And things that I find can help.
It is very easy to look into someone else’s life and think that they have it all figured out. My intention with this blog was to share my story and to try to inspire others to get out of their comfort zone. So, I want to share a little about my time with anxiety, particularly over the past year, and share some of the things I do to help myself.
I have suffered with anxiety since I can remember, although I have never spoken to a professional about it until this year. To my memory, the first time I felt anxious was when I was working at my first ever job in a retail store and I would have the urge to pee, even if I had just went, and when I made it to the toilet there would be nothing. I remember having no idea why it was happening, but I hated my job and would dread going there.
One day I told my mum and dad what was happening and they told me it was probably a symptom of anxiety. That has stuck in my head since then, and the sensation will come back if I am in a situation that makes me feel uncomfortable.
Now I know that my body is trying to keep me safe. It knows I am in an uncomfortable situation and it’s trying to get me out of it.
Other than that, my main symptoms happen inside of my head – where I spend most of my time. I am always hyper aware of my surroundings, always looking for something that could possibly go wrong. I can overthink a lot, and create problems inside of my head before they are even formed.
Day-to-day I spend a lot of time exhausting myself with overactive thoughts, racing heart, drastic body temperature changes, inability to eat and just a feeling of constant stress. It took a tole on my body, and even today I still feel emotionally drained by the time I climb into bed. It is a daily battle that I’m still fighting, but I can luckily say I am on the up and I never want to go back down again.
2021 was the worst year for my mental health. I was living in Wellington and working as a barista. This means that I was up every morning at around 5am to go to work and on my days off I would take my partner, Lior, to her shift and then go catch the sunrise. We had completely different days off, and were both working the early shifts and at the start I loved nothing more than the sunrise.
Eventually, we were ready to get out of the city, but Covid was causing us to live in fear of instability so we kept working the grind, spending little time off together and working in customer facing jobs. I was finding myself waking up crying in the morning before starting my shift, and crying again when I got home. I had totally burnt myself out trying to keep myself in a job that I no longer enjoyed, I would come home from talking to people for eight hours straight and be unable to hold a conversation at home.
I began to not want to leave the house, I was taking my anxiety out on the people I am closest to and I just felt like everything in the world was terrifying. When I was at my lowest point – the lowest weight I had ever been at under 60kgs, daily panic attacks where my heart would race and pound for hours on end. I would disassociate for most of the time and just have a general short temper and lack of energy. Oh, and I lost all want to eat or enjoy food.
At that point, I felt like that was it forever, I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t feel like I was watching myself from above completely disconnected from myself. I decided to quit hospitality completely, started to work from home and emailed a few therapists.
There is only one period in my life that I have made mental notes that I was amazed at how I had little to no anxiety – the first lockdown. I spent every day of the first lockdown running through the trees, for no purpose other than to be outside for an hour. In the background of that, my body was moving every day, I was getting stronger and my mind was having a chance to get outside and meditate as I ran. It was the most peaceful seven weeks of my life and I will never forget how exercise completely transformed my mental health.
Sometimes though, it’s not the easiest thing to remember. A year and a half after the first lockdown, when I was in my peak of a mental breakdown, I really tried to get outside as much as possible. But this one was going to take a bit more than a daily run. Once I found a therapist, I was so nervous for my first session that I cried on the bus (I never cried as a kid, now I don’t stop…). Going into the session I had told myself to be completely honest with her, if I was paying $90 an hour then I owe it to myself to tell the truth and get the help.
Turns out that spilling everything you carry in your head to a complete stranger really WILL make you feel lighter. Honestly, my therapist wasn’t as much of a talker as I would have liked and if I had stayed in Welly I probably would have found one that gave a little more feedback, but the release of sharing the things you fear most or hate most about yourself with someone who says “I understand and it’s okay” really helped me to share the load.
I told her how I would hold my breath a lot of the time and spend hours watching tv and having no memory of what I had seen. I would lie awake at night worrying about whether the passports were where I had left them, or if the door was unlocked and I would always have to get up to check it all. My heart would race for hours throughout the day and my focus would be nowhere except inside my head. I cried for the whole first session (and at least once in every other session).
It was a wake up call going to therapy. I remember the look on her face after I would tell her how my body felt to me – she looked scared for me. She was so concerned with my high levels of anxiety, and said that there would be absolutely nothing we would be able to do until we brought my body back down to a balanced state where we could try and retrain my mind and nervous system. For the first time, I felt validated. Most of the time my anxious brain tells me that I am being dramatic, or that something else is wrong with me.
I didn’t believe my anxiety was really real until that day, and then she offered me diazepam and melatonin. Even though my anxiety was so high and I spent most hours of the day disassociated or holding my breath, I decided against it. I knew I had felt peaceful previously, and I wanted to get back there without drugs.
