Managing Anxiety and Depression

Please note: this isn’t a success story because the story isn’t over and never will be. 

I’ve come to a point in my life where, for the first time, I’m able to manage my mental health. I want to share with you how the combination of therapy, medication and meditation has brought me to where I am now (the most content I’ve ever been). If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression or anything that comes with a destabilised mind – I hope this helps you realise there is a light at the end of tunnel. 

No matter how long that tunnel may be.

First things first, it seems obvious, but very appropriate to mention that I’m solely referring to my own experience and what has worked for me. This by no means, is a step by step guide, to living a care-free healthy life, everyone’s situation is different and there is no quick fix. So take what works and know that, of course, your experience is unique to you. And therefore only you can help yourself. But hearing and seeing what other people have gone through, really helped me to find the drive to do something. 

To get help.

WHAT DID I NEED HELP FOR?


Since the age of 13 I’ve been feeling worthless. Up until the age of 22 (I’m 23) I spent more time depressed than I did content and I didn’t vocalise my struggle to anyone. This loneliness spread like a disease throughout my psyche, constantly making me feel alienated and different from everyone else. I had 19 operations as a child (a non cancerous tumour in both my ears) and spending this much time in the hospital most definitely didn’t help. My parents kept telling me: ‘you’re special, you can get through anything’ – something that I firmly believed. And still do (in some ways) just not the special part (as much). This had a damaging affect. I grew up constantly wanting attention from others and the special feeling this gave me (most likely the reason I became an actor).

I won’t go into too much detail as to my understanding of my childhood and how I came to have mental health issues. This isn’t entirely relevant. The bottom line is, these issues went unaddressed for years and then when I went to University my anxiety became an everyday issue. I’m talking daily panic attacks, bouts of manic depression, feelings of disconnect, constant rumination of thoughts and a hyper sensitive reaction to personal rejection. Being hypersensitive was the result of feeling worthless. I had low serotonin (see Medication section) and was therefore sensitive to any event that may produce the slightest bit of negative emotion. Being on the look out for these moments all the time was draining. I was paranoid and miserable. When I left University it got to the point where I couldn’t leave the house. I was in, what I would describe as, the inner depths of chaos. I felt stuck in time. Alone. And in desperate need of relief (which TV didn’t give me). 

It felt like I had two choices: drench my body in stimulants and drift off into temporary limbo or kill myself. If you’ve ever been here you’ll know exactly what I mean. You wouldn’t wish it upon your worst enemy. It’s hell. But one of the scary things was knowing that given my privileged (the fact I have a house, family, money etc.) there was further to sink.

(Living a privileged upbringing was one of the things that made me feel guilty for having these emotional problems – because I was in the top 1% and surrounded by material wealth. This is partly the reason I left these problems unattended for years. But if you want to kill yourself, it truly does not matter whether there’s a Range Rover in the drive – you have a problem that must be dealt with.)

I decided I needed help. I was at breaking point.

THERAPY

The first thing I did was see a therapist. I was lucky. The first therapist I saw, is still the same person I see every week (a year and 4 months ago). You can go through the NHS (if you talk to your GP) or dig a little deeper and find a private therapist. I went private and found someone who could give me 50 min, weekly, affordable sessions.

It was here that I began the journey I’m still on now, the journey to making sense of my past and how I got myself into a self-destructive mess. I won’t go into biographical detail about the personal things I’ve discovered but rather I’ll briefly explain, in general, how the process of therapy has helped me and what you could potentially get out of it yourself.
It’s a cliché but that doesn’t mean it’s not true and effective. Talking really does help. Once you talk about something, you take away it’s ability to remain hidden. When it’s hidden this is where it can do the most damage. This is where you remain anxious that it may involuntarily reveal itself. Imagine walking through a crystal maze, knowing there’s a deranged killer on the loose. Each step, each turn, would be frightening beyond belief because you know at any point this killer could jump out at you. This is what it’s like living with a traumatic past, you haven’t processed or faced. It’s out there in the inner depths of your mind just waiting to pounce and the very fact I hadn’t acknowledged my past (for a variety of reasons) was why I was filled with all this anxiety. I learnt that voluntarily confronting something activates a different brain circuitry than when you let something creep up and smother you. Taking on the burden of suffering makes you stronger when you inevitably face it. So it was up to me, the past had happened, it wasn’t going anywhere, I could either hide in the bushes and hope it doesn’t find me, or walk the maze and confront it.

I began to see things a lot clearer. This made me feel less like an alien and more like a human being. Making sense of something, no matter how dark or surreal, means you can move on and not ponder. The question of why, gets answered and you don’t have to burn up physical resources figuring out the social equation in your mind. And when you don’t trust yourself (a consequence of worthlessness) – you never get an answer! This is what a constant rumination (a negative cycle) of thoughts does to you. I was always tired – and I couldn’t figure out why. Well, thoughts burn energy. Trust me. Spend a whole day doing sudoku puzzles and you’ll know!

