An honest chat about (my) anxiety
Today is World Mental Health Day and it only seems fitting that I would write a little something about my own mental health. A couple of days ago, a friend posted a video on Facebook and it was one of the first times I felt truly understood when it comes to the way that my anxiety manifests itself.
It’s been so difficult trying to explain to my friends and family what it is like having anxiety. I wouldn’t normally write about something this personal/such a downer, but this is a chance to (maybe?) help lift the taboo around it and, hopefully, help someone else feel less alone.
Chapter 1: There’s something wrong with me
It’s impossible for me to pinpoint a cause or a starting point for my anxiety. When I was a teenager, I was caught up in a lot of mental health issues I’m not going to get into here, but anxiety was definitely one of the main ones. I would be very anxious about going to school, being given homework, having deadlines. I’d be anxious about getting to school or to my dance lessons on time and yet always ended up leaving home very, very late.
It got worse after high school. To be fair, I was in a very challenging environment (abroad, alone, etc) but I just felt like everything was so much harder for me than it seemed to be for all the other new international students.
I was terrified of meeting new people; I wouldn’t leave my room if I could hear that someone else was in the kitchen; I would be as quiet as possible to make sure that no one would come and talk to me; I wouldn’t bring myself to talk to new people for fear of being seen, sounding dumb, or whatever else it was that scared me. And all the while I’d wonder: why can’t I just get on with it have fun, like the others do?
I would be extremely anxious at the very idea of traveling, whether that be by bus, train, bike… I always had to double, triple, quadruple check my route to make sure that I was on the right train. And even when I was sure, I still felt panicked at the idea that I wasn’t.
I wouldn’t be able to open my emails, let alone respond to messages, and all the while my anxiety for opening those damn emails only grew bigger and bigger.
I wasn’t able to make any kind of plans with friends. I’d worry about going there, I’d worry about how much time it would take, I’d worry about being ready for my next class, I’d worry about not getting enough sleep, I’d worry that they wouldn’t like me, I’d worry about not having anything to say… Money was also a huge worry for me, even though my family always insisted that they would help me out whenever I needed it. But still, I was scared. No going out, no dinners, no meeting up on campus, nothing. I just couldn’t do it.
What sucked even more than all this anxiety was that I ended up being very lonely. I beat myself up so much over the fact that I wasn’t a good friend, I wasn’t a good student, I wasn’t enjoying life like I should have been, and so on. I was alone and I was anxious and that seemed only to be getting worse because of how much guilt and shame I was accumulating as a result of all this.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
“Just fucking get over it“, I’d tell myself.
“I deserve to feel like shit, it’s my own fault for not getting out of my room“.
To the handful of people I’d try and explain this to, it would look like I just had to chiiiiiill and not worry so much. That was very well-intended advice but at that point, you can imagine that I had no clue how to do that.
Chapter 2: I’ve had enough
There came a point when things got unbearable and I decided to take the steps to see a therapist. That process itself was ridden with anxiety, considering that I had no clue how to go about doing that in Holland and that it entailed a lot of phone calls, but I pushed through.
It was so helpful.
Seeing my therapist’s reactions to my thoughts was the first big help for me. She was pretty shocked and very sorry to see how harsh I was to myself. Her pointing out just how mean and cruel I could be to myself was really eye-opening. All this time I had been the both the victim and perpetrator of abuse – aaaall by myself.
Being given a diagnosis was genuinely the biggest relief I had felt in years.
I wasn’t making it up.
I wasn’t just weak and stupid.
I had generalized anxiety disorder.
So I went to therapy for a few months and did CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). It was incredibly frustrating because I could see very little progress for most of that time. I had to come in every week and report what I had been doing and how I had been feeling and I would be so embarrassed to say that it hadn’t worked, that I hadn’t got better, that I still sucked.
But somehow, after a while, there was progress. In fact, I’d worked so hard to be aware of my thoughts and to shift my mindset that looking back to where I was when I first started going to therapy, I was already better at coping with it, after just a few months.
Chapter 3: It ain’t over till it’s over
I stopped going to therapy about 1.5 years ago and I am doing so much better than I ever thought I would.
In that time, I have gone to spend a semester in Canada where I made lots of wonderful friends and went on all sorts of crazy adventures. I dealt with STUPID mistakes I made (i.e. getting my bank account blocked on the first day) and took chances (like going to crash on a friend’s couch for a couple of weeks). Anxiety still followed me around but I had learned when to push myself to go and do things, and when to take a rest and recharge.
After Canada, I came back happier than ever and I was ready to live in Holland again. I started getting in touch with the friends I hadn’t been a good friend to, I made more plans, I was less fearful. And now, I have moved to Amsterdam and I am taking on the city 😉 (Kind of. A little bit). I am doing stuff I was far from able to deal with back then; I’ve found a job and I’m working on side hustles (isn’t that term hilarious though?).
To be clear: I still have anxiety.
All of the issues I mentioned earlier (and more) are still likely to trigger anxious reactions for me. I also have a few new ones, like when I’m told to try and speak/learn Dutch for instance (cue: internal panic).
Just the other day, I had something I can only describe as an anxiety attack. (I’m not sure what else to call it, but I don’t think it was a panic attack). I was shaking and freaking out – but I wrote down a few thoughts that were overcoming my brain at the time and I think it might be interesting to share a few ones with you. These are direct quotes:
“There’s something wrong with me“
“It’s my fault“
“It’s never going to get better“
“I deserve to feel this way“
“I thought I got better but clearly I haven’t“
“I’m never good enough“
“CALM THE FUCK DOWN“
“Don’t bother them* with it“
*friends, boyfriend, sister, whoever would like to help.
Wow. What a downer, right?!
Even me, looking back at this stuff I think “whoa, dramatic much?”. But that’s what anxiety does to you: your thoughts spiral out of control and all of a sudden it’s really difficult to remember that it’s not all dark and terrible. That ultimately, life is good, and that you’re okay.
Chapter 4: Healing
For anyone that struggles with mental health issues, there are a few things you can do to make yourself better.
- Talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a therapist right away, though I do believe that’s a very helpful step. Getting feedback on the way you think and feel can help you realize that it’s not right and that you need to work on it.
- Keep a journal. I’ve kept a record of two kinds of things; first, the thoughts I was having and how I worked to disprove them and second, small achievements and positive things I have done and felt. Looking back through this journal is a way for me to see how much progress I’ve made and to cheer myself up when I need to.
- Don’t beat yourself up. Obvious, but tough. Which is why seeing a therapist and/or having a friend or partner you can talk to is so important. It’s really hard to quit putting yourself down when you’ve reached such a level of frustration at your own incapabilities… but you gotta try. Please. You’re great.
- Do yoga or meditation. They are practices of self-love and self-care, which is exactly what you need when you’re going through mental health problems. They ground you in the moment, keep your thoughts from spiraling out of control too much, teach you to accept things the way they are… Yoga with Adriene is very helpful for beginners and anyone that needs to take extra care of themselves.
- Don’t despair. You’re not alone. You’re not a freak. You may never really get rid of your anxiety/depression/etc, but you can learn to live with it. I know I am.
Please feel free to share your own experience in the comments. If you have any questions or tips, I’d be more than happy to continue this conversation – after all, that’s what World Mental Health Day is really about; tearing down the taboo of mental health and opening up to kindness and healing.
Best of luck to you all. xx