I worry if I’m not worrying about something!

Despite the fact my exams finished over seven weeks ago, it’s still difficult for me to fully relax and forget about college/university. I should be relishing all this free time, basking languidly and soaking up all the sun, I know that. I have absolutely nothing to be stressing about! So why am I fretting?

I wonder where this, well, I suppose it is, ‘anxiety’, stemmed from. I mused over genetics for a while, but surmised that, as most of my family are pretty nonchalant folk, it was a pretty unlikely cause. (Do you see what I mean, though? I was worrying about why I was always worrying so much. Sigh.)

I was shocked when, at parent’s evening earlier this year, one of my teachers said “She does worry a lot!” to my mother, then turned to me and asked candidly: “Do you suffer from anxiety?” I was bewildered. It was the realisation that people were beginning to view me in this light when I’d never really noticed it myself. “No,” I replied, “I just worry…about everything.” Soon after this it started to get worse, affecting me physically, interfering with my life: my hands started trembling when I wrote and when I gripped small things, such as grapes. It peaked during mock exam week at college. Before each test I felt nauseas and couldn’t stop jittering. By the end of that week I was a complete mess. I was drained! I couldn’t let this carry on, I was concerned about my health. I went to visit my GP. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth when he told me that these symptoms were merely a product of my worrying. He used this analogy to contextualise what I was experiencing: “If it snowed heavily and someone was constantly reminding you to “Be careful!” before you’d even stepped outside, chances are you’re going to be more afraid of slipping than if you just tackled the thing head on without a single thought about the consequences. Then, if you did fall it wouldn’t’t be so bad! You, yourself are that nagging voice.” Right, well. Ok! That was that, then.

Everyone worries, it’s natural; the difficulty is realising that, most of the time, the situation is out of your hands and that whatever is going to happen, will. This is a simple concept that I find impossible to accept: I must have control over my life. You can imagine how hard it’s been trying to take my mind off exam results these past few weeks! I’ve not done too bad, actually and managed, somewhat, to avoid over-analysing everything. When I do feel overwhelmed, I like to watch ‘Skins’ (1st generation, of course). ‘Cassie’ is my favourite. Failing that, I run a bubble bath, lie in there for a while, make some tea, wear my comfiest pyjamas and go to sleep. Worrying is exhausting. It can make you incredibly sad, too.

Sometimes clarity is necessary: it’s perfectly fine to ask questions to allay your curiosity. On the other hand, an integral part of maturation is gaining independence. It’s important to figure things out for yourself.

Look after your mind by doing things you enjoy and being around people who make you laugh. Strive to achieve balance and stability in life.

Working with people who live with mental health difficulties

My experience with mental illnesses started in my early teen years, when my grandma developed Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing my Dad having to watch his mother decline slowly was so hard. It started slowly, with her forgetting small details about things; but escalated into disorientation and severe confusion. After a nasty fall down the stairs, we decided that a nursing home would be the best environment for her to live in, as she would be surrounded by people who could care for her at all times of the day and night. Visiting was the most painful experience, especially when it got to the stage where she couldn’t remember who we were or where she was. Her personality changed so much it was like she was a different person. My mum was so supportive, having a background in nursing and working in a care home herself. But my dad found it hard to deal with the slow change in brain function and personality, as a result of the disease which onset is upsettingly inevitable.

When I turned 16 and started working in nursing homes, first as a cleaner and then as a carer, I found that these feelings were common in relatives who had to watch their loved ones change as a result of mental illness brought on by the onset of old age: their personality quirks faded, they could forget details of their lives or their families, and in some cases they could become distressed, aggressive or inappropriate. Of course, this brought great sadness to the families concerned but also to the person that was suffering from the mental illness. During my time as a carer I have spoken to residents who are scared; who know what is happening to them, and are aware that there is little they can do to stop it. They feel distressed at their confusion and embarrassed when they draw attention to themselves with erratic behaviour.

As a carer used to looking after elderly people suffering from mental illnesses, I thought that the care and treatment that they receive should be universal and apply to people of all ages who have trouble with their mental health – whether it be an illness, or just a temporary instability of the mind. I also believe that just because mental illnesses are expected more with old age, they are still very common in younger generations and so just because they are not necessarily expected to suffer from a mental illness does not mean that it is unlikely to happen, or that it should be looked down upon as a weakness. I find that far too often the pressures of life in the 21st century mean that people become run down and unable to cope with everyday demands. People cannot be seen to be ‘weak’ in any way, and so admitting that they cannot come to work because they are suffering from a mental illness or condition is often seen as less of a reason than if that person was physically injured.

