In your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie
What’s in your head, in your head
Zombie, zombie, zombie-ie-ie, oh
I was really saddened by the passing of The Cranberries’ lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. Zombies was the theme tune of my adolescence.
It’s totally iconic and on listening to it the day after news broke that she had passed away, I laughed (somewhat ironically) at just how much more the song now resonated with me. More and more I’m seeing songs and films in a new light.
Mental illness has a way of revealing as much about the world as it cloaks in times of internal crisis. Go figure.
It’s all in your head…or is it?
I’m none too ashamed to admit just how ignorant I was about anxiety before it sunk its claws in me.
I thought it was a mental health issue. Turns out, that’s not the whole story.
While anxiety may be a psychological disorder, it manifests in a variety of ways – including a whole laundry list of physical symptoms.
I thought I’d go through some of the more common symptoms that I experience on a regular basis. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gives a pretty good insight into how anxiety can manifest in physical ways. For more information on symptoms of anxiety, I found the NHS website really useful.
You know in cartoons when a character falls in love and their heart is visibly beating out their chest? I feel like my heart is trying to do the same thing on a daily basis.
My most frequent symptom is a too-fast heartbeat. It’s uncomfortable, it triggers other physical symptoms and makes falling asleep incredibly difficult most nights. Heart palpitations can be really disconcerting, but when I’m calm enough, breathing exercises help to reduce the heaviness of each thud.
Insomnia or broken sleep
Anyone who knows me well will know how much I love my bed. My relationship with my duvet is sacred, if it doesn’t work out with Tam, I know that my second true love is ready and waiting. For me, not being able to sleep is one of the most frustrating parts of anxiety, and only feeds my anxiety further.
Trembling or shaking
This is one of the most disconcerting physical symptoms I experience. For me, this can be obvious shaking or it can be an internal trembling which is as unnerving as it sounds. The only way to describe it is that my chest, or sometimes my entire skeleton, feels like it’s vibrating.
It’s a horrible feeling and can make easy tasks like brushing my teeth, typing, or even just sitting still feel like a monumental effort.
Tension and muscle pains
I don’t think I realised just how tense my anxiety makes me until I started receiving monthly massages at work. Stuart is an absolute saviour for my poor back, neck and shoulders.
I have more knots in my shoulders than a game of Knots and Crosses. It’s painful, but the massages help.
As do regular baths to soothe my tense muscles.
Shortness of breath
When I’m in an anxiety spiral, it can be really difficult to catch my breath. Having asthma definitely doesn’t help. It’s another panic-induced symptom and it really sucks. I mean, all anxiety symptoms suck, but this one is particularly sucky. ASMR videos and guided meditation videos can be a quick fix, but other times it’s just a case of riding it out and reminding myself that it’ll calm down eventually.
You know how when you have a cold all you can do is think about all those times you didn’t have a cold and how easy it was to breathe? That’s kinda what it’s like when I’m short of breath with anxiety. Only it’s harder to remember what it was like being able to breathe. It’s more a case of PANIC STATIONS.
Not exactly attractive, but then neither is anxiety. When the panic rises and the thoughts start speeding like a runaway train, I start sweating. It makes me grumpy and super self-conscious which doesn’t help calm me down. It’s a physiological response to stress.
There’s not much I can do about it, except always carry a wee deodorant in my handbag and stay hydrated to help keep my body temperature regulated.
This list is far from exhaustive, and doesn’t even cover all of the physical symptoms I experience, but it gives you an idea of the sorts of things I deal with on a daily basis. Some days are worse than others, and some days I don’t have any symptoms at all.
Anxiety is no walk in the park. There are some handy tools and tips that can help make a bad day better, and a good day great! But, at the end of the day, I’ve found that the most important thing is to remember that anxiety is temporary. I will feel better, happier, stronger. And if that doesn’t work, a couple rounds of Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes or a load of star jumps makes everything a little more silly and a lot less scary.
If you’re struggling with anxiety, or any other mental illness, please reach out to someone you trust. Ask for support – you deserve it.
