It’s mental health awareness week here in the UK, and I went back and forth on whether to share something about my own mental health struggles in honour of that. I decided in the end that I’ve gained a lot from other people’s honesty and openness, and given that this week is dedicated to raising awareness and starting conversations I felt it was as good a time as any to take the plunge! I have dealt with an anxiety disorder for a long time – as long as I can remember. Recently I went through a particularly rough patch, and I’ll probably write in more detail about that at some point, but for today I want to talk about some of the things I learned while digging myself out of that particular hole.
I am (obviously) not a mental health or medical professional, none of this is meant as advice per se on what to do if you’re at a low point with your own mental health – although I do make some suggestions along the way. I would love it if something I wrote here could be useful to others, but I know how deeply personal these things are and so I can only speak to the things that worked for me when I was low. And so, with that in mind, here are four things that made a difference to my mental health.
Working on my self-talk
My internal monologue used to be… unkind. If I was late getting out of bed – “Stupid of you, why do you always make the same bad choices?” If I hadn’t done the washing up in a couple of days – “Lazy bitch, why don’t you do something useful for once?” If I had to work late – “This is because you’re disorganised and crap at your job. You don’t deserve to spend time doing something fun.”
It had been this way pretty much all my life, and while I obviously didn’t love it, I was used to it. Then, when my anxiety got so bad that I had to take some time off work (and you can imagine the field day my inner monologue had with that choice!) I went to see a resilience coach with a view to patching myself up enough that I could get back to my job. At the mention of critical self-talk her eyes positively lit up; she thought that cracking that would make an enormous difference to my emotional wellbeing. I was… sceptical. A part of me felt that while yes, it was unpleasant to have this going on in my head, if I let up on myself then I’d just turn into the stupid, lazy, useless slob I kind of believed I was at heart. Still, I had to accept that the underlying self-hatred hadn’t succeeded in getting me functional, so I conceded that it was worth trying something else.
We worked on personifying both that harsh inner voice and the part of me that was vulnerable to this constant stream of criticism and negativity, and after a few sessions I started to catch myself before I could launch into the abuse. At the same time, I felt a weight lifting off me. I had spent so long feeling the knot of anxiety in my stomach all day every day, feeling to one degree or another that something awful and as-yet-unidentified was waiting just around the corner, and I had come to accept that I would always feel like this. There are no words for the way it felt to wake up and realise that I wasn’t feeling that nameless dread any more.
I’ve started with this one because I believe it’s made the biggest lasting difference to my mental health. I do sometimes still wake up feeling anxious, or feel the rising dread for no real reason, or have days where I’m on edge and I can’t put my finger on why. But compared to where I was before I started working with a professional? It’s night and day. I know not everybody can afford (financially or logistically) to seek professional help with their mental health, but if you can find a good match it’s amazing the difference it makes.
Even if you can’t see someone about your mental health, you can have a look at the way you talk to yourself. Think about whether you’d talk to your best friend, or somebody you love, like that. If you were talking to a child, do you think talking to them in that way would help them to learn? To develop confidence and independence? A lot of us are perfectionists, and we think that being hard on ourselves is the best way to maintain those high standards. You might be surprised though at how much better you feel, and how much more you can achieve, if you try offering yourself encouragement and support instead.
This can be controversial, although it shouldn’t be really. I started on anti-anxiety medication for the first time in September when I recognised that I wasn’t coping, and I was on it for about seven months. I didn’t feel like it made an enormous difference to how I felt day to day, it certainly didn’t magically remove all of my anxiety, but it did muffle the worst of the inexorable dread. It also kind of muted my most positive emotions, but as I wasn’t experiencing many of them at the time anyway that didn’t feel like a great loss. The pills helped to stabilise me enough that I could actively work on getting to a point where I could go outside without wanting to curl into a ball under the nearest hedge, they helped me to feel calm enough that meeting up with friends didn’t feel like an insurmountable challenge, they allowed me to manage my anxiety enough that I could start to recognise myself again. I’m very grateful for that.
I took my last anti-anxiety pill on the last day of April, and while I’m glad to feel that my body and brain have recovered to the point where I don’t need medication, I’m also aware that for many people that isn’t a realistic goal. In the same way that I’m asthmatic and will need to take an inhaler every day for the rest of my life, for many people medication for their mental health will be part of their lives forever. There were a few people who expressed concern over me going onto anti-anxiety medication, and I know this came from a place of love, but I also know that those same people wouldn’t think twice about taking antihistamine for hay fever or insulin to manage diabetes.
While I wouldn’t dream of advising people I don’t know to take (or not take!) medication for their mental health, what I will recommend without hesitation is to not allow the stigma around medication to make the decision for you. Talk to your doctor, examine what you need, and make your choices based on that. If you don’t want to take medication then that is totally your right, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is also nothing wrong with being on medication for a little while, for a long time, forever, if that’s what you need.
