Anxiety in love.

whateveroursouls

Well, it’s been quiet here for a few weeks. Two weeks ago, I got engaged and it was a pretty incredible experience. I’m pretty afraid of the coming planning details that comes with getting married, but I am so grateful to have such an incredible partner to stand beside me for all of it. We got engaged in an incredibly special place for me – the White Rock Pier in Vancouver, which holds so many memories of my late dear grandfather. I’ve always felt at peace near the ocean. It amazes me that something so powerful and expansive can be so tranquil and peaceful. I’ve always found it calming to stare out and watch for the ever-changing patterns of the waves, wondering what must be happening in the world below. I’m also in love with The Little Mermaid, so let’s be real here, there’s some daydreaming of mermaids.

In the time that I’ve had to reflect and think about where we have come since our first date over 7 years ago, I’ve been able to see how much of an impact he has on my life. Since my ‘formal diagnosis’, Jeff has stood beside me, encouraging me through all the trials and treatments, and reassuring me that I’m still me, just a little more anxious. He has not wavered from me, and I really believe that we’ve become a much stronger couple working through everything since. We have learned how to really communicate. It got me thinking about how we got to this point since anxiety has been lurking around, and I’ve come with a list of what worked for us. Every relationship is different, but these things really helped us avoid some frustrating fights.

1. Determine a set of ‘code words’ or signals to communicate how you are doing. When I’m mid-panic attack, sometimes it’s all I can do to remember to keep breathing, even if it feels like there’s no air getting into my lungs. Sometimes it helps to have someone talk me through it, hug, or hold my hand, but there are other times when that feels suffocating as well. Often when I can’t handle another person, having my dog, Loki, helps bring me back into the moment right away. We have a simple “you” or “Loki” one-word signal that immediately lets him know what I need in that moment. This kind of communication helps me to think about what I need in the moment, but it also helps Jeff to not feel like he’s making the wrong decision when I’m losing my mind.

2. Figure out what helps to ‘recharge’ you. This took some time to figure out, but it’s important to communicate what you need to your significant other, especially if they have never experienced anxiety themselves. If you are the type of person that is energized by being alone, and would rather have an hour to yourself after a hard day – let your partner know this. I learned that I became extremely introverted the more anxious I was, and I eventually moved my laptop downstairs to the kitchen table (we don’t have cable, so much of our ‘entertainment/quiet time’ at home is online). At first, Jeff was offended that I didn’t want to spend time with him. I learned that I needed to communicate that it wasn’t a reflection on him, I still loved him, but I needed time by myself in order to recharge, especially after being around other people.

3. No, he’s not always angry with you, I promise. I’m still working on this one. My anxiety likes to tell me that I’m constantly doing things to upset him, make him angry or disappointed in me. I’ve had a really bad habit of needing the reassurance that I haven’t done anything wrong, even if I’ve done something that he isn’t too thrilled with (like that last makeup haul… heh). This goes for the anxiety around “am I being too cold lately? He knows I love him, right? Wait, I’m being too clingy now”. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask them what they need. It is perfectly okay to ask your significant other if they need space from you as well, and if that answer is yes, to understand that it is okay. Usually when he wants to have a gaming night with a friend or do his own thing, I find a good show to binge on Netflix, grab some popcorn and some puppies to cuddle. Have you seen Suits, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, or Supernatural? No? Go enjoy your binge session.

4. Keep working on you. This is something that I have really kept in mind throughout this whole experience. I know that the days that I try as hard as I possibly can, those are the days that Jeff is most proud of me. When I am able to tell him that I went out to the grocery store, or maybe the terrifying mall, and I was okay at the end of the day? He is extremely happy with me. Even if I tried and I had a panic attack, or I think that I had failed, he is still so proud that I made the effort. So far I’ve been in a spring class and I’ve made it to every class… the look on his face when I said that I went to class again is worth the panic and anxiety I have going – even better if I told him I spoke in class.

Remember that your significant other loves you and wants to see you succeed. I think where we start fights with each other boils down to a lack in communication and understanding about what we need – and what they need as well. It’s okay to have boundaries, but it’s also okay for them to have boundaries with us as well. You’re not a burden, just every now and then we need to recharge on our own.

Taking the step to volunteer before trying to work again.

workforacause

Throughout the year, I’ve been volunteering with the Mental Health Awareness Club at the University of Calgary. I haven’t really been able to juggle school very well this year, but volunteering has been a incredible way for me to feel like I’ve still been contributing to my community in some way. I specifically chose this club for its inclusive attitude and understanding when it comes to mental health. After the first meeting, I knew that I wanted to get involved on a deeper level than just a general member.

