Dear Anxiety, it's me, Kate

by Kate Prince November 18, 2019

Dear Anxiety, it's me, Kate

Kate PrinceThe conversation around mental health has never been more open. Rewind a few decades and it would’ve been unheard of to see someone post about their personal struggles in public, let alone online. Thanks to the rise of hashtags associated with important days like #worldmentalhealth day, people are reaching out to one another. Suddenly, newsfeeds are filled with accounts of someone’s experience battling depression, anxiety, OCD, or otherwise. This has enabled sufferers to find something that these illnesses often make you feel so excluded from – a community.

My own personal journey with Generalised Anxiety Disorder stems back a long way, but only really hit home in December of 2017. I had my daughter as a single parent in 2014, and I’m told I did remarkably well at keeping it all together. Despite the long nights and juggling studying with taking care of a one-year-old, I remember feeling surprisingly chipper


Woman and babyThat’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments of course. There were times when I felt lonely, but thanks to my friends and family, I can’t say I felt isolated too extremely. Overall, I was happy. My philosophy was “Let go and let God.” I remember distinctly coming to know that while I couldn’t control what others thought or said, I could control how I reacted to it. As a result, I marched forward.

Life ticked by uneventfully for some time. I launched my freelance writing career, grew a base of solid clients, and continued to grow. However, what I didn’t realize was that my “positive outlook” was a coping mechanism that roughly equated to shoving all my unresolved issues into a closet and pushing my shoulder against it as it bulged against me. It was a dam fit to burst.

The breaking point

Woman having headacheBy 2017, I began to experience health issues in a way that severely disrupted my day to day living. I have suffered from chronic migraine my entire life, but due to the added stress of being self-employed, on a tight budget, learning to drive, finishing my degree, and raising a three-year-old, my attacks had increased. Similarly, at the start of the year, I slipped a disc in my back and was suffering more with my endometriosis then ever before. At the time, I tackled one thing as it came, largely ignoring the cumulative effect it was having. It’s only looking back now that I can piece together the events that led up to what I would later identify as a mental breakdown.

Winter bare treeNot long after I passed my driving test in December of the same year, I decided to leave the car at home and walk the 20 minutes to the shop with my daughter. I had some Christmas gifts on order than needed picking up, and I was still a very nervous driver so opted to leave the car at home. I had woken up in pain, having a particularly bad monthly episode with my endometriosis. For readers who are not aware, this is a condition found in roughly 1 in 10 women (1). In simple terms, tissue usually found in the inside of the uterus grows outside of it, causing lesions, blisters, and in severe cases, infertility. Symptoms include (but aren’t limited to) severe fatigue, abdominal pain, brain fog, and much more. On this particular day, I woke up with all of the above. I was aching, sore all over, sensitive to any touch, and generally feeling unwell. In a bid to get on with my day, I tried to walk to the shop, a journey I had taken hundreds of times before.

We got about half-way when I started to feel like I couldn’t breathe. I felt completely panicked like I could pass out at any moment, while also feeling hyper-aware of my surroundings. I remember feeling like I was going to have to knock on a stranger’s door and ask for help. When I looked down at my daughter, all I could think about was what would happen if I fainted on the sidewalk in this street. Would she walk into the road? What would she feel? Who would keep her safe? I had visions of her standing over my unconscious body, terrified, helpless, and alone. My thoughts ran away with me in a manner I had never felt before, and I turned for home. I was certain that we weren’t going to make it back. That ten-minute walk was the longest journey of my life (and this is coming from someone who once got stranded on a mountain in Greece for ten hours when a coach broke down.)

Feeling aloneBy the time we tumbled through the front door at home, I felt like I had been through one of the worst experiences anyone could go through. It might sound dramatic, but I genuinely felt as though I was losing my mind. I knew I needed to talk to someone – anyone – but didn’t know who. I ended up calling The Samaritans. The charity organization, who many people associate with suicide prevention are there to take calls from anyone going through a tough time (2). I don’t know why I called them specifically, but I’m glad I did. I spoke to a lovely woman for over an hour, who helped me to understand that what I went through was a panic attack. I hung up the phone feeling relieved I wasn’t going crazy, but little did I know that this was the start of a battle that would consume my life for the foreseeable future.

