know myself and my needs better.
During my recovery I was thinking how out of the blue this had been, this period of instability. I’d never suffered before. Apart from having counselling on and off over the past three years to deal with a whole bunch of pretty traumatic life happenstances. Apart from making myself physically sick with worry through every exam period of my schooling. Apart from crying at the drop of the hat for as long as I can recall. Apart from not being able to sleep as a tween/teenager because I was hyperventilating and my legs were shaking, because I was so scared of having nightmares (something I still have). Turns out, when I thought about it, I’d probably been dealing with anxiety on and off since I was about eight. Those shaky-legged episodes? Panic attacks, textbook. My constant worrying? Not just me being an idiot, a symptom of Generalised Anxiety Disorder*, the best way of summing up everything I’d been feeling for as long as I could remember.
This post might, in part, act as explanation for my behaviour and demeanour over the last few months – if you’ve been in touch and found me frosty, difficult, quiet, lax at replying, etc. then this is less an excuse, more an explanation. (Sorry.)
But mainly this post is a record for me, and – potentially – something that might help, resonate with or inform others in a similar situation. I should stress, this should not be used as a source of information on anxiety or panic attacks, or mental health more generally. There’s a few resources I’ve found particularly helpful in this respect, and they’re listed at the bottom of the page. I should also stress that very few of my symptoms/feelings have been depression-based. There are other people and resources much better equipped to talk about that.
This is a post about my anxiety – what I know and what I’ve learned. It’s a list of points, it lacks coherency, but it’s (as far as I can think of in this moment) the most important bits for me. It’s nothing new, it’s not detailed, and it’s not even close to being the best post about anxiety already on the internet. But whatever, it’s mine.
When you dip your toe into the wealth of information about anxiety, panic, mental health, depression, etc. ad infinitum, it’s tempting to write off how you feel because it doesn’t exactly match what you see. Please don’t. Life experiences, brains, hormones, all these things are wildly different and so are experiences of anxiety. You don’t have to have every symptom to be taken seriously. Just because you’re not struggling ‘as much’ as someone else doesn’t mean you don’t deserve help and support.
That said, chances are someone will be feeling the same way as you. At my worst moments, I honestly thought I was going insane. I thought this was it for me, a lifetime of miserable days and nightmare nights. I thought I’d never be able to complete my PhD, hold down a job, have a child. I thought my loved ones would leave, all because I was broken, malfunctioning. You are not broken, and you are not alone. I had opportunities to meet and talk to other people who were experiencing similar things to me, and god dammit it’s a relief to realise you’re not alone in this. One in four people will experience some kind of struggle with mental health in their life. That’s, like, billions of people. You’re not the only one, and there is stuff that can help, like it’s helped people before.
you are not your thoughts (and you don’t have to believe them)…
I cannot explain how this one sentence has helped me. Possibly more than anything else. Summed up in this picture, this concept was first introduced to me in the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy resources provided by my GP, counsellor and at the workshops I attended (more on that later). I’d never thought about the fact that my thoughts are entirely subjective and not truthful objective fact, weird as that sounds. I trusted everything I thought, accepted it all, and then fixated on the worst ones until I reached a panic spiral. Turns out, I’m more than that. I’m more than my thoughts, especially the shitty ones. I don’t have to listen to them all the time. I can rationalise them, look at the facts and realise everything was okay. I don’t have to believe what I think, particularly about myself. Neither do you.
…but your feelings are valid
Nobody can tell you that you shouldn’t be feeling a certain way. Literally nobody. Fuck them all. Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but it’s true – nobody can tell you how you should and shouldn’t feel. Especially yourself. I spend so much of my time thinking “stop it, you’re stupid, you shouldn’t be feeling like that, get over it you idiot”, which only adds to the spiral. Your feelings are valid by virtue of existing: there is no right way to feel, you just feel how you do and deal with it. Whether the dealing takes the form of seeking out company, burying yourself in a duvet, going for a walk, talking yourself into a better place, whatever – you don’t need to feel guilty about how you feel, and how you feel is 100% valid.
getting help is good…
Terrifying, right? My GP has sat across from me countless times in the last few months while I wept and panicked and stuttered. Sometimes I did what she said, sometimes I didn’t, but most of the time when I tried, it helped. I wish there was a solution that worked for everyone, first time, god knows I do. I tried loads of things that didn’t work, and some that didn’t work straight away, and often felt worse in the short term. That suuuucks, but it also changes. For me, at the moment, a combination of group workshops, counselling, online courses, taking time off and distraction and relaxation techniques (many trialled, not all effective) seem to be helping me. I tried meds, but reacted badly to them, though I may try them again some day. Using some, any or all of the help and support methods available is fine and should be shame-free** – keep trying as much as you can until you figure out a combo that works for you. Your GP should give you a few options to start with – if they don’t, go to another one. My first one was a tosser, and a kind friend helped me pluck up the courage to find another.
