I have anxiety, and I am happy!
In my previous post, I explained how I got post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Now I would like to go into more detail about how I overcame it. I will describe 3 simple steps (with 5 slightly more complex items within the third step).
Dealing with a generalized anxiety disorder has been a part of my life since I was a young teenager. Depression came and went; that was more circumstantial. I am more susceptible to depression because of my underlying anxiety.
Anxiety + history of depression + hormonal changes from having a baby + traumatic baby having experience = the perfect storm
In other words, I had dealt with anxiety and depressed mood at the same time before, but sudden hormone level drops and trauma added to the mix was something very new to me. At first it seemed insurmountable.
It wasn’t. And I promise, it never is. You can always overcome. Sometimes, you just need a little extra help.
My first step: recognizing I was showing symptoms of post-partum depression (PPD).
My mom was the one who pointed out I was high risk for the baby blues. My OB confirmed it when he said my cocktail of mental health history and my traumatic labor made the possibility of not have PPD almost impossible.
The first warning sign was my struggle in connecting with my baby. It’s not like in the movies when the mom instantly falls in love with her newborn bundle lying in her arms. Some women connect quickly, but most take some time to bond. It’s normal to need a few days to bond, however I was taking a little longer than the norm. Partly because having a c-section makes it harder to feel like the baby in your arms is the same baby you carried for 9 months, and partly because depression makes it difficult to connect with any human.
Other warning signs included crying suddenly for no obvious reasons, feeling inadequate as a mom to unhealthy levels (such as wondering if you were wrong to have your baby in the first place), becoming a hermit, a shortening of your temper, and feeling very alone. There are many other symptoms of PPD, but these are the ones I personally struggled with the most.
Step two: seeking help
The first place I looked for help was in medication. There is no shame in using medication to help with your mood.
If you are dealing with a chemical imbalance or a hormonal imbalance, medication can help bring you to a place where you think clearly enough to apply healthy coping mechanisms.
Step three: accepting help
The second place I looked for help was in therapy. Medication is usually not enough on its own. It can boost your motivation, but that boost isn’t very helpful if you don’t know how to use that motivation to get healthy.
For therapy to work, you have to be willing to accept help from your therapist. You have to learn to trust them, to listen, to speak up, and to act on their advice.
Now, I am no replacement for professional help, but I am happy to share 5 of the coping mechanisms I learned in therapy that helped me overcome my PPD and my PTSD.
*Disclaimer: I still have anxiety disorder with depressed mood, and I always will. It is not curable. I still take medication, and I still apply the coping mechanisms I’ve learned through the years into my daily life. PPD and PTSD can go away for good, and I have personally overcome these things. However, I still live each day with mental illness and have to keep working hard to live a fulfilling and joyful life. The following list specifically refers to the coping skills that helped me overcome the PPD and the PTSD. They are not the miracle answers to all mental illness, but they help improve your quality of life.
Mindfulness helps a lot with anxiety. It is difficult to explain in a small paragraph all there is to mindfulness, but in a nutshell, mindfulness is awareness. Awareness of your body, your emotions, and your senses.
Mindfulness can include meditation and other exercises (it’s a good thing to google if you want to get more into it), but the most helpful way I applied mindfulness was to my compulsions and to anxiety attacks.
My therapist encouraged me to stop fighting compulsions and anxiety attacks, and to instead think about what I was feeling, physically and emotionally, and at to myself, “this is happening. I am having this compulsion/attack, and that’s ok. I’m still a good person. And this will pass, and I will let it run its course.” Simply recognizing what was happening and letting go of control gave the critical thinking part of my brain a foothold, and the compulsion/attack subsided much quicker.
Have you ever heard about that theory that when you imagine doing something, to your brain it’s like you actually did it? Well this is a super useful thing for anxiety and PTSD. If there’s something worrying you, you can literally practice handling it inside your head without any real risk.
For example, I was afraid of our driveway. It has this scary 3 foot drop off at the edge and it’s difficult to maneuver in and out, which means sometimes we get a little too close to the edge for comfort. One day, one wheel of our car went over. After that, I was so frightened of going over that edge that I wouldn’t let me or my husband park in the driveway anymore. It was street parking for us.