So, my reasons for joining the Mental Health Matters society are because I believe in the right to have equality and recognition of mental illnesses and conditions across all ages and lifestyles, and that the stigma attached to mental health, especially in the younger generations, should be wiped out completely.

My Brother

Most people know the statistics about mental health, especially with celebrities such as Stephen Fry becoming ever more vocal about their own battles, but there’s the general consensus that no one ever thinks it will happen to them until it does. The biggest problem we have is that people will not talk about it. Everyone appears to be ingrained with this stoicism that they can’t talk about their problems, and they must suffer in silence. It is this outlook that fosters an attitude of being a sufferer of a mental health illness as being something taboo. Everyone is affected in different ways, some for a short time, some long term, some directly and some indirectly, but until we start to talk about and share our experiences, nothing is going to change. We as part of Mental Health Matters society are not only personally interested, invested and passionate about this cause, but we are also willing to be that change we want to see. We will be starting a series of blogs to see how different people, from different walks of life around the university are affected in different ways by mental health problems.

My personal journey with mental health began five years ago, when my older brother was diagnosed with depression in his second year of university. At the time I was 16. Being that he lived away from home, and my parents were never overly forthcoming with details, believing (quite rightly) that it was his own choice who and how he told people, I was able to sweep it under the rug and brush it off as a phase. It wasn’t until he moved back from university, that I was forced to confront the idea that this wasn’t going to be a phase, but something that my whole family would have to deal with long term.

Adjusting to life back home was hard for my brother; he would be grumpy and lash out at my little brother, something that would be difficult for me to deal with. I would resent my parents for walking on eggshells around him, not wanting to upset the balance of our usually peaceful house. I didn’t understand why he couldn’t be nicer, why he never wanted to spend time with us, but instead locked himself in his room. Looking back at this time I was selfish because all I could think about was how his illness had affected me. I felt so angry at how he had changed our lives, because I didn’t understand that it wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t just snap out of it. And overall I felt helpless because I couldn’t talk to him because I was scared, scared that I would make him worse. This was a feeling I couldn’t shake for years. I felt guilty that I was able to escape from being at home by coming to Sheffield, leaving my parents and little brother to deal with it alone. I didn’t speak to anyone about my brother’s depression, in denial about how much it had affected me. I never wanted to go home for the weekend; because it was going back to a life away from the carefree existence I had created for myself, to a place that I worked so hard to keep secret from my friends.

Over the summer of my first year of university, however, this all changed. I was looking for a book in my older brother’s room. Whilst I was in there I found a sign that he had written, and put by his mirror. It read; “Today WILL be a good day. I WILL be more positive.” It was at this point that I realised how selfish I had been. All I had thought about for years was how his depression had affected my little brother, my family, and me. Without a second thought to how he felt about how he was affecting people too. I felt sadness that I had been ashamed for so long about something that was no ones fault, and I had spent so long, not trying to understand, but rather trying to avoid it in the hope that it would go away.

It was at this point that I made the choice to stop trying to avoid his depression. I researched it and found people online and read about their experiences living with a sibling that suffers from mental health problems. And most importantly, I spoke to him about it. Realising that you are not alone is something that is invaluable in the battle against an illness that we still don’t fully understand. Despite this, people still aren’t talking about it enough, which is why we have created this blog. The more people share it, the more people see it, the more we might help someone who is feeling isolated and alone. Depression isn’t something that is magically cured, in my family there are still ups and downs, but it is something we all go through together. Since I have accepted that I can’t just ignore it, I have found better ways to cope. Getting involved with Mental Health Matters is therapeutic for me. Though I may not be able to help my brother in his battle, I can spread the word, fundraise and challenge the stigma surrounding mental health. I can’t help him to feel better, so I campaign for something I believe in, in the hope that someone, somewhere is benefiting from what we do.

Dating Someone with Bipolar

There are many articles on personal mental health and these are incredibly important in their own right; I’ve often used them to help me when things aren’t going so great. However, I did not realise how isolating actually dating someone with mental health can sometimes be. Due to mental health stigmas and a general lack of understanding it is often difficult to talk to anyone when your partner turns round and states that they wish they were dead. After a while you run out of reasons to show them how wonderful life can be and how important they truly are to the world. I had this moment and broke down in tears because I felt I couldn’t help the person I love. It took time but I realised the most important thing; it’s not my fault. I am not the reason they don’t want to be here. It is chemicals in their mind causing emotions which cause them to feel this way. So I thought I would share my experience of dating someone who suffers with bipolar.

