It is the first Monday of July which means it is time for the next Mental Health Monday. Mental Health Monday is a blog meme set up to allow people to share their stories and feelings about Mental Heath. It is a safe environment each month where people send their posts to me & I choose various posts to share on my page. This month I wanted to focus on explaining how mental health is part of your physical health. I have been battling anxiety and depression since 2012 and I hear a lot of people say ‘get over it’ or ‘it is all in your head’ but they don’t understand that anxiety and depression is physical. What is more physical than the brain?
Anxiety is my main struggle with my mental health. It is the thing that it always there under the surface even when I am in a really good place. My anxiety started whilst completing my A-Levels and I had very high levels of stress. It is normal to feel stressed when you are in an exam period. It is normal to feel stressed when the work you are doing decides whether or not you can go to University. It is normal to feel stressed when you feel like those few months will decide your future. Unfortunately for me, my brain doesn’t respond to stress in a rational way. My brain responds to stress by producing too much cortisol which in turn makes me struggle with anxiety.
Cortisol is a normal hormone for your body to produce, everyone produces cortisol, however those with anxiety have too much cortisol in their brains even in times where stress is lower. This can make it seem to outsiders like they are over-reacting to certain things but our brains are in a constant ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state. Chronic stress can lead to health problems and can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly.
Yes, the over production of cortisol may be all in my head, but it is real and it produces very real struggles minus the overthinking. I can’t think of anything more physical than the brain considering that it is the brain that regulates everything that we feel & do.
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Having too much cortisol in your brain can disrupt synapse regulation which means people are more likely to withdraw from sociability. Chronic stress can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. The digestive system can malfunction and stress exacerbates any existing conditions that you have. Mental Health struggles can impact physical health, it is more than just negative thoughts.
Personally when I am in a highly anxious state, I feel like there is a weight pressing down on my chest and I struggle to breathe. I can feel this tightness in my chest day and night for months at a time never taking a deep breath. My breathing is fast & shallow and my resting heart rate is now naturally in the late 80s despite being otherwise physically healthy. My anxiety makes me feel physical symptoms such as a knot in my stomach, nausea, a fast heartbeat that can feel as though it’s trying to pump itself out of my chest. My legs and hands get shaky, I get hot and cold flushes and headaches. In bad times, I become an insomniac, barely getting 2 hours sleep each night even then, it is filled with nightmares and constant waking up.
My anxiety also triggers panic attacks. Ignorant people may call them ‘hissy-fits’ or ‘tantrums’ but they are far from choice for me. When one starts I can feel it coming, I feel like I am in genuine danger and that I am about to die. My heart tightens, I hyperventilate (uncontrollable fast breathing) to the point where I can’t breathe. My pupils dilate and sometimes tears will stream down my face. My legs go weak and I can’t stand up and in really bad attacks I rock back and forth on my knees. These can last anywhere from 5-30 minutes in length then it takes hours for my heart to go back to normal and my hands to stop shaking.
How It Affects My Life
Anxiety affects my life emotionally by lowering my self confidence and making me believe that I am not able to cope with things that others can. It makes me overthink about every single decision I have ever made and makes me wonder ‘what-if’ at an almost obsessive level. Anxiety steals my sense of stability and even during positive events makes me question whether or not I should have joined in. Anxiety is more than just worrying and nervousness during events where that is natural. I lose my sense of self-control and feel overwhelmed. It encourages me to withdraw and isolate myself socially because it convinces me that nobody understands.
Anxiety affects my life in a physical sense by making me feel physically sick, like I am about to throw up. It feels like I am about to have a heart attack (I am not being dramatic, the tightness of chest and inability to breathe is terrifying). It affects my digestive system and my physical strength to carry out everyday tasks. I am quieter than I was when I was 15. I have less confidence to approach new people though I’m trying to work through that. My personality has changed since my first experience, this is just a fact.
I have anxiety constantly. Since my first struggle way back in 2012, it has never really gone away. This said, there are times when it is easier to manage and times where it is really difficult and I start to experience depression. When the two are combined it can be extremely difficult to pull myself out of it.
