All those wasted hours when the opposite was the wish
“What if, should have and why didn’t I?” thoughts have wasted enough hours in my life.
Recognising thoughts as thoughts that don’t have to overwhelm or be wrestled with is a liberating step forward to overcoming worry, rumination and anxiety. Easier said than done but developing the ability to recognise that you are going down a route of worry and developing the skills to manage this is how I moved forward from obsessing, assurance seeking and beating myself up.
Compulsively double checking, overanalysing potential outcomes, repeating myself, trying to cover all bases in an attempt to ensure I am not left obsessing to a point of exhaustion was a regular behavioural pattern.
The vicious cycle of worry felt as if my brain was trying to ruin the very things I looked forward to the most. No matter how irrational the obsession, the excitement of Christmas or going on holiday was replaced with “you can’t enjoy this because..” ruminating in my mind over and over, leaving me feeling numb, tired and emotionless, when all I wished for was the opposite.
This is when the comorbidity of anxiety and depression kicks in… “I’m such a lucky person, why am I ruining this or feeling this way? I know it’s irrational but I can’t help it”: Guilt, frustration, hopelessness…
To give a practical example, I once had the once in a lifetime opportunity to do an internship in LA, the excitement of going, the thought of how amazing it will be was wrestled away by ruminating on something I said before I left which I knew wasn’t worth thinking about but nevertheless I fixated on, putting it to the forefront of all my thinking as I was arriving at the airport. I wrestled with the idea that anyone would kill to do what I’m about to do, and enjoy it immensely, “why couldn’t I? I’m ruining this once in a lifetime trip. I can never get this time back so I must do all I can to try and solve the thought making me feel this way”
So there I am feeling numb, emotionless and frustrated, with the added thought that if “I’m not feeling myself I’m not going to come across well” only severing to compound the intensity of my thinking and subsequent physical reactions.
The above example happened time and time again. I felt increasingly emotionally numb and inward thinking the more special and unique the experience.
On other trips, fellow travellers wrote in their diaries in detail; vivid memories of moments felt with raw emotion whilst I drew a stick man with a cloud over his head amongst other random scribbles.
Instinctively you try and battle these negative thoughts through overanalysing and thinking inwardly to try and work your way through it. Trying to rationalise irrational and obsessional thinking was not something I could do. Trying harder made it worse. All these actions maintained the cycle of worry and rumination. I didn’t realise that letting go and engaging outwardly was the best thing I could do. But if you’re wanting to enjoy special occasions, it’s hard not to fight with the anxious thoughts in your head telling you that you can’t.
This vicious cycle lasted years, and only through a combination of things have I learnt to manage it. Top of the list is developing understanding of the reasons behind it, and then having my own unique toolkit that works for me; mindfulness, exercise, sense of purpose in my working life. But I still found it hard.
Still battling, it was in an article by Jordan Reid on Medium whereby she wrote “the noise of “what-if” has been replaced by the solid steadiness of "what is” perfectly underlined the place I’m in now. She was talking about antidepressants helping to achieve this, and although I don’t like to admit it, it wasn’t until I started taking them did I feel the same way.
Recommended intervention for anxiety and depression include a combination of both talking therapy and medication. Maybe I needed both, it’s hard to know, I guess I need to try without now that I am in such a good place.
I know my susceptibility to struggling with my mental wellbeing, whether it be traits of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depression , is always there, it’s in my make-up I guess, but with my developed insight and knowing what works for me it no longer interferes with my daily functioning.
The recovery experience helped develop my compassionate and inquisitive side in relation to human nature, studying life, modern day stressors and how best we manage it all. And this led me to a career change into mental health nursing and where I find myself now, working for Combat Stress, in a proud and privileged position of supporting veterans suffering the intense anxiety symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
I can’t sit there and relate with a veteran’s experience of combat and the impact serving their country has had on their thoughts, emotions and families. But I can recognise my own struggles with anxiety within their newly developed present day habits as a result of the disorder and I am able to passionately share what I know can help based on nurse training and lived experience.
The more my confidence grows in my professional practice and the more stories I hear from these courageous veterans the more I have come to realise that act of being open about how we are feeling on the inside should not be another battle to contend with.
Veterans have already shown great strength in combat and have to demonstrate strength again to face up to admitting something which in the past has often been seen as a weakness.
This struggle against stigma has inspired me to talk about my own experiences with anxiety and led me to starting my own blog last year. In three years of nurse training I never discussed the real motivation behind my interest in the field even when directly asked. I gave half reasons, which were I wanted to work in a more vocational role, but I instinctively felt uncomfortable to go further. What a shame, have I been culturally conditioned to think that it was a weakness all these years? And that’s my comfortable civilian life surrounded by individuals aspiring to be mental health nurses, not the stiff upper lip culture of the military.
With that said, over the last two years I have witnessed a sea change in perception, and I would like to believe that there is a growing movement towards a more open and real conversation about mental health. Stigma is reducing and awareness is increasing. This is more apparent in the media landscape but also in my role. Veterans are coming forward quicker than ever before to discuss their issues. Bravely acknowledging things are not quite right whilst still managing to hold things together. However, there is still some way to go.
Through my personal experience of undergoing talking therapy via the NHS and privately in my mid-twenties I developed a keen interest in self-help reading to understand and manage symptoms. I have become an avid reader of The Guardian due to their excellent progressive reporting in this area and have started to keep supplements and articles of what I found most helpful, including projects such as ‘Start Happy’ and ‘Do Something’ . Inspired by this reduction in stigma, it was when trying to condense this collection of material I came up with the idea for Swirl.
Coinciding with moving house, I was trying to organise a big box full of leaflets, magazine articles, journals, self help books. I wanted to bring all the important stuff together so it was accessible, simple and saved some space! The process of re-reading and talking about the advice was empowering and then putting it into my own words helped consolidate my learning.
It led to creating my own concise guide. And then I thought why not make it look good? This is when I contacted the award-winning illustrator Nate Kitch, creative director Gina Yu and designers Studio Moross, triggering the development of a project whereby I collaborated with professionals and individuals with lived experience to ensure content was evidence based and effective.
The creative team really got my vision and appreciated the personal journey that led to the creation of Swirl. We were all on the same page, we wanted to create a tangible guide, created to empower and engage through striking communications which showcased mental health being a spectrum of thoughts, feelings and emotions. Not the grey usually associated with the subject.
I am proud of the finished product. Swirl is a tangible reflection of my journey, a guide created to help others based on professional expertise, personal experience and aspirations to make mental health part of everyday conversation.
first published in Medium