I’ve been volunteering as a junior executive and it’s been an incredible experience. I have had the opportunity to have my voice heard when discussing mental health issues on campus and I feel like I have contributed to the awareness about mental health, especially as it relates to students. There have been some milestones this year that I have reached in my advocacy for mental health and they really started with my involvement in this club.

I first reached out as a personal experience panelist at one of the events put on by the MHA Club. The event surrounded stigma and even at that time, I was still so far in my own self-stigma that it was hard to even speak during the event. But – I did it! I answered questions that the audience members had and sat right next to two of our city’s child psychiatrists that we were lucky to have in attendance. It was a growing experience for me because at that point, even most of my family did not know about my panic disorder or that I had a depressive episode and that was the reason why I quit school for a year. After the event finished, I began to really take my mental health advocacy seriously.

I participated in an initiative put on by the club called Scribe Videos. My story is right on their Facebook page, it is on YouTube, and it is 100% public. Holy hell that is scary. But, I know that if what I said in those videos helps even one other person to know about the resources that are available, it will have been so very worth it. (Check out part one and part two here!)

At the time of recording, I was feeling really good about my mental health. Things were starting to get into place where they should be. Listening to it now, I can hear how confident I sounded and how happy I was to hopefully be making a difference. Though things happened later in the year that really set me back, I feel like I’m getting back on that path and it’s such a good feeling.

The club members have been so understanding for the days that it’s hard to make meetings or events, and there’s really no judgment there. I can call in because I can’t leave my house and they understand – I don’t have to hide the reason or pretend to be physically ill like I would if I had a job. The environment is so very important to my success this year and I’m not sure I would be in the same place I am now – even writing this blog if it weren’t for the supportive community of the Mental Health Awareness Club.

If you’re in the same situation I’m in, where you want to have a schedule and a reason to leave your house during the day, even get out of bed… I strongly suggest that you consider volunteering in an environment that will be just as accepting. Not only does it -ahem- look awesome on your resume, but it’s a great step before getting back into the workplace that gives you a commitment, but is also flexible.

As always, if you’re on campus at the University of Calgary – check out the Mental Health Awareness Club and consider joining for Fall 2016 to have your voice heard in advocacy for mental health awareness on campus.

Deciding to use medication and deciding to quit.

besoniceif

My journey with medication and anxiety began shortly after the panic attacks started to explode. I decided to give medication a go because the experience I had with counselling was not working quickly enough for me to be successful in school and I didn’t want to waste too much of my semester. I am not a medical professional, so my next advice is purely anecdotal, but it helps to have some firsthand knowledge when you decide to try medication. Medication isn’t for everyone, but I learned that it was helpful to try.

I have tried citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Cipralex), paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and now desvenlafaxine (Pristiq). All but Pristiq are considered SSRIs and are also used for things other than depression, such as anxiety. Pristiq is classified as an SNRI, which acts on both serotonin and norepinephrine, instead of just serotonin like the SSRIs, essentially to achieve the same outcome.

The experience one has with each drug will be largely different in most cases. For Celexa, I had crazy bad headaches and was not on it very long. For Cipralex, I didn’t have any bad side effects, but it didn’t really do too much and I was on it for a few months. Paxil was the best fighter against anxiety for me, but it did its job a little too well and the term zombie was an understatement. I didn’t have emotions on Paxil and I slept a lot, but I don’t really remember having a panic attack. Paxil was also the hardest to taper off of and felt like the worst hangover I’ve ever been on. I was prescribed Prozac to help me taper off of Paxil and it was very similar to Cipralex – good, but nothing really changed. I’ve been on Pristiq for the longest time now (since May of last year) and I’ve had a love-hate relationship with it. As an SNRI, it seems to take my anxiety and make the baseline higher, but the intensities much, much less. My panic attacks don’t feel to be as world-ending, but I feel more anxious all the time than I have on other medications.

With that quick little update on my background with medication over the last two+ years… here are some things I’ve learned about medications and how they affected me:

1. It takes a few weeks to kick in and to get off of it.

The choice to start medication isn’t a sudden fix. It takes a while to find the right one and on top of that, it takes a few weeks for your brain to be able to let the medication do its thing. I really had to convince myself to be a good sport about giving the medication the chance to work for real, but it wasn’t always fun. For the first two weeks, I often felt icky. It was slightly nauseous, slightly headachey, slightly hit-by-a-truck-when-is-my-cold-starting kind of feeling. However, that did go away as my body got used to it. When I would switch a medication, especially with Paxil, it was also really important to taper under my psychiatrist’s direction. I learned the hard way one week that quitting cold turkey because “f this shit” is a really, absolutely, truly horrible idea. Red light, don’t do it, listen to your medical professional.

