I’m not a doctor or psychiatrist so I’m not in the business of diagnosing others with mental illnesses. This is my own personal journey with anxiety and depression. My prayer is that something I’ve learned or experienced during the darkest period of my life can help someone else. My hope is to shine a light into what I experienced and bring comfort and help to you or someone you love.
Early in our marriage, I began having panic attacks. At the time, I had no idea what they were. A heart attack? Stress symptoms and hypertension? Some kind of brain tumor? I just knew something wasn’t right. I even landed in the emergency room on a couple of occasions. After daily struggles for over a year with no clear answers, my last panic attack left me talking with my doctor in a desperate tone of “I can’t live this way anymore”!
A year after my first panic attack, I finally began to get the help and counsel I needed. I became educated on anxiety and depression, mental illnesses, medications, support groups, and therapy. In my role as a school counselor, I had a significant amount of education to help others, but I wasn’t sure how to help myself.
Now, I was on a medically monitored path to mental health. I began to feel like my old self. I began to regain my energy and focus. I began running and exercising again. I started to hang out with family and friends again and stopped avoiding social situations. The most life-changing thing I did during this difficult season was surrender my life to Christ. I had heard that phrase "surrender my life" many times, but it now hit home for me personally. The fight against this illness was one that I was losing. The more I tried, the more I failed. It was not until I dropped to my knees and said, “Lord, I need you” that I experienced true freedom! The battle was no longer just mine. I now felt like I had the Navy SEALS dropping in to aid me in my battle.
The journey to strong mental health has been life long. I have actively treated and lived with anxiety and depression for over 27 years. Here are a few of my takeaways that I would like to share with others in the hopes that they may get help or be able to help someone else with a similar story.
LESSONS I LEARNED
Anxiety and depression are normal feelings and experiences of the human condition, but how do you know when your level of anxiety or depression is beyond the normal range? There are many screeners available that you can take online. While these screeners may not be medically supervised, they can begin to point you in the right direction. If you score in the “at risk” or “high” range, it probably just confirms what you already suspected. An “at risk” score may prompt you to visit your doctor or begin sharing your concerns with someone else. A close friend or spouse can be a great sounding board or listening ear, but they are obviously no substitute for a medical professional.
Anxiety and depression can be situation-based, hereditary, or a combination of the two. As I look back on my anxiety, I see that mine was a combination of the two. I can see a very clear path of situational anxiety dating back into my childhood. At the time, I didn’t understand what a normal level of anxiety was, so I just thought my feelings were normal. Extreme anxiety before sporting events, getting sick the first couple of days of school, nausea and diarrhea when the spotlight was on me, avoidance of social situations or being around lots of people, etc. Outside of these times, my life seemed very normal. For this reason, most people around me did not really see me struggling. Only close family knew how anxious I would get. By the time I was in high school, I was pretty good at keeping my anxiety at bay. I knew how to avoid the situations and conflicts that were most likely to cause me the greatest amount of trouble.
By the time I was in my late twenties, something changed. I could no longer predict the situations that would prompt my anxiety and now even some depression. I began to struggle with feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, dread, and avoidance. I had a loss of focus, energy, and even physical strength and body temperature. I was feeling cold even when everyone else was not. Now, it seemed, my anxiety was taking on a different level. I was experiencing anxious symptoms in times when I logically could not think of why I should be anxious. One of the things that became very noticeable to me was frequently waking up in the middle of the night in either a full sweat or even to the point of vomiting. I went to bed feeling okay, but something would trigger a full blown anxiety storm, while I was in the middle of sleep. Not a good way to wake up! Yes, many situations would still trigger my anxiety, but frequently I could not tell you what prompted my symptoms. In hindsight, this was a warning sign that I wished I would have had help understanding earlier than I did.
Anxiety and depression do not have to completely wreck your life and turn you into a social recluse. In the midst of my worst days, I began to think this was the way life was going to be from now on. That thinking created a negative feedback loop in the sense that my bad anxiety produced symptoms that then produced more anxiety, which then lead to more symptoms, and so on. The idea that this may never stop can be frightening and even paralyzing. Once I began to learn and even experience relief from these symptoms, hope began to grow back into my life. The strength to confront a phobia, the energy to participate in an activity that I once enjoyed, the sense of pleasure and laughing, and the desire to see familiar friends and family all reemerged. These are all very possible goals, and I encourage others to not lose sight of getting these things back into your life. Whether it’s therapy, faith, medicine, or some combination of the three, you do have options.
Do not deny your genetics. As I began to accept that I may have a mental illness. I started to examine my family history. It did not take long for me to realize that my mom’s side of the family was riddled with anxiety. My mom was challenged with it on a daily basis. My grandma was very anxious and her sister also was anxious to the point of seldom leaving her house. My uncle was in and out of jobs and simply could not handle the stress of daily work. Here is my point. Anxiety and depression that goes beyond “normal” is often hereditary. It is common to trace mental illness throughout a family tree. If you notice this, then please do not deny it. If you are struggling with anxiety or depression and have a family history of it, then there is a good chance that you may have a biological rather than just a situational component to your condition.
My last take away is just a word of encouragement. Part of my upbringing included parents that always encouraged my siblings and I to take risk, go after your dreams, never be afraid of making mistakes, and be quick to learn from the mistakes you make. I want to encourage the same to all of you. You have a choice to make concerning how you will handle all of the stresses in your life. You can either beat yourself up and fall victim to the situation, or you can see it as an opportunity for learning and growth. You most likely will not find a quick fix, but you may find comfort in small victories. Allow those small victories to be celebrated and used as motivation to continue on to better mental health. Reach out to someone today for help. Do not throw in the towel! There is HOPE!