As you may know, May is Mental Health Awareness month. On this blog, I’ve talked about mental health quite a bit, from dealing with anxiety and symptoms of seasonal depression, to improving wellness overall. However, I have yet to take a moment to openly discuss my own struggle with mental health.
In America, over 18% of adults deal with mental health related issues each year. Keep in mind, this describes only the number of reported individuals, not including children and young adults.
We need to make ourselves aware about the realities of mental health, especially if we are going to continue using social platforms to champion advice on health and wellness. It's important to spread the right message to those who are listening around the world.
Shocked? No, We Should Be Socially Aware.
How is it that such a "shocking" number of people battle with mental health issues, while our everyday media sources barely reflect an awareness of these stats? To an extent, this degree of mental health awareness and visibility, depends on where you’re looking. One could infer that Twitter provides more exposure to the truth of this situation, than Instagram does - solely based on the way each platform is used.
Whereas Twitter is a place to share your (somewhat) unfiltered thoughts, to open up and be messy, Instagram is filled with curated content that shows the “happiest moments” of people’s lives. On a platform that’s based entirely on visual content, I suppose sadness doesn’t convert as well as smiles.
As you can see (quite literally), even in the 21st Century, there remains a stigma associated with mental illness. I can't sit back, and passively support this trend, so today I share my story to add a voice to the growing crowd, and to hopefully help you learn more about the importance of being aware of your own mental health.
I have generalized anxiety, which means a couple of different things. For one, I'm not all too fond of my mind. I mean, it's brilliant but it's terrifying. Even my dreams are restless.
How does this appear to others? Well, unless you know that I have anxiety, you might not notice at all. If we were a bit closer, you may start noticing patterns that give more of a clue to my condition. I've had friends and family tell me all of the following: "You're always stressed, but you really stress yourself out" "Wow, you're so Type A" "Just try to relax". No shade if you've told me any of these things, but they're not helpful, at all.
As far as my own experience is concerned, I'm easily startled, (yes,) constantly stressed, and on somewhat rare occasions, I have felt unsafe in objective "normal" situations. I can, and have, been so tied up with my thoughts that I've failed at performing functions that are typically intuitive to others, like sleeping, relaxing, or crossing the street safely.
It's not fun, I can say that much. I also didn't realize I had anxiety so up until a few months ago, I was trying to deal with everything I just mentioned, without a proper game plan as to how that could actually be done.
Diagnosing Mental Illness
Generalized anxiety tends to manifest along with other mental health issues. That's not to say everyone with anxiety is also suffering from a mood disorder or other panic-related conditions. However, when I was researching my physical and psychological responses, or symptoms, I stumbled across a few other disorders, and I was convinced that I was dealing with a different one.
This is why seeing a therapist is so important. It's not healthy to feed yourself a "truth," that may very well be wrong. As of now, I have yet to be observed for any other disorders, though I am trying to track myself daily, as I still want to touch base with a counselor while I'm abroad.
To fill you in on how mental health diagnoses work, since the effects of many psychological disorders may be intangible, psychologists take time to arrive at a diagnosis. For disorders such as bipolar disorder, behaviors have to be monitored over a long period of time and some clinicians will not provide a clear evaluation until 2 years after you begin consultations. So although you may see a counselor for a couple of months, there is no guarantee they will be able to confirm what's going on underneath the surface.
Personally, I feel 2 years is a stretch, because again, you can begin creating a history now by documenting your moods and behavioral changes. Admittedly, I wasted a few of my counseling sessions, arguing the point that I had "XYZ". I was so convinced, based on my research and my habits, but I may have been wrong - at the very least, seriously misguided.
It was interesting to learn why my behaviors weren't necessarily appropriate for classification under certain disorders, and though I don't recommend you diagnose yourself, I do think it's worthwhile to do your own research and then go to counseling, prepared to learn.
For today, I'll focus on sharing how I deal with generalized anxiety, and how understanding that I have GAD, has helped me become more aware about the realities of mental health.
My Response to Learning about My GAD
My initial reaction to the anxiety talk was, “well that makes sense, because I used to be pretty socially anxious (heh. heh.), but I’m over that now...”
Am I over it? Not at all, but that response felt as true as any proven fact. Sometimes, it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’ve overcome long-term challenges, when we feel better to any extent.
I suppose I have improved in some ways, from my past reactions and reasoning. The thing is, now these anxieties present themselves differently than they had appeared before. Though my anxiety isn't as disruptive, since I have learned to regulate it in familiar environments, I still struggle with socially anxious feelings every now and then. Some things are beyond control.