I had experienced some episodes of anxiety during my pregnancy, but only one or two. This happened at meetings, where I would be sat down listening to my boss talk about something. The rising feeling of breathlessness usually went away after one or two minutes, and when it passed, I didn’t think much of it. So, when I began experiencing this feeling daily after my panic attack, I was terrified.

Picking up the pieces

Waiting RoomAfter the initial episode, things went from bad to worse. Suddenly, I found myself unable to walk anywhere alone without my flight or fight experience kicking in. I couldn’t go to the supermarket without trembling. Queuing was my worst nightmare, as were situations where I felt I couldn’t get out. Waiting rooms in doctor’s surgeries, dentists, hospital appointments, even my daughter’s school play. They all went from simple everyday things to blindingly difficult battles with myself fuelled by illogical fear. By this point, I knew I was struggling with anxiety, and that it was bad. I made an appointment with a councillor, who helped me to understand that first and foremost, I was not alone.

Woman holding a babyThen, when I began talking about my personal history, I realized that my positive attitude during my daughter’s first year wasn’t as clear-cut as I thought it was. I wasn’t brushing things off unscathed - I wasn’t dealing with them. My obsession with bettering myself and building a good life for her was taking the focus off the most pivotal aspect of life that millions of us neglect – ourselves. “You have to think of yourself as a jar with a tap,” said the councillor. “Work, stress, worries, this is all water filling the jar. If you keep piling it in and don’t open the tap to release any of it, then it will overflow and overwhelm.”

While this is a notion that has stuck with me ever since, it wasn’t an instant, overnight revelation. There was no eureka moment in those months, where I suddenly felt “normal.” I would wake up in the morning and gauge my mood, wondering, “Will this be a good day?” The only thing I knew for certain was that I couldn’t stay this way. I couldn’t go from the person I was – not the most confident, but an able-bodied, functioning female – to being so scared of “the fear” that I couldn’t go out to dinner anymore or take walks with my friends. I knew that unequivocally, without a doubt, something had to change. More than anything, it was this thought, this line of “This too shall pass” that I clung to, morning, noon, and night.

Autumn PathMy anxiety wasn’t just affecting how I felt inside, but my relationships with people. Some of the people closest to me couldn’t quite grasp why I couldn’t do the things that I used to be able to do. “You must know what you’re anxious about,” one said, while another told me that I was much better off than people who were terminally ill. I knew that. The trouble with mental health issues is often that we know we are profoundly blessed, which only adds fuel to the fire. It only makes us feel guilty for feeling how we feel. As a result, some of my friendships suffered. I was temperamental, distant, struggling to cope and struggling to let anyone see how bad it really was. In turn, because my mental health was so bad, my other health issues began to resurface. I slipped a disc in my back for the second time. My endometriosis flare-ups were longer and more painful. My migraines were more frequent. I gained weight. I even cut all my hair off, thinking that if I liberated myself from being tied to social norms then I might stop feeling so afraid all the time. It didn’t work.

The start of a journey

There is a lot to be said for orthodox medicine. I know some people who would not be able to cope with their mental health challenges without it. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we live in an age where these options are available to us. It wasn’t that long ago that electro-shock therapy and institutionalisation were deemed credible treatment plans; now look at the world. However, for me personally, I felt that medication would simply mask the symptoms and not treat the cause. Like many of us, I turned to Dr Google for assistance, to see what I could find.

The Anxiety Coaches PodcastOne of the first things I found was a podcast called The Anxiety Coaches (3). I’ve never been a podcast person, usually preferring to listen to the radio or an album rather than hearing someone talk. However, I decided to give it a chance. Over the next few weeks, I listened to hours of it. In each episode, host Gina Ryan talks about the many different faces of anxiety, in a way that’s open, relatable, and most importantly, useful. No matter what type of the disorder you suffer from, be it situational, work-related, or social, The Anxiety Coaches Podcast seems to have something for everyone. I found myself hitting play while I tidied around the house, getting my chores done while also learning coping mechanisms for how to calm my panic down. One of the things Gina often talks about is taking time out for self-care. When you have a job, kids, and a house to run, that can be easier said than done. But I knew, by hook or by crook, I had to do it.

Misty Country ParkFor some people, self-care might look like a night out with friends, having a few glasses of wine and relaxing while shooting the breeze, or taking a trip to the cinema to catch a movie. Some find that running a bubble bath, lighting candles and opening a book works just as well. For me, it was reconnecting with nature.

