You or someone you know is probably dealing with anxiety, depression or maybe even both. I’ve dealt with both simultaneously for the past 4 years and I’m not yet fully recovered. I’ve come a long way since the beginning, when I was unable to work and spent every day in bed ignoring phone calls and not eating or washing. My mind was so exhausted that I needed time to recuperate, to recharge before slowly coming to terms with my illness and how it affects my day to day life. I wanted to talk about the physical effects of anxiety and depression, from my own experience. It’s something that no one really warned me about, even though I was diagnosed by a doctor and have received treatment for several years. I’m not a qualified mental health expert, but I have lived through it for some time, so maybe it’s of use to you or someone you know who might be suffering.
I spent the first few months in bed like I said, and when I wasn’t sleeping my only interest was going to the gym. A strange response for someone previously uninterested in fitness, but for whatever reason any energy I had I poured into my daily workout. This led me to lose more weight than I ever had previously, a happy side effect as far as I was concerned even if it wasn’t for the right reasons. Not a healthy mindset I’m sure you’ll agree. After I began taking my prescribed anti-depressants I did experience some weight gain; whether this was a sign of the beginning of recovery or the increased appetite which was described in the pill packet I’m unsure. Overall, I’ve realised that my built in response to both anxious and depressed feelings is to eat. To be honest I’m at a loss as how to shake off this coping mechanism off completely, and it’s definitely attributing to my weight gain as well as low self-esteem which can have a more negative affect on my mental health. It’s a vicious cycle I’m caught in at the moment without any real idea how to escape it. My way of dealing with it currently is to accept that recovery is a long road, and that changes in my mind and body are to be expected. They are not good or bad, or even permanent. They just exist and will adapt as my health improves over time.
I had anxiety and depression for years before I experienced a panic attack. It wasn’t even something I worried about. I think this is partly because I was too anxious to put myself in a situation difficult enough for it to occur. I’m very wary of new places and unusual social outings and can tell what will freak me out. Overall this has been a bad way to handle things, because when I did pluck up the courage to do something out of my comfort zone I had a panic attack as a result. The physical symptoms I had were nausea, blurred vision, needing the toilet, feeling faint, racing heart, shortness of breath and excessive sweating. Combine this with the mental symptom of feeling like you are dying and you have pretty terrifying scenario on your hands. I’ve done some group CBT sessions and the best advice I learned was that you should remain where you are for as long as possible, instead of following the natural urge to leave for somewhere else, somewhere ‘safer’. The panic attack is inside you, not the room, and will subside naturally once you have relaxed. Interestingly, if you leave the location (e.g. the supermarket) you are more likely to develop an irrational fear of that place because you fear it happening again. So panic attacks lead to more panic attacks; annoying right? The more you focus on your symptoms, the harder it can be to let it pass. I’ve heard some people say they distract their minds by counting in their heads or remembering something that takes focus like their first car registration. I was alone on a train so I just focused on taking long deep breaths, even though it felt impossible. It did eventually help and I managed to stay on board and it hasn’t affected my ability to use public transport.
When I get anxious I instantly become very self-conscious. This is especially true in social situations where I’m expected to hold a conversation for long periods of time. One of my irrational fears which stems from when I had to leave my job due to depression was that people were going to ask what I did for a living. The answer would then be “Nothing, I’m unemployed because I have depression” a phrase which I was in no way willing to say out loud. I was so ashamed of myself that I would ask my friends to pre-warn new acquaintances about the reasons of my unemployment so that I wouldn’t have to face the horror of that conversation. Even then, I was still so self-conscious that my entire body felt frozen whilst I floated aimlessly through these social outings. Unless I was plied with alcohol (a terrible decision) I would stare at the floor, hoping no one would ask me a question. If they did I would give a brief answer before turning to my partner or friend who received the usual ‘glare’, suggesting they should hijack the conversation and take it from here. Ideally, I would stay near the perimeter of a large group of people where I could stand rigid, jaw clenched with my tongue pushed up hard against the roof of my mouth, pretending to listen to whatever the ‘normal people’ were talking about whilst I mentally drifted in and out of the room. This muscular tension which my body seemed to create as a defence mechanism became commonplace. The one thing that I have found consistently rewarding throughout my depression is exercise. I was the perfect outlet for me to express myself physically, use up the nervous energy that was running through me and loosen up tight muscles. In particular, Pilates, Body Balance, Yoga and Willpower & Grace have all helped me with muscle tension. If you can afford to go for a spa day and get a massage it will help immensely. It sounds patronising to say a massage will help your depression – it won’t – but it can help soothe the physical pain whilst you continue battle with the mental symptoms.
Have you experienced any of these symptoms?