My boyfriend was diagnosed with bipolar towards the start of our relationship. He was grateful for the diagnoses because for many years doctors had wrongly diagnosed him and even prescribed anti-depressants-certainly not what you should give to someone with bipolar. I didn’t really know what bipolar was, but after a bit of internet searching and talking with my boyfriend I started to understand and this is kind of it;  Sufferers of bipolar go through stages of mania where they almost can’t stop moving, thinking or talking. It is as though anything is possible; ‘hey lets jump off the roof because I can’. On the reverse of this there are bouts of depression often leading to self-harm, suicidal thoughts and sometimes suicide. These moods can last for weeks, months or even years. This is all well and good but anyone who has any experience of mental health knows that everyone is slightly different and so, although I understand the basic outlines I don’t pretend to fully get it. I tell him I see his brain as a solar nebular-beautiful to look at even if I don’t fully understand it.

He was nervous about  taking medication for the bipolar, which is understandable due to his past experience, but also because he didn’t want to become ‘zombie-like’ with no emotions. He did experience some side effects when he started the meds, he would often twitch involuntarily and sometimes his legs gave way. It was saddening to see him get upset and I was worried as if he was going to collapse I wouldn’t be able to move him as I’m fairly petite and he is 6ft4. We did have a moment where his legs gave way in a supermarket but he held onto me and I supported him as we walked home, it took quite a while longer and he was annoyed at himself but it didn’t matter. After a few months the side effects faded and he was back to his usual self.

What was difficult was explaining to him how ‘normal’ emotions work, that often people do have ups and downs, even on a daily basis-he wasn’t overly pleased at this revelation as normally he experiences long periods of being mega happy. He has been treated for nearly 2 years now but it has not been easy. Medication is not the final answer or a magic fix by any means. There are still times when he’ll tell me he wants to die. He still gets upset and angry at the world because he wishes he was dead. It hurts a lot to hear and sometimes I feel like quitting because it’s so hard. Someone once told me I should end things with him because of the stress and worry and upset but as soon as they said it I knew that it wasn’t an option. I don’t have to stay, no one has to stay with anyone they don’t want to, but I love him and I wouldn’t change him for the world.

When you date someone with bipolar, or probably any other mental health thing, it can be heartbreaking-why is life that bad you want to die? You feel like you are slamming your head into a brick wall because when someone goes into a depressed or down mood it is very difficult to say anything to help, often they need time, sometimes that’s alone, which can also be hard. People comment on my patience and how strong I am but I’m only strong on the outside. I struggle and sometimes I have what I like to call ‘kitchen floor breakdown’ when you just sit on the floor and cry because what on earth else can you do.

Please don’t get me wrong, the majority of the time we have a wonderful relationship; we go out, discuss how whales should have gills, debate human evolution and dance like we are in an 80’s aerobics video-you know what all couples do! And it is these moments that make the few bad days/weeks irrelevant; the bipolar is not important to me, it is just one of those things in our relationship. Some people have long distance relationships, some have partners which don’t speak the same language as them and some have partners with mental health issues. Dating someone with a mental health issue can be trying at times but if you want to be with someone it shouldn’t matter. My boyfriend has no control over his bipolar as it is just chemicals in his brain, just like love is a chemical and you wouldn’t break up with someone because of that.

Turning Points

I don’t really like to think back to the time when I had anorexia. I don’t like to think about the way I looked, the way I acted and especially the way I thought. However, I think it is something that I have to do in order to really accept what happened and so that I can fully move on.

My mum and I have always been quite close. The kind of close where we go shopping together or watch films together, though not really the kind of close where we would spend hours talking about our feelings. I liked this.

When I got anorexia this changed. When I think back to our relationship during that time I always imagine her with this certain facial expression. I don’t know if I can fully explain it, it wasn’t quite anger, there was an almost vacancy to it. To me it looked like someone on the brink of losing hope, unaware of what to do, but determined not to do nothing. The main emotion though was sadness, absolute and utter sadness. I hate that I did this to her, I know it was not my fault, but I wish that I could take back the pain that I caused her.

