Time to Talk: about the physical effects of mental health problems

IMG_6195Thursday 6th February 2014 marks the first ever Time to Talk Day: “24 hours in which to start conversations about mental health, raise awareness and share the message that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, neither is talking about it.”

So here I am, sitting in my sitting room, trying to talk to you about something I hid for years.
I’m not very good at this though because I have anxiety.
I find it difficult to make eye contact for long. I fidget, I look beyond you and above you and around the room in order to find my words. Often I find the wrong words just simply to avoid an uncomfortable silence. I offer you tea, I make it badly, and I shake a little as I bring it through. I’m not shaking with nerves but with the after effects of being anxious before you arrived. I will have worried about how everything looks, about how I look, about which cups I should use. I will have worried about what I will say and imagined all the things that might go wrong. I probably had palpitations, outbursts of anger, and I probably paced a lot. At some point I will probably have had a bad headache – or I may get one tomorrow when you’ve gone. I will be so anxious about being anxious that I will be ill.

You asked if I wanted to meet you in a café but I declined. My anxiety means I don’t drive. I don’t often go out alone and when I am out I need to know how I’m going to get back again and I need to know that it won’t take long. My anxiety has made me agoraphobic. Not because I am afraid of people or open spaces or crowds, but because I am afraid of being out of control and of not being able to escape. I literally feel so ill I don’t have to lie about why I can’t make it. I really am not feeling well.

But things are improving. About a year and a half ago, I had to admit I was too anxious about everything. I had to admit that being anxious was stopping me from doing things I wanted to do. It was difficult for me to make this admission. It was easier to pretend I didn’t want to do anything. You see that’s the way to avoid the physical symptoms. Don’t go anywhere, don’t see anyone, don’t have chats over a cup of tea, pretend you don’t need friends, and – lo and behold – you have no commitments to those things that give you the awful physical anxiety symptoms. It’s actually quite clever what we can do with our brains: how we can convince ourselves that we prefer things the way they are. ‘I’m happy being at home alone and not talking to anyone at all for days,’ I told myself. And it’s true I felt better. I feel healthier when I don’t have to honour any commitments to anyone. I find a certain peace from time alone in the garden, listening to nature. And I am shy; I do like a quiet life. But it’s not true that I don’t need people, and that I want to be always alone. In fact too much time on my own eventually makes me feel depressed and causes me to focus on unreal negatives. In essence: I become rather paranoid.

A lifetime of subconsciously inventing ways to avoid the physical symptoms of anxiety has made the unreal real and fitting my patterns to my health needs has limited my life choices. Not just a bit but massively. My world is very small, my ambitions are very lowly; my hobbies and activities are incredibly modest. How much of this is due to anxiety and how much of this is due to personality and shyness and naturally modest ambitions I’ll never completely know for sure. But I do know now what I’ve been doing all these years and I do know now that there are things I can do to help me enjoy things I would otherwise have avoided simply because I felt unwell or was scared of feeling unwell.

Changes didn’t happen overnight and there is no real cure, but there are coping strategies: The doctor has prescribed Beta-blockers for me so I can stop the palpitations in an emergency (just knowing I have them has helped and I hardy ever use them) – and there is also a surprising comfort to be found in admitting I have a problem: firstly because it means I can stop being so cruel to myself, but secondly because I can tell people honestly what I think I am capable or incapable of.

There are still some fairly bad episodes of anxiousness and the physical symptoms whoosh in like a horse bolting out of a stable before I’ve had time to shut the door on them. But I am getting so much better at reining them in. It’s easier when you know what’s happening.

If I could reach out to just one other person who suffers with anxious thoughts and doesn’t know how to enjoy life, I would say this:
Know that it’s just your imagination overworking itself. Know that you are not alone. Know that it’s difficult to make that first step to speak out and make a change but it’s even harder not to and to carry on struggling in silence. Know that hiding it is not the answer.
And most of all: know that it is not a sign of weakness. The energy it takes to cope with mental health problems exhausts us. We are fighting every day and we deserve some recognition for working so hard.
If just one person could read this and sit up and think, “Yup. I think I’d like to talk to someone,” then it would make my day.

You may be surprised at the peace you might find.

Namaste

Time to Change
Time to Change

25 thoughts on “Time to Talk: about the physical effects of mental health problems

  1. What a beautiful post about something that’s clearly been difficult for a long time – thank you. We absolutely can’t separate our bodies and brains: they are part of the same machine. I often think one of the reasons connecting with people online can be so brilliant is that it takes away exactly those things you mention that are difficult: eye contact, whether our tea-making is up to scratch, how clean our house is, how long it takes us to get home. Thank you so much for sharing, Rachel.

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    • Thanks, Isabel.
      I remember a psychology tutor on one of my OU courses saying socialising online is no substitution for a real social life and I thought to myself ‘It’ll do for me right now!’ And, interestingly, meeting people online has literally brought them into my real life because I’ve been able to be honest with them before we meet.

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  2. I love the way you can always articulate the excruciating symptoms of anxiety so well. You did reach out to me, when I started reading your blog posts, and I did feel that somebody out there understood what it was like to be scared all the time, what it felt like for the simplest tasks to feel impossible and that I wasn’t a lone freak in a world of confident people. So thank you more than I can ever put into words, you did it already for me.

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  3. Thank you for writing this Rachel. You have accomplished so much despite your battles within your head. Much love.

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  4. Prowling in via Tamsin (and FB) just to say there are a lot of people who should sit down and read this very carefully indeed. I admire you for writing it.
    I wish people would come to understand that (a) the anxiety you describe is real and (b) it is not contagious and (c) it can happen to anyone.

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    • Yes, it’s very real. It can’t be easy for other people to live with and to watch but they need to know it’s not something we can switch on and off at will and being comfortable is our priority. Thanks so much for your comment

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  5. Your very brave for publishing your thoughts and you touch many with your honesty. Always remember you are not alone. Mental health is not talked about enough, sometimes it just takes one or two brave souls to start the ball rolling. You are a very brave soul, thank you for sharing.

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  6. Hi Rachel, I wanted to say thank you so much for writing this post. I have just discovered your blog via my wife, who advised that is take a look at it.

    Two months ago I suddenly began suffering from anxiety and it has turned my life upside down. It is not something I could ever have described before this happened to me, nor could I have understood it fully had someone else described it to me.

    The constant fear and panic has flipped my world upside down, and it is really helpful to read your insights – thank you.

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    • Hi. Thanks for popping by and leaving a comment. It is hard to explain to others how debilitating and all-encompassing anxiety is, isn’t it? It’s also hard to stop once it starts running out of control. However clever you are, however well you reason with yourself it can be like being trapped in rapids and there’s a feeling of loss of control. I really hope you can find your own comforts, your own coping strategies and some ways to force yourself to focus on simplicity and positives. And please don’t beat yourself up and expect too much of yourself. This may be something you have to deal with in itself before you can tackle anything else.
      You are absolutely not alone. Take care.

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      • Thank you Rachel for your reply. After it all began in January I thought it would be a passing thing – something if get over in a couple of weeks. But I’m beginning to fear that you’re correct, and I may be in this for the long term.

        Very best wishes to you, too

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