CW: health anxiety, menstruation
Let me start off this article by taking you through a particular, very recent, day.
I wake up with a start, fresh off a nightmare, where one of the many, many imagined scenarios that terrify me becomes a reality. I sit up, breathing shallow breaths, feeling the panic from my dream flow through me in a horrible, nauseating wave, and wonder if I will ever feel happy or safe again.
I happen to be at a friend’s place. We were role-playing until late the night before, and I live quite far away.
Soon after I wake up, my friend comes into the room, carrying his 6-month-old son. He passes the baby to me, and as I look at the beautiful, smiling little face, I feel a glimmer of happiness fight its way through the worry and fear. It’s enough.
I leave my friend’s house and travel to the centre of London. I am not in the centre of London very often these days, and there is some shopping I want to do. I walk around for several hours, spending insane amounts of money. I’m tired, but I found bras and jeans that fit pretty well. That made it a successful expedition, and I feel reasonably content.
I go to the toilet before lunch. My period started that morning, and I need to change my tampon. I do not do a very good job of it, and I can feel it as I walk to my lunchtime destination. My anxiety brain suddenly kicks in and my emotions fly from mild discomfort to panic as I remember that toxic shock syndrome is a thing. Lunch is filled with fear, worry, and frantic Google searches for TSS to see if I can find information that might calm me down. I cannot quite finish my lunch, but I am at least able to register that what I ate was quite tasty.
After paying for lunch, I rush back to the toilet and change my tampon again. This time I am extra careful. I wash my hands thoroughly, and I take the time to insert it properly. I cannot feel the new tampon, and I feel like i have done everything I can to lessen my risk of getting TSS. I feel a little bit more in control. It’s enough.
I take the train part of the way home and drive the remaining hour or so (I live in a town in the Cotswolds; an area of the UK with woeful public transportation at the best of times, and this was a Sunday afternoon). The air conditioning is on and there is a top 30 billboard countdown playing on the radio. It is not much, in the grand scheme of things, but it feels like everything to me, because I am calm, and content, and my anxiety is at bay.
I arrive home and spend a lovely evening with my parents, eating chicken kebabs and salad, watching a couple of episodes of Star Trek Voyager, and finishing another article for The Body is Not an Apology before falling asleep.
During the night I have another terrible dream, and wake up to that sickening feeling of panic once more. I amble up to my parents’ bedroom and tell my mother about it. She hugs me and tells me that she has similar thoughts, sometimes. She lets me cry on her shoulder. A Once Upon a Time rerun is playing quietly in the background. I feel the tiniest bit better. It’s not as effective as looking at the happy, smiling face of a beautiful baby, but it’s enough.
This is what a typical day with chronic anxiety is like, for me. Once or twice a day (sometimes more often, occasionally not at all), I will see something, I will read something, or a random thought will flicker into my awareness, and I will become awash with panic and fear.
Thankfully, the worst parts of these attacks are usually fleeting, and after a minute or two I will calm down and bring enough of my conscious thought back into reality to carry on. Sometimes I can speed the process along with deliberate actions (changing a tampon, talking to my mum), or I will happen upon something that makes me feel better (such as a baby’s smiling face).
Sometimes, even after the initial wave of panic, the lingering feeling of fear and dread does not quickly dim down. Normally this happens when I have not done anything deliberate to help myself, or, worse, I have tried to help myself and gone about it the wrong way (a classic example of this for myself, and other health anxiety sufferers, is Googling our symptoms), thereby making that lingering feeling worse. When this happens, it can take days, or weeks, for the fear and dread to quiet down.
More Radical Reads: 10 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Has Anxiety
Even when things are going well, and it has been a while since I have had a long-term bout of lingering fear/dread, I am always aware of of it. My anxiety lurks in the background somewhere, ready to jump in at barely a moment’s notice to ruin another day.
Fortunately, in the six years that I have been dealing with this particular anxiety demon, I have discovered a number of methods and practices that help me to manage it and live a reasonably full and fun life. Here are a couple of my favourites:
- Exercise: I know that exercise probably comes second to meditation on a long list of stereotypical advice given to depression and/or anxiety sufferers, but it is first on this list for a reason. My anxiety is generally worst in the morning, when I find I have a lot of pent-up anxiety energy that I want to get rid of but don’t know how. I discovered that working out in the mornings not only allows me to to expel a lot of that anxiety energy, but it also makes me concentrate on my body and my breathing, rather than on my panic and worry. Plus, of course, the release of happy endorphins is probably doing a little bit more to keep sadness away..
- Comedy Podcasts: these are a relatively recent discovery, but they deserve a spot on here because they have been fantastic, for me. When I am doing something relatively simple that requires the use of my eyes and hands (crocheting, driving, etc.), I often find that I need something else to keep my anxiety brain at bay. A lot of people listen to music (and I do too), but there’s something about comedy podcasts that seems to work better. I think it is to do with the chatty nature of them; it feels like I’m listening to a nice, and funny, conversation, and I find conversations relatively immersive.
- Tell People: I am hardly breaking new ground when I say that mental illness needs to be talked about – people have been saying that for decades. I have always been quite upfront about the fact that I have a mental illness, so whenever the subject of ‘telling people’ came up, I waved it off as something that I was already doing. As it turned out, while everybody I was reasonably close to knew that I had a mental illness, none of them knew a thing about the intricacies of said illness. The details of the weird thoughts I get, the scenarios I dream up, the mundane things in everyday life that cause me to panic – I told nobody about them, and was suffering in relative silence as a result. So now I make a conscious effort to tell someone when I am having some sort of bad anxiety spell and what, if anything, has caused it. Knowing that somebody else is aware of what is going on with you helps to share, and therefore lighten, the burden.
- Seek Help, and Get an Official Diagnosis: I realise this might not be a good thing for everybody to do, but it was very helpful for me. I had been diagnosed in the past, but my most recent diagnosis happened after a 45-minute long phone conversation, during which I answered mental health surveys specific to my condition, for the first time ever. Being told by a mental health professional that my condition was both present and severe felt like a massive relief, as it confirmed that the way I thought and felt was very abnormal, and that effort could and would be made to do something about it. I am now on a waiting list for an intense form of behavioural therapy, and even knowing that treatment is on its way is reassuring.
More Radical Reads: Ways Anxiety Can Affect a Person (That You Might Not Know)
Living well with chronic anxiety and/or depression is a challenge that I really wish fewer people had to face. Battling something that never seems to go away can feel frustrating and futile. But as far as I am concerned, good living is something well worth fighting for. And so I will continue to fight for it.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person with short blond hair. Their face is looking upward and is in profile. Behind them is a window with a white curtain. Source: Alessandra]