I felt compelled to share this with you all because I wanted to share these pieces of me and I get a lot of questions about it. Also, I have a hunch that a lot of you ask because a lot of you struggle. These can be some of the loneliest disorders to deal with and no one should ever feel alone in this. So, I hope this helps with some of your curiosity and helps you feel like you have a companion in all this. Settle in! This is a bit of a length heart-to-heart 🙂
what it’s like
I have both the chemical version and the circumstantial version. The chemical version is genetic and runs through my family. On those days, it doesn’t matter what I try to do to “cheer up”, it’s like there’s perpetual gloom everywhere I look. I call those my “bad serotonin days” because it usually pretty clear to me that my serotonin dipped and that’s why I feel hopeless.
When it’s circumstantial, it feels like a heavy weight. I can feel my shoulders actually slump. I feel like I have a ball constantly stuck in my throat and like I could not mentally handle “one more thing”. It feels a lot like despair: like you’ll never experience joy, success, or energy again. Sometimes, it feels like someone is gripping my heart and squeezing.
It was a challenge for me to learn how to manage my depression, especially because I got it when I was really young. Some therapists believe that it started to set in as young as 5 years old for me, which is hard to wrap my head around as depression is typically reserved for adults. Kids and teenagers having full-blown depression is usually not acknowledged. If it is, it’s looked at as entitlement and moodiness combined, which is not what it is. In the past, I would let my depression get the better of me. It ran my days. It ran my schoolwork. It ran my relationships. Most days, I didn’t have the energy to fight it and I didn’t know how. I even tipped the scales towards suicidal during my earlier teenage years.
It’s incredibly helpful for me to be able to identify my depression. It’s no longer this ominous sadness, but rather, something I can point to and name. This is important for managing it. It’s also helpful for me to identify when my depression is chemical or circumstantial. When it’s chemical, I wake up with it. Even if there’s a little piece of me in the back of my mind that is cheerful, I can’t pull it forward. When it’s circumstantial, it comes on much stronger and all at once. Regardless of which one it is, I usually follow the tips below and it helps tremendously! It will take time and consistent effort before you may notice a difference, but trust me when I tell you it will come.
- Watch something funny. This may seem like an amateur tip, but it does make a difference to have a couple go-to “feel good” shows or movies. I love watching FRIENDS, Jane the Virgin, Bridget Jones to name a few. Pretty much any comedies that came out between 1980-2005. I’ve also noticed that watching some favorite Youtubers help, too.
- Make a gratitude list. It seems for this to be the common tip nowadays. And that’s because it works! I start really basic. There’s a roof over my head. I have clean drinking water. There is food in my fridge. I have loving people to turn to. I can keep going for awhile. By making a gratitude list and focusing on what’s going well, it combats and challenges those “everything sucks and there’s no hope” feelings.
- Practice some hygge: Given that this site is called The Cozie, I’m a huge fan of everything cozy 🙂 Make yourself some hot chocolate. Wrap yourself in a burrito blanket. Practice your favorite hobby. Doodle journal. Hug a dog or a pet, if you have one.
Things to avoid: Don’t watch sad movies. Don’t watch shows you know will be triggering. Don’t isolate yourself (let someone know that you’re struggling!). Don’t try to comfort yourself with things like drinking, excessive eating, gambling, etc.
what it’s like
Have you ever held a bunny? It seems like every time I hold a bunny, I can feel their heart thrumming a million miles a minute. That’s pretty similar to anxiety. Physically, it feels like you’re doing sprints uphill. Mentally, it’s an avalanche of everything the could (but your brain has convinced you that it will) go wrong in a short period of time, usually ending in your eminent death or ruined life. That is the short, condensed version. Anxiety is one of the most complex things I’ve ever dealt with because it involves so many emotions all at once, which makes it extra challenging to manage.
I have the panic variety, which means sometimes I get anxious and nervous and, other times, I have a full-blown panic attack. My panic attacks typically means I’ve stopped breathing and there is usually some sort of shaking/convulsions. I also don’t tend to have any recollection of what happened during the attack once it’s over. People who have panic attacks all have them a little differently. So, what happens when I have a panic attack may not be the same thing that happens when someone else has a panic attack.
My anxiety didn’t truly start to kick in until later in my high school career. I guess, it was always there on some level, but it didn’t demand my attention until I was about 16/17. I actually had chest x-rays because I thought I had heart problems. My doctor came back and told me that my heart looked great. My racing pulse was actually a precursor to panic attacks. For a second, I was stunned. Depression was a familiar disorder because a lot of my family members struggled. Anxiety, however, was almost never discussed in my household so it was very confusing. In addition, the perks of my anxiety (being hyper organized, the total need to get good grades, the need to overwork) were all highly praised so I never knew what to trust when it came to managing my anxiety.