My therapist had me imagine the worst case scenario -the whole car flipping over the edge. She asked what would happen. I realized no one would be hurt if that happened, and that the car would have minimal damage. I also realized it was actually physically impossible for the whole car to flip over off the edge, and at most we could have two wheels over and MAYBE minimal damage on the bottom of the car. So I imagine how I would handle that if it happened. What I would say, what I would do. Then I imagined me and my husband in turn driving in and out of the driveway safely. I literally practice calmly driving in and out in my mind. Then, I did it for real. I am now able to do it without fear, because I had practice, and because I’ve practiced how I would handle it if the worst did happen.
3. The magic writing exercise:
I swear this cured my PTSD. There’s a lot of research to back up the effectiveness of this exercise too.
Every day I took paper and a pen and I wrote. I wrote all the bad stuff. Negative thoughts, frustrations of life, annoyances, angers, everything I could think of that was negative. I wrote until it was done, then I would destroy that piece of paper.
Then, with all the bad thoughts purged, I could sit and write good things. Like a simple list of affirmations or gratitude. Or something happy from the day.
The idea behind this is that you give your emotions a voice. You allow those negative thoughts to be expressed, and then you let them go instead of holding them in to fester.
My therapist used this metaphor: when you have food poisoning, eating good food will not help. You will just purge it. In order to eat good food again, you have to purge all the poisonous food first. Everything tainted has to go. Once that happens, there is room for the good stuff.
One study on this exercise compared MRI scans of subjects with anxiety disorder. Initial scans showed lots of neuron activity in the “fight or flight” section of the brain. After 2 weeks of performing this exercise, the subjects were scanned again, and this time their brains had more activity in the frontal lobes, where reasoning happens. This writing exercise can literally rewire your brain to be less anxious.
After regularly doing this exercise, my list of bad got shorter and shorter, and my list of good got longer. It doesn’t mean less bad happened, just that when it did my mind knew how to accept it, then let it go.
Now I only need to do this exercise when I have particularly bad days. Or just once in a while to give my brain that good old practice.
Adult coloring is getting a lot of spotlight right now. But it’s not just a passing fad for many patients of mental health! It really does work. My therapist suspects it works for a lot of the same reasons the magic writing exercise does. It’s an expression of thought and emotion.
I find coloring is an easy way to meditate, especially for people who struggle settling their minds.
Some people also enjoy watching art being created. This can also be a way of meditating. You have something calming to focus on, and your mind can take a break from all its anxieties.
I color with markers and pencils. I color simple stuff and elaborate stuff. It depends on my mood. After coloring I feel refreshed and calm. My body has had a chance to catch up with my mind, and bonus: I accomplished something, and it’s beautiful.
The great thing about coloring is you don’t have to be good at art. And you don’t have to focus super hard. You can just let your mind wander. Even if you’re a perfectionist, coloring can still be relaxing. You just have to find the right book and the right medium. I like markers when I’m ok with being sloppy and just want to feel the satisfaction of splashing color on a page. I use pencils when I’m feeling perfectionist, and want to feel accomplished.
It’s very individual, but I think it could help anyone who wants to relax or needs an easier way to reach meditation.
5. Now, the most important thing:
Our Savior. I know it seems like the cope-out Sunday school answer, but knowing that He understood my fear, worry, pain, loneliness, helplessness, and trauma is ultimately what led me to gratitude for my delivery experience. I used to hate that I had to go through those things, but through the power of His healing atonement I came to understand that those things I suffered are a blessing. For there is no joy without sorrow. I truly believe I know my Savior in a way that would be impossible for me to if I hadn’t gone through my trauma. I better understand His suffering, and His sacrifice. I better understand His love.
I know the Savior understand each one of our struggles. Be it depression, anxiety, bi-polar, abuse, PTSD, rape, PPD, and even just those everyday struggles of being mortal. Every struggle matters to Him, and He cares about each and every one.
I have anxiety. I have a tendency for depression. Yet I am happy. I experimence joy. I can because I have found ways to improve my quality of life. I have found solace in my Savior. And I have sought help when I need it.
It’s hard, and it is courageous. Healing is heroic.