Jill shares her experiences of anxiety, and how it's affected her job as an Occupational Therapist.
I want to start off by introducing myself as a state registered Occupational Therapist with 19 year’s experience in assisting people to manage their mental and physical wellbeing, improving quality of life. I am also an occupational therapist with her own story of mental health challenges.
Looking back now, I realise that I was always a child who would worry about everyone else. I was sensitive to the words, actions and behaviours of others, and was easily overwhelmed by conflict and high emotion. I was always the mediator in my family. I remember also feeling very attached to the kind parents of my friends, and feeling almost a sense of loss when I had to leave them after spending any time with them.
With my empathetic and caring nature, I fell naturally into my therapy role. I was also very driven and ambitious, so chose to put myself into the most intense psychiatric environments you can ever encounter. So I worked in a high security hospital with mentally ill “offenders”; I worked in acute psychiatric wards where people were experiencing a crisis in their mental health and were acutely unwell; I worked in addictions and eating disorders, all the while being faced with the most dark and distressing stories in my therapy role.
I think I unknowingly took on too much at too young an age, with a fragile temperament.
As a consequence of my own personality and experiences, coupled with the difficult situations I was facing every day, when I was 25 I developed my own story with anxiety. One day, when out for lunch with a group of patients, during a moment of intense emotion I fainted, completely passed out in my dinner plate. I was mortified and terrified, and did not understand what had happened to me. I went into work the next day, and as soon as the topic was discussed, I felt the faint come on again and had to leave the room. I quickly started to feel panicky, sick and overwhelmed, and this was the start of my journey with mental illness.
I developed quite a marked fear, or phobia of fainting. I was traumatised by the feeling, the loss of control, and even thinking about it was enough to start the cycle of panic and “oh no its happening again”… I do still wonder if it was possible that I had developed post-traumatic stress disorder, but I have never explored this avenue.
I quickly took myself to the doctor, as I was in a place where the smallest tasks, such as showering, getting ready for the day, waiting in queues in shops or even visiting the supermarket, had become impossible. I developed a social phobia of eating out in public in case I fainted again. I was paralysed with fear and could not see any way to make it better. I felt sick constantly, couldn’t eat, couldn't sleep or concentrate, I felt agitated and very alone. I wanted to be around people all of the time and was afraid of my own company. I literally felt “crazy”. I was also very embarrassed and ashamed - here was me, a mental health OT, having my own mental health problems!
My friends and family were as supportive as they could be, but I could see that they couldn't understand my fear, why I couldn't just “relax”, what had I to be worried about.
The doctor began me on antidepressants. Initially, as I know is to be expected, I felt an increase in my symptoms, but then thankfully, my anxiety lessened to the point that I could start to function enough to try to sort my head out a little.
Medication was a necessity and a life saver for me - without it I was unable to calm my mind in order to move forward.
I chose to resign from my post, as I recognised that the environment was fueling my anxiety. I took up a locum therapy post, with less pressure, and bit by bit began trying to rebuild my confidence in myself.
I think I had what some would call “a breakdown”. But I didn’t allow myself to “breakdown”. I did what I had to do, sought medical help, then kept on going. And I think this resilient attitude has been what has helped me every single day since.
On and off over the years, I have had episodes of marked anxiety, usually centering around a fainting spell. After hospital tests to find out why I was fainting, I’ve learned that I have a hyper active vasovagal nerve. This means that when I feel over aroused, emotional or distressed, my blood pressure drops and I quickly follow! Hence the fainting - it’s my body’s way of calling “time out”.
To this day I still have anxiety. I still have days where I "wobble”.
I do lots of public speaking now, and am constantly pushing myself out of my comfort zone in my therapy role. Around these events, I can feel the anxious thoughts circulating, my body physically reacting almost on its own. I still feel the churning stomach, the loss of appetite, the prickles of adrenaline. It’s difficult for me to separate “normal stress” from anxiety now. I know that most people would feel a level of nervousness around what I do, but I automatically seem to go into “anxious mode” with little in between.
But I will never feel the way I did then, as I have learned how to work through the difficult days, and more importantly, that the anxious days do not last. If I let it, anxiety can pass. I can feel happy and calm again.
The difference is now, that I accept myself and my anxiety; it’s just a part of my story. I’ve learned to think “so what” - “so what if I feel faint?”. It doesn’t mean that my world is going to end, that disaster will strike, that I’ll end up hospitalised… When you accept the worst, it doesn't feel so frightening anymore. I liked the book “Power over panic” for this message - what is the worst that can happen, and will this actually, realistically happen?
I’m not afraid to tell people. I think when you can be open and honest about mental health, it immediately takes the pressure off. I now will stand up in front of that class of first year pupils and say “I have anxiety”. It’s very powerful to stand up in front of a group of pupils who might be struggling with their mental wellbeing, to say to them “ I have anxiety, but I do not let it limit my life. My anxiety does not define me”. Usually this is met with scoffs of disbelief, but I need people to hear that you can still be who you want to be, despite mental health issues. I am a blooming good therapist! I’m probably better at my work than before as I have a true life understanding and experience to share, and I know the strategies that work.
I now use my therapy skills to teach children, teachers and parents how to proactively nurture their mental wellbeing.
I’m hearing adults and kids say that they're struggling with their mental health, whether this is self esteem or confidence, anxiety, low mood or other issues. I developed my company “practical mindset”, and a curriculum mental wellbeing resource for teachers, and I go into schools and do parent/child sessions after school. I aim to leave every single person I work alongside with practical skills that they can use every day to look after their own mental wellbeing. I hope that, by proactively managing wellbeing, we will see reduced levels of crisis; perhaps reduced levels of self harm and suicide; addiction and the “breakdown” similar to my experience.
My anxiety does not define me and I’m damned if I’m about to let it rule my life and restrict my opportunities! I almost feel like I’ve made friends with my anxiety. When I notice my mind going there, I take a moment to reassure with phrases like, “it’s ok, this is only anxiety”, “you’ve felt this before and it’s ok”, “I believe in myself to get through this”, “this will pass”…. I make an effort to relax my physical body and use diaphragmatic breathing. I also make sure I spend time on self care - so quiet time alone, exercise, walking with my dogs, listening to music, meditation, and so on, to keep my mental wellbeing on an even keel. I need to be proactive in my management of my mental wellbeing.
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