It’s World Mental Health Day. More than just a hashtag, for many it’s the one day a year that provides open dialogue they rarely get to experience otherwise about their mental health.
Today, I thought I’d share 6 things I learned (sometimes the hard way) about depression, anxiety and self-perception.
Until I started experiencing it, I had no real clue what depression was. I had friends who’d lived through it, or who were experiencing it there and then, but I never really understood it. I certainly wasn’t prepared to face the embarrassing truth that I believed much of the stigma and prejudice and stereotyping that I hated in other people’s uneducated rhetoric.
This is probably the most ridiculous one, but I didn’t know that I could be depressed and happy. I didn’t understand that depression could still allow me to genuinely enjoy things. I didn’t think the anxiety tearing my brain apart would give me time for laughter.
Looking back, I’m pretty ashamed to see how deeply ingrained some serious prejudices were in my understanding of mental health. Hopefully, with more open discussion and better education on the subject, others won’t have this realisation smack them in the face the same way I did.
(credit: Veronica Dearly, one of my fave artists on Instagram)
I didn’t know that I could be depressed and horny.
Despite feeling trapped in a pit of despair and emptiness, I could still want and enjoy sex. That took some getting used to. It does make sense, though. There’s a rush of endorphins released during sex. That feeling is addictive.
I was definitely not prepared for my anxiety to kill my libido, though. I felt ashamed that I couldn’t orgasm because my brain was too busy running so fast I could barely understand all the information it was throwing at me. I couldn’t switch off and just enjoy being in the moment. I’m lucky to have a boyfriend who is incredibly understanding and who refuses to let shame enter into that mortifying conversation.
(credit: Gemma Correll)
It’s not a conversation many people are comfortable having, but it needs to be talked about more. Like every other aspect of your life, mental ill health will very likely affect your sex life. Coming to terms with that can be frustrating, embarrassing, upsetting and a million other things. Give yourself time and allow your mind to catch with the horn your body is throwing down. You’ll get there. And then you can get back to doing the sex.
(I would apologise to any family/friends/strangers who feel weird about this section, but I’m not sorry. Sex happens. We’re adults. Your discomfort feeds into the lack of discussion. It’s time we get over our discomfort around sex and get honest.)
I’ve been tired before, but depression doesn’t make you tired. Depression leeches every iota of energy from your being and leaves a husk of a human behind. A human who still has to get up in the morning and function and go to work because there are bills to pay. Depression left me feeling empty a lot of the time. Spoon theory can apply to mental ill health and sometimes this accurately explains how my days go when I’m not well.
(credit: Gemma Correll – a brilliant artist with endlessly relatable Instagram uploads)
Filled to the Brim and Endlessly Empty
I didn’t know I could feel more than just depression. I didn’t know that I could feel nothing but depression. I didn’t understand how my head and heart could be a cacophony of emotion and feeling and mess and noise that would overwhelm me to the point of tears.
The way I describe it is a runaway train where you can hear and feel all the passengers’ thoughts and feelings, while your heart keeps in time with the ever-quickening wheels. And there’s absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.
(credit: Gemma Correll)
It took me a while to get to grips with self-care. Understanding that calling devouring a tub of ice cream is not necessarily self-care, but it’s also not something to agonise over for hours after. Finding healthy routines to practice as self-care took a while and I’m still bad at keeping up with them. There are days where getting in the shower seems so arduous the thought reduces me to tears. But I know that taking the time to wash and condition my hair and use my yummy-smelling body wash always makes me feel better. I have to push through the fog and continue the routine.
Cross stitching, reading, adult colouring in books. They all give me a little time to be productive while also contributing to self-improvement in some fashion, reducing the guilt I’d otherwise feel for not spending my time doing more “worthwhile” things.
Getting back into musical theatre has been incredible too. Pushing me out of my comfort zone again, forcing myself to socialise and surround myself with music and activities I love.
(credit: Gemma Correll)
One thing I wasn’t prepared to have to do, though, was to step back from friendships that weren’t good for my mental health, no matter how much I loved the people. It’s hard accepting that someone is bad for you, but you have to make yourself the most important thing. Toxic relationships only work to undo the effort you put into your wellbeing. Assessing the health of your relationships is difficult, but can be incredibly freeing when you are able to lessen the strain that relationship had on your health.
