Before I delve into what I’m sure will be a long winded,rambling about this, I just want to make it really clear that this post comes purely from the heart. I’ve put very little thought process into it, I haven’t sat and planned it, and I definitely haven’t taken direction or payment from anyone else to write it. I’ve not researched NHS sites, or official sources, except for my own personal use, so please keep that in mind with everything I go on to say. I’m just sharing my personal experience.
It’s Mental Health Awareness month, a time dedicated to raise awareness of mental health problems, with the goal of breaking the taboos and stigma associated with it.
For those who love to question the point of raising awareness, the point is that by talking about it across the media, social media, openly in conversation with your friends, wearing it as a slogan t shirt for the day, posting a quote on instagram, writing a blog post…anything at all, even just one person may be given the courage to turn to one other person and ask for help. One life, if not many could be changed, improved or even saved. And that’s got to be worth the effort right?
My experience of anxiety and mental health problems
So I’m going to start with my story, of my experience of mental health problems. As I’m writing this I’m fine. I’ve got my feet up after a productive day at work, I’ve got plans for a nice dinner later and the smell of my pumpkin souffle candle wafting under my nose is very enjoyable. I’m fine. But there was a time in my life where I wasn’t fine. I suffered with mental health issues, mainly anxiety, in my first year of uni. I was never suicidal, I was never depressed, and I was never in any real danger, except inside my own head, but it was a very scary and unstable part of my life.
It began about three weeks after I started uni in Leeds. Freshers week was over, I was in the swing of lectures and knew my surroundings and the girls I lived in student accommodation with. I wasn’t particularly homesick, I missed home but what I would consider to be a normal amount. Out of nowhere I got a cold, and I literally thought there was something seriously wrong with me. I thought it was pneumonia, and that I was going to be seriously ill and possibly even die. It came out of nowhere.
I obviously recovered from the cold, but over the next few weeks, I gradually became obsessed with my health and wellbeing, but I wasn’t aware that it was happening at all. If I had a headache I assumed I had a brain tumour. I had an infected spot on my cheek and thought it was a flesh eating disease for three days and every time I woke up I checked the mirror to see if it had spread. Any minor ailment and I immediately not only thought the extreme worst, but really believed it. I didn’t have time to stop and think how ridiculous it seemed, because as one thing cleared up the next entered my head and consumed my thoughts. I had more Dr appointments in those first few months of uni than I had lectures.
Can you imagine being in that moment where you really honestly genuinely in your heart believe that you have these awful things really happening to you? And then how stupid and selfish you feel when you realise you don’t, but that there are people out there who actually do have those problems. I didn’t tell anyone for a while for that reason. What if people thought I was attention seeking? Or worse what if I offended someone who actually had those problems or someone close to them did?
Instead my dad would get about 4 phone calls a day, where I’d ask him if he thought my minor problems were something more. ‘You’ve got a cold’, ‘Steph its a spot’, ‘It’s a headache, take some paracetamol’, were the answers I got, and they were perfectly reasonable and believable and normal, so then I’d feel better, for about an hour. I needed constant reassurance. If it was 4am and I couldn’t ring my dad or make a Dr appointment, I’d google symptoms, which as well all know is the worst thing you can possibly do.
As I was living in this world of health worries, and genuine fear, I started to develop real symptoms. My hands went numb one day and I was fumbling around trying to get the key in the lock, convinced I was going to be paralysed. I got awful migraines, and couldn’t see out of one eye, so would curl up in my little uni bedroom and wait for it to pass, but feel like it actually might not and I just resigned myself to my fate.
It got so bad that one night, I woke up at 1am and couldn’t feel or move my legs. I was terrified, and had a full blown panic attack, and finally grabbed the phone and called home. ‘I’m quitting uni and coming home (because I’m going to die – this bit was said in my head) and need to be there not here’ was what I screamed down the phone to my dad. ‘Ok no problem, call when you wake up in the morning and we will arrange to come down and pick you up’. I went to sleep, forgetting about my numb legs and had the soundest nights sleep I’d had in months.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt totally different. I thought to myself, when I rang home why didn’t I tell my dad I had numb legs and couldn’t walk? THat’s what I woke up in a cold sweat about. Why had I blurted out that I wanted to come home instead? I didn’t actually want to quit uni, and I knew my legs weren’t numb, and could see that as soon as I was told it was ok to go home that I forgot entirely about my health worries. I called my dad and told him I didn’t want to quit, but I thought there was something really wrong with me. It was like I was looking from the outside in at myself and could see that all my fears and illnesses and symptoms were very real to me in the moment, but they weren’t actually real.
So I came home from uni for the weekend, I saw my family and my friends that were still at home, I slept in my own bed and I let myself be looked after for the weekend. I talked about what happened to me in the moment of an anxiety attack, but that I knew I wanted to deal with it. I went back to Leeds, crying my eyes out but determined to stick it out and made (another) appointment at the student health clinic.
