Anxiety: A Mental Illness

I’m an expert at freaking out.

Anyone who understands what it is to be ‘high strung’ will understand this thought process; I was sitting in bed one night and my eye wouldn’t stop twitching.  Logically, I knew that my current state of overly tired and dehydration was probably the culprit.  But my brain goes from ‘this is normal’ to ‘I have an aneurysm that is about to burst and I’ll be dead by morning’ so fast I approach panic attack status.  Say goodbye to sleep, I’ll be wide awake all night.

There is no logic that can out-argue this ability to go from bad to worse.  I’ve read so many websites and articles that say to remind yourself you’re fine and that nothing bad will happen.  I can tell myself that until I’m blue in the face, but my brain won’t get on board.

In the past few years, I’ve dealt with such extreme anxiety that my doctor put me on medication.  I couldn’t function with the panic attacks, the constant state of doom and the certainty that those bad things were going to happen to me.  I felt defeated to admit that at such a young age, I needed medication just to function normally.  I tried everything that the books and doctors said to do;  exercise, meditate, healthy eating, positive reinforcements… anything to help me calm down.  The medication was the only thing that made a difference, and I didn’t want to be on medication for life.

What really made the difference for me was seeing a counsellor that refused to tell me everything was going to be fine.  Instead, she told me that I needed to face this like a physical illness.  It is an illness.  A mental illness.  Don’t diminish what you’re going through as ‘just anxiety’, or tell yourself it’s all in your head.  Anxiety causes physical symptoms, puts you in a state of dysfunction, and stops you from taking care of yourself.  That description with any other name would be called a serious illness.

So I stopped trying the excuses.  I stopped telling myself that nothing bad was going to happen, and instead I considered those bad things that I knew could happen.   One by one, I turned and stared them in the face.

One of the most important one is my health.  In the last few years, I’ve unfortunately lost quite a few family members due to health problems.  Before this, I never thought about my own health.  I sort of ignored it, thinking that I’m young and healthy, so I should be fine.  Instead I saw all around me how it could change suddenly, and how it could take away the people you love.  It’s an emotional problem, fearing for your own health and life.  A battle that sometimes you can’t fight.  People lose that fight every day, and so could I.

But there are things that I can do.  It was hard at first, to change my habits.  If I was really so afraid of becoming ill, then I wasn’t doing myself any favours ignoring it.  I kept it simple, eating as many veggies as possible, upping my water intake, and making sure I move somehow every day.  I started looking up ways to counteract my desk job, and started stretching and doing breathing exercises on the days I couldn’t walk during lunch.  As I started to feel physically stronger, I felt my anxiety about my health start to become manageable.

If that was my only problem, I would have been fine.  But I’m way more complicated than that!  What this small move did for me was help me make a plan.  I’m good at plans.  If I could face the things that frighten me, I could manage my illness.

So the next step was to face my next biggest cause of anxiety.  Ah yes, the job.

Here is where I’m lucky.  I have a great family.  I was in a really stressful work situation with a business partner that was a nightmare.  I had so much anxiety about trying to get out that I would lose sleep at the idea of seeing him the next day.  He was impossible to deal with, and selfish beyond anything you could imagine.  My mom called me one day, and randomly told me that I could always come home.  At 30 years old, living alone in the city, taking care of myself and paying my own bills, she gave me a huge out without even understanding how big it was.  With her help, I had the opportunity to start over.  To force my business partner to buy me out, get out of the city, and start working somewhere I really enjoyed.

This step is not easy.  Uprooting your entire life is not in the cards for everyone.  I’d read the stories about people who did it, gave up everything and found happiness, but I had a very clear life going on that I liked.  Friends, family, and a complete lifestyle.  But I had to tell myself that all of that didn’t make me happy.  With the anxiety I was dealing with, none of that made a difference.

After my work situation was dealt with, I really did start to feel better.  I was facing my illness head on, and very slowly, making things better.

Instead of stressing about certain situations that caused me anxiety, I started to really focus on how I could make them better, or if not, cut them out of my life.  I have a real issue driving, or more accurately, being in the car with other people driving.  Especially long distances.  I had to really work to figure out what it was that caused the panic to start, and for me, it’s the speed.  There’s a feeling of being out of control that sends me immediately into panic.  Surprise!  I have control issues.  It took making the above changes to help me realize that it all comes down to control.

