I promised I would write a blog about my experience with anxiety and here it is… for some reason I felt like it was important to post this now. I guess what prompted me to write about this in the first place was a recent brush with my old experiences again (more on that later), and also my education in Australia emphasizing the physical impact of emotional and mental wellbeing. What this entry will focus on is prioritizing mental health, and what my experiences have taught me.
My anxiety first showed up in my first Masters degree at UBC. Looking back, I can see I always had it at a younger age but I just subconsciously learned to manage it really well. The way my anxiety would present itself would be that I had to constantly make lists. I would feel like my brain was moving too fast, processing too much and so I had to make lists of different things. I had multiple notebooks everywhere where I would scribble down random things. As soon as I made the list, it was rare I ever went back to it. When I was trying to get into one of the hardest academic programs out there, maintain decent grades, and commute 3+ hours a day, I suppose I was pushed beyond what my list strategy normally could solve.
The best way I could describe it is that it is like how your heart races, except I felt like my brain was racing. My brain often did this though, so I thought it was relatively normal. However, after enough time, my heart would start to race as well and that would stress me out even more. It became a bit of a cycle, but I mentally tried to calm myself down and would eventually get my thoughts under control. My body behaved differently… my resting heart rate is normally around 64. It would be resting at around 85-90 during my school semester. My nervous system was on edge the whole time. I have zero issue with public speaking, presenting, speaking in crowds etc, but all of a sudden this would cause my heart rate to spike to 150 bpm with the mere thought of raising my hand to speak in class. I would feel my heart race and it would stress me out even more. I love people, but all of the sudden I was stressed if I had to go to a new social event and socialize with new people. Eye contact became difficult. For anyone who knows me, this is so far from my normal self. I couldn’t understand why my personality felt like it was changing, which just lead to more stress. This, I believe, started to contribute to me feeling migraine-like tension headaches 3x a week.
I went in to the campus medical clinic for the migraines I was experiencing. The doctor was so kind and so patient, and probably very used to seeing stressed out students. We talked about how my semester was going and I happily blabbed on about how much I loved physiotherapy. He then asked me “How are you actually doing? are you feeling stressed or worried?” I was about to say “Nope!!” and give him a big smile, but instead my body betrayed me and I started crying out of nowhere. I was pretty embarrassed, but he looked like he had seen it before. He said “I think you’re dealing with anxious thoughts, and experiencing a form of anxiety with the amount of work you have on your plate”. Oddly enough, as soon as he said this I felt so relieved. That was when I was able to start to come up with more helpful strategies for how to manage my stress and my anxious patterns.
Some of the best advice I learned and could give would be to:
Learn your triggers; and learn your “rest”.
- Coffee: As much as I felt I desperately needed coffee to stay awake and functioning, drinking it like a fish was not helping my situation. Coffee was making my mind and heart race if I had too much. I found 1-2 cups was where I was best benefitted.
- Making too many plans: this is related to “learn your rest”, but I found that for myself, going out with a bunch of friends 1-2 nights a week was more stressful than beneficial for me; even if in the moment I was enjoying myself. I would come home feeling even more stressed. (I assure you I have lovely friends, they were not the problem haha).
- Being in crowds: I tried to avoid rush hour, busy malls, etc- for whatever reason I would feel extra stressed and anxious if I was exposed to them too much. This meant I would either get to school early and start to study/workout, and then I would do the same after school was done. I would avoid rush hour, and then just have a solo singing/dance session in the car on my calm, easy commute home.
Learn your rest: This one was huge. I normally am a pretty easy-going person and I don’t have a lot of opinions for how to spend my time when I’m with other people. Usually other people have a stronger opinion on what they would prefer to do, and I would just go along with it (I feel like I’m making my friends sound bad. I love them, they are wonderful haha). I needed to really dive in and learn what made me feel the most rested and at peace with myself. This was a great learning opportunity for me to get to know myself. I found that for me, running or hiking was how I felt my best. This was where my love of running and exercise really developed. Still to this day, if a couple days go by without exercise and I start to want to make a bunch of lists, I know it’s time to get outdoors for at least half an hour.
I learned that I can’t think about what would make me feel happiest in the moment, because I’m usually not in the healthiest head space when I’m feeling anxious… but it really helped to think about what would make me feel the happiest afterwards. For example, all I would want to do is sit on the couch and zone out if I was feeling stressed, but a bit of foresight let me decide I had to force myself to do what would make me happier afterwards- running or exercising.
I highly recommend making a list of what makes you feel rested, happy, and encouraged. Then take note of how much time you spend in a week doing those things. I found I needed about an hour a day to counteract how much stress I was dealing with.
I hope talking about this gives someone peace about feeling stressed or anxious, and that we can start to be more open and honest about how we feel. I can often tell with my patients that they are having anxious thoughts when they ask the same, repeated questions about their injury. It’s important to take the time to take a break and discuss those thoughts patiently when they happen, because at that point the main limitation is the patient’s thoughts and beliefs about their pain, not necessarily the injury.
**Shout out to this doctor who kindly asked how I was feeling, got to the root of the issue, and didn’t prescribe me pain meds <3**