My Mental Health: is there such a thing as getting “better”?

This weeks guest post is by Sophia, exploring her anxiety and depression.

My anxiety can be kick-started by many different things. An impending deadline, the prospect of the future, a tiny inconsequential thing not quite going the way I planned, or sometimes for no obvious reason at all. My chest will begin to feel a bit tight and my breathing might become a bit shallower. My mind will kick into action overanalysing everything that is, or could be, going wrong, but without coming up with any solutions – like an endless cycle of worry. I experience an unshakable sense of unease and tension, as if something disastrous could happen at any minute. Sometimes my anxiety maintains this level; in its mildest form, I would compare it to how being stressed feels, although it happens much more frequently and it’s much harder, sometimes even impossible, for me to calm down from.

Far more often than I’d like, this anxious feeling spirals out of control and will build into a full on panic attack. During this, my chest feels even more constricted, I can’t catch my breath, my train of thought will run so fast that I can’t focus on anything and it feels like my head is full of white noise. Sometimes I get a headache or nausea; sometimes I just burst into tears. It’s completely debilitating, and most of the time I have to just ride it out until it stops.

My depression feels rather contradictory to how my anxiety feels, and it feels kind of ridiculous how often the two can both manifest in a person. While my anxiety is quick paced and frantic, my depression feels much slower and lethargic. The best way I can describe how it makes me feel is an overwhelming sinking feeling that I can’t pull myself out of. When I get like this, it can be very hard to motivate myself to do anything, even just getting out of bed sometimes. It becomes very hard to see any positives in life, and again, it can totally incapacitate me.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety about three years ago, during my second year at university. During this first appointment, my doctor had been reluctant to put me on any medication, and recommended that I looked into counselling. I then realised that there could be quite a hefty waiting period. I was finding it extremely hard to get through each day and had finally come to terms with the fact that I needed help as soon as possible.

During my second appointment, I explained this to my doctor whilst crying profusely. Bless him, he had no tissues to offer me, and so ripped up the tissue cover on the patient’s bed.

He said he could see how much I was struggling, and so prescribed me 20mg of Citalopram, an anti-depressant he said was quite good for anxiety. He told me that this was only a temporary solution – the ‘real’ fix would come from counselling; the tablets were merely there to get me through the waiting period.

I came away from that appointment resolute (albeit naively): the way I was feeling would only be temporary. One day soon, I would get ‘better’, the anxiety and depression would go away and I wouldn’t need the tablets anymore.

This was all well and good at the time. I had a few weeks’ worth of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) over the phone, and then my 6 sessions of counselling curtesy of the NHS. I finished my undergraduate degree on a high, celebrating my achievements with my amazing friends. The anxiety and depression that I had been experiencing faded away, and I, happily, started to gradually lower my medication dosage so as not to completely upset my system. I thought I had made it: I was ‘better’.

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That was, until I started my Master’s degree…

Academia, it seems, is not good for my health; my anxiety came back with a vengeance, and with it, a crushing sense of defeat and depression. I had been one step away from being off of my tablets completely, and now I was upping the dosage again. It genuinely felt like I’d failed, and I was so mad at myself for being so weak.

As well as being angry and upset, I was also terrified. The problems that I thought would be temporary weren’t going away. What if they never went away? Was I going to have to spend the rest of my life dealing panic attacks, uncontrollable worry and extremely low moods?

Every time I had a panic attack, or a low day, I would see it as a failure and then work myself up to even more of a panic/depression over the fact that it wasn’t going away. I began getting anxious over feeling anxious, and depressed about being depressed.

I’ve recently begun to realise that I need to stop thinking of being ‘better’ as meaning living with no anxiety/depression at all. In a perfect world, this would be the case, but that’s not necessarily how mental health works. This way of thinking was only succeeding in making me feel worse every time I had a bad day. And what I have realised is, it is ok to have a bad day – everyone has them.

For me, ‘better’ needs to start being about the process, not just the end result. It needs to be about more effectively managing my bad days; being able to calm myself down when I get anxious and being able to do something that makes me happy when I’m feeling low. I need to keep talking to other people about how I’m feeling. There were times I felt like I was completely alone, but I’m starting to realise that has never been true. Through opening up about how I feel, I have found so many other people experiencing similar things to me, and while I hate that other people experience something so horrible, it feels so amazing to know that I am not the only one.

And I need to stop measuring my success on whether or not I still need medication. If the tablets genuinely helped me get through each day, why was it an issue to stay on them? As someone once pointed out to me, if I was on medication to fix high blood pressure, I wouldn’t be so desperate to stop taking it – I would keep taking it until it was no longer an issue.

I’ve still got quite a way to go. I’m currently looking into more long term therapy to try to get to the bottom of why I feel/react this way, as I don’t think the 6 sessions that the NHS offers is long enough for me personally.

But I like to think that by beginning to dismiss the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘quick fix’, to stop beating myself up for having a bad day, and to change my definition of what being ‘better’ actually means, maybe I am one step closer to actually getting there.

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