I first realised I needed help – professional help – when I changed trams for no reason at all.
Well, actually, there was a reason: I was convinced the man beside me was carrying a bomb in his backpack. It was 8:30am on a Tuesday and the backpack looked rather full, you see, and at the time I couldn’t think of a plausible reason for that other than him having a penchant for terror.
We were on the cusp of winter and the shadow of the Manchester and London attacks were like poison for my mind.
So, I changed trams. I reasoned that there won’t be any terrorists on the one behind. Logic, etc.
By the time I got to work at Mamamia’s Melbourne office, I was slick with sweat and breathless from all the I’m-definitely-going-to-be-bombed-today paranoia. The moment my friends looked up from their laptops and asked, “How are you?” I burst into a blubbering explosion of tears. How was I? How was I? I felt like I had already lived an entire day and it wasn’t even 9am. I was a fucking mess.
Fearing death was, by this point, something that had consumed me for months. I would check in with family and friends compulsively, hell-bent on making sure they didn’t get into a catastrophic car crash on the way to their dentist appointment or get stabbed on their brunch date. I would stay in on Saturday nights watching shows I’d already seen before simply because the prospect of leaving my cosy apartment felt too monstrous.
But, yeah, it was the tram thing that finally threw me over the edge and into a psychologist’s chair.
I should tell you that now – I’m writing this on January 28, 2018 – I am SO MUCH BETTER. Seriously. The woman I’m describing above sounds like a mess and I want to cuddle her close and make her a pot of tea. With a lot of work (seeing a psychologist! joining a gym! practicing mindfulness! not watching The Keepers late at night by myself!) I have really managed to get my anxiety under control and boy did I learn so much along the way.
Despite being relatively anxiety-free, I still see my psychologist every month to keep me on track/make sure I don’t start tram-hopping again. If you too have a history of poor mental health, I could not recommend seeing a professional enough. I mean it. Go to your GP. Get yourself a mental health plan. Ask your loved ones for recommendations. Do something truly, wholly good for yourself simply because you value your sanity.
(And no, me passing this stuff on doesn’t mean you’re exempt from getting professional help if you need it. This is not an ‘either, or’ thing – if you suspect you have anxiety or depression, you need to talk to someone about it with a degree in mental health… not a degree in Arts and Communication. I give you tough love because I care. Seriously. Go to a GP. Practice self-love. Start living a sunnier life.)
The 12 oranges question
This was put to me during our first session together, and brought some much-needed balance back to my workaholic lifestyle.
It’s something we wrote about on Mamamia; I asked my good friend and weekend buddy Zara McDonald to cover it for me because I felt too vulnerable to share my anxiety diagnosis with the world.
As Zara wrote back in July:
It was an analogy my colleague hit me with, an uncomplicated way to look at my life from above, the easiest kind of self-analysis I had done in years.
You’re given 12 oranges and four baskets. Based on how much mental energy and attention you give something, how do you divide your oranges between the ‘Work’, ‘Family’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Me’ buckets? Are they evenly spread? Do some win out over the others? Who is the biggest loser?
My colleague told me that when she was hit with the “12 oranges” question by her psychologist, she had a revelation: With eight oranges in ‘Work’, three in ‘Family’, and one in ‘Friends’, she was leaving herself with nothing.
Spoiler alert: you should be aiming for three oranges in each bucket. Six months on I think my buckets look more like this:
Not bad in my opinion. How do you guys fare? What bucket do you neglect? Let me know in the comments because it’s a seriously fantastic way to recalibrate and look at the big picture.
Invest money in yourself
Before going to my psych, I’d look at gym memberships and cringe. The prospect of forking out $20 a week to a gym felt too steep, too pricey, when those dollars could be directed elsewhere.
But here’s the thing: You need to invest in yourself, and that means spending money on the things that make you feel good. (Within reason. I’m also a big advocate for being financially responsible.)
She told me manicures, for example, can be a great way to treat yourself on a semi-regular basis. They are a glittery, gentle form of mindfulness that leaves you feeling like ‘you’. Personally, I hate manicures with the fire of one thousand suns because my fingers are so alien-esque – but I appreciated the sentiment.
The lesson is: Buy that fancy book. Take a holiday. Get a massage. Join the gym. If it in any way betters you, and you can afford it, do it.
I invested in the gym. It has become my dorky obsession.
Reassess your media diet
Our worlds are so fixated on what we put into our bodies – but what about the stuff we put into our minds?
The most bizarro thing about my anxiety is that when I’m feeling shitty, I gravitate towards dark and gloomy content. At my all-time low, The Keepers was my favourite show. Casefile was my go-to podcast. Gone Girl and Girl on a Train were the novels I constantly recommended to friends. And the news stories I clicked on? They were exclusively (paradoxically) about the very things that induce my anxiety most: death, rape, crime.
Which now just sounds all so… yuck.
So here’s the delightful thing my psychologist taught me: ‘Consume things that nourish your mind, not the empty things that will make you feel fearful.’
The case for a healthier media diet isn’t actually all that new. Author and businessman Rolf Dobelli argued that our consumption of news is, in many ways, deeply unhealthy for our minds in his 2011 bestseller The Art of Thinking Clearly.
“We can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind,” Dobelli wrote. “Today… we are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.”
Less popcorn chicken and more steamed chicken breast, okay guys?
Mindfulness is not some hippie Sharman bullshit
It’s seriously fucking good, you guys. Get on it. I’ve also written about it for Mamamia before, but here’s the important part:
Instead of listening to podcasts about Ivan Milat and various child murderers, the ‘Smiling Mind’ iPhone app – developed by Australian psychologists and doctors – has become my go-to morning listen. Now, sometimes before I even leave bed, I flick on a “program” that will soothe my mind and not mention the word “corpse” even once.
A bloody beautiful resource that seeks to ‘build individual mental health and wellbeing through tools based on mindfulness meditation’, Smiling Mind is the perfect solution for any stressed woman who, like me, wrongly assumed mindfulness = hippy dippy fairy dust for people who live in Byron Bay.
As someone who is now addicted, let me tell you: mindfulness is great for helping anxiety, and encouraging positive, rational thinking.
If I’m honest, I don’t practice mindfulness regularly anymore (fingers crossed my psychologist doesn’t read this because she would have conniptions and be molto angry) – I only do it when I’m having a bad day, or am feeling particularly stressed out. It’s an awesome way to get your breathing back on track and – my favourite part – it’s free.
What’s your experience with mental health and anxiety? Where do your oranges sit? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below…