Most of the time, the few coping mechanisms I've formed help me push through that twister-shaped cycle of suffocating thoughts. Other times, it's just a matter of existing through the frame of negativity. Find something that motivates you to pull through.
Getting back to the point, for the areas where I wasn't able to build up a solid defense, my anxiety has gotten worse - especially where I failed to notice it exists.
Acknowledging Your Condition is the First Step to Wellness, Accepting Help is the Second
I have an almost unhealthy tendency to reflect, which is the main reason I've been lucky enough to realize this condition so early in adulthood. At some point this year, I felt my internal conflicts become more complex. Struggling to pinpoint a reason, I tried to schedule a visit with a counselor.
Here, I encountered one of the first real boundaries on my journey, beyond myself. With a bit of courage, I walked to the counseling center, prepared to lower my walls. Anxiety wasn't at all on my radar, but my thoughts had fallen so far that I wasn't sure where else to seek help.
I walked in and spoke to the secretary for less than a minute, only to get rejected during check-in. Why was I rejected, and without a question as to why I was there, or how dire my need for help?
The secretary said that I had to be registered for classes over the winter break, to be eligible for the counseling services they offer during the year.
Hearing that killed me. A visibly empty office, and you turn a student away?
For not taking classes during 1 month out of the 10 months that encompass school semesters?
I was baffled. I was still paying to live on campus, working on campus, and dedicating my time and resources to a school that now, had determined itself unable to help.
Here, I found myself at a dead end. Ironically, I had chosen to stay on campus because I thought my chances of getting an appointment would be higher over the break. It's almost impossible to get time with a counselor while classes are in session. Now I know why.
What Do You Do Without Help From Others?
You try to help yourself.
Before walking into that office, I felt like I was at the beginning of the end, and it was now or never for me. After, I didn't know what to do with myself, or with all the emotions that were bubbling within.
Angry, lost, and feeling a bit destructive, I became determined to help myself. Now, the extent of my experience with psychology is an intro level class: PSYC 111. I got an A-. Ergo, I am far from a learned professional, but the internet and my undeterred mind were the only resources I felt I had left.
For the first time in my life, I knew I couldn't move forward without having a name to classify what I was feeling. I wanted to properly address it. So inevitably, I fell down the rabbit hole of DSM's and WEB-MD's. I was searching for anything that would support me, where my university had failed.
I got lucky.
A few months later, I tried again. A friend booked an appointment, which inspired me to once again, seek help for myself. Until then, I had been bitter about the way things had happened, and in all honesty, I doubt I would have tried again on my own accord. Lucky for me, I was jealous, distraught, and ready to pursue something I could keep to myself - something I could do for myself. To this day, I resent the way the office handled that situation.
It was one thing for them to be unable to help then, because of the school's policy. However, school policy doesn't prevent them from asking how I feel. It wouldn't have kept them from helping me schedule an appointment for a few weeks later, when classes began again.
Maybe leaving without pushing further was rash on my end, but at that point I couldn't find a way to express any other reaction. Anyway, I tried again, booked an initial consultation, and unsurprisingly enough, the counselor found reason to be concerned. Still, as concerned as she was, there wasn't any room for me to schedule an appointment.
Do you see how support for mental health awareness is flawed, even at the source of the solution? I opened my availability to every option they offered, including graduate students who were still learning how to help. I heard nothing for weeks, but I reasoned that at least I'd tried my best.
I got a call a little over a month before the semester was to end. A spot had opened up. It would have been ridiculous to pass up the opportunity, so armed with my new research, I booked an appointment. I was ready to cut to the chase and use those last few weeks to get to the bottom of my condition.
Ultimately, I learned that with the short period of time that was left in the semester, the counselor would not be able to evaluate me for each condition I thought I had. "Fantastic," I thought. In truth, I'm not sure you should go to therapy, telling the counselor what's wrong with you, but I've learned that since then. It turns out, I'm not the only one. In that moment, the only thing I really had going for me was that my anxiety was so obvious that everyone could sense it where I couldn't. Thank goodness, I needed a reality check.
Because of my full blown symptoms, and my tendency to overshare, by the end of our sessions my counselor confirmed that I have anxiety. How oblivious was I, that a stranger could see all the signals after a few sessions, yet I had no clue and I'd been living with it for my whole life? After finding out, every friend I told, essentially confirmed that they already figured. Where was I in this mass awakening? Apparently, lost to the world of Web MD, entirely ignorant to my own mental health.