Friends and Family
I am incredibly lucky in that my close family is very supportive and understanding of mental health issues. In fact, many of the people I love best in my life have struggled at one time or another with anxiety, depression or another permutation of mental illness.
When I was neck-deep in unfounded fear I found it really hard to ask the people around me for what would be useful, but just having people who would listen without judging provided a lot of comfort. Partner was able to judge what kind of a day I was having by how far I’d moved since he left for work, and he knew that if I said I was feeling “the dread” that there was no point asking me why or what about. There was no why, there was only clawing anxiety.
My mum is another source of invaluable emotional support, and part of what makes her so easy to talk to is that she never freaks out. If you’re already feeling anxious, having someone you care about frantically worrying over your wellbeing isn’t something you’re well-equipped to deal with!
I’m also glad that I have friends I can be honest with about my mental health, without it having to be A Thing that hangs over the whole conversation. I remember I went out for brunch with a couple of friends shortly after starting on my medication, and how lovely it was to be able to tell them honestly that I was an emotional wreck and then for us to move on to talking about their work, the ridiculous antics of their supervisors, upcoming holiday plans and the like.
The thing that I wanted most when I was at my worst was to feel normal, to feel like me again, and I feel so lucky to have friends and family who made that possible. If you can, find the people around you who can understand that when you’re mentally not at your best you might need hanging out to look different – smaller groups, or sticking to familiar places, or only lasting an hour at a time, whatever it is that makes it possible for you to socialise – but who can otherwise help you remember what it’s like to be you-at-your-best. That’s a real joy.
I have an enormous sweet tooth. I love sugar in almost all its forms, I fundamentally don’t believe in the phrase “too sweet”, and I definitely use it as a treat. Don’t most of us? And yet I’ve found that the very thing I use to cheer myself up after a bad day can sometimes end up doing more harm than good – even leading to more bad days.
I’m wary of talking about this, because I absolutely don’t believe in policing other people’s food choices and I don’t want to be misinterpreted. What I have found though, for me, is that a few days of eating junk food or over eating sugar can leave me feeling on-edge, jittery, frustrated and unhappy. Sometimes it’s just a headache that hangs around the next day, despite ensuring I’m perfectly hydrated. Sometimes it’s a feeling of lethargy combined with restless energy that almost invariably leads to me snapping at people (mostly Partner) for no reason. Conversely, two or three days of consciously choosing to cook and eat healthy, nutritious foods can settle my mood and make me feel more buoyant and productive.
As is the case with so many of the things that I rely on to manage my anxiety and general mental wellbeing, I know I have it easier than many. I’m privileged to have easy access to fresh fruit and veg. I have a well-stocked kitchen, and my parents taught me enough in the kitchen that I’m comfortable improvising a meal from whatever healthy ingredients I have to hand. I also live with Partner, who is an excellent cook and has often picked up the slack of making healthy meals when I haven’t had the physical or mental energy to leave the sofa.
Some of the things that make it easiest for me to eat well even when I really don’t feel like it are having stir-fry veg mix in the freezer and instant rice bags in the cupboard, which can be bunged together in a frying pan with almost any seasonings to make an easy and reasonably healthy meal in less than 10 minutes (plus, very little washing up since there’s naff all prep involved). When I do feel up for cooking, I try to make enough to have leftovers so that future me can eat well with minimal effort. Wholemeal wraps in the cupboard can be combined with aforementioned leftovers, or stuffed with some more instant rice and shredded carrot/chopped pepper/spinach/whatever veg you have lurking in the bottom of your fridge for another easy lunch that feels good to eat.
I still eat ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, sweets, popcorn, etc, when I want a treat. I’d love to one day be one of those people who wants something sweet and automatically goes for the fruit, but I’m not there yet and I’m not ready to put the effort in either. But I know my body better than I used to, and I’ve started to recognise when I need to ease off the sugar and eat something healthy instead.
So, there you have it…
None of these are things that ‘cured’ my anxiety, they’re just four of the things that had the biggest impact on getting me through the single worst episode of mental illness I’ve experienced so far.
We do live in a time where mental health is being talked about more openly than ever before. People generally understand it better than they used to, and there is more acceptance that it isn’t just weakness or laziness or making excuses, these are real issues that affect people deeply through no fault of their own. That said, there’s still a way to go before mental illness is talked about and treated in the same way as physical illness or injury.
I’m so grateful to all of the people I know who talk openly about their own mental health, and I do believe that the more people talk about it the more the world will come to understand and accept it. And in the meantime, let’s just try our best to look after each other.