I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that it isn’t a work-in-progress. Even as I sit here typing this, my heart is racing and it feels like it’s in my throat. With the racing heart comes the racing thoughts: What if this post sucks? What if I sound monotone? What if this doesn’t help anyone and I look like an idiot? I know these sound silly. In fact, typing them out just lowered my heart rate by 10-15 bpm (yes, it’s really that high, it’s typically in low 100s, it’s bad). As of now, other than the tips below, one of the ways I calm my anxiety is by talking with Josh and distinguishing what’s rational and irrational. Sometimes, just listening to myself talk through a “doomsday scenario” (where everything goes wrong and it’s all my fault) is enough for me to get out of my head.
- Breathe. This may seem like stupid obvious advice, but you’d be surprised how often breathing is not at the top of the list when you’re feeling anxious. I once had a doctor oggle at me during an appointment. She said, “You literally just went a whole minute without breathing! Do you always do that?” I was completely flustered because I hadn’t even realized that I stopped (doctor appointments make me nervous!). So, to help with this, I’m not even going to tell you to try mindfully breathing because that can mean anything. Instead, try this: inhale deeply for a count of 7, exhale fully for a count of 8. Repeat until you feel calmer.
- Run through everything. This may seem counterintuitive, but hear me out. Run through every little thing that can go wrong. Say your thoughts out loud, even if it’s just to yourself. Make a two-column list: one column is “rational worries” and the other is “irrational worries”. You’re going to want to put everything in the “rational” column first, but you have to practice asking yourself, “Is that really true?” and challenge that inner voice. By doing these things, you learn to distinguish between reality and an active imagination.
- Escape. There are points where our brains just need to focus on something else. I typically like to escape through a good book because it offers a different story and another world for me to be in. I can watch characters go through some tough challenges and feel invigorated afterwards. Movies have also done this for me (and others). Yoga is another great option, especially because it focuses on that mind-body connection which is super relevant when battling anxiety. Find a way to go to another world for a little bit. When you come back, things may not look as big as they were before.
what it’s like
PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) is relevantly new in the psych world. It’s not “new” because I’m sure there are plenty of people who have struggled with it before psychologists began to formally identify it a few years ago. So far, most of the research is on military veterans, which bums me out because it’s not just a military-only disorder. However, there has been a recent study to show that PTSD in military personnel and PTSD in civilians (or people who have been through non-military related trauma) have virtually the same symptoms.
Anyway, PTSD is like feeling like there’s constantly a gunman around every corner. You feel hunted 24/7. In fact, I like to think of this as the “Hunted and Haunted Disorder” because I think that describes it best for me. You feel like you’re being hunted (even though you’re not) and you’re consistently haunted by your old traumas and what happened to you. This is probably the most challenging disorder for me because, at times, it strips me of feeling functional the most.
I used to struggle a lot with, what I call, a “memory relapse”. Essentially, what would happen is that something would trigger my traumatic memory and it would send me back to that time. It’s like putting on one of those virtual reality eyeglass head thingies, but instead of being in a cool video game, you’re reliving your most horrible memory. Once the relapse starts, it’s pretty much impossible for me to stop. I can try to grip onto pieces of reality to delay it, but it usually ends up dragging me in by toes with me scrambling for anything to hold onto so I don’t go to the “dark place” (as I like to call it). In addition to those moments, I used to struggle a lot with showing any sort of emotion. I often felt like a robot and I know many of my friends noticed it as well. There’s actually a term for it, alexithymia, in case you’re curious!
I am determined to crack the code of PTSD. As of now, many psychologists are in agreement that once you have it, you have it. I’m not satisfied with that answer. I don’t want to be a slave to my fears my entire life. It’s no way to live. Right now, I’ve been loving this PTSD Sourcebook as it’s maybe the best one I’ve come across. Apparently, they have a newer edition here that I have yet to take a look at, but I want to flip through it, too. This is the best I have for now as I have yet to find a therapist who is well-versed in PTSD. I have been making strides. I hardly ever have memory relapses now. I know how to handle myself, even with strong triggers, so that doesn’t happen. With my last therapist, we really worked on my alexithymia and, as strange as it may sound to people who don’t struggle with it, I’m finding identifying emotions and actually allowing them to surface much easier. It may sound small, but that’s actually a big deal for me!
- Hobbies and friends! So, as PTSD folk, we love to cocoon ourselves into our “safe spaces”. We downsized apartments a couple months ago because my home is my ultimate cocoon and I found it difficult to turn it into my safety den when there was too much space. Anyway, my point is: get hobbies and make friends! Don’t isolate yourself to your safe space. It’s important to go outside and occupy yourself with things that make you feel proud.
- Exposure therapy. Okay, it’s not technically real exposure therapy without a therapist guiding you. However, you can still apply the concept. For me, this is a lot of not doing something, which usually means not checking. I like to check things (i.e. door locks, closets, rooms, etc.) for “threats/danger”. Not rational at all. The way I break this pattern is by not doing. It’s super hard! But, it does work if you’re consistent.
- Write and journal. It’s important that these memories get out and get processed. PTSD is a lot about unprocessed and highly emotionally charged memories. Do not (!) do this for the first time without supervision! It will absolutely bring up a lot of emotions and you want all the support you can get. Find a good workbook and bring it to a therapy session with you. If you can’t find a therapist or afford one, do it in the presence of a (loving and compassionate) friend. By combing through those old memories, you can start to process them and heal.