We didn’t talk anymore, not properly. Our conversations were her asking me about food and me lying to her. They were about her wanting me to see a doctor and me refusing. Even when this wasn’t what we were talking about explicitly it was always there. We weren’t friends anymore, I don’t know what we were.

The night I told her I knew I had a problem and that I was getting help, she cried. The first time she saw me finish a meal and dessert she looked pleased. When I started to try on clothes and not look like a skeleton, she complimented me. However, I could still see that there was a sadness whenever there was any reminder about anorexia and what we had been through.  She didn’t like to talk about it. She never said, but whenever the conversation came up, she would become teary or move onto something else. That was ok, I understood, I didn’t blame her.

Then there was another turning point. A little while ago I wrote a status about having had anorexia and I have been working with mental health matters to try and raise awareness of mental health. When I first told my mum about this I wasn’t sure what she thought about it. I thought she seemed a bit upset or reserved.

Then one evening last week I got a phone call. It was my mum phoning to tell me that she was proud of me. There were no tears no sadness, just happiness.

Getting over anorexia was difficult, but that phone call made that struggle worth it. What’s more, her acceptance of me and what happened has helped me to accept me and what happened and move on.

Managing Anxiety

~ Lauren Gasser 

Anxiety, in any of its innumerable forms, is a challenging and overwhelming emotion; one that ignites without warning and often grows in intensity if you do not tackle it directly. Anxiety can feel as though it is stealing from you – stealing your social life, stealing your sleep, stealing life’s pleasures, and it is easy to feel as though you have lost control. No matter how overpowering this feeling becomes, it is important to remember that you DO have control; you have control over your actions and your choices, which can directly impact upon anxiety and eventually quench it entirely. It is also important to recall the now clichéd phrase, ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’, because the realization that you can still walk, and talk, and pretty much do anything even WITH anxiety is one of the biggest steps towards overcoming it. It may not be easy to ‘accept’ ones fears and find ways to live with them, but remember how much you have to gain. Yes, you have to be brave, but we’re all capable of that.

Counselling is a great way of working through the causes of your anxiety, and creating a personal action plan can help you overcome your fears in small, manageable steps. Here are a couple of top tips for commonly anxiety-provoking situations:

Panic Attacks: The chemical cause of these frightening episodes is the ‘fight or flight’ response, during which the brain releases adrenalin in order to keep us safe. A primitive neurological feature (designed to protect us from saber-tooth tigers and the like), it is unfortunately rather misplaced in the modern mind and leads to hyperventilating, sweating, dizziness, tingling extremities, and of course an intense feeling of fear.

Breathing Techniques: Panic attacks manifest themselves in various ways, but the great news is that they can be managed, with increasing ease, when you realise that they are simply a result of breathing in too much oxygen. The old paper-bag trick is a bit obvious if you’re on the bus, so a useful technique is to visualise a brick (two long sides, two short) and to focus your breath around this shape, breathing out along the longer lines, and in along the short. It might be difficult at first, especially as panic attacks often feel as though you can’t breathe, but if you concentrate on making your out-breaths longer than your in-breaths, the feeling will pass much more quickly. Moreover, the mantra ‘this will pass’ can be comforting while you are getting to grips with your breath.

Social Anxiety: The idea of entering a room full of people might make you feel incredibly anxious, but there are ways to make the experience a little easier. It’s a good idea to tackle social anxiety in stages, by creating a list of situations that you can tick off one by one, starting with the easiest. Start really easy: invite one other person for coffee, or sit next to someone in the common room and start a conversation. A small group dinner might be the next step, or a cinema trip, but increasing the fear-factor slowly will help to make the process less overwhelming.

Group Interaction: Attending events with like-minded people can also be useful, for example a college club or society meeting in an area that you have some knowledge or interest. Remember, sometimes the loudest and most outwardly confident people are covering up nervousness or insecurity, so there is nothing wrong with being quiet and actively listening to others (in fact, this is a fantastic skill which many extroverts lack!) The breathing technique described above can also help if you feel you are becoming overwhelmed. Even if you are feeling very nervous on the inside, the people around you don’t know that. You can still walk around, talk to people and laugh at jokes whilst feeling anxious. The distinction lies between feeling the emotion and experiencing it – knowing it is there, but not allowing it to dictate your actions. The more we ‘do’ while feeling anxious, the less powerful the anxiety becomes, and the quicker it will dissolve completely. In fact, you may well find yourself forgetting the anxiety is there and having a good time!