I am lucky enough to live a short drive away from a beautiful country park. Slowly, I started taking short walks around it. This was no easy task when the mere idea of leaving the house was enough to send me into a frenzy, but I pushed on. There was something inside me that knew if I felt the rising feeling of panic and let it control my actions, that I would never recover. I soon discovered the trick was to feel it and do it anyway. At times, this was excruciating, like being forced to take the Bar exam when you’d never so much as looked at a law textbook. Little by little, I stretched out these walks – first five minutes, then ten. There is something about the peacefulness of nature, the rustle of wind through the trees, the ducks floating on a still pond, that brings about a sense of inner calm. At the start of every working day, I tried to go for a walk for at least 15 minutes. It centred me, gave me time to be alone without my daughter pulling at my coattails, and gave me permission to process my own thoughts. Over time, I started to see a noticeable difference.

The art of self-forgiveness

Woman holding flowers forgivenessMy second breakthrough came when I stumbled across the notion that anxiety, although it feels like it’s designed to break you down and make you suffer, is your body trying to protect itself. It’s your primal instincts kicking in, they’re just a little out of tune. Quite often, in those moments of sheer panic, I would find myself trying to force the feeling down and away. I would hate it. I would wish that it would end, certain that I was going to hit the deck at any moment. There was just no way, I thought, that someone can feel this bad without their body shutting down. But, no matter how bad I felt, I never passed out.

Writing a letterWhen I started to understand that this wasn’t my body working against me but trying to protect me, I started to gain a different perspective altogether. One day, it occurred to me to write a letter to my anxiety. I sat down at my desk, opened my computer, and I addressed it directly. Once I started to write, I couldn’t stop. I told it exactly how it had made me feel. I asked it questions…and then something really strange happened. I thanked it. I forgave it. I told it that I know these moments weren’t designed to lay me down low, but that my signals were just a little messed up. A good sixty minutes later and I had crafted one of the most important letters of my life, to myself. The process was so cathartic that I cried. I felt like I had finally started, months into my journey, to be able to pick up the shattered pieces of myself that had been scattered about for much longer than I had ever cared to realize. It was the beginning of something. Not of getting better; but starting new.

The road to recovery

Woman getting better recoveryNow, almost two years to the day since the attack that sent me spiralling, I’m not back to the person that I was before my mind started to unravel. In fact, despite contrary belief, I don’t ever want to be that person again. Sometimes, the worst things in life really do make us stronger. For me, personally, I know that I reached the point of breakdown because something needed to change. Drastically. I wasn’t doing it, so my body and my mind had no choice but to step in and say, “Enough is enough.” Understanding this process and staying on top of taking care of my needs before anything else is an ongoing thing, but I’m finally getting to a point where I can enjoy life again. Make no mistake, I am not “cured.” I don’t believe that anyone suffering from mental health issues is ever fully “cured.” We need to take the good days with the bad, learn from them, dust ourselves off, and try again. We need to learn how to cope in ways that see us functioning with the best of them. We need to take steps to notice our triggers - and above all, we must treat ourselves with kindness, even when we feel like there’s no end in sight.

After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

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References

  1. org. (2019). Facts about endometriosis « Endometriosis.org. [online] Available at: http://endometriosis.org/resources/articles/facts-about-endometriosis/  [Accessed 12 Nov. 2019].
  2. (2019). Samaritans Homepage. [online] Available at: https://www.samaritans.org/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
  3. Anon, (2019). [online] Available at: https://www.theanxietycoachespodcast.com/ [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].


Kate Prince
Kate Prince

Author

Kate Prince is a freelance writer based in Swindon, UK. Kate contributes to over a dozen different websites including Buzznet and Moms as well as several YouTube channels. She has previously worked with ConsumerHealthDigest on topics such as anxiety and life as a single parent. Kate has lived with migraines since she was just 2 years old and is passionate about sharing her experience. After spending a lifetime exploring all the NHS has to offer, Kate found a solution to her chronic migraines by combining multiple alternate therapies with prescription medicine. She now hopes to share her knowledge on the subject to help others in a similar position.


1 Response

Erik
Erik

August 16, 2020

This is a touching story but without doing metabolic and genetic analysis there will be no escape. One cannot simply will their way out of pathological anxiety. It happens for clearly-defined biological reasons when the body is stressed. The mind is just the tip of the iceberg. Fully addressing diet, exercise, and sleep will address what’s underwater and beyond the range of the conscious mind.

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