Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.
At first, I had no idea that I had an anxiety disorder. I was overwhelmed at work and feeling more emotional than usual, so I took some sick leave to get my head straight. I’d read that time off can help you feel more positive and experience less depression, so I was certain that some rest would have me feeling right as rain in no time.
But after two weeks off, my mental state had plummeted significantly. I was crying uncontrollably for days at a time, my appetite was nonexistent, and I was unable to sleep. I plucked up the courage to see a doctor out of sheer confusion. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling worse than I did before my medical leave.
Luckily my doctor was very empathetic and could see exactly what the underlying problem was. She deduced that what I thought was work-related stress was actually a crippling case of depression and anxiety.
Initially, I let the anxiety bubble away beneath the surface while I concentrated on finding relief from the more severe symptoms of depression. I started a course of antidepressants and got into a routine of exercising daily. The combination of these two things, along with quitting my stressful job, helped quiet the intense feelings of hopelessness, emotional numbness, and suicidal thoughts.
After a few months, the medication really began to kick in. But as my mood lifted, the crippling symptoms of anxiety remained more prevalent than ever.
How seeking control consumed me
Like so many of the millions of people experiencing anxiety worldwide, I wanted to have control over my life. I became obsessed with losing weight, and although I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder, I displayed some worrying symptoms.
I would weigh myself three or four times a day and divide all foods into categories of good or bad. Whole foods like chicken and broccoli were good, and anything processed was bad. I learned that foods like rice, oats, sweetcorn, and potatoes could spike your blood sugar and lead to cravings, so those foods became “bad” too.
The cravings came anyway, and I reacted by either chewing junk food and spitting it into the trash or eating large amounts of food until I felt sick.
I visited the gym every day, sometimes up to three hours at a time, lifting weights and doing cardio. At one point, my menstrual cycle stopped.
My body image issues then turned into social anxiety. I gave up alcohol to improve my mood, but without a vodka in my hand I found it difficult to unwind and open up, even around my best friends. This escalated to a bigger fear of having to explain myself to strangers. Why wasn’t I drinking? Why wasn’t I working anymore? Anxiety made me catastrophize and assume the worst possible outcome, leaving me terrified to socialize in public.
Once, I made plans to meet a friend but canceled at the last minute because we were going to a restaurant where I’d once gone with a former colleague. I was convinced that somehow that colleague would be there, and I’d be forced to explain why I was no longer fit enough to work.
This way of thinking seeped into other aspects of my life, and I felt anxious about small things like answering the door and making phone calls. I had my first panic attack on a train and that added an extra level of angst — the fear of having another attack, which was often enough to cause a panic attack.
As a result of the initial attack, I started to feel a painful lump in my throat whenever I had to get on a train. I thought it was heartburn, but I found out that it’s actually a common physical reaction to anxiety.
Finding the tools to recover
Learning to overcome the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety has been a long and complicated journey. I’ve been taking antidepressants under my doctor’s instruction for six years which has helped immensely. I’ve also relied on anxiety pills from time to time. They’ve always been a good short-term solution for when my body refuses to relax, but luckily, I’ve been able to find other tools which have helped me fully manage my symptoms.
Because alcohol is a depressant, my doctor recommended that I give it up. Not drinking has been important because it kept my depression at bay — while I found ways to deal with my crippling anxiety.
I gave up dieting because I knew instinctively that it was bringing me more stress than happiness. I gained a little weight and now I focus on maintaining a balanced diet without fixating on calories. Exercise is still a huge part of my life, but it’s a form of healing now instead of a weight loss tactic, and I experiment with different activities — from swimming to yoga — depending on my mood.
While off work, I reignited my passion for writing and decided to start my own blog. I had no clue at the time that this creative outlet would have such a healing power on my psyche. Many people blame social media as a trigger for anxiety, but I’ve used it — along with creative writing — as a positive tool for facing my fears. I can be a lot more honest about my anxiety in a Facebook message or a status update, and I’ve documented my mental health story on my blog.
Others have cited Twitter as an effective coping mechanism for stress, and I’m inclined to agree. Having my anxiety disorder out in the open before I meet people is a weight off my mind, leaving me to socialize more easily.
But stepping away from social media is still essential for me on a daily basis, and I find meditation is a useful way to slow down my whirring brain after a day spent online. Research even suggests that practicing mindfulness not only creates a feeling of peacefulness and relaxation, but can also provide cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day.
I know my triggers now, and although my anxiety isn’t gone, I can manage my symptoms when they start to become a problem. Something as simple as monitoring my caffeine intake can help minimize my anxiety before a long journey or a social event. I also know that if I’ve been working from home for several hours I need to get outside and get some fresh air to avoid the negative thoughts creeping in.
I wasn’t surprised to find out that spending time in nature can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression. Experts suggest just 30 minutes per week outside can help.
Accepting my anxiety
I used to see my mental illness as an affliction. But now it’s a part of me, and I’m comfortable discussing it openly.
This change in mindset hasn’t come easily. I’ve spent years giving myself a hard time for not coping well in social situations, but I’ve made peace with the fact that I’m an anxious introvert who needs plenty of alone time to recharge my batteries. Learning to forgive myself and show myself a little more compassion is proof that I’ve finally overcome the demons that contributed to my anxiety, leaving me content and ready for the future.
Blogging has been a game-changer for me, not only because creativity is scientifically linked to positive feelings — but because it’s connected me with people all over the world who are also living with anxiety.
I’ve finally regained my confidence after feeling broken for so many years, and a surprising outcome has been a new career in writing, which allows me to work from the comfort of my own home. Having a job that lets me express myself creatively is rewarding and being able to manage my own workload when my anxiety does appear is something that’s integral to my well-being.
There’s no quick fix or magic potion to cure anxiety, but there’s so much hope for those affected. Recognizing your triggers will help you anticipate the symptoms before they arrive, and with medical support and your own recovery tools, you’ll find practical ways to minimize disruption to your daily life.
Recovery is within reach and it takes time and hard work — but you’ll get there. Start by showing yourself some love and compassion and remember, it’ll be worth the wait.
Fiona Thomas is a lifestyle and mental health writer who lives with depression and anxiety. Visit her website or connect with her on Twitter.