So the paranoia, trouble breathing, moments of panic, constant fight-or-flight, those were all symptoms (misnomered, at that) of anxiety! I wasn't "paranoid" - I was "anxious". I didn't have sinus problems and I wasn't reacting to the weather, the pressure was an involuntary reaction to whatever was happening in my head. Isn't it funny how everything you think to be true can change in an instant? All the signs were there, and I didn't know it.
So that's the start of my story. I hope it wasn't too underwhelming - I meant it when I said I was just beginning. It has been a few months since my first appointment and I'm glad I went. I can't say I'm significantly better off, but I have learned a thing or two about breathing. I've also learned there's no set "solution," when it comes to generalized anxiety. There is only conflict, coping, and continual reflection. I can do that, right?
I suppose accepting this is part of mental health awareness as well. It's not something to be viewed as a "problem" that needs to be changed or that can be "fixed". Mental health disorders may be a challenge, but with work, there are ways to mitigate negative effects.
Now, I want to share a few ways I cope with my cyclical mind, and the emotions I struggle to feel. I can't guarantee my methods will work for you, but I have always found reassurance in reading others' stories and seeing what they do to help themselves. Best of luck to you, messy dreamer!
1. Get indulgent.
Sometimes you just can’t. I get that. In those moments, I let myself be. You can’t always force yourself to continue to the next task, even if you know it will help you. Often, I’ll lay in bed until I fall asleep, or I'll light a candle and let music play in the background.
Usually if I’m feeling somewhat motivated, but my mood is still flat, then I’ll engage with something low involvement, like reading a book, that adds to my surroundings without requiring me to turn all the way on.
Eventually, I’ll cycle around to thoughts that force me to do something productive because it doesn’t help when I lay around, even if that’s all I can bring myself to do. By the time I’ve indulged, maybe for hours, maybe for a day, or maybe even for a weekend, I’m ready to try something more high energy. This is when the following suggestions become key.
2. Get dirty.
Do something that grounds you, and reminds you that you exist. You’re here and you’re a part of something bigger. For me, I channel that something through plants!
Plants give me something to care for. Admittedly, I neglect my plants more often than I should. Not intentionally, of course! I mean I forget to feed myself, so inevitably I’m going to forget to water them too.
However, most of them (more like a few of them) haven’t given up on me. And it’s so rewarding, being able to watch them grow and transform into stronger versions of themselves.
I find the times when they need to be repotted are especially grounding, because I’m able to get my hands dirty and focus completely on the wellbeing of another sentient thing, instead of thinking about myself.
The feeling of wet dirt, and the almost eerie influence you have over another living creature, helps me channel something so central to the essence of existence itself.
Cooking is another way to get your hands dirty. Whether you’re baking or making a meal, look at it as a craft project. Art, science, if either one is your thing, there’s a way to involve that interest in the kitchen.
3. Get outside.
It’s interesting to me, because I’ve never been a fan of the sun. It burns and dries, and it's generally draining. However, after making an effort to be more aware of my surroundings, I’ve noticed an almost instinctual improvement in my mood that happens when I step outside.
Standing in the sun, soaking up warmth, and seeing greener grass and clearer skies - it makes me smile uncontrollably. It’s kind of creepy actually, but definitely more pleasant than being down.
So if you have a chance, move a blanket outside and lay there instead. If isolation is more your thing, then go somewhere that no one will see you and allow yourself to be in nature. Don't forget your SPF!
4. Get still.
Meditation is something I am trying to do more often. It has taken me years to get the hang of it, and at that, the longest I’ve gone is about 10 minutes. To be honest, I fell asleep during that session which goes to show how much of a newbie I am, when it comes to meditation.
On the bright side, that just goes to show how relaxing meditation can be if you allow yourself release your inhibitions. Give yourself up to your breath and let it guide you.
My lovely adviser from the counseling center introduced me to the grounding nature of breath. She taught me that if you’re ever anxious, long and deep breaths, drawn from the center of your lower stomach, release positive endorphins that help stabilize your mood. I’ve found that this requires so much concentration, that I’m too distracted to remember whatever else I had been thinking.
Breathing is also useful if you’re ever falling asleep, in class for instance. Taking rapid breaths, focusing on cycling air high in your chest, will help you perk up a bit.
So far, these are the only things that make a difference in my state of mind, when I’m feeling less than great. Cuddles and a good book also help, but I have to be in a mood to socialize and tune in, to do either of those things. So if you’re at a point where you want to make a change, but you’re not quite ready to be mindful or involve other humans, try getting dirty, getting out, or getting still. It may help in the moment.
As I’m still new in my journey, I’d love to hear what you do in times like these. How do you recenter your thoughts or overcome the negativity? What have you learned on your journey to improve your mental wellness or to expand your mental health awareness?