2. There are definitely side effects.

The side effects I experienced weren’t scary or bad, but annoying. After a few weeks on Celexa, with horrible, horrible headaches, I was swapped off it pretty quickly. That was really the only one that hurt. I would say, for me, Paxil and Pristiq have the most recognizable side effects, but I definitely gained weight a lot easier on all of the ones that I have tried. Paxil made me sleep all the time and I really lost my bucket of f*cks to give. Most of them had sexual side effects that came with them, but Pristiq really made me lose that bucket for good. Across the board, I’d often feel dizzy on bad days, which I self-medicated with caffeine, in the form of unhealthy energy drinks (NOT a good idea – caused pretty much a guaranteed panic attack). I did notice an increase for intrusive thoughts about self-harm, but I’m not completely sure if that came with the medication or the frustration with nothing working like I expected it to.

3. It changed my anxiety and how I experience it.

Overall, there have been a few noticeable changes in the way I experienced anxiety. Sometimes that meant that I coma’d my way through life, which was cool because no more anxiety, but really not because I didn’t accomplish anything. Other times, as in the case with Pristiq – I feel anxious all the time, but my panic attacks changed and I am able to pull myself out of them much more quickly and they don’t last as long. It really is a balancing act with medication and I think that’s why working with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and positive self-care really helps through the whole process of feeling better.

The things that I really feel affect your relationship with anxiety, medication, and feeling better are also included in what is going on in your life currently. At the end of September this year, I lost my best friend from junior high and I haven’t really felt okay since. I noticed that shortly after that emotional blow, my relationship with Pristiq drastically changed. I am caught in an abnormal sleep schedule that I can’t fix no matter what I do, and that lovely change with my panic attacks seems to have lost its touch a good amount. In a situation like this, all I can hope to do is make another appointment with my awesome psychiatrist and see what he thinks. He is an excellent resource and always includes me in decisions about my mental health and the direction I want to go next. At the end of the day, I think that is the most important point: I have the choice to continue or to try a clean slate. At the end of the day, you do as well. I can only hope that my experience with medication relieves a bit of hesitation or anxiety you may be feeling towards it. When I was first making the decision to try medication, I utilized personal accounts on r/Anxiety to help me understand what was going on as well as questions to my pharmacist and health link line. Good luck, friend, you’re not alone.

For when you can’t catch a break.

yourenotamess

Lately, my anxiety has been an unwelcome visitor that won’t go away. I have been stuck at a 5/10 on a scale of no anxiety-all the anxiety and I can’t seem to lower it. This also means that when my panic attacks come, they seem more intense and make me more exhausted than ‘normal’. I have a few go-to tricks for when I’m stuck in this rut and I want to give up.

1. Let go of the outcome.

My anxiety loves it when I’m making mistakes. It will nitpick and laugh at everything I’m doing wrong and will push me right down that hill of snowballing until I am in full panic mode. It might just be that I am cooking dinner, dropping things, burning things, overcooking or undercooking, but that somehow ends up being a reflection on who I am as a person. When I start to notice that I’m really reacting to the mistakes I am making, I remind myself to let it go – cue Idina Menzel.

It’s hard to admit that you can’t control the result of what is happening – because you have either already overcooked your spaghetti noodles or you’re waiting on someone else to act, but it is necessary. I remind myself that this is just a moment in my day, I can choose to fix what has happened, or I can adapt to a new solution, and it doesn’t reflect on me or control the entirety of how my day goes.

2. Celebrate everything, no matter how small.

Since I’m on reading break this week, I had high hopes of catching up on readings, working on my application to social work, and really deep cleaning our entire messy house. I spent most of the day in bed, beating myself up for not being able to sleep the night before and feeling exhausted. But, I managed to get all the dishes that were piling up in massive stacks done. I had to give myself a gold star and be proud that I got out of bed, I did something to improve my environment and that was good. When Jeff got home tonight, I even made spaghetti – his favourite dish and one I haven’t made in a long time. I took a second to look at what I was doing and I looked over to him saying “I’m COOKING!” with a giant smile on my face. I finished off cooking dinner feeling like a badass, knowing that I haven’t cooked a real meal in weeks.

I’m really lucky that I have someone who understands that these little things are giant steps some days and that it’s important to celebrate with me. It took a while for him to understand, but now that we are on the same page, it is so so so helpful. I often make a mental list of things that I did during the day that I can be proud of myself for. Sometimes, it’s as small as showering or taking the dogs out when I’ve been feeling extremely agoraphobic, but it’s important to remember that you are worthy of that little celebration.