I learned to view thoughts as the foundation of my inner psyche and therefore the motor behind my action. So they need to be taken seriously. But, they’re also just thoughts. Our brains are weird, no one really knows how this squidgy thing entirely works, it strews up so much random rubbish at times and no one truly understands where from or why. But once I accepted that’s how my brain works, the power of my intrusive thoughts were under my control.

Therapy taught me, that it’s okay to have dark thoughts, intruding on your everyday life. The brain does that. And it doesn’t mean I’m a crazy, rampaging, sexual killer because I can’t control what thoughts I have but I can control how I respond to them. Vocalising my utmost shameful thoughts, allowed me to gain control over their impact on me. I felt less embarrassment in having them and they became powerless.

Random thoughts will come, let them, and then let them go. (See Meditation section.)

Intrusive thought example:

A regular intrusive thought I had, whenever watching a play, was going up on stage, during the performance, and punching one of the lead actors in the face. (My anxiety is largely social so this intrusive thought is about the chaotic change in social landscape that would come, after doing something like that.) I thought about what the actors would think of me, everyone in the audience and my friends/family at home. There’s a possibility for complete chaos and a massive change to my life, in a matter of seconds and it’s my choice, I could do this. Anybody could. It’s thought’s like these which prove to me how hollow our social structures are that we’ve built. And the fear behind how easy it would be to break these structures down and be anti-social is at the heart of social anxiety.

When I first started having these types of thoughts, I felt like a freak. (Stigma is a whole other issue, I briefly refer to this later on.) But when I vocalised these thoughts to my therapist, the negative emotions I associated with them evaporated. And what’s more, because I had already brought what was previously uncomfortable to the surface, it felt okay to be open with my friends and family. And when I did this, some of my friends actually admitted they’ve had similar thoughts. I couldn’t believe it. All these people I’d considered ‘normal’ actually shared a similar experience. This is what conversation can achieve! I was open with others, so they were open with me.If this openness was ingrained in society imagine the discussions we could have and the moments of connection we could experience, knowing that there’s other people who every time a tube arrives at a platform, also intrusively visualise jumping directly under the train. 

You’d feel less suicidal and more human. We’re in this together.

A misconception I had, was thinking there was a version of my life where I was free from suffering. This however, doesn’t exist. It makes sense why people get anxious or depressed because suffering (death/illness at the very least) is inevitable. In fact it’s a miracle that every single person isn’t anxious all the time, given the amount of things that could go wrong at any given second. In moments of crisis, thinking ‘damn right I’m feeling this way’, given what has happened, will allow you to accept the suffering. Once you have accepted what has happened you can begin to heal.

You’re not going to treat a cold you think you don’t have, but clearly do, are you?

MEDICATION

Taking something every morning is a big commitment. And it costs money. But there was an incident, that triggered one of the worst episodes of depression I’ve ever had. It was the closest I’d got to taking my own life. I was willing to try anything. (The stigma and discomfort I felt before meant nothing at this point because I was well and truly at my breaking point.)

I’d been in therapy for almost a year. It was helping massively but when I began taking the medication this is when I well and truly realised my problems were more than psychological. Fluoxetine is an SSRI – Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor, (a mouthful I know), but that means it increases the amount of serotonin in your body. A quick google and you’ll find: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that passes between brain cells and the synapses. It regulates a lot of important things like appetite, sleep and mood. A deficiency in serotonin can cause depression and anxiety. After taking the SSRI, I was astounded at the results. Having an increase in serotonin genuinely changed my life. I was able to not dwell on negative thoughts as much because my depression lifted. It showed me a new way of thinking that I didn’t know existed. It gave me the peace of mind to further develop the tools I was using to manage my anxiety riddled body.

This suggested to me that part of my condition was physical! Whether or not my low serotonin was due to a psychological response to my childhood trauma (I was bullied, had a dysfunctional, abusive, family environment and severe surgery) taking the medication was the only thing that was able to increase it to a healthier level. Medicating is what we do when we feel physically ill. So why not do it, when the thing that controls every inch of our existence – is ill? Now, there are other ways to increase serotonin, of course, I even tried some of them: I’ve been exercising regularly for four years, I eat a healthy balanced diet and I have made great efforts to add structure to my ‘up in the air’ freelance life (regular sleep patterns and a circadian rhythm has been proved to alleviate depression/add purpose). None of this worked for me, maybe it will for you but if you’re at rock bottom, running in the sun and then heading home for a nice fermented dinner just ant going to cut it. 

It’s dangerous not to get help when you’re in chaos. Very dangerous indeed. 

There’s research now, to show you the positives in using anti-depressants (Guardian Article). I was on Fluoxetine for 7 months (I’m now off the medication). I took 20mg a day and then 40mg a day. I found it very easy to stop. I didn’t once feel like I had the urge to take them but I was very careful in not becoming dependent. I’m a firm believer that if you’re taking medication, you should take it so you can get off it. Otherwise you’re just relying on the medication for relief and not working on bettering yourself. It took me 7 months. It may take others longer or shorter but taking them will give you the time to work hard on how your body/mind responds to the world.

