In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month I wanted to share more about my journey with anxiety and how I have learned to cope with it. First and foremost, while I have a Bachelors in Psychology I am not qualified to offer professional advice. If you want to hurt yourself or are experiencing physical pain please talk to somebody you trust and/or seek professional help as soon as possible. I'm going to be talking about personal experiences that I believe are beneficial for everyone who feels like their anxiety is taking over their life. However, one thing that I have come to understand is that our mental health is a personal journey and while we're able to relate with one another we all have our own unique journey. I say this because it really takes getting to know yourself and going deep within yourself in order to truly deal with anxiety and depression. With all of that said I hope you enjoy this post and that it brings some positivity into your life :)
My mental health journey has been very much interconnected with my spiritual journey. It is impossible for me to talk about my experience with anxiety and depression without mentioning Jesus and my faith. In truth, it is because of God that I even started paying attention to my mental health. Before God came along I knew something was wrong but I would never confront my emotions and would rather just numb the pain and anxiety with my relationships, alcohol, drugs and parties (I was a basic college girl aight). Not that I regret anything or that I judge people who have that kind of lifestyle (do you boo). The problem for me was that I was hiding behind those things. I was dealing with a lot of trauma from my childhood and I just wanted to have as much fun as possible and forget about my problems. Which is pretty much what I did for most of my teenage and college years.
Jesus came into my life when I was 21-years-old in 2014, that is when I became a born again Christian. At that time I had been dealing with severe depression but have been fighting it on my own and had really only told my mentor and a few other close friends how bad things really were. I didn't want to seek professional help because of the fear of being medicated so I was reading a bunch of self-help books and was kinda obsessed with psychology and self-improvement (I ended up changing my major to psychology after). And while those things did give me a lot of helpful insights that brought a lot of positivity into my life, I never felt like I was truly healing. After God came into my life everything changed. Once I started bringing my pain to God it was as if my recovery started accelerating at a super fast speed. After I started opening my heart to God, and after many tears and prayers, I began to heal from my depression. In a few months my chronic depression had completely healed.
While at that time I thought that was the end of my mental health journey it turns out that it was just the beginning. Fast forward to four years later and I now have a Psychology degree and a blog. I have focused a lot of my work on sharing my healing process with others and helping others deal with their emotions through group facilitation and through my writing. It is through this work that God has given me my purpose and so I'm very grateful for all my struggles.
photo by Alexandra Elle (insta: allex_elle)
I also learned recently that I struggle with some form of an anxiety disorder. Last year I started noticing that what I thought was just me freaking out about basic things in life (like speaking in public or starting something new) that I was actually experiencing what is called a panic attack. I also started noticing how during challenging or stressful times I would have random moments when I would feel very low (physically and emotionally) and would have no desire to do anything. Eventually, the lack of activity would cause my mind to go on a downward spiral of negative thinking. Mostly about my life and about myself, to the point of feeling so hopeless that I would start to think that my life was not worth living. I started relying on bad habits and eventually it started affecting my family and my marriage. That's when I realized I needed help. I didn't want to keep living like that, I wanted to treat myself and the people around me right. I started opening up with my husband about what I was going through and I also started learning more about how to cope with my anxiety. Since then I can say that things have improved greatly and I'm here to tell you that chronic anxiety is completely curable and that you can overcome it and live a better life. I'm going to share with you how to recognize the symptoms and the lessons I have learned along the way that have helped me cope and overcomed a great deal.
Recognizing the symptoms of anxiety has been one of the most important elements of my recovery. Before I knew the symptoms of chronic anxiety I used to think that constant worry and fear was part of my personality, that it was "normal" and that there was something inherently wrong with me.
Knowing the symptoms of chronic anxiety made me realize how the anxiety, and the negative thoughts and feelings that come with it
do not define who I am or my worth. Being able to recognize the symptoms has also helped me separate the anxiety from myself. I am now better prepared and aware of the moments of fear and panic and so I'm able to manage it better (or trying at least).
The following are some symptoms that I have learned are associated with anxiety disorders.
1. Excessive Worry;
Everybody worries from time to time but when it gets to the point of having persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for a consistent period then that's when it becomes a problem.
Having constant anxiety uses so much of our mental energy that eventually it causes our body to feel extremely tired (even after a good nigh rest). Hence all the times I didn't even want to get out of bed. Knowing that fatigue was a symptom of anxiety released me from the belief that I was just a lazy person.
This is not something that I personally struggle with but this is a very common symptom of an anxiety disorder. If you struggle with this on the regular I would suggest looking into it.
4. Muscle Tension;
Mostly around the shoulders, neck and back. I often wondered why my neck and shoulders were constantly hurting and had no idea it was related to my anxiety.
5. Chronic Indigestion;
Another very common physical symptom of chronic anxiety.
6. Stage Fright;
It is normal to get nervous before addressing a group of people or being in the spotlight. But if the fear is so strong that no amount of practice will make things better, or if you spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about it, that is when it becomes a symptom of an anxiety disorder. I used to think that I just wasn't good at speaking in public and would get panic attacks each time before I had to give a presentation.
