It’s hard for me to pinpoint a time in my life when anxiety hasn’t reared its head in some shape or form.
From primary school worries about being the smallest in the class to the torture of bullying for several years; through secondary education in an all girls school to career worries at university; and finally to post-natal depression and a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder almost 5 years ago.
The media is full of stories about mental health these days, workplaces are beginning to build wellbeing into their schedules and there is a better acceptance that it is a real concern in our society. But in my personal experience, anxiety is often still seen as a cop out, a phrase you use when you just can’t cope with work/family/social pressures or when you just can’t be bothered. And guess what the effect of that is? More anxiety.
I can only speak for myself, so I’m just going to share a little of my experience of living with anxiety in the hope that one more voice makes the noise of mental health awareness a little bit louder.
I’m an introvert to start with. INFJ to be exact.
Not that this predisposes me to anxiety, but my senses are highly tuned and easily over stimulated and my tolerance for large groups and lots of noise is very low. My favourite image I’ve seen on Pinterest is of a T-shirt which says, “I’m sorry, I can’t go because I don’t want to!” I know that sounds really anti-social, and I’m absolutely not, but this part of my personality feeds on any anxiety in the vicinity.
My counsellor has also noted that I’m an empath, so I absorb the feelings of people around me. You’ve got stress? Great, throw it my way and I’ll stress with you. Upset about something? Pass the tissues when you’re done with them! I’m mocking (sort of) and this can be a great trait to have, especially working in a school with kids whose hormones and emotions are firing all over the place. But it’s also a drain and can add to my anxiety levels on a daily basis.
This all sounds like I love a label to claim as my own, but actually what the labels do is help me process and accept who I am without worrying about why I’m feel the way I do a lot of the time. Accepting my empath traits has helped me to recognise when the stress I’m feeling actually belongs to someone else and to get rid of it from my body, and I no longer feel guilty for turning down an invitation to something I know will drain me and leave me a bit useless for the people things I love in life.
I guess it’s the same with anxiety. Having a name to give to the feelings and behaviours that raise their heads when I’m feeling anxious means I can separate it from the rest of who I am and allows me to deal with it effectively.
Anxiety shows up in my life at totally random times, as well as at trigger times. My diagnosis came a week before my dad died from bowel cancer. He had undergone multiple surgeries and two and a half rounds of chemo over the previous few years and quite frankly it was a really crap time for all of us. My sister also lost four pregnancies in the same time period and there were just so many things in my life which felt transient and left me unsure of the foundations I was standing on.
The main symptom I experience is a feeling of total overwhelm.
It’s generally accompanied by tears, but given that I process all my feelings through my eyes, tears alone aren’t a symptom! I can generally feel it creeping up on me with a sense of just not feeling like myself and an underlying current of dread. It’s so hard to explain. And everyone experiences it in their own way. The dread is like the feeling you get when you wake up on the day of an exam or interview, and you know there’s something causing you to feel nervous, but you haven’t woken up enough to remember what it is. I can almost feel the extra adrenaline coursing through my body and the phrase “being on a knife edge” is so completely true at the time. My body genuinely feels like things could go either way and my emotions are pulled so taut that any tiny extra pressure will tip me over.
More recently, I’ve also begun to experience palpitations that could become a panic attack very easily. I’ve also stored so much tension in my neck and jaw that I have an appointment tomorrow at the School of Dentistry at the RVH because I’ve ground my teeth so much that my jaw is permanently unable to fully open. It’s a barrel of laughs daily, this anxiety!
What I’ve come to learn over the past five years, however, is that the symptoms are a sign that things have gone too far and that I’m neglecting some important aspects of my life that maintain my wellbeing.
I’m a Christian and believe that God has made every part of me to be just as it is. I believe it when the bible says “Do not be anxious about anything”, and that all of my needs will be met. I trust that grace and mercy are mine and that God has granted me His peace. But does this mean I simply don’t worry and can tell my anxiety to jog off? I wish! But I also have faith that God knows every thought and feeling I have, and that he has created the doctors and counsellors that I’ve seen over the years and that He can use them to help me release those feelings I have.
I have no shame in telling you that I take medication to help me deal with it and which makes me feel more like me.
At times my medication has been increased, and then it’s been reduced. I’ve tried to come off it and ended up back at square one. And all of that is ok. This is an illness with real symptoms and effects on my life and the lives of those around me. If I was physically sick and the doctors told me I needed medication I wouldn’t hesitate, and this is no different. I understand that many people don’t want to go down that route for treatment and that is also totally fine. But it works for me for now.
I’ve also been fortunate to have met some wonderful counsellors, both of whom have helped me work through the grief of losing my dad, and in tracing my anxiety timeline and identifying its sources and triggers. Talking is such an amazing help. If you are someone who is quietly and bravely suffering from any sort of mental illness, I would encourage you to speak to someone – anyone – about it. Giving words to your feelings is such an incredible way of taking away their power and hold over you. Never once have I felt judged for saying how I felt at a counselling session, and in fact, when I finished it in the spring I actually missed the chats I’d had with my counsellor. Talking with someone outside of my experience and circle allowed me to open up about things I maybe didn’t want to burden my family or friends with.
But if I could pinpoint the one thing that has been the most instrumental in helping me manage my feelings, it’s acknowledging them and letting them be what they are. Passing feelings that don’t define me and that I don’t have to justify to anyone. Being kind and gentle with myself has been such a revelation, and it didn’t take me too long to discover what I could do to help myself.
Being outside really helps me, especially in moments when I can feel that adrenaline in my limbs. Having the space of creation around me and walking, swimming or just standing watching waves crashing has such a calming effect on my senses. Literally 2 minutes of sea air can fix most of my problems! I’ve also discovered the awesome power of swimming in the Irish Sea with a crazy bunch of like-minded gals. When there’s snow on the ground and only a swimsuit and some neoprene boots and gloves protecting you from 3 degree sea there’s not much room left in your head for being anxious about other stuff than not dying from hypothermia! Try it if you don’t believe me!
I’m also a creative soul at heart. Making something with my hands or taking and editing photos gives me a sense of contentment I rarely feel doing anything else. I made the decision this past year to go to some workshops to learn new skills, and from that I’ve pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and met some incredible women. All of this tells the anxious part of me to keep quiet and helps me build new stories about myself, ones that are exciting and positive and make life so much more enjoyable.
Finally, I would have to credit my people as playing a major role in not allowing myself to let anxiety get the better of me. I have an amazing and supportive husband and two sons who bring so much joy to my life. My mum and sister share the grief of losing my dad and let me deal with it as I need to, as I try to do for them. Plus my sister very kindly produced the two cutest nieces an auntie has ever seen and who are like a shot of endorphins every time I see them! And those I am lucky enough to call friends are, quite frankly, the best bunch of people I could ever hope to meet. From coffee dates to shoulders to cry on to Strictly final get togethers, I know they have my back.
Anxiety doesn’t define me. Faith, love, friendship and creativity do.
If anything I’ve written about resonated with you, if you suffer from anxiety, depression or any other mental health illness, please don’t think you have to go through it alone. Telling even one person is a huge step to getting whatever help you need. Whether that’s a family member, a friend, your GP or one of the many organisations out there specialising in this field. Whoever you choose to tell, I can promise you will be glad you did.
As you may see from the stunning images in this post, Janine Boyd is a photographer and you can find her social media and contact details here.