Five years ago my husband landed his dream job and we moved our young family from Newcastle upon Tyne to Bedford. I’ve always been a risk-taker and someone who loves change and adventure. I was sad to leave but hopeful and excited for new beginnings.
Several months into our new life, I started to notice that I was getting breathless on a regular basis. I went to my GP and explained that I must have developed asthma. I felt like I couldn’t take in a full lungful of air and occasionally it felt like I was suffocating. It kept me awake at night and the more I thought about it, the harder it was to breathe. I was convinced I’d developed a respiratory condition. My GP asked if I had any anxiety but I said I was fine and continued to press for tests to check my lung capacity. My appointment with the nurse came..
'Mrs Cook, your lung capacity is perfectly healthy.. tell me, what’s going on in your life right now?’
It took me a while to accept that my breathing difficulties could possibly be related to anxiety. I was usually fine with change, I’d moved cities several times before. I’m adaptable! I’m positive! I can cope! It can’t be anxiety!!
I had never knowingly struggled with poor mental health before and I am so grateful for that. But, I was alarmed at my reticence to admit that my mental health was suffering and I was in fact susceptible to poor mental health. I have always been very heart-on-sleeve, self-aware and open about my struggles but for some reason, my brain could not compute that my body's physical reaction was a symptom of the overwhelm of my mind.
What I realise now is that the physical reaction in my body was a warning sign. It just goes to show that when we talk about health, we can’t separate physical from mental. They are so intrinsically linked.
Once I had accepted that I needed help (#notwonderwoman), I was slowly able to work towards managing the anxiety. I’m no expert on mental health and I’d encourage you first and foremost to go to your GP but here are some of the things that helped me:
Taking note of the thought patterns that preceded an anxiety attack - I didn’t pick them apart there and then but took note to look again later. (During an anxiety attack I was not in my rational mind so my thoughts were blowing up out of proportion. My biggest trigger was when plans with friends didn’t go ahead and it was actually linked to a fear of rejection.)
I had a group of trusted friends/family who I would just send a quick text to when I was struggling. They would tell me affirming things and remind me of who I really am and check in on me.
Grounding exercise - being mindful of what I can touch, taste, smell, hear and see, it helped to bring me back into reality.
Taking deep breaths, in through my nose, out through my mouth.
Listening to calming music. I’ve got a playlist of music that helps me to relax, whenever I feel like I'm heading into overwhelm, I put that playlist on and it's one way of grounding me.
Swimming in the river, the cold water helps me connect with my body and calms my mind.
As mental health awareness week draws to a close I would encourage you to take some time to reflect on your own mental health journey. If your body is emitting warning signs, speak to your GP, book some counselling sessions and be honest with trusted friends.
Your future self will thank you for it.
For more official advice and guidance head here.