I wasn’t prepared for the good days to feel so damn incredible and my heart feel like it could burst because it was so full of love. I certainly couldn’t imagine that people could still love me despite me not loving myself. It can be hard not pushing those people away in a fit of shame and anger – how do they see something worth loving when I can’t? I’m learning that my perception of myself and the world can be skewed by depression and anxiety. That, no matter how real it might seem, Tam is in fact just sleeping and not silently fuming at you for not saying “I love you” 9 times instead of 8 that day. That, despite the many niggling thoughts of unworthiness I have, I am really worth people’s time. I actually do have a lot to offer. I’m a lot more capable than I sometimes give myself credit for.
(credit: Veronica Dearly)
While I don’t always feel like I have fight left in me, I don’t want to be this way forever. Especially when there are other, far more important things in my life I’d rather focus my energy on.
At the end of the day, regardless of the state of my mental health, I’m still me. And I think that’s the thing I was most surprised to learn.
Brains confuse me.
I mean, they’re great. But I don’t understand how they work. I’ve studied them to a certain extent in relation to how they handle language, but that’s just one tip of one iceberg in a world full of Titanic-sinking lumps of frozen water.
They’re extraordinary and mind-boggling and scary. They control us, and we control them, but we also have no idea just how powerful they can be sometimes.
I get on with my brain most of the time. I’m kinda thankful for it, because it makes sure I carry on breathing and living and thinking and doing the things I like to do.
It lets me sing and fail at dancing and concoct recipes from a countertop full of random ingredients that shouldn’t really go together. It helps me think up presents for people and create art projects in my brain that will likely not translate well in the real world, but it’s the planning that I enjoy the most. It lets me laugh and love and surprise myself with things I remember and things I forget.
It also makes me obsessively try and learn the last 4 digits of every car’s reg plate I pass. It sometimes forces me to count my steps in 10s. Lists become a necessity in my daily life when I feel like I’m not completely in control. It convinces me I’m a burden and too difficult for people to want to spend time with me. It tricks me into believing that I have done something to upset people, unrelentingly convincing me until I’m suffocated by the guilt and I feel their frustration hang tangibly in the air, even though it doesn’t exist to them. Every so often it lets my imagination run so wild I struggle to leave my flat for fear that some unknown thing will happen to me and it will be bad.
My brain is a fickle friend. It’s always there with me, but I can’t always trust if it’s working with me or against me.
I have lots of good days. To read the above you’d think I was mostly unhappy and a bit crazy. Crazy, yes, but not unhappy.
I feel happiness the majority of the time. And joy. And love. I am able to appreciate the little things and have a heart so full it feels like it could burst.
But when I’m not feeling those things, when I am sad and low and scared, I get frustrated.
See, my brain doesn’t just cloud my judgement and pull wool over my eyes. I am kind of aware that I’m being tricked. I just don’t have the power or energy to fight it. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming, I am completely convinced that I am being rational in my beliefs and that person really doesn’t want to spend time with me because I know in my heart of hearts that I am being annoying.
My brain is an extraordinary thing. Even when it’s working against me, I’m in awe of it. I am aware but not aware, I believe but I’m incredulous. How can one small organ have so much control? How do I regain it? Maybe I don’t. Maybe that’s the way everyone’s brains work. Or even just some people’s brains. But how will we know that until we start talking about it?
How can we learn about what’s okay and when to ask for help if no one will talk about their personal boundaries and breaking points?
Talking is a gift my brain allows me. It’s a gift I want to use to help myself and anyone else who needs it – reassurance that brains are the weirdest, most frustrating, most brilliant things we could ever have. And we can still get angry with them for tricking us and tripping us up and upsetting us.
We can get pissed off that we still have to sleep with the duvet over our shoulders and no limbs hanging off the mattress because it’s so good at convincing us that monsters live under the bed even though we’re too old to believe in ghost stories.
Because where would you rather they lived? Under the bed? Or in your own head?