Anti-depressants genuinely changed my default reaction to everyday life. It felt like my brain had been rewired. Even once I stopped taking the medication I didn’t go back to my normal ways because I had already had a peek at a more sustainable existence. I wasn’t about to unlearn this way of living. 

Finding a medication that works for you is key and this may take time. I went to my GP and made it very clear that my depression and anxiety was becoming a daily burden and interfering massively with my life. My GP then prescribed me the medication. 

Side Affects: 

Please note, for the first 4 weeks I felt a tingly sensation. Side affects are common and entirely relative to your body. Mine didn’t affect me in anyway negative but it’s something to be aware of. (My side affects stopped after 4 weeks.) So for the first time in my life, I had someone I could be entirely honest with/who listened (the therapist I was paying) and I felt very positive/had notably more energy. 

Things were really looking up.

But, I wanted to get off my medication. And knew I had to do something to combat the negative thoughts that would undoubtedly plague my mind once I stopped.

MEDITATION

Meditation was the final tool I needed. I’ve only been meditating for 5 months but the changes I’ve seen have been incredible. I use the app Headspace. I meditate twice a day and usually whenever I’m on the tube. For those of you who are picturing me with my legs crossed, humming, whilst a carriage full of people all look on bewildered – this isn’t the mediation I do. Let’s be honest, this is the western world so we need a mediation that we can use in and around our often-chaotic environments. Headspace teaches a breathing based meditation, you can do it sitting with your eyes closed or standing with your eyes open. It’s very simple, you start off being guided, so all you have to do is find a quiet place and listen to Andy Puddicombe’s tranquil voice take you through the exercise. Then you work your way to unguided. There are packs for virtually everything: Depression, Anxiety, even Coping with Cancer. There are also single sessions for thing like: having a panic attack, a job interview or flying on a plane. Headspace isn’t for everyone, you can use other apps or get books on meditation. (I love Headspace because it tracks your progress and this motivates me to keep going – even on those ‘I’m so tired I could lay in bed forever’ days). 

Whether it’s Headspace or another app, meditation is taught in different ways but the principles are the same: You learn how to observe thoughts without judgement, note what they are and which emotion they stem from, and then let them go. Your perception of thoughts and emotion shifts to the point where you strip back the labels of ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ and rather focus on the physical sensation and subjective experience. Doing this means the emotion doesn’t define you, you are not ‘depressed’ or ‘anxious’, these are temporal states that will come and go.

The impact this simple principle has had on my life has been startling. I’m now able to meditate (sit still) for an hour, letting thoughts come and go, and the idea of sitting still for 10 minutes used to make my toes curl.

STIGMA

I will keep this brief. I received a fair bit of negativity for doing therapy, taking medication and meditating. Some people were so kind and respectful when they heard I was seeing a therapist, others (very few) didn’t understand because to them I wasn’t ‘crazy’. I was told by a variety of people to ‘get off that stuff’ when I started a daily dosage of the anti-depressant Fluoxetine, ‘it’s dangerous and can lead to addiction’. And even when I started meditating I got a few chuckles here and there, at the very image of me, getting my Buddhist monk on, in my room. I’m mentioning this because it may happen to you, particularly with medication and therapy. The stigma means that all of the above are associated with some form of discomfort. What I discovered was, it’s often because you’re making an effort to better yourself that can spark something inside someone who deep down feels they should do the same. People can get stuck between the stigmatic culture and their own desires to stop their own suffering. When this happens, there will be resentment held towards people who are making an effort to get better. After a while (like everything) people got used to it. I openly talk about therapy now with the sceptics and my brother/a few others have joined me with the meditation. 

Don’t let the stigma stop you from working on yourself.

FINAL NOTES

Over the last year and a half as well as all the above, I’ve been reading up on psychology/anxiety. Knowledge helps to make sense of the scary stuff. I want to end by including a few of the books, podcasts and videos I’ve watched that have massively helped me in gaining an understanding of what is happening to my body and why.
I also want to emphasise again, that although I’m in a wonderful place, I do still have my bad days, and horrible moments (as is the way of life). What’s different now is that I have tools which I can use to not let my bad days or moments turn into bad weeks or months and then a bad life. However, if I don’t use my tools or continue to work on my health, I know it will dip (just like a bodybuilder abandoning his gym). It’s an everlasting process so making it habitual is key. And once you feel the benefits, you’ll want to keep developing your tools, as opposed to needing to.

I can now truly see a version of my life, where I don’t spend each woken moment worrying about tomorrow or dwelling on the past. 

And for that I will be forever grateful.


RESOURCES

Blindboy Boat Club (Youtube Video):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ua3KAuYF3Zw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAm0FmORADc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zz82P0WqUh4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WluMM7J9URc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xt4YJ9QjzmI


12 Rules of Life by Jordan B. Peterson (Book)
Jordan B. Peterson Podcast
How to Rewire Your Anxious Brain (Book/Audio Book)
Headspace (App): https://my.headspace.com/
Selfie by Will Storr (Book)
Mental Health and Freelancing Podcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kyt0imB6BZc

Published by WillAdolphy

Trainee therapist, host of the 'Into the Void' podcast and Artistic Director of Flux Theatre.

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