Constantly judging yourself or having a lot of anxiety about making mistakes or falling short of your standards is also another sign of an anxiety disorder. I struggled with this a lot and it was one of my biggest causes of anxiety.
Persistent self-doubt and second-guessing is a common symptom of anxiety disorders. In fact people with anxiety experience
"doubt attacks" which is when your mind is flooded with doubts about your worth, your existence or just constantly rethinking a problem in your mind. Eventually if you start doubting the well-being of your future it can lead to suicidal thoughts. This is something that I struggled with a lot and it really helped me to know that having "doubt attacks" was just a symptom that is manageable. What I learned to do is that when I start experiencing a "doubt attack", which usually comes with feelings of fear or panic about my future, I focus my mind on the people who love me and appreciate me, and on the people that I love. It also helps to focus on the things that you are proud of accomplishing in your life and the activities you enjoy doing. Doing this brings me a sense of well-being and helps me to focus on the present.
People with anxiety will sometimes have flashbacks of a disturbing or traumatic event. Maybe about experiences that might not seem obviously traumatic, like being publicly ridiculed. I would constantly be reliving really embarrassing or painful personal experiences during random times. It would be accompanied by really intense or painful emotions that were really hard to shake off sometimes.
Panic attacks vary in intensity depending on your level of anxiety. This is one of the first symptoms that actually caught my attention before I realized something was wrong. It would usually happen before having to speak in public or when some unexpected challenge would happen in my life.
For me It would start with having excessive amounts of self-doubt and fear sometimes to the point of sobbing uncontrollable. Then there is the shortness of breath, chest pain and the pounding of the heart that comes after. Some people also experience tingling or the numbing of hands, sweating, weakness or dizziness, stomach pain, and feeling hot or cold. It is a really scary feeling and can only relate if you have experienced it yourself.
(I highly recommend that you take a break here and take some time to process the information you have just read, maybe go drink a cup of water, pet a cat or go for a walk?)
HOW I COPE
I want to start by saying that while my symptoms have gotten significantly better I'm still on the road to full recovery. It wasn't until recently that I actually started to seek help and open up about my anxiety but since then I have learned and have overcome a great deal.
I have realized that there is a lot of stigma associated with mental health and so it's hard for the information about symptoms and treatments to get to the people who need it.
Many people (like me) will not find out until later in life that they have some sort of anxiety disorder and many never get treatment. I think that a huge part of this problem is that we aren’t having enough conversations about our mental health in general. A lot of times people will be struggling with so much anxiety and pain within themselves but they'll never feel comfortable speaking up about it with anybody. Thus, they never seek help or they never recover from it. That is why I believe that lack of information about mental health and people not speaking up about it because of the fear of being judged are what give anxiety disorders the most power over us. However, the moment you start informing yourself and opening up with the people that you trust that's when we move closer towards recovery and healing.
That is why I want to take some time to share the lessons that have been a great help in my recovery process and that would have made a big difference had I known this information when I was younger.
1. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THIS ALONE
One of the hardest thing for me was opening up to the people around me about what I was going through, especially about the self-harming thoughts. I feel like there is so much stigma about talking about our struggles that we often feel like others are going to think we're crazy or feel sorry for us so we just keep everything in. But it is essential that we put our pride and our fear of being judged aside in order to start recovering. If you're not comfortable seeking professional help you can start by talking with your loved ones, family or close friends. The first person that I spoked about it with was my husband. It was a defining moment in our relationship because I allowed myself to be vulnerable with him and thankfully he was there to give me the help and the stability that I needed. After that I started opening up to my family and a few close friends. Having a strong support system is a great asset for our recovery process. Seeking the help of our loved ones makes us feel safe and it also helps break the cycle of negative thinking. Feeling like we're not alone and getting out of our head brings a lot of well-being into us and can actually help the anxiety symptoms be more manageable. Plus the more you speak about it or write about it the more you will realize how common it is. Which in turn helps break down the stigma surrounding mental health conversations, especially at home. Speaking up also helps us heal as it allow us to process our thoughts and emotions; like the quote "You cant heal what you don't reveal".
Seeking help for me also involved seeking the help of God. That is actually how it started for me. A few months back I was going through a very difficult time in my life and my anxiety was the worst it had been in a long time. I kept it in for so long that it got to the point that I was fighting suicidal thoughts on the regular and nobody around me had a clue. But God knew. In those moments when I felt the most hopeless something within me started crying out to God for help and He came through to help me every time. I can honestly say that in the times when I felt the most alone, God was there to comfort me. In my darkest times He was there to give me clarity. Having those moments eventually gave me the courage and the hope that I needed to face my anxiety and seek help.
Seeking help also involves informing yourself. There is so much great information and programs out there! you just have to start looking for what works best for you. You don't have to start seeing a therapist (even thought I highly recommend you do it at some point) to start learning about how to cope with anxiety. I started a recovery program online that helps people learn how to cope with and overcome anxiety. I have learned so much from it and it has improved my well-being greatly (I will be linking it down below).