If it would have come to it, I would have taken the pills, I just prefer to go natural before putting things into my body that I don’t know how my body will react – especially being an expat. I tried to connect with my previous self, the one who spent peaceful mornings running up mountains and evenings sleeping like a baby – the worst thing about anxiety is that it robs you of a good nights sleep and for about a year I barely slept.
My therapist gave me breathing exercises to do when I was in a calm state. There is a nerve in your body called the Vagus nerve and it is the one that controls your fight, flight, freeze, fawn response system. This is the one that has to be retrained, but when your body goes into those response modes there is no way to get yourself out quickly. You have to ride the wave of it, as your conscious mind is no longer active. This is where the shame can come in, when we tell ourselves “next time I won’t run away” it’s actually a little impossible if you try when you are in the middle of reacting. Instead, you have to have daily practices to retrain your nervous system when it is calm, so that it changes your response system.
There are a few breathing techniques I like to do, it’s good to wake up in the morning and take some time to breathe and check in with yourself before you start your day. You can start with a body scan and it can be done lying down or sitting up. I would make myself a cup of coffee and head out to my balcony to close my eyes, take deep breathes, listen to the birds and start honing in focus on my toes. Slowly making your way from your toes to your head will allow you to check in with each part of the body, taking notice of where the tension lies and how you are physically feeling.
Another one I like to use is the 444 (or 678) and this is when you breathe in for 4 (or 6), hold for 4 (or 7) and out for 4 (or 8). Taking the time to focus on your breathing like this (it can be done anywhere, I like to do it in the shower or when driving) allows your body to connect with itself and get into a present state. The act of getting out of your head. It retrains the nervous system and allows your body to calm down quicker.
Lastly, mantra breathing. This is when you choose a mantra for the day and breathe with it. For example, I would close my eyes and breathe in to “I am good enough” and out to the same thing. Bringing your attention to your breathe while focussing on one area you want to do better in will subconsciously engrain the message into you, while bringing your body back to a neutral and calm state.
After I had done my breathing exercises on the balcony, I would grab my journal. I have been journaling for about two years now and I still love it. I love waking up in the morning and writing in my notebook. I can find that my brain can feel so full sometimes, and I need to write it all down in order to even make any sense of it. My journal is usually filled with my darkest thoughts, it is in my lower moments that I reach for my journal. This year I am trying to write when I am happy.
Usually, my journal entries include a note about how I am feeling that day and whatever is on my mind. It is normally unreadable as I like to write without thinking too much and see what comes out. Once I have got it all out, I try and reflect. I think about why I am feeling this way and write about which parts of me come from where. I finish it off with a gratitude list, luckily I am never short of things to be grateful for, and an intention for the day. The intention would usually look something like “today I will listen to my needs” or “today I will have as much fun as I can”. I find that setting an intention at the start of the day really helps bring those things into your life, you have a focus.
There have been times where I have lost myself so much in worry that I can’t remember who I am. This causes more anxiety because I can’t think of my likes and dislikes, what makes up my personality, what my dreams are. Anxiety, and a lot of mental illness, can take the YOU away. This also causes more panic, like you’re searching and searching for yourself and finding nothing. “Am I a full person?”.
I find that for these days, writing a list of “things that make ME me” really helps. It doesn’t have to be a lot of things, but writing down things you know to be true about you and what you like or who you are, can help remind you of those interests that you have lost. For example, start with a list of your favourite foods, then your favourite hobbies, your pet peeves. This reminds you that the whole person is still in there.
Moving your body
I know I said it at the start, but exercise really cures. Because I had been feeling really low for months, I had completely lost the act of running in my life. During the time I was really trying everything to heal, I started going out for a walk or run every day. I had been hiding in the house for a while and my therapist assigned me the homework of going out in public once a day, every day. So that’s what I did. I ran up the same mountain that made me fall in love with running, and on the way home I would pass through the supermarket or busy street in order to see humans and complete my homework.
Nothing compares to the healing that can be done alone in nature.
I’m sure we all know about the power of ice baths and cold water therapy. It’s not groundbreaking for me to say that it works – but it does! Once I came home from my morning runs and read 30 minutes of a self help book (my favourite being How to do the Work) I would jump in for a cold shower. At first I hated every moment, but quickly I began to look forward to my cold shower.
Showers in general are my safe place, whenever my emotions are too heavy I know I can take to the shower and wash my feelings away. Using your shower or bath to meditate is very well known, and I love standing there thinking about nothing, just feeling the water wash it all away.
It was actually my aunt who convinced me to have my first cold shower, on the phone she told me that she has an ice bath every morning and loves it because you cannot think about anything while you’re there. And it’s true. The power of cold water is that you are so focussed on the cold that your brain shuts off. It would take me right out of my head and into my body every day, and I would come out of the shower feeling alert and alive.
