Let's Talk About Anxiety
It may not be Mental Health Awareness Month Anymore, but the Eight are not done talking about mental health. Five of them sat down to discuss their experiences with anxiety earlier this week, and this is their talk: Olivia Lindem: When did you realize you have anxiety? When did you decide to get help (if you did)?
- OL: I’ve had problems with anxiety my entire life, but I only managed to identify them as such towards the end of my undergraduate degree. I had always managed a high level of academic stress, obsessing over grades as a child and regularly pulling all nighters perfecting my work in high school. I thought this was absolutely normal and that stress was a constant necessity. After all, success needed to be earned. Unfortunately though, things got worse and worse over time and I found myself unable to sleep from anxiety-driven nightmares and would consequently stay awake until 4 or 5 in the morning on a regular basis, imagining the consequence of every single grade and piece of work. Any imagined mistake could be nothing but catastrophe. I was paralyzed out of fear and constantly feeling adrenaline rushes and feeling my pulse beating like mad. These feelings were familiar to me, especially around exams, but it wasn’t until lightheadedness, migraines, and a racing pulse became regular occurrences that I decided to reach out to my doctor and realized that what I was feeling wasn’t the normal level of stress that I thought it was. I learned that I didn’t have to live a life where I was constantly terrified of the 1001 bad possibilities that were constantly going through my head. It wasn’t until I got help that I realized that that horrible, burning, nauseating feeling I’d felt in my chest and stomach since I was a child was the result of anxiety and that some of my extreme reactions to things were panic attacks.
- Amy Richardson: During my second year at uni my reaction to stress became seriously debilitating, and then I started to experience the same symptoms for no apparent reason. The moment I realised it was a serious issue was when I found myself physically unable to leave my bedroom one evening and go downstairs to cook dinner or get a drink, even though I was hungry and thirsty. I called my parents, and even their offer of ordering me a pizza didn’t help because I couldn’t face going downstairs to answer the door. I could hear my housemates laughing in the living room and the thought of seeing one of them was simply the most terrifying thing to me. As soon as I was able to talk to people again, I sought counselling through my university, but it wasn’t helpful and I had a breakdown that summer and nearly dropped out. Luckily I found a way to manage my anxiety on my own and can now recognise when I’m in a bad patch and put strategies in place to help myself through it.
- Lauren Olmeda: I have known basically my entire life, but never really felt the effects too strongly until I was on my own in university. By the time I was in my third year, I found it difficult if not impossible to get out of bed in the morning and I knew my worries and fears weren’t just the result of an overactive imagination, so I saw a counselor for the first time. The act of seeking help soothed my mind a bit, but the breathing exercises and other basic forms of self-medication did nothing for me. After an extremely bad attack that came after a night of binge drinking, I finally sought professional medical help in November 2015 during my graduate studies. It was the best decision I’ve ever made for myself.
- Lee Clark: Looking back, I’ve always had it. I pretty much had small instances like hives, or what I would later realize were panic attacks. But these were infrequent enough when I was in high school that I didn’t think too much of it. It became much more oppressive after a series of family issues and tragedies. The panic attacks increased, and I finally recognized it as a panic attack only when I was working in NYC at a popular retail store during the holidays. I’ve considered myself to be quite strong over the years and to be handling things well when, really, I ignored dealing with various issues, so my anxiety bubbled out at what I thought were odd times. But again, these were somewhat rare enough that I didn’t do anything about it. They increased more and more and reached a crescendo after the birth of my son, which actually wasn’t that long ago. I sought help, and I cannot believe it took me that long to get help. I would have benefitted much sooner.
- Raquel Reyes: I don't remember this, but I did hear stories from my mother as I got older about the sort of things I'd say or do under pressured situations. I don't know if they were tantrums or panic attacks, but they were so rare and according to her, I was otherwise so calm that she never thought much of it. My junior year of high school they suddenly came back. I was one of those lucky kids that never had to study much before, and when time management issues finally caught up with me I was suddenly shutting down constantly and breaking into tears anytime I thought I'd miss even the slightest deadline. I remember my body shaking all over and the inability to breathe. I somehow survived through my second year of university, but things reached a head then. Living alone for the first time, there wasn't anyone around to check my behavior... I missed classes for weeks, only struggling the few steps between my dorm room and the dining hall under extreme circumstances. I finally dropped the courses I hadn't yet failed and went home for six months.