I was referred to a student CBT clinic, where I filled in two assessment questionnaires about my thoughts and feelings. I was very surprised to find out that I was suffering with mild anxiety. Mild?! How the fuck can they tell me this is mild, I actually believe at times that I’m going to die. I was furious they thought this was mild, but then when I thought about it, I thought well actually mild is good. It’s fixable, and it’s treatable, and they’re now treating it because they know what it is. They aren’t as worried about me as I am about me and they’re the professionals, I can actually trust what they are saying.
To someone who worried about their health this idea of it being mild turned from an outrageous insult to music to my ears. It had a name, it had symptoms, all of which I had, and it even had a time scale of between 4-6 months for an average recovery. I could deal with that, because it gave me the logic I needed to get through it if that makes sense.
Of course the reality of living with anxiety in the moments when it hits is very different, but with the help of the woman at my CBT appointments I trained my brain to go over all these facts, coping mechanisms and ways to manage.
I realised just how wide spread this was in my life, it wasn’t just the health issues, they had just been the most overwhelming. If I was visiting home I would be TERRIFIED of missing the train. I’d book taxis to the station up to three hours early. Once I was stuck in a traffic jam and actually got out, and ran through Leeds city centre to the station because it was quicker, and arrived at the station with just the two hours to spare. It was a ten minute taxi ride. I would cry with relief if I saw the train was delayed, then five minutes later get a panic attack that it might get cancelled. What would I do then? Er, get the next one obviously? But no, it’s not obvious to someone suffering with anxiety. It fills them with fear and panic, sweaty palms, heart racing, blurred vision, breathlessness, nausea…
I completed university projects weeks in advance, not because I was such a model student but because I was terrified I’d miss the deadline. I’d constantly check timetables and scour through deadline notes and emails to make sure I didn’t miss anything. If I rang home and nobody answered, I’d assume they had been in a car crash and would be rooted to the spot until they called me back or answered and I knew they were alive.
For the most part I think I hid it, or I definitely tried to. Even from my parents who knew about it. I remember one day near Christmas they came to visit and we went to York for the day. I was sat in Betty’s cafe, surrounded by Christmas lights and my whole family, and I just felt miserable. I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t feel excited or happy about anything. I was in full swing with CBT treatment and that day I was trying everything to pull myself round but I just couldn’t. I felt horrendous on my parents who had made the effort to come and see me, and I felt like my heart was broken when they drove away home that night without me.
Even when you’re suffering, and getting help, and know exactly what is happening to you, and can even see a future when you’ll be ok, in the moment it can totally consume you.
I thought I did a great job of hiding it from the girls I was in halls with, but when it came to us all finding houses for second year, I could not cope with the pressure of it. I needed it sorting ASAP because in my head if we didn’t we would be homeless, so I pushed and pushed and tried to make everyone sign for the first one we viewed.
They thought I was so crazy, and OTT to the point that five of them said they just didn’t want to live with me anymore. I was completely crushed. I’d pushed these people away and they had no idea what was going on with me. There were two other girls who also weren’t welcome in that house, and the three of us found a house together. I’m sure at the time they were thinking christ we are stuck with Steph, as well as feeling shit that the others hadn’t wanted them either, but those girls were my absolute rocks through the rest of first year, the rest of uni, and I’m still friends with them today. Being around them made me feel like old me, and I began to have fun again.
In total, the worst of it all did last 6 months. It was exhausting, terrifying and it felt never ending, but I got through it, largely due to how much I educated myself on every last bit of it, but mainly due to the help I received from Leeds Uni student counselling. The symptoms that I had all fell under the anxiety bracket:
- loss of appetite or over eating
- sleepless nights
- sweating heavily in bed
- racing heart
- catastrophising (thinking the worst)
- panic attacks
- feeling like you’re letting others down
- feeling embarrassed and trying to surpress your feelings
- being distracted easily
- unable to move or speak
- feeling exhausted without even moving
I read the anxiety information leaflets that I was given cover to cover so many times, so that every time it hit me I could look at it and attribute it to a known condition, that I was being treated for and that would pass. The CBT sessions taught me how to manage it and I still use those practises today if I feel anxious, they’re just second nature now. It grew less and less severe and I was able to move on from it and get on with my life.
Living with anxiety now
While that may sound like a happy ending, I really want to stress that it doesn’t fully go away. Now it’s more fleeting moments of anxiousness, and more normal levels of worry that happen in situations when everyone would usually feel a bit worried. I can recognise when it’s starting to affect me, and can pin point why.
If I’m stressed out with anything, work, life, etc then it creeps back in a bit. If I feel overworked, ready for a break, over tired, or like I have no time to myself it creeps back in then too. If I’m faced with a challenge, or something out of my comfort zone, I notice it, even just for an hour or two. If I’m waiting on a big decision to be made, or something out of my control is happening for example.