Listening to yourself
Honestly, my anxiety is the catalyst to the trip that I am taking in the van just now. It just got to the point that even my therapist was saying “It’s okay if Wellington isn’t for you”. That moment was groundbreaking, I had been spending the whole time trying so hard not to hate the city I was in, not to pack up and run when life gets a little too serious and my anxious brain can’t handle responsibilities, or in this case the drama of city living. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the city itself – I just had some bad experiences that led to me feeling trapped in a super small city where you can’t walk down the street without knowing someone.
So, I gave in. I really listened to my therapist that time and told myself that that was the sign I needed to get me planning to get out of Wellington. My body had shut down completely to the idea of making new friends in Wellington, and I couldn’t really think about ever loving the city that had held my worst year ever. So we made the plan to get into the van, and it immediately felt right.
I also started to listen to my bodies need for food. I would set myself little targets of just finishing my plate, starting with small portions. I built my appetite back up with a hell of a lot of determination and it really came from such small steps. After doing a lot of reading I realised that nutrition is actually a large cause of mental health issues, so I started to add things back into my diet that are good for gut health (as that is directly linked to anxiety). Mostly this included different kinds of protein, I even added a shake into my day to keep my intake levels up.
It’s important to try and regain trust with yourself. When I am so anxious I lose all trust with myself. That’s why I have to check I have locked the front door a hundred times a night – I don’t believe I’ve done it. I really try to say to myself “trust yourself this time” when I would have an intrusive thought about something I knew to be a lie. I know I have locked the front door most of the time, but I can’t believe it until I see it. Sometimes it works to trust yourself, and sometimes you have to get up anyway. All these things are really small steps to help, but it doesn’t make them easy.
Having people who make you feel safe
It is really important to have people you can talk to and lean on. I had a couple of beautiful friends in Wellington who would always come over to my house instead of making me go outside. I spoke with some friends online too, but most of the support came from my parents on facetime. I remember before getting the vaccine, I had spent about a week watching and reading everything I possibly could about the vaccine and by the end of it I was absolutely terrified and didn’t know what to believe. I was fully convinced that I was going to die, and I wouldn’t have gotten it if I didn’t have a worried family back home. My parents sat with me on the phone while I sobbed and told them what I believed was going to happen to me. I really pushed myself to go get it, it came to the point where I didn’t have an option I had to just get it over with. My mum really validated my fears and listened.
Last but not least, I couldn’t have done it without my rock and love of my life. I spent a lot of time shutting Lior out or pushing her away – I have an avoidant attachment style – but there were also a lot of times where she would hold me while I cried and broke down, she would do all the things my anxiety wouldn’t let me do, and stand up for me in situations when I needed it. She fully supported me going to therapy, and spent so much time listening to everything going on in my head while still loving me wholly. She would make my favourite meals and encourage me to finish as much as I could without pushing me for more. She would take me out into the sunshine, and on my favourite dates. She is the one who kept me laughing.
I am so grateful for a love like this in my life, thank you from the bottom of my heart. To this day you are the one who keeps me brave.
Now, as I write this, I still have a lot of things to heal from. I struggle to communicate, especially when in flight mode. And I can’t sleep without knowing where all my important items are (and having to see it to believe it). Any kind of confrontation will probably send me into a panic attack and no matter how many times things work out for the best, I will still worry about doing something new, going somewhere new or meeting someone new.
However, I can definitely say that making decisions that work best for me and taking the time to be present in my body are things that really have helped me get back to myself. I trust myself a lot more, I like myself even more and I feel happy! Four months ago I couldn’t say any of those things.
Healing doesn’t take any one thing, it takes a collection of things and the will power to make real changes to your day. I couldn’t have done it without professional and personal help. I spent months allowing the anxiety to consume me and allowing me to be the worst version of myself, until I just couldn’t anymore. Then I had to wake up every morning and fight for myself, through the tears and the panic.
And mostly, my biggest belief is to always listen to YOU, no one knows you better. Follow your heart, give your body what it needs and say yes and no when it feels right. The more you take the time to listen to yourself, the more you get the honour of understanding yourself.
Some of us don’t know ourselves yet, and that’s okay. I have definitely spent a lot of time limiting myself to things I believe to be true, I am trying to put myself in new spaces and try new things to find out whether the person I am right now likes it. Try something new, or try something that you tell yourself you don’t like but aren’t actually sure. You could surprise yourself!
Oh, and if you don’t like where you are… leave. It’s okay. Sometimes, it’s the whole weight that was holding you down.
Mental health is a daily battle, just know that when you are feeling your lowest the only way up is through yourself. Take one small step to positively change your day today.
If you need someone to talk to:
Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text “YM” if you’re under 19
Call 111 or find a NHS helpline here https://www.nhs.uk/service-search/mental-health/find-an-urgent-mental-health-helpline