Thursday, May 15, 2014

Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental Health Awareness Week started on Monday. This year's theme is anxiety so it seems suitable for me to write a blog entry on the subject since I'm an expert by experience.

I was diagnosed with Panic Disorder and depression at the age of 17. Both stemmed from my beliefs that there was something 'wrong' with me if I couldn't make the people around me happy and a need to 'get things right'. By the time I was 22 the Panic Disorder became so intense that I was hospitalised and, for the first time in my life, given medication for a mental illness.

From that day on I realised I needed to go about things very differently than I had been. I began seeing a psychologist and working to develop skills and mechanisms to improve my over-all well-being so I didn't have to take medication.

My experience has taught me so much and shown me how odd our societal approach to mental illness is. We seem to think body and mind are separate things to be treated independent of one another. 

If you get a cold you take steps to care for yourself. You eat chicken soup, go to bed early, and refrain from exerting yourself. Some people don't and their cold can last for ages or they never quite recover before getting another bug. Some people have a weakened immunes system for one reason or another and must take extra steps to keep from getting ill. 

If you're suffering from an anxiety disorder, or repeated bouts of depression, getting enough rest, excercising regularly, eating well, talking to someone you trust - will all help you to recover. And recovery IS possible. If we have a family history of mental illness or a chemical imbalance then, just like someone with a compromised immune system, we must be more vigilant with our mental and physical care. 

But unfortunately, and all too often, mental illness is given a pill as if that is solution enough. You could take loads of cold medicine when you are physically ill but all the medication in the world won't make your cold go away - it often just masks the symptoms without addressing the underlying problem.

It's been four years since my psychologist told me I no longer had an anxiety disorder. I'm still neurotic and high strung but I take steps to ensure my mind remains healthy. 

I have strict sleep hygiene, I exercise regularly, I eat well and I don't drink coffee (Despite how much I love coffee). I love myself first and best and know that all these things are crucial to my continued 'good' mental health. I have a support network of people I  trust and can rely on to be there for me or give me a good swift 'kick in the pants' if I'm not doing what's needed to take care of myself. I meditate daily and talk to my psychologist whether life is challenging or not. 

A friend of mine recently described her experience of depression as being in a deep, black hole. It goes down really far and she could be stuck at the bottom but she's built up handholds that let her climb out. She has filled it with as many hand holds as possible so she knows she can always climb out. 

For me, in the case of anxiety, medication is one of many handholds and one nearest the very bottom of the pit. I have to plunge very low before I need it and more often than not these days I'm not even close to the edge. 

Everyone is, of course, entirely unique and you have to figure out your own handholds - but I can ensure you that there are always options. The advice I give people when they ask is to write down all the ways they take care of themselves. Even seemingly little thing (I make myself a nice cup of tea) is something worth recognising and can act as the smallest hand hold. 

May you have ease of mind. 

'Wise at Any Age' was published nearly a year ago and is the result of what I learned during my recovery from Panic Disorder and depression. 

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