I should say, though, that I would recommend counselling to any and all people, regardless of mental state, just as an exercise in being healthy. It’s like a workout for your emotions, and god it’s got me through some shit.
…but you’re not ‘wrong’
I’ve been reading about and listening to a few things lately that critique the view of ill-health and how we frame it. A lot of the treatment for mental health can focus on ‘fixing’ yourself or getting ‘better’, as if the way you are when your mental health goes funky is bad, wrong, broken, etc. That often doesn’t help, particularly if your bad period sustains – it just contributes to your hopelessness. Regardless of where you are with your brain at the moment, you are no less the person you always are. You don’t have to get completely ‘better’, as long as you find a way to do things. The only important thing is living your life as best you can. (This comic illustrates what I’m trying to get at quite nicely, particularly about valid ways to handle your superpower.)
I can’t stress enough how Doing Good Things can help. I also know it’s fucking hard, particularly for people in difficult life situations, to find the time and resources. But if you can find something (yoga, singing, crafts, writing, reading, playing an instrument, running, swimming, making models, playing board/video games, literally anything) that a) brings you joy and b) distracts you, try and do it. My hobbies, new (embroidery, swimming) and old (bingewtching TV shows, making cards) have helped me so much. Also, it demonstrates, right in front of you, that you can do things, and you are good at things.
I almost hate myself for writing this, because I heard it and rejected it so much, but you gotta give it time. I don’t like thinking about how I was feeling four months ago, because it freaks me the fuck out, but I did honestly think it was over for me. I wouldn’t break the cycle, and I’d lose everything. But (slowly) realising that I didn’t have a deadline to be ‘better’ (and, in fact, realising that ‘better’ is kind of subjective in the first place, see above) was incredibly helpful – it helps you breathe a little deeper and lift your head above the water and look out, even if it’s just a few days ahead.
I’m also going to go full wanker and post some poetry here, but it’s from my favourite poem (Perfectly Human, by Miles Walser) and it sums it up nicely:
There will be days when you’ll wish you were numb;
when you’ll want to rip your heart off your body
and find something easier to take its place.
Collect those days like bricks
and marvel at the buildings you will make.
I think that’s where I’m at now. I’ve made a building, and I’m standing on it. A little one, but a building nonetheness.
*I know, it’s a Buzzfeed post, but it sums things up in the most accessible way I’ve found so far. I relate to literally every point.
**Particularly medication. Anyone shaming people for taking antidepressants can jog on. Looking at you, Kristen Stewart. (We were all rooting for you, Kristen.)
IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) Sheffield – info about all the stuff (courses, workshops, advice, etc.) available locally. I’ve used several of these services, and terrifying as they might be, they really helped.
Wellbeing services South Glasgow – this site was recommended by a few medical types, and is a great collection of resources, advice and information (and courses, if you happen to live in South Glasgow!)
13 Incredibly Smart Tips to be Happier from Mental Health Experts – I know, Buzzfeed again, but this is REALLY nice. Buzzfeed is an unexpectedly great resource for mental health stuff, and has never stigmatised it. Nice one.
16 Habits of Highly Sensitive People – not all applicable to everyone, but ready this made me feel like less of a weirdo for crying all the time and hating gory movies PLUS Facts About Crying, which is so helpful in understanding things and sticking up for yourself when people say you’re a dork for crying so much.
What it’s like to be in love when you have depression. This is brutal and honest and (for me at least) so so accurate. Your brain state doesn’t make you unworthy of love, and you’re not a burden.
Calming internet resources for when you might need a distraction, always helpful.
Keep It Bright and here2pep – social media feeds/shops dedicated to making people feel good about themselves. Yes, they can be saccharine at times, but honestly, having regular, empowering, calming and uplifting messages dotted through my social media feeds really, really helps me to keep my mood lifted. It’s like a little voice in your ear saying ‘it’s okay pal, you’re good’.