3. Reward yourself with things that make you happy.

I am all too familiar with those days where I feel like the elephant is sitting on my chest and making his home there. Getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and attending to responsibilities are way too much to ask on those days, which starts a whole new branch of self-guilting and many unkind thoughts. I try to find something that I look forward to – whether it’s binge watching some bad reality TV, picking up that new lip colour I really, really want, or playing some nerd games. When I have completed something, I will give myself some time to indulge in what I enjoy. I have found a new love for following makeup gurus on YouTube and feel really calm and engaged when I am watching a new video, which encourages me to get out of bed and grab my computer to see if they have uploaded a new video this week. It also often inspires me to go have a shower and try out a new look I just watched. I’ve seen a huge difference in my ability to girl since I have started following them and it makes me proud to see how I can accomplish new looks – and I have been getting so many compliments!

Before I give up and fall deep into that hole of anxiety and depression, I try these things. Most of the time, I will feel a little less at war with myself when I try them, even if that feeling only lasts an hour. Relief is relief, and I hope that any of these suggestions will help someone else who is experiencing the same thing I am.

Healthy anxiety?

begentle

I remember sitting in my abnormal psychology class and my professor comes out with this phrase of ‘healthy anxiety’. I was instantly confused – how is an increase of heart rate, shallow breathing and higher blood pressure healthy for you? What he meant by this was a moderate amount of anxiety that pushes you to perform well at things. Would you have scored that goal if you weren’t a little nervous that your giant opponent coming after you was going to take that chance away from you? Would you have aced your last exam if you weren’t just anxious enough to make sure you studied as hard as you could?

Healthy anxiety pushes you to perform well. Where we go wrong is when it stops you from doing well. My anxiety changed from worrying about my grades on a test to being unable to even study. I felt cross-eyed and I couldn’t focus on any of the words I was reading in my textbook, even if the concepts were simple. I had to read the same sentences over and over again to even comprehend what the topic was about.

Since my experience is within an academic setting, I can only suggest methods of alleviating some anxiety that relate to resources available for students. Also input disclaimer that I am not a medical professional, so my advice is simply based on my experiences. But here’s what worked for me:

1. Ask for help.

What I first did was gathering the courage to speak to my family doctor. Here in Canada, I was able to make an appointment with her and get the referrals I needed to focus on mental health. I signed up with my school’s student accessibility services, had my family doctor fill out the required forms, and the SAS was able to make accommodations for me. They are there to help you, and are usually extremely creative to find out what works for you the best. My accommodations were things like having a program that reads my textbook for me, so I could focus on listening to the words instead of reading them. I also write my exams in a distraction-free environment, where I am able to take breaks if I get overwhelmed and they won’t count against my time. Things like these accommodations really took a load off.

2. Let music pull you forward, but not distract you.

The things that I did outside of school to help my anxiety really helped as well. I created a music playlist of songs that had no lyrics, were calming and had a steady, slow beat. Studies since the 1950s have looked into the detrimental effect that high tempo music has on studying and reading comprehension. Music has the ability to influence your emotions, and when you’re dealing with anxiety – you really don’t need anything else that is adding an obstacle. These studies have shown that soft, relaxing music has no obvious change to performance in studying and reading comprehension, but can help with mood. (If you want to look into this more and do not have access to a scholarly journal database, you can check out this article).

3. Take control of your environment.

Another thing about those who struggle with anxiety is that we are often stressed out by our environments. When I can’t control my environment, my desk is out of control or I am completely disorganized, I can’t focus and I get both irritated and even more anxious. The best thing that I can do in that situation is clear off my desk, sort out my books, articles, writing tools, etc. in a way that they are all easily accessible and light a candle or pull out my essential oil diffuser. Aromatherapy has done wonders for my anxiety. I began looking into it after wandering in to a store in a mall one day and haven’t looked back since. I do not ingest the oils, but I simply have pleasing blends diffused throughout my home so that when I get particularly anxious, I can take a deep breath and focus on the smell.

4. Build a support system.

Because I had kept my diagnosis quiet at the beginning out of fear of being stigmatized, I felt like I had no where to go except to my boyfriend. A friend directed me to Reddit to get involved in the r/Anxiety community. I read threads of other anxietybrain-type people and started to feel like I wasn’t alone. Soon enough, I made posts of my own and managed to get a lot of advice through their community. This support group helped me get through a lot of obstacles that I was going through in a way that offered outside/third-party advice. Sometimes I convinced myself that Jeff was telling me what I wanted to hear instead of what I needed to hear, and I would often bring the concern up in r/Anxiety and 9 times out of 10 got the same response. It was a way to deal with what I was going through with people who also were going through the same thing. Though I lean on Jeff a lot, r/Anxiety was always there when he was at work, when it was late at night, or when I just needed the opinion or advice of someone who is going through the same thing.

The biggest thing to remember is that you’re not alone. There are resources out there that you don’t even have to leave your bed to use. That knowledge in itself will help a great deal.