OL: If you feel comfortable saying, did you opt for medication? Do you believe it’s made a difference?
- OL: I will never be ashamed to say that I made the decision to go on anxiety medication. I was afraid to, at first, thanks to all the negative stigma that surrounds it. Who hasn’t heard things like, “Feeling a bit anxious is normal!” or “Mind over matter!” or “All you need are breathing exercises!” or worst of all, “What if you become addicted?” I finally pushed all those thoughts aside and tried the low-dose medication my doctor had decided was best for me, and I immediately felt a difference. I still cared about all the things that had driven me into extreme states of anxiety, but I didn’t feel sick because of them anymore. I found myself falling asleep easily, no longer tossing and turning, replaying every single thing I’d said that day and imagining every negative consequence. I stopped having nightmares. I stopped finding myself paralyzed over supposedly small incidents. I still feel anxious over things, but that anxiety no longer rules my life. Medication made it possible to live a calmer life, and for that I am grateful.
- AR: I don’t medicate. If there comes a time when my strategies stop working for a prolonged period of time or I feel like I can genuinely no longer cope then I absolutely will ask a doctor for medication. I used to be scared of it, but after speaking to several people I know who medicate, I’m not so nervous of it now. I am terrible at remembering to take tablets though, so I’m trying to manage without it!
- LO: I have been medicated for a year and a half now. Like Olivia, I was always afraid of the stigma or of becoming addicted, but after the anxiety attack that set me over the edge, medication felt like my last resort. I was afraid of what everyone would think – my parents, my friends, etc. I wanted to be able to manage it on my own but I knew I couldn’t anymore and therefore I could no longer afford to care what others thought. I am on 50mg of sertraline, which is an SSRI and is non-addictive, and I describe it to people as a little bit of medication that just makes my brain work like most other people’s. My parents have been incredibly supportive, and when I tried (unsuccessfully) to go off my medication last winter, they were the ones who encouraged me to go back on them in order to regain my balance and happiness. My medication has taken me from imagining myself on trial for the deaths of everyone in my apartment building due to my forgetting to blow a candle out (a regular thing that went through my mind) to simply not lighting the candle at all. My brain is just rewired a bit now. I still get worried and have the occasional attack, but the medication has made my anxiety manageable and that’s what matters.
- LC: I started taking medication several months ago. I was afraid of the stigma as well, like Olivia and Lauren said. It felt like I was admitting I couldn’t deal with something to myself, which I prided myself on for years. When really I wasn’t taking care of myself as best I could. There is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. My panic attacks have ceased almost entirely, and with the frequency in which I was having them, after the birth of my son, it was quite debilitating. I worried medication would make me feel foggy or less like myself, when I’ve not found that at all. I’m just operating better. I have medication when I feel a panic attack coming on but luckily I’ve only had to use it once or twice. So, I take a daily pill and then one, if needed, to get through a panic attack.
- RR: I haven't medicated, and I say this without hesitation, yet. I was afraid at a younger age, hearing horror stories, but I think I've heard enough good testimony as well by now to consider the possibility in future. I think what's also important is that more than anything, I've learned not to hesitate when it comes to fighting for those who choose to seek help.
OL: What do you do when you’re feeling anxious? Do you have tips on how to calm down?
- AR: I have three main ways of coping. The first is talking to my mum and dad every day, even if just for a few minutes. My parents are really supportive, and chatting about my day to them and telling them my worries helps me stay calm; they anchor me. Another is making sure that wherever I go I have an exit strategy in case I have a panic attack or something similar. It mostly involves figuring out where the nearest public toilet is and an excuse to leave if I’m with people who won’t understand if I tell them I’m feeling anxious and can’t stay. I’ve had to hide behind trees before when having a panic attack and it’s not much fun! Finally, if I’m feeling anxious or stressed I help myself to get some sleep by doing at least 15 minutes of yoga before I go to bed. I use an app that leads you through sequences designed to help you to relax, and often after finishing one I struggle to stay awake long enough to change into my pj’s and clean my teeth! In general, sticking to a morning and evening routine also help me to keep anxiety at bay.