Learn to let go?  Oh yeah, like it’s that easy.  Holding on to things is part of my makeup.  My mom started to tell me stories about when I was really young, and how stressed I would get anytime I wasn’t in control.  I would get freaked out when the leaves blew across the ground, or if I turned around and couldn’t see my parents anywhere, I’d have a massive panic attack.  Even when I was a baby, she said breastfeeding me was a nightmare, because I didn’t like being tilted.  Something about my genetic makeup has this tight hold on control that doesn’t come from anywhere.

I started to study it, and it became almost an obsession, figuring out why I am they way I am.  I  knew I couldn’t change myself, but I could understand it, and then maybe, be able to learn to unravel this tightly wound part inside me.

My counsellor told me that most people with control issues come from homes that constantly moved and changed.  Unstable relationships, having to change schools and locations more than once, and so on.  I had none of that.  I came from a loving, stable home, and we lived in the same neighborhood most of my life.  I had the same friends, went to the same schools, and followed the same general routines.  So what makes me such a control freak?

Turns out I’m stuck in this state of needing to be in control, but not wanting to be in control at the same time.  Despite my Aries tendency to take charge, I really enjoy not being the person in charge.  It’s like I’m at odds with my own nature.

There it is.  The root of all my anxiety.  Facing this illness, I have finally come down to the root problem.  I am the way I am, but part of me either doesn’t understand it, or rebels at the idea of it.  I am in charge, but I don’t always want to be.  I am driven, but I constantly long for time to relax.  I work hard, feeling better when I do, and resent it because it takes away from what I consider my personal life.  I resent my very nature, because I’m two people.

Before this gets overly confusing, let me assure you that it becomes really very simple.  It’s just like physical health.  It’s all about balance.  I don’t have to try and cater to the part of me that is a leader or likes to work hard.  What I have to do is give the other part of me the same amount of time and consideration.  To give myself the time to relax, to let go and not take charge, to allow myself the chance to just… be.

It was easy once I started.  I set time aside specifically for calm.  To satisfy the driven part of me, I called it a task.  I was taking care of my mental health, and that was an important job.  I figured out what this other part of me needed one day at a time.  It needed peace and quiet.  It needed to stop and appreciate the things I have.  It needs to find a way to be happy, to be calm and at peace.

Guess what started happening to my anxiety when I started giving my other half room to breathe?  Not surprising, it started taking care of itself.  That part of me that was constantly fighting to be heard was getting a chance to speak, and being listened too, and I was naturally calming down.

We all have this idea in our head of the person we are.  Since I was a kid I was told I had natural leadership skills, that I was driven and I worked hard.  I believed them, because I am an Aries, and that’s what they all say about us.  I always drew parallels with these descriptions of myself and assumed they were right, because partly, they were.  But it was such a dangerous way to be brought up.  No one calls us Aries sensitive, or submissive, or needing of calm and peace.  Of feeling better in water, or standing in nature and breathing it in.  These traits are more common of other ‘signs’.  This is why categories are so damaging.  I was put in a category so early, and it caused me so much pain.  If I experienced something that went ‘outside that box’, I felt like something was wrong with me.

Throwing out that category is what ultimately saved my mental health.  I do like to work hard, and that’s fine.  But I also like to be calm, and relax.  I need to be busy, but I also need to go slow.  My favourite parts of the day are the parts when I get everything to stop.  I love new projects, but I also love really focusing on myself as a project.  To find new ways of naturally feeling myself just let go.  I used the task-oriented part of me to benefit the more sensitive side, and vice-versa.

My issues driving have started to fade.  My nights lying awake are fewer and far between.  My focus on the worse case has given way to a ‘this is life’ mentality, with a ‘things will happen the way they happen’ focus that has eased worries I didn’t know I had.

The point of this article is to let you know that you are not alone, and that you are not a slave to anxiety.  It took me a long time to get to where I am now, and I did it in a roundabout way that thankfully helped me sit down and come to a conclusion.  I can be honest with myself, and admit to the things I need in life that I felt almost ashamed of before.  There is no longer shame in the person I am.  I feel pride in being able to say that sometimes I need help, sometimes I’m not good at making a decision, and sometimes I want to give up control.  Treating my anxiety like a serious illness is what made the difference.

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