If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll probably be aware that I’ve been dealing with anxiety for a few years. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been anxious since the day I was born!
Back in September last year, I started to struggle. I wasn’t sleeping properly and felt constantly overwhelmed. Every day felt like a new challenge that I wasn’t properly equipped for, and I couldn’t imagine ever feeling better again.
So, I reached out for help. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I wanted to get involved in some way. I know from personal experience that one of the biggest barriers to recovery is the stigma around therapy – unfortunately it’s often seen as a sign of weakness, when in reality it’s exactly the opposite.
I was very resistant to the idea of therapy for a long time. I thought it meant that I couldn’t cope by myself, that I needed someone to hold my hand through life.
I couldn’t imagine sitting in a room with a stranger and discussing my deepest, darkest thoughts. I find it difficult enough to open up to the people closest to me! But there’s something about speaking to someone who is completely removed from your everyday life that makes it so easy to unburden yourself without fear of judgement.
It wasn’t easy at first, however. It took me at least three or four sessions to allow myself to relax and completely open up to my therapist. At first I really had to push myself to be honest and forthcoming with her – it was a constant battle against my automatic need to keep my secrets close to my chest.
But I kept trying, and each session became a little easier.
I remember when I first began to feel a connection with my therapist. It was a rainy Friday afternoon and I had booked an impromptu session with her, as I was stressed and upset about something and needed to talk it through. She showed me a level of compassion and kindness that I had never expected to experience, and by the time I left her office I felt like a new person.
After that day, it was like a switch had flipped inside me and I felt completely comfortable with her. The therapist-client relationship is a strange one – here’s someone who knows all of your secrets, but you don’t know a thing about them! It’s very easy to feel a little too reliant on them and to see them almost in the light of a parental figure, and I’m still figuring out how to balance that.
I’ve learned a lot about myself during these therapy sessions, but I also think I’ve learned a lot about life. I’m fortunate enough to have finally found a wonderful therapist who has taught me a few key lessons – I hope they give you the same lightbulb moments that I experienced!
Your problems are not too small
During therapy sessions I often hear myself saying, ‘I know this is a stupid problem. Other people have it so much worse, so I shouldn’t even be upset!’
I never felt that my problems were big enough. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be heard, simply because I’ve been lucky enough to live a fairly privileged life so far.
When I thought about what constituted a problem worthy of therapy, I imagined a childhood full of abuse or someone struggling with an eating disorder. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced anything close to that. But that doesn’t mean that my own problems aren’t valid.
What I’ve come to understand with the help of my therapist is that – quite simply – pain is pain.
If you cut your hand and then saw someone else break their arm, does the pain in your hand vanish just because their injury seems more serious? Of course not.
Your problems matter, even if you think they don’t. For the longest time I had an irrational fear that my therapist would suddenly say, ‘What are you doing here? I could be helping people with real issues!’
Now I realise that my problems are real. They may not be as big as some people’s, but they’re big enough for me. Why would yours be any different?
Talk about it
I’ve never been someone who feels comfortable opening up and speaking freely about personal thoughts and issues. I prefer to keep things private: if they stay locked inside my brain, safe from the world, then I’ll always be in control.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
Keeping things bottled up inside isn’t the solution. These words and emotions won’t stay buried forever – at some point, they will resurface with a vengeance.
You deserve to speak about your thoughts and feelings, and you deserve to be heard. In fact, it can actually bring you closer to the people in your life.
I find it a little more difficult than most people to form strong connections and friendships, so there are only a handful of people that I truly feel close to. In the past I’ve chalked it down to laziness, as I can be pretty terrible at keeping in touch! But after speaking to my therapist I’ve come to the realisation that forming a bond with another person requires a certain level of openness and communication on both sides – in other words, I need to show a more personal and vulnerable side of myself instead of pretending that my life is completely wonderful and perfect.
So lately, I’ve been putting this into practice. It feels a little scary to share such personal topics with other people, but I’m happy to report that my relationships have started to become stronger as a result. I finally feel understood, and my problems seem a little lighter now that a few other people are sharing the burden.
If your instinct tells you to keep everything to yourself, be a little rebellious. If I can do it, anyone can!
I’m definitely my own worst critic, and I hold myself to very high standards. This can be helpful when it comes to sticking to healthy eating habits or executing a successful digital campaign, but not so great when it comes to my mental health.
I find it very difficult to forgive myself for past mistakes and regrets, and if I’m not careful I can spiral into a hole of self-resentment that feels almost impossible to climb out of.
When I opened up to my therapist about some of these regrets, I half-expected her to run out of the room! Instead, she reminded me that humans are inherently flawed. We all make mistakes, and it doesn’t mean that we are doomed to be terrible people.
I found it helpful to look back and understand why I did these things. There’s always a reason, and you may be surprised at what you discover when you start putting the pieces together.
Beating yourself up won’t change the past. It’s much healthier to learn from your mistakes, give your former self a mental hug and move forward with the knowledge that you will do better next time.
You can change things
Like it or not, we are all shaped by our past experiences and relationships. Our actions speak volumes about the life that we’ve lived so far, and they may not always be pretty.
The good news is, you can change your unhealthy behavioural patterns if you’re willing to be truly honest with yourself about what has lead you to repeat them. At least, that’s been my experience so far.
The things that have happened to you throughout the course of your life may have shaped you, but you don’t have to let them define who you are.
With my therapist’s help, I’ve managed to trace a lot of my thought patterns back to specific things that I’ve experienced throughout my life. It’s really opened my eyes to the fact that we don’t just act and think the way that we do by chance – everything is shaped by specific people, places and events over the years.
Armed with this knowledge, I’m able to shatter the preconceptions that I once thought of as facts. Just because things were a certain way in the past – or seemed to be a certain way – doesn’t make them true now. It’s incredibly liberating, and I wish I’d realised it sooner!
Mindfulness is key
I always roll my eyes when the topic of mindfulness comes up. It just seems like so much effort – my mind is always whirring at a thousand miles per hour, and the idea of keeping up with it can seem impossible.
My therapist encourages me to take baby steps when it comes to being mindful, like paying attention to how much time I’m spending on social media or just taking a few deep breaths when I’m feeling particularly anxious. And you know what? It actually works.
You don’t need to meditate for hours or become a yoga guru in order to practise mindfulness. I started listening to my thoughts – really listening to them – and realised just how negative and critical that voice inside my head is.
As my therapist said: ‘If someone in your life spoke to you the way you speak to yourself, would you want to be around them?’
I’ve recently started challenging that voice, and have found that it becomes quieter when faced with logic and reasoning. If it tells me that I’m terrible at my job and will never find success, I remind myself of my past achievements and list compliments received from past managers and colleagues.
That’s mindfulness. It may not make a great Instagram photo, but it really works!
If the focus on mental health this week has opened your mind to the possibility of attending therapy, I hope my words serve as a small reminder that it is way less scary than you imagine.
It’s okay to reach out for help. I’m so glad that I found the courage to make that phone call.
If you want to learn more about Mental Health Awareness Week, the Mental Health Foundation has a number of useful resources on their website. Take a look and see how you can get involved!