In some respects it has made me a lot stronger as a person, and I think I’m naturally quite confident anyway which helps. I will never again worry if a train or a flight gets delayed or cancelled. I’ll be annoyed as hell if it affects my plans, but I won’t panic over it. I’m very confident at treating myself and coping with it when I feel like that, and I know what I have to do to overcome it.
I know when I need a weekend to sleep, or do nothing, I know if I lose my appetite there’s something bigger worrying me than I might realise, and I know that the best thing I ever did was go and get help. I also know, that when it comes to my experience of mental health, I am very lucky. I had a support network around me, I had help available to me, and there are many people out there who do not feel like they have that. Not everyones experience has a happy ending, and for that reason I fully support global mental health awareness day, however big or small it may be affecting whoever reads this.
Tips for Living with Mental Health Problems based on my experience
These are based on my symptoms and my experiences, things I found that really helped me, but obviously if you’re suffering with these or any more extreme symptoms I’d advise you to look into it yourself with a professional. See below for official sources.
Over the last two years others very close to me have suffered with anxiety to various extents, and when I’ve shared my experiences and symptoms a common reaction I’ve found is that they didn’t even know some of these issues were related to the condition. In these situations those people have then found it helpful to know that there’s a reason they feel these things, and they don’t have to suffer ongoing with them.
Educate yourself – this was the biggest thing that helped me. You might be living with and struggling with symptoms that you don’t even know are due to anxiety. Even just realising you have it can be a huge step to coping with it and hopefully recovery. Find and read official resources, because you will trust them and they will help as well as provide the right guidance.
Dont compare yourself to others – everyone’s experiences are different, there is no ‘normal’, and definitely don’t allow yourself to think ‘other people have worse circumstances to me’. Your world and reality with anxiety is very real to you, and just because someone may be worse off that doesn’t lessen your value or need for help and support.
Don’t over commit yourself to work, social, life events. Being busy can sometimes be a distraction, but being too busy can leave you drained and more anxious, which in turn leaves you feeling like you’re letting people down if you cancel on them.
Help others to help you. You don’t have to speak to everyone if you don’t want to, but where possible really try to talk to those close to you because they WILL want to help you. Tell them what you need to feel better, tell them how they can support you, whether that’s reassurance or talking about it or helping with coping mechanisms. As someone who has been on both sides it can be so frustrating trying to support someone with anxiety, any help in how and what to do helps everyone.
Communicate. Talk about it. Do not sit in silence.
Be aware of yourself and what you’re doing. If you’re frowning, tense, agitated or restless physically try to shake it off and relax. If you prefer to be active go to the gym.
Allow yourself to be looked after. Go home – wherever or to whoever that is and accept the TLC.
Look back at how far you have come. It can feel like you’re never getting better and that it’s a never ending cycle. Over time, with help you will look back and realise that you’re winning the little battles and gradually improving.
Set yourself little, realistic goals. Even if that is to go to a social event, or go to the gym, or talk to someone different. Don’t expect miracles overnight and don’t expect it to disappear completely.
Accept it won’t always work and you will have bad days even when you’re feeling better, but instead of magnifying it into something huge and let it become a negative, just try again tomorrow.
Tips for dealing with someone close to you who has mental health problems based on my experience
As someone who has been on both sides I fully know how difficult the supportive side can be too. One in four people suffer with some sort of mental health issue, and out of 4 people I know well, three of them are male. Here’s the best advice I can give on this:
Be supportive and frequently ask if there’s anything you can do to make it easier
Learn to recognise triggers and warning signs of anxiety attacks in the person you’re close to
Dont tell them to snap out of it, they can’t
Dont be dismissive, what seems like nothing to you could be a mountain to them
Try to understand their fear in the moment is genuine
Take time out for yourself, it can be draining and a long slog for you too, so don’t allow yourself to be taken advantage of or for anxiety to become an excuse
Be kind, and whenever you ask if someone is ok, ask twice.
Encourage them to seek help, getting help can make a huge difference to the quality of both your and their daily lives.
The point of mental health awareness is to make talking about issues like this common practice, rather than something to hide and be ashamed of. If its commonly talked about and stories are shared then maybe those struggling will see they aren’t alone, they don’t have to suffer in silence and they may be encouraged to talk too. It can make all the difference to someone’s mental wellbeing.
The bottom line is we are all human, and something like this puts us all on the same level. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how successful you are, how famous your are or how much money you earn, mental health problems can affect anyone and everyone, both as a sufferer or someone trying to learn how to help someone else who is suffering.
Sources of further information from the professionals:
Photos taken from an Autumn walk in the Lake District.
‘There is very strong evidence that those who spend time with the natural world benefit, mentally, to an extraordinary degree’ – David Attenborough with Mind.