Apparently it was Mental Health Awareness Day last week and I completely missed it. Oops. But I’m gonna touch on that topic now instead and I don’t think anyone will be too mad at me because it’s not like it’s restricted to just one day anyway.
The thing is, I’ve been pretty lucky in regards to mental health so far in my life. Sure I’ve had days when I didn’t want to get out of bed (when does anybody?) but I always could. There were times when I thought about death, but not so much suicide. During the days I think of as my darkest, I was sad but not depressed. I’m really lucky.
There are a lot of different kinds of mental illnesses and I am not qualified to talk about any of them, really, but I can talk about myself (which I know I do a lot of, this is my blog after all).
I had my first ever panic attack in high school in the middle of my tenth grade math final exam. No one noticed. I didn’t even know it was a panic attack until five or so years later. All I knew at the time was that my hands were shaking and my gut was shaking and my heart was beating so hard I could see it moving my entire ribcage when I looked down and I couldn’t really focus on my work. Yeah, I failed that exam.
My panic attacks are subtle. I can pretty much go on pretending like everything is normal even if I can’t hear people over my own heartbeat sometimes. They’re also triggered by a specific kind of stress, kind of. This isn’t something a professional-mental-health-person told me. It’s just something I noticed myself.
My mom blamed my first panic attack on me not studying hard enough. I didn’t have any issues with anxiety again until twelfth grade, in my last semester. I was having some social life issues. I had a couple of weeks of anxiety and a panic attack, again, unnoticeable.
Still, I didn’t know what they were. I remember first thinking I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die, but my second thought was, I am a healthy seventeen-year-old and it is damn near impossible for this to be a heart attack, even if they do run in the family. Logic was my friend. All I did then was take my own pulse and cough a bit (just in case it was a heart attack, I’d read somewhere that coughing helped). I don’t think these did much but give me something to ground my thoughts and focus on, which is actually very helpful when you don’t know what else to do.
One thing that helped me with the anxiety part of things, and something I used for years and still use whenever I get anxious, is Pi. I memorize it, I write it out, I play with it, I search for patterns in it. I even have a Pi app on which my record is 254 digits. It’s a weird thing, but it helped me and if you have to deal with anxiety, it might be worth a try.
The height of my anxiety was during my first year of university. About halfway through my first semester I had a panic attack, bad as ever and still not entirely noticeable from the outside. Later that week I mentioned it to a friend, describing the weirdness of feeling my heart trying to escape my chest, and my friend told me “that’s a panic attack”. So I did some research, and yeah, it seemed like it was.
I had a few more of them that semester, and in the second semester I was having them constantly. Reminder, before university I’d only had two in my life, two years apart.
Around this time I also had anxiety bad enough to keep me awake at night and wake me up early the next morning. I paced all the time, everywhere, I gripped my ID card in my pocket hard enough to leave marks in my palms and I bit my fist when something frustrated me because it was too much all on top of each other. Anxiety made me feel like I was late for something important and I had to hurry to get somewhere, except there was nowhere for me to go. It was like the butterflies before going on stage in front important people for something big, except a hundred times worse and I’d just be alone in my room. It’s like when you go on those rides that go really high and drop really fast, except you never stop falling. I couldn’t get rid of it and I couldn’t get away from it. It was the worst I’ve ever had.
At the time, I didn’t realize it was anxiety. Notice a pattern here? I was wholly uneducated about mental health and what I was going through. Which is why I believe mental health awareness is so important. This might not have been so bad had I known what it was, had I been able to do some research about it, and had I known what I could do to improve it. And eventually, with the help of friends and some listening to my gut feelings, I put it together that I wasn’t happy with something. At the time, I was working too hard and too focused on school work to realize I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, but my gut or subconscious or whatever was getting a bad feeling and this resulted in the shit I was feeling. In less-than scientific terms. (I told you I’m no expert.)
It wasn’t stress exactly, because I’ve been stressed since and that hasn’t caused my body to freak out and give me a physical negative reaction. It was more like, hopelessness.
Wow. Okay, actually I’ve never thought about it like that before but now I’m thinking, yeah. That’s exactly what triggered it. See, this is why I love writing things down. Sometimes you learn things.
My film studies course was making me feel some kind of hopelessness, just like my 10th grade math exam had done and just like my situation in 12th grade. And the longer it went on, the worse it got. When I finally figured this out and switched to full-time Creative Writing, it went away. I mean, every so often I got nervous about things, sure, but only normal nerves, in situations that warranted them.
And yeah, I’ve had some anxiety since then, (though no panic attacks since, thank god), but I know what anxiety is now and I know how to deal with it. I also know what’s causing it, and usually it’s something temporary or manageable. Which makes it normal, I think. Again, I’m not sure how this works.
But I do know what helps me now, and that’s a big change from where I once was.
So what helps?
- Logical thoughts to push out the illogical ones.
- Deep breathing and counting, even if you’re counting your own breaths.
- A distraction, i.e. Pi or something else that uses a lot of your focus or attention.
- Friends! A support system that may be able to help, or at least understands.
- Removing the cause (not always possible to identify or remove, I understand, but if possible, in my experience it makes a difference).
- Councilling. (I did try this and it didn’t do much for me, but I think with the right councillor, had I kept trying, I could have been helped a lot more and a lot sooner.)
My dad also says to stop drinking coffee. I don’t know how right he is, though. Caffeine may make things worse, but the absence of it won’t cure you.
Hope you’re all happy and healthy. Remember there’s nothing to be ashamed of in terms of mental health. Thanks for reading!