I have been labeled various mental illness diagnoses since I was a teenager; I’ve been said to have ADHD, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic disorder. I’m not ashamed of these labels because they aren’t who I am as a person, they’re a part of my health — This is an important distinction in my experienece, because the label of a mental illness carries the weight of the stigma that society has placed on these (actually quite common) mental health problems. I’ve been judged enough throughout my life, mostly by people who have no idea how connected mental illness and behavior can be; at this point in my life there is finally no shame. How you function mentally is a part of your overall health, therefore it deserves the same attention you give to your heart, your stomach, your eyes and so on. It needn’t be shameful or embarrassing.
Part of me resists sharing, but I know that in order to normalize mental illnes we need to share our stories. When I was a teenager I was put on antidepressant meds that were frequently increased because they “weren’t working,” along with biweekly counseling sessions which helped but not enough. This was the start of a very long and difficult road towards my eventual mental health recovery.
As a young person with little-to-no impulse control, depressive thoughts, diminished attention span, and a laundry list of not-so-great life experiences fueling my adrenaline chase, I began partying out of boredom. Until high school my grades were excellent and I had a promising educational future. I’m not stupid, I’m not lazy, I knew what I was doing and did it anyways. High school was where I began to change, and once I was put on medications it went downhill for quite a while. It’s like I was repeatedly jumping off of a cliff, hoping someone would yell “don’t!” or grab my arm in attempt to save me from myself, but instead I kept surviving and climbing to the next higher cliff to jump off of; if no one was going to realize I was struggling I was going to do whatever I could get away with.
After graduating highschool I was soon drinking on anxiety/depression medications not meant to be mixed with alcohol and then subsequently blacking out (not remembering ANYTHING from the previous evening); and I didn’t care! Proof that I wasn’t in my right mind, but my meds kept getting increased. I was beginning to feel bipolar, but it was a product of medications and partying combined with poor overall health. Still, no one realized that this was happening because I was too busy seemingly happy while partying my future away.
These aren’t excuses for bad behavior, they are reality. All antidepressant medications come with a warning: stop taking the medication if symptoms worsen. I told my doctor they weren’t helping, so the medications were not stopped they were switched or increased. Yes I had stopped crying, but the pendulum had begun to swing the other way; I was erratic and careless, suicidal even in my behavior. Looking back, I believe I was acting this way as a desperate cry for both attention and help. I wanted real love and someone to care about me. I didn’t find that until I was already so far down this road of destruction that I wonder how I could ever see clear enough to realize my future could be brighter.
Thankfully, I met my husband a few years after this all began, a recently returned Iraq war veteran, who was fresh out of combat and ready to party. We went on a journey together, finding ourselves by figuring out each other first. When he deployed again shortly after we got married, I was thrown into depression and anxiety once more. I was put on a laudnry list of medications with little to no concern for interactions, side effects, or long-term consequences. I didn’t ask questions because I’m not a doctor. I was taking at least 5 medications a day for various mental health symptoms. This is not an exagerration. All the while, I kept telling doctors that the medications were not helping. They gave horrible side effects, some dangerous, and I never felt like my true self when on them.
I understand that medications work for some, and in moderation with an attentive and caring doctor, they can be miracles for some people. Medicine isn’t all bad, but it also isn’t the only option. I found more success with alternative means to get my panic attacks and anxiety under control. Once I removed the cloud of anxiety from over my head, I was happier, could think more clearly, and most of all I felt hope for the future.
There are many habits I have created for myself that help me keep anxiety and panic attacks at bay. Sometimes I slip up and notice the anxiety creeping back. I am cognizant of these emotions, and often times the physiological manifestations of these emotions. This helps me immensly because I know what I am feeling isn’t real, that it’s my brain telling my body something that isn’t true. Fighting anxiety and panic can be an every day occurence for those who suffer with it, which is why the practice of relaxation and being healthy need to be habitual.
These are some of the top habits I have found to be the most productive and helpful in healing my mind and body from the symptoms of anxiety, panic, and depression:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy – This would be my first step for anyone just starting out on their healing journey. A professional can help you with guidance on ways to relax, while also giving you peace of mind that you’re not crazy, that this is a real health problem that can be treated. I used this link to find a therapist, and cross referenced it with my insurance.