- LO: Exercise works nearly as well as my medication for me. I lift weights 4 times a week, I like to run outdoors, and I am starting a yoga class this week. Endorphins are critical to my well-being. Also, I consider myself a pretty introverted person, but one of the best ways for me to combat my anxiety is human interaction. If I’m not with my boyfriend (who is a pro at diffusing my anxiety at this stage), I’ll ring my parents or my grandma or my sister and just chat for a bit to ease my mind. By the time the conversation is done, the anxiety has passed. I also really like sticking to a routine – leaving very little to chance is very helpful to me, even if it sometimes makes me seem boring. I don’t mind! Finally, I like activities that require 100% of my focus and energy – painting my nails always helps because I have to pay very careful attention; I also have loads of colouring books that just take my mind off whatever is making me anxious.
- OL: Going for walks outdoors helps me to calm down. Breathing in fresh air and observing pretty, little details – flowers, trees, the lake, or even architectural details – help to ground me. Talking with others – especially my boyfriend or my grandmother, help me to rationalize. Napping for a solid hour can make an anxious spell go away completely. Coloring can also help.
- LC: Like a lot of you, I talk to someone. My husband is my best friend and sitting with him and having him listen or help rationalize (like you said, Olivia) does wonders. A walk with some fresh air absolutely helps me. I also keep a familiar book by my bed, I love Nora Ephron, and I open it up to a read a chapter or so. It’s comforting to me because it’s so familiar, and it helps my mind focus on something.
- RR: I think movement is a common factor here as well. Weather permitting, I go for bike rides, sometimes parking in a central area and walking around for a bit before I head back home. Sitting in coffee shops or having lunch alone helps a lot – there's no interaction but the general energy of other people lends a vibration that immediately calms me down. If I'm home and none of that's possible I'll also attempt a nap or movie in bed. I have a few go to’s that are basically memorized at this point!
AR: How do people react when you tell them about your mental health? Do you find it difficult to tell people? Have you had problems with friends/relations/significant others not understanding?
- AR: I used to not tell people and try to hide my anxiety and depression as much as possible. There are still a couple of things I just don’t talk about and very few people know about. However, I try to be very open about my anxiety now and how it affects me, and on the whole, both friends and strangers react very well. In fact, I probably lost more friends by trying to hide what was going on. When I started to be honest about everything, my closest friends at university were so supportive and did things both consciously and unconsciously that helped me immensely.
- LO: I have found that the best way to have a meaningful conversation about mental health is simply to be honest. Plenty of people have reacted negatively when I tell them I’m on medication, but I do my best to advocate my case and to remind them that I am only one person and everyone’s struggles are different. What Amy said is entirely true – I used to isolate people and make excuses for not going out or being social, but now that I am up front about my mental illness people are far more understanding, forgiving, and harmlessly curious. The more I talk about my anxiety, the easier it is for me to manage it. And at the end of the day, I have to focus on myself. I feel no obligation to convince others that my own methods for taking care of myself require their consent.
- OL: While my friends and peers react well when I talk about my mental health, I find it really hard to talk about it with older generations. In my experience, they tend to brush it off with the likes of, “Don’t say that – you’re not mentally ill! Everyone gets anxious!” Sometimes they’ll say to “toughen up” or “be strong.” My favorite is when they comment on how all Millennials have these “ridiculous” mental struggles because we’re spoiled and don’t know what real difficulty is. It can definitely be difficult to talk about without getting very upset, but I still try to do so anyway. I think it’s important for us to be open and normalize the discussion. At the end of the day, having an anxiety disorder is no different than having high blood pressure or a migraine disorder. One shouldn’t be seen as totally normal and acceptable while the other is stigmatized and shushed (especially because in my case, my migraine problem turned out to be the direct result of my anxiety disorder and almost completely went away when I began to treat my anxiety). I hope that by continuing to talk about it, we’ll eventually be able to change the way people react.
- LC: My family knows. I’ve been somewhat open with friends about it, I’ve mentioned it to them without providing a lot of details, and they were incredibly supportive. I’m lucky to have a very understanding and supportive family as well. My mother-in-law is a psychologist, and my father-in-law is a doctor, so both absolutely understand that anxiety is real, and that treatment works. My husband, of course, is understanding, and always makes sure I have time to myself to recharge. I find the stigma attached to my situation is that I’m a new parent, and people make a lot of assumptions about new parents with either anxiety or depression. As in, it’s assumed it’s a phase, or that you hate your baby. Neither of which I experience whatsoever.
AR: What things do you do regularly as a way of taking care of yourself? Do you struggle with justifying time spent of self-care to yourself?
