Alright… let’s be real. I’ve taken my time with posting about Mental Health Awareness Month (literally waited until the last day of the month to post this) because I have a lot to say on the topic and to be honest, I have been struggling more the past few months than I have in a while. I have been open about my struggles with anxiety in the past and I believe it’s important to continue to be honest and transparent with you all through all stages of my journey. Although social media may make it seem like most of my days are good days, remember that what I share is simply snapshots of my life and not the full picture. I don't show the times when the weight of the world sits a little heavier on my shoulders than usual. I am human and I am still healing my past wounds. I occasionally face triggers that remind me where I need to focus my healing and show me opportunities for further growth. Healing is not linear!
While I'm sharing this with you all today, please understand that this is me expressing my current state of my healing journey. I am not a mental health professional and I am not here to diagnose or to help treat any mental illness or disorders. I am simply sharing my story to help spread awareness and hopefully give others motivation to start or continue their own personal healing journeys.
What is mental health?
Let me start by saying, mental health struggles are not the same as having a diagnosed mental illness. While they may coexist, it is possible (and common) to struggle mentally without having any underlying disorders or chronic illness. For example, stress, anger, grief, poor body image, etc., are all considered to be mental health struggles that most people are likely to experience at some point throughout life.
Mental health is a key component in our overall health and wellness. Whatever is going on inside, reflects on the outside.
In other words, you cannot solely focus on your physical health without addressing what is going on internally, and vice versa. Your gut health is directly linked to your mental health. Poor gut health puts your mental health at risk and poor mental health hygiene may be reflected in your gut through digestive issues.
Once you recognize that and approach your health holistically, everything starts to change.
My personal experience with mental health
I’ve had my fair share of mental health struggles. For years I’ve experienced anxiety and depression and have seen first hand what kind of toll it takes on your physical body.
I was diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in 2012 after suffering from chronic shortness of breath and a handful of anxiety attacks throughout my last few years of high school. At first, the doctor told me the shortness of breath might be caused by asthma so they sent me to get tested. While I was going through the tests, I was experiencing anxiety and having trouble breathing normally. So what did the test results say? That I had severe asthma. I knew that wasn’t the case because I was a competitive athlete and never had asthma symptoms before so I challenged their diagnosis and asked my primary care doctor if there was any other explanation for my symptoms.
She then tested me for anxiety and determined that I actually was experiencing social anxiety disorder, not asthma. I remember listening to the questions she was asking me that led to my diagnosis and thinking, “Doesn’t everyone experience these things??”. I had never considered myself to be a nervous person so it made me realize that many of the symptoms I had been experiencing, I wrote off as normal and just assumed everyone felt the same way as me.
I lived with that diagnosis for years, feeling like something was “wrong” with me and that I was broken in some way. I was prescribed Lorazepam and only took it for emergencies because it made me feel emotionless and numb. However, anyone who has suffered from anxiety attacks knows that in those moments of panic, you would do just about anything to make it stop, even if it meant feeling like a zombie. As I learned more about myself and my anxiety, I knew the medicine wasn’t going to be a long-term fix and I had to address the root causes of what was going on in my body.
I spent countless hours (years really) learning about anxiety, the gut-brain connection and how my gut health and nutrition impacts my mental health, and experimented with coping mechanisms and treatment outside of medication which included talk therapy, setting boundaries in my relationships, journaling, a healthy routine, and meditation. Now I’m proud to say that throughout the past several years I’ve been able to successfully manage my symptoms and the anxiety attacks have been limited to isolated instances that are especially triggering for me.
(Again, this is my own personal journey. If you need medicine to control your symptoms, I highly encourage you to continue doing what works best for YOU and partnering with doctors who really listen to you and address your concerns and needs appropriately.)
What's ignored is left unhealed
More recently, I’ve been digging into what had brought on the anxiety in the first place and I’ve been learning even more about myself and my mental health journey.
I’ve never shared this publicly so here goes nothing.
As a teenager, I was a victim of sexual assault by a close friend’s older brother. It took me years to even accept that it had happened and unfortunately it wreaked havoc on my self-esteem, relationships with friends, family, and significant others, and most importantly… it destroyed my mental health.
Looking back, I wish I had felt safe enough to share my experience in the moment and take action, but instead I hid behind so much shame and feelings of hurt and betrayal by those closest to me. I couldn’t imagine hurting the family I cared so much about so instead I sacrificed my own health and justice for the sake of their comfort. I always say that I never regret anything because even my biggest mistakes have helped shape me into the woman I am today, however, the way I handled the situation back then is always something I’ve wished I could go back and re-do. The way I look at it, at least my misfortune can be a learning experience for others and hopefully my story will serve as someone else’s survival guide someday. If I could go back and tell my younger self one thing, it would be to not sit in silence. Stand up for yourself and be LOUD. Lean on those who love you and trust that none of what happened was any fault of your own.
Although that situation wasn’t the root cause of my anxiety, it did play a big role in the severity of my symptoms. That is something that I had to acknowledge and work through so that I could work on fully healing from that trauma and understand the complexity of my mental health journey.