- Epsom salt baths – These are my go to remedy if I’m having a panic attack at home and can take the time to break away. You can use plain epsom salts like these: Epsoak Epsom Salt 19.75 Lbs – 100% Pure Magnesium Sulfate, Made in USA or you can use a variety of salts and minerals like this one that is infused with oils and herbs to excelerate and enhance your relaxation. While in there you can enjoy calming music, read a book, or close your eyes and pray/use a mantra to curb the panic. You can also add fresh or dried herbs, as I talked about in this previous DIY post.
- Cut the crappy food & Clean up your diet – Sorry to say it, but processed food will definitely trigger anxiety, panic, depression and more. Sugar can trigger panic attacks in me, while processed junk food heightens my anxiety if consumed regularly. Alcohol can sometimes be a trigger, even though many associate it with relaxation it can actually worsen symptoms; it definitely worsens sleep quality which is a huge red flag for people suffering with any mental (or even physical) health problems. Some people are sensitive to caffeine. I am not one of them, but a food journal will help you find out if you are sensitive to any of the above triggers.
- Diffuse essential oils – When I’m having a hard day I immediately diffuse either lavender, chamomile, ylang-ylang, bergamot, or frankincense (or a combination) in this diffuser: Recent studies have shown bergamot, lavender, and frankincense to be effective at easing anxiety, depression, reducing stress and even potentially helping with chronic pain.
- Exercise- Get your blood pumping and your mind clear by working out. If you’re out of shape or can’t work out due to phsyical limitations, do as much as you can do whether that is stretching/yoga or a brisk walk.
- Get outside and get “grounding” – Get walking outdoors, preferably in nature and most importantly bare foot. Connecting with the ground is often lost in our modern society, which contributes to our excessive anxiety and depression. This is especially beneficial if you can do it in the morning or evening.
- Deep breathing – Using your diaphragm (aka your belly not your chest) breathe in through your nose slowly counting upwards until you stop inhaling, hold the breathe for a couple seconds, exhale through your mouth as slowly as possible. Don’t hyperventilate, so stop if you feel dizzy. This is proven to slow your heart rate when having a panic attack and can be an incredibily helpful tool when used correctly to stop anxiety from progressing.
- Journal – There are many ways to use journaling to help ease anxiety. I personally am enjoying a form of “bullet journaling” where I focus on my top 5 things to do, along with an “I did” list and an “I feel” list. It’s basically a way for me to gather my thoughts at the end and beginning of each day, so I limit stress and get ahead of the anxiety. Focus on what you’ve done, instead of all the things you still have to do. Get your thoughts out of your head and onto the paper.
- Religion/spirtuality – I find religion to be a natural place to come to with all of my problems, anxiety/panic/depression are included in those problems. Since a trigger for my anxiety is worrying about health issues, it’s helpful for me to find faith in God that he is in charge of my life and not matter how much I worry, I will never be able to have full control of my destiny. Similarly, you could find attending to your health by studying the chakras to be beneficial.
- Supplements – Talk with your doctor first, but there are some supplements that can help mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. I have found fish oil, specifically salmon oil, to be extremely helpful in calming my mood every day. Magnesium is another great supplement for relaxation, and it comes in various forms of supplements. 5-htp was suggested to me by a naturopath as a sort of homeopathic anti-anxiety medication. Vitamin D is helpful if you don’t already have enough because it boosts your energy and mood. Of course getting these in wholesome, real food is preferred but supplements can help when the situation is drastic. I highly suggest talking to a naturopath or homeopathic doctor to find out more about what options would work for you.
- Good sleep habits – I have to small children so this is a major current trigger for me, but if you can get good sleep then it’s vital that you do. To help your current sleep situation, create an evening routine that sets you up for success. Avoid TV right before bed, if you must use screens then use this to alter your screen, wear an eyemask, blackout curtains, use white noise, brush your teeth in dim light, keep your room cool, watch what you eat before bed (not a lot of sugar/alcohol), and journal or read from a real book to calm your thoughts.
Please, please, please share your own journey with mental illness, if not with everyone that at least with those you trust the most in your life. They deserve to know what you’re really going through and you deserve the freedom and support it can bring. I hope these tips bring you some relief and happiness back into your life!