- RR: I value the importance of self-care, although unfortunately achieving it is still a concept I struggle with. This is where time management issues still get the better of me and while I'd love to devote more time, I don't always find it. I sincerely hope to get better at this in future.
- LO: As I’ve grown older, self-care has become increasingly important to me. To make a long story short, I simply say yes when I want to say yes and no when I want to say no. I am my first priority – cultivating my friendships and relationships, taking care of my physical and mental health, and doing exactly the things that I want to do – these are the most important things to me. I used to struggle with justifying self-care, but now I am proud of myself. At the end of the day I have to take care of myself and this means putting myself first. This makes me a better friend, girlfriend, sister, daughter, and everything else I am – overall I am a better person.
- OL: Self-care is extremely important to me, as well. Unfortunately right now, it’s also time-consuming. I’m a grad student and not really in the best field for someone with anxiety. There’s no putting your work away at the end of the day in academia, and achieving things in short amounts of time is the accepted way to get ahead. I refuse to do that. At the moment, I’m completing a 2-3 year MA programme before getting started on my PhD, and taking my time is the necessary luxury that I’m affording myself. In my first year in the programme, I tried to speed through the entire thing, and while I was managing beautifully at first (in terms of academic performance), I was having sleepless nights, nightmares, migraines, and plenty of panic. I eventually burned out and decided that it wasn’t worth it. Academia is a path you only go down if you’re truly passionate about something, and the academic spirit of speeding through things stripped me of that passion. So now I take my time, and I put the brakes on whenever I feel myself spiralling back into the “work 24/7” mode that thankfully announces itself with an onslaught of migraines and palpitations. I feel less respected and I feel extremely judged (the key word in both of these cases is feel), but it’s what I need to do for myself. I see extreme psychological struggle from many others continuing to rush by, and I refuse to do that to myself. I have joy in my work again, and I’m content that my form of self-care is allowing me to live a full and balanced life.
- LC: Self-care is everything. I cannot believe I neglected to take care of myself for so long. Getting out of the house, or to take some quiet time to myself heals me in ways that are so surprising. After my son was born, I didn’t feel like getting out of the house for my various appointments, but I was sort of booted out by my husband to go do something for myself, and only when I was out did I realize how much I needed that. My self-care takes the form of pampering appointments like haircuts, eyebrow appointments, manicures, and pedicures. I always did these things before becoming a parent but now they are a little more special since that’s my time alone, which is rare these days. My only struggle in justifying my self-care was when we recently hired a housekeeper. I’m a stay at home parent, and I have OCD, so really I’m the perfect person to clean their own house, but I just do not have the time. I can make time, but that takes time away from the precious little time I have to myself or to rest. My husband (who works amazingly long hours, and also cannot help clean) stepped in, along with my mother-in-law, and just said please do this, it will help. I appreciate how supportive they both are, and they were right. It was the right choice to make, and I no longer struggle with justifying it.You need what you need, and I have no time to think of what others think of it and/or me. I’m the only one living my life.
RR: For those of you better at self-care, any advice on how to achieve it under the tight confines of everyday life? I know everyone says you simply have to make the time for it, but life’s not always that simple, and I wonder if there's a small or slow way to start.
- OL: The three most important things I do for self-care are to make sure that I get a full eight hours of sleep, that I drink plenty of water, and that I eat three meals a day. If I’m going through a particularly busy period and can’t afford the luxury of slowing down, then those are the self-care elements that will get me through. Taking the time to get eight hours of sleep may be hard to do, but it will keep you calmer and it will make it easier to get through everything you need to do. So if you can’t manage to do anything else for self-care, then sleep, water, and food are the smallest but most necessary ways to make a big change.
- AR: I basically do the same as Olivia. I make sure I get as close to eight hours sleep as possible, and I try to drink 4 pints of water a day. I also carve out my morning and evening routine, making sure I have time to drink tea and read to help me wake up and wind down. If I’m not working, I try to go for a walk. I’m really lucky in that I live in a village in the middle of the countryside, and I only have to walk roughly 100m to be in a field. Looking at the way the trees and plants change soothes me and I love when there’s baby animals in the fields. We had some lambs over the spring which I watched for hours and at the moment I’m constantly on the lookout for the cygnets that the two resident swans had. (I’ve named the swans Millicent and Percival if anyone’s interested!) Also, I never deny myself dessert. Life’s too short and it will make you happy.