I do not suffer from anxiety like I do depression, but the feeling has hijacked my mind and body more than once.
The pair seem to go together terribly well. Sorry, I mean they are terrible together. 'Depression and anxiety' are less 'salt and pepper', and more 'salt and open wound'.
I had my first real taste of 'anxiety' sometime during winter 2015. It was only a few weeks before family and friends convinced me to go and see a doctor and, ultimately, receive a diagnosis of depression. I was sitting in my van in the Lynn Mall parking lot, and had been crying all morning for no discernible reason. I was trying to "get myself together" enough to go inside and get what I needed, then I saw an old schoolmate walk into the mall. We were not really 'friends', but we were definitely on talking terms. Talking to someone was the last thing I wanted to do.
My head started spinning, considering all the other people I might see inside, and what I would say. I had moved away a year and a half ago and had not been home much since. I started thinking about all the friends I had lost contact with, and the people who might not be happy to see me. My heart started racing and the back of my van felt like it was shrinking in around me. It was cold and drizzling outside, but I was hot and sweating. I actually took a layer of clothing off. After a few minutes of laying there with my mind and heart rate showing no signs of slowing down, I knew I had to go somewhere else.
The back of my van was becoming that terrifying boat ride scene out of the Willy Wonka film, but I couldn't face the world outside. I jumped into the drivers seat and sped off to a nearby beach to open the van up and decompress. At the time, I had no idea what was happening, and the fear I was feeling only intensified everything that was happening. I have only recently reached a level of awareness that I can reflect on an experience like this and consider what might have caused it.
I cannot stress enough that I realise how unique everyone's experience with mental illness is, but for me, depression and anxiety are the same in the way that they are both "worst case scenario" perspectives. Depression is in the past - the unshakable feeling that the worst possible outcome has already occurred. Anxiety is in the future - the crippling feeling that the worst case scenario is about to happen. When we attach to these feelings, or repeatedly attach to them, it becomes our automatic response and we develop a chemical imbalance in our brain. The longer we make this our automatic response, or the stronger our attachment to a particular feeling is, the more difficult it becomes to separate from the idea that the worst thing has, or is about to happen.
Throughout my trip already I have experienced some pretty intense anxiety;
- For the week leading up to leaving, my head cycled through all the things I may have forgotten or may not be prepared for. There were all the reasons I shouldn't be doing this.
- At the ferry terminal from Victoria, Canada to Port Angeles, USA, because I had just been crying after a sad goodbye. Now I had to buy a ticket off tough guy #1, park up by some tough guys on their motorbikes, and be cleared for customs by tough guy #2.
- Again, at the ferry terminal, because I did not have an address in the USA to give customs for my visa. Apparently "I'm just winging it and camping" was not sufficient.
- Riding off of the ferry in Port Angeles and realising I had not yet looked at a map of the area, and it was getting dark.
- When I finally found somewhere to stay (the hostel whose address I ended up giving customs, funnily enough) and the kickstand would not deploy on the bike, because the weight of all of my equipment made it sit too low.
That was all within the first 4 hours of leaving Canada.
Experiencing some anxiety I think is typical for any traveller at the beginning of a trip. The combination of nervousness and excitement is all part of the journey and I don't think it should be completely repressed. For me though, it is important to not let these emotions take over and become full blown anxiety. This might not work for you at all, because it only sometimes works for me, but this is how I curb my negative mental talk before it spirals out of control:
1. Recognise the feelings.
By reflecting on the times I have felt the most depressed or anxious, I have been able to identify what that looks and feels like for me. I never seem to think "I'm depressed now", but I do more easily notice a decline in appetite, or catch myself opting out of my favourite activities like surfing or socialising. I sometimes get this weird feeling where I'm flustered like I'm running out of time, but can't actually vocalise what I am trying to do. Then there is the raised heart rate, sweating, crying, etc. (I have recently discovered these are called "emotions")
2. Bring my mind back to the 'present'.
This is generally called "mindfulness", which is easier and far more practical than I realised when first introduced to the concept. Basically, you use something tangible - your senses - to mentally reconnect with your present environment. How many sounds can you hear? How many colours can you see? If it mostly one colour, how many shades are there? I like to take slow, deep breaths and focus in on one sense at a time.
3. Explore my thoughts fully.
If I am successful with steps 1 and 2, I can begin to delve into what I was thinking before I started feeling that way. I should note though, this can sometimes take me back to pre-step 1. Avoiding that requires a balance between feeling the emotions and accepting them as real and justified, yet recognising them as ultimately temporary. As I explore my thoughts, my emotions are like a metal-detector sounding off whenever I get near the source of what I'm feeling. I try to break it down; is the thought in the past or future? Is it really the worst case scenario? What would happen if it actually played out? What can I do about it now, in the present?
This is obviously not professional advice, and it doesn't always work for me either. Every day I learn how unique every individuals experiences and responses are to mental illness, so this might even make it worse for you, but I just wanted to share my own perspective. From my experience, "here and now" is the only place and time we have any control over, so if I can bring my thoughts and emotions back to the present, I can again have the pleasure of dictating my own happiness.