My First Experience With Depression
I never realised that I had battled depression until after I had worked through it the first time. Before I realised what is was, I just thought I was stressed. I knew it was a normal time of life to be stressed as I was 17 and trying to get into University. It was the first time I had ever experienced a big stressful event in my life so I didn’t know what it was. I had lots of friends, many of whom where extremely extroverted as lots of them along with me were part of the Performing Arts department in college. It was typical for us to work hard getting ready for shows, work hard with our studies and then release all of that by going out, drinking and dancing. I loved it, I was happy and then all of a sudden I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I had applied for drama courses at University, auditioned and had all 5 conditional offers, all I needed were the grades. The grades I needed for University weren’t above my capability, if anything, they were right on target. This didn’t stop me from becoming overwhelmed very quickly but unfortunately this didn’t give my grades a boost but my worrying and anxiety caused a drop in my grades. The more I tried, the lower my marks became. I obsessed over revision, particularly for my psychology exam. The psychology exam was purely a memory test, we had to memorise 72 case studies and in our exam we were only going to be asked about 4 of them and write perfectly what the study was about. This was not why I chose psychology as a subject, I had a genuine interest in learning about psychology and this exam preparation not only caused me to hate it, but also trigger personal anxiety and depression.
I used to spend my free periods doing a little revision, reading, completing coursework as well as eating food and having conversations. After a while, I would sit alone telling my friends to let me revise. I felt lonely and isolated, like I was the only person taking the exams seriously. I either ate too much junk food or not enough of anything. My anxiety was peaking for the first time and I began to feel depressed that I was changing and that I couldn’t control what I was doing anymore.
Now, I would describe my depression as a wave. It is up and down. As I have gone in and out of it more, I am starting to recognise the triggers and the early feelings just before I slip into it and I am working on ways to find a way not to get as bad as I used to. When I am in a really bad place with anxiety and depression I feel worthless, like nothing I do means anything and that if I don’t do anything then everyone’s life would be better. This makes me want to withdraw from everything. I won’t sleep for days at a time because every time I close my eyes I feel so negative that I may never wake up. The nights felt like a living nightmare, I was panicky, overthinking but also very dark – it is hard to describe exactly how I felt because I was a completely different person. Sometimes I would have to lie outside my parent’s bedroom door because I didn’t want to wake them in case they asked me what was wrong but I couldn’t stay in my room anymore or I would end up driving myself crazy.
In moderate moments of depression I can be isolated more, snappy and beyond caring. Nothing matters anymore so I don’t do anything. I feel like there is a dark cloud surrounding me pushing everyone away and convincing me that they would have left anyway. Depression convinces you that nobody understands so you shouldn’t talk about it but it is wrong. I know now that I need to tell some people how I’m feeling and if I’m slipping back into what I call ‘the dark place’. I’m lucky to have lots of people around me who I feel like I can talk to.
Depression doesn’t understand rationality and would argue with me internally. It told me people didn’t care about me but I knew they did. Depression convinced me that nothing I ever did would be good enough but I knew I’d find my way. I think of depression like the dementors in Harry Potter, they suck the positivity of life out of you leaving only the negative until eventually you’re just a shell of the person you were before.
Anxiety made me feel everything all at once but depression does the opposite. It leaves you feeling empty and emotionless, having both anxiety and depression is a conundrum. Emotionally I felt restless, guilty, worthless, empty, unable to relate to people, low in confidence and like I was just going through the motions of life without actually participating.
Depression crosses over into the cognitive by fogging your thoughts making you unable to think clearly, it makes it harder to remember things or focus and concentrate.
Physical health is affected by depression because there is a difficulty, either struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep or sleeping too much. Your appetite can change when you are in depression, you might have no appetite or eat too much, lose or gain weight. You feel physically heavy and achy in your limbs and body with no apparent cause and there is a lack of energy.
How It Affects My Life
Depression, even when high functioning, causes a drop in effective work. My grades dropped due to an inability to retain information either due to the chemical imbalance or lack of sleep. Simple tasks take longer than usual to do and procrastination is at an all time high. It can cause chronic fatigue and exhaustion which makes it more difficult to want to get out of bed and I end up being worse at replying to my friends.
Luckily it doesn’t stick around and linger like the anxiety does. Depression is a symptom of my anxiety and rarely makes an appearance on it’s own. Don’t struggle in silence. If you feel there is no one in your life you can talk to then twitter has a very supportive mental health community where likeminded people can talk to you. You can talk to trained professionals online with TimeWith and it is completely confidential. Also reading fiction and non-fiction books can help you to feel less alone and I have a post detailing my personal recommendations here – My Favourite Mental Health Books. You are never truly alone in your feelings and you can get through to the other side.
I have accepted that my anxiety and depression is remissive and throughout my life I will go in and out of dark times. This thought is a comfort when I am in a bad place as I tell myself that even though it feels like I will never feel ok again, I have done it before. It just takes time. So next time you feel like telling someone that mental health is just ‘made up’ in their head, remember that the brain is PHYSICAL and you can’t get over a broken arm or cancer by ‘thinking it away’.