2. ACCEPTING THE ANXIETY AND NOT RESISTING IT
In an online recovery program that I enrolled recently one of the first things they teach is that the problem is not the anxiety itself but our response to the anxiety. LET THAT SINK IN... In other words, the feelings we get from resisting the anxiety and wanting it to go away are actually what causes us to have the symptoms we talked about earlier. It is the resistance to the anxiety that brings about the negative emotions that eventually cause us to go on a downward spiral of negative thinking and constant worry.
Anxiety is at the core just an emotion and all emotions are fleeting. They come and go. So instead of resisting it, we must accept it when it comes. We can do that by allowing ourselves to feel and process our emotions. By letting them run their course. When we let go of the need for control and we face our emotions head on that's when we avoid falling into the trap of self-pity and fear. Feelings are fleeting; we feel happy one moment and sad the next. It is the same with anxiety, as it comes it will also go away.
The following are some practical things that I've learned to do that help me process and deal with the feelings of anxiety.
Keeping a Journal
Doing some for of expressive art: Writing, painting, photography, drawing, dancing etc..
Taking a warm bath
music or praise
3. FOCUS ON BUILDING NEW HABITS
Something that the recovery program taught me is that instead of focusing our energy on the things we can't control (like our emotions and anxiety). We should instead focus our energy on building new positive habits. So instead of obsessing over how much we want our anxiety to go away (indulging in negative thinking) we should instead shift our thoughts and energy on our goals for the day. Positive thinking is a new habit that I'm trying to build. I do this by being aware of what I read, what I listen to and my speech and try my best to keep it positive. For example; instead of letting my mind dwell on my weaknesses I try to focus my mind on my strengths (e.g "I am brave"). I also started writing down to-do lists every day (or trying miserably at least) as a way for me to shift my focus away from the anxiety that comes from procrastination. Be aware that the program recommends that you should only focus on incorporating one or two activities at a time for better results.
4. FOCUS ON YOUR GOALS
Writing down the things that I want to accomplish and having them in mind always helps me stay motivated. People who deal with constant anxiety tend to focus more on past mistakes or failures. So having a goal that you're actively working towards will help you fight the negativity and self-doubt in your mind. Eventually replacing it with positivity and drive. Goals can be something like "I want to love myself more" or "I want to get a degree".
Having our goals in mind will cause our brain to be actively thinking of ways to accomplish them. Once we start to actively works towards them they will eventually become a reality.
5. STAY PRESENT
Something that I've learned is that anxiety is usually rooted in the pain of the past or in the fear of the future. So the more we focus on the present moment the more at peace our mind will be. Being able to enjoy life right here, right now, in this moment is one of the healthiest things we can do for our well-being. Reading books, listening to music, playing an instrument, exercising, praying, meditating and just simply listening to somebody speak are great examples on how to stay present. Try to do this consistently for two weeks and watch how the quality of your life and your relationships will start to improve before your eyes.
6. BABY STEPS
Are you feeling anxious right now after realizing all the things you need to do to change your life? don't worry I was too and its perfectly normal. We're not supposed to be able to heal and recover immediately from something that we have been doing for x amount of years. Recovery takes times and looks different for everybody. Once we start actively working towards our recovery it is important to resist the urge to want to change everything in our lives that needs change all at once. Instead, we should focus our energy on working on one or two things at a time and on the little everyday improvements that come from those changes. This keeps us from falling into the trap of perfectionism and of putting unreasonable expectations on ourselves. Which cause us to get frustrated and give up on our goals. Also, it is important to note that even though we're able to heal completely from an anxiety disorder when we commit to a treatment it will also require a change of lifestyle in order to keep it from coming back.
Something that will take, well a lifetime, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. It just means that we will keep learning and growing as we get older. Right now I'm focusing on letting the space between where I am and where I want to be drive me and give me purpose instead of letting it be a cause of fear and anxiety. It will require persistence and patience, falling down and getting up over and over... But don't worry we have time to get it right :) in the meantime let's celebrate the small victories every time we can.
7. TRUST IN GOD
Being able to trust in something (or in my case someone) greater than me is what has helped me the most in my recovery. On the days that I feel like I'm doing everything wrong I can trust that God has my back and that He is much more powerful than my weaknesses and anxiety. It is God who is ultimately the source of my peace.
If you're are agnostic, atheist or have a different faith than me (or anybody reading this really) share in the comments sections below about your journey with anxiety and what has helped you in your mental health journey. We are in this together and we never really know what our life's story can do for another person.
I want to share a few scriptures that have really help me in times of fear and anxiety.
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus"
"When anxiety was great within me. Your consolation brought me joy"
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. As always, if you enjoyed this message please share and subscribe to spread the positivity! your support means so much to me. Comment in the section below any (respectful) thoughts on the subject or any words of encouragement. You never know whom might be empowered by your story.
Stay ratchet and stay classy my friends. May God bless you in your journey.
Online recovery program: Recovery Formula and anxiety test
Food By Maria: Blog Post "My Journey with Anxiety + How I learnt to Cope"
Calm Clinic: "How to Cope with Anxiety"