Connecting the dots
Within the past year I've discovered another source of my anxiety as a teenager actually began when I was a young girl in pre-K and elementary school. I was always a shy kid when my mom would try to introduce me to her coworkers or friends, but when I was in class I was often very energetic and sometimes disruptive. One of my teachers had told my mother that she believed I had ADHD.
I didn’t fit the traditional description of an ADHD kid though. I was always a high-achiever and consistently received honors and high honors in school, tested above average and had been put into the Talented & Gifted program in elementary school, was involved in several sports and extracurricular activities, and was a pretty well-behaved kid. So my mother, being a 3rd grade teacher who worked with many kids who displayed the more traditional signs of ADHD (hyperactive, inattentive, poor grades, etc.), refused to believe that I had any neurological issues and never brought me to be tested or diagnosed. This was not an uncommon experience for girls who suffered from ADHD because historically it was believed to be a male-dominant mental disorder and presents itself differently in females.
Fast forward to adulthood, after several years of living with a SAD diagnosis, I’ve discovered that my undiagnosed ADHD was a significant contributor to my anxiety symptoms. In my life, ADHD has presented itself in many ways that have added to my anxiety and feelings of overwhelm. Over the years I've experienced: executive dysfunction, time blindness/poor time management, auditory processing disorder, impulsive behaviors, fidgeting, accidental interruptions during conversations because if I don’t say what pops into my mind I’ll forget it, needing to write everything down, having a never-ending to-do list, excessive activity and having difficulty slowing down, losing track of texts and emails, and having difficulty keeping up with friends. YIKES.
All those symptoms were a huge source of stress and anxiety for me and I didn’t realize they were linked to ADHD until I spoke with my psychiatrist and she helped me connect the dots. Now that I have been treated for ADHD and have learned how to work with my brain, rather than against it, my anxiety symptoms have improved significantly!
If any of this sounds familiar to you or you found yourself saying “me too!” to my experiences, keep reading.
Struggling with mental health is exhausting. Unfortunately there is no magic pill that will cure all and there is no one-size-fits-all solution to healing. There is also no right or wrong way to heal. The most important thing to do for yourself, is to just get started. Make that therapy appointment, confide in a friend or family member, start reading books and listening to podcast to better understand your brain, learn how to meditate, connect with others who are dealing with similar struggles so you don’t feel so alone, and just do whatever it is that you need to do to take a step in the right direction. There is no shame in getting help! We all could use a little extra TLC every now and then. Plus, you never know who might be watching you ready to follow your lead.
Personally, I don’t believe anyone can ever be fully healed. We are human. Life happens and the ups and downs are all part of the journey. Or as I like to say to my clients, life is about staying even through the highs and lows. We should try to remain humble during the great times and positive, hopeful, and grateful during the bad. The lows are there to help us appreciate the highs that much more. The same goes for mental health. We may experience good days for a while and all of a sudden get hit with some really hard days and feel like we’re slipping back to where we were. When that happens, remind yourself that you are not starting back at square one. This time, you’re starting from experience and there is nothing you can’t handle or overcome.
We are allowed to be a work in progress and a masterpiece simultaneously. In my opinion, what matters most in anyone’s healing journey is that they actively participate in their healing and make the conscious effort to work through and release past traumas, negative thought patters, unhealthy habits, and toxic relationships while replacing them with self-love, healthy habits and relationships, affirmations, and things that bring joy. It is a process and some days will be easier than others but what’s important is that we keep pushing forward, especially when times get tough. When we live authentically and allow ourselves to be perfectly imperfect, we invite more love, prosperity, and opportunities into our lives. To me, THAT is what healing is all about. Not erasing the past or ignoring that the mental health issues are there, but facing them head-on and getting to the root of the problem in order to fully heal and move forward with living your happiest and healthiest life.
If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for reading and supporting me and my journey through life. I appreciate each and every one of you and it is my goal to share what I have learned to hopefully help others who may be struggling the way I have.
My biggest advice for anyone reading this is to TRUST YOUR GUT. If you feel that your diagnosis is incorrect or if your symptoms aren’t being managed as well as they could be with your current treatment plan, use your voice and keep asking questions. When it comes to your health, you are your own best advocate. No one knows you better than you know yourself!
Healing is not easy, but it is beyond worth it.
I plan to post another blog soon with my top 10 tips to improve your mental health hygiene. Until then, I want to hear from you! What questions do you have for me? What do you want to learn more about? Are there any healthy habits or tricks that have helped you with your own healing journey that you'd like to share? Let me know in the comments!
If you need an extra push to get started or could use an accountability partner through your journey, I’m here to help. I am not a licensed therapist, but I work hand-in-hand with therapists to provide you with a holistic approach to healing. As a certified holistic health coach, I work with clients to connect the dots from where they currently are to where they want to be in health, life, and happiness. Sign up for a free consultation today to see if a holistic health coaching program would be right for you.