By Amanda Weatherall, Australia
I had my first anxiety attack when I was 15. I was driving to youth group with a heavy tight feeling in my chest, and all I wanted to do was cry even though I couldn’t explain why I felt that way. At that time, I didn’t realise what was going on, but I’ve now come to recognise this as an anxiety attack.
I’ve struggled with anxiety since I was first bullied in school at the age of 7 , when my schoolmates made critical remarks about my appearance and behaviour, and would exclude me from events they had planned. I would often go to bed with a lump in my throat and a heavy feeling in my chest, and cry myself to sleep.
Over the years, I experienced different instances of rejection and exclusion—it was especially hurtful when it came from a close friend—that contributed to my growing anxiety in social situations, and made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of friendship.
Over time, I became quiet and withdrawn. Eventually I started avoiding social events altogether, and would convince myself that people didn’t want me there—and even that I didn’t want to go in the first place.
I managed to hide my anxiety by avoiding things that made me feel uncomfortable, but this led to depression because I didn’t have a lot to look forward to.
Depression and anxiety? No, that’s not me
However, despite these episodes, I was still reluctant to accept that I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I thought I didn’t have a good enough reason to be anxious or depressed, because I had a great family and home, good health, and was doing well in school.
I saw asking for help as an admission of failure—and thought that my “anxiety” was just failure on my part for not being able to cope with everyday life—so I never reached out and admitted that I needed help.
It didn’t help that while my family noticed that something was wrong, my father was sceptical of calling anxiety an illness and the effectiveness of medications as a treatment. I think he thought that if someone was experiencing poor mental health, it was probably a spiritual problem rather than something physical.
When I initially voiced my anxieties to my family, I was met with, “just don’t worry about it”. It was only when they saw how one small event would trigger a breakdown or leave me spiralling—and how I would blow up at them when they were trying to reassure me—that they began to see that I wasn’t okay.
My anxiety reached a peak when I finished university—I could no longer put off deciding what to pursue after graduation, and any talks about the future left me upset.
It was during that time that I realised that my anxiety was also affecting my relationship with my boyfriend. I would overreact when he didn’t message back immediately or get upset when plans changed at the last minute.
In those moments, I saw how much my anxiety affected him, and how it was getting in the way of a healthy relationship. My friends and family were also getting concerned, and a few different people independently suggested that I see a psychologist. It was the combination of all these factors that made me finally seek help.
Seeking help was not an easy process
Seeking help was hard. Making phone calls and appointments were all things I needed to organise before I could get help—and these were the very things that made me anxious. But hearing and talking to other people who had gone to the doctors and were placed on a mental health plan, or had seen a counsellor or psychologist, convinced me to give it a go.
I initially went to a doctor who did a mental health questionnaire, then referred me to a psychologist. Fortunately, I was able to find a psychologist I was comfortable with pretty quickly, and over the next two years, I saw a few different psychologists—usually when I find that I’ve stopped making progress with the current one.
I saw a mix of Christian and non-Christian counselling and psychologists. It was important to me to be open about my faith, and thankfully, the non-Christian psychologists I had respected my faith. With the Christian counsellors, I appreciated being able to talk with someone who had first-hand experiences of the church and understood the pressures I was experiencing.
It was nice to go to a place where I didn’t feel there was an expectation that my level of happiness or ability to remain joyful was a reflection on my faith. It was also helpful to have someone objective to talk to about issues without feeling like I was blaming the people close to me for my situation.
When I was struggling to seek help, Psalm 42 really spoke to me, especially verse 5:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Saviour and my God.
This psalm helped me realise that my experience wasn’t unique, and that choosing to hope takes effort and is hard to do.
While I learned a lot about recognising anxiety and the strategies for coping, I was having troubles implementing them. It was incredibly tiring to rebuild positive ways of thinking when I was very emotional and was still physically affected by anxiety.
So I got started on medication, which helped me manage some of the symptoms of my anxiety and depression by reducing the severity and frequency of my episodes so I had enough energy to start working through the issues that were causing it and set up good coping mechanisms.
What I’ve learned from therapy
From the therapy sessions, I learned to recognise what anxiety looks like for me, and how I can stop it in its tracks before it gets worse.
For me, anxiety often starts as a feeling of restlessness that makes it difficult for me to start on tasks. Sometimes I will get itchy hands and an increased heart rate. When that happens, I tell myself to slow down, take a few deep breaths, and ask myself, “What am I anxious about?”
I also often catch myself feeling anxious when I have to work on certain tasks, such as writing an important email for work. I might look for other things to do so I can avoid that email, even though I wouldn’t be able to focus on them. I might start multiple things and then leave them half finished.
I can then work on identifying what I’m feeling: “Writing the email makes me feel afraid because I’m afraid people will misunderstand me.” A big truth I learnt is that these thoughts aren’t all bad! Being concerned about avoiding misunderstanding just shows that I care about good communication, which is an important thing in any workplace.
However, this thought pattern can be unhelpful if it spirals into the false assumption that “I can’t write well so people WILL misunderstand me”.
To avoid this spiralling, I can then reassure myself, “The email doesn’t have to be perfect the first time, I can write a draft and get someone else to proofread it.” Sometimes there is a practical workaround, like, “If I’m worried about being misunderstood, maybe I can talk in person instead of sending the email.” I can then pray and break down the steps to a bigger task and still make progress.
When I stop and say the things I’m anxious about out loud, or put them on paper, it helps me see them from another perspective.
Going for therapy has helped me identify what kind of support I need from those around me: I have found that when I get very anxious, I need people who remain calm, are patient, and can gently listen to and reassure me.
As I’ve begun to share more about what I’m going through and explain my thought process to my boyfriend and my family, it has helped them learn more about anxiety and understand how they can best support me. Their patience in listening to my worries has been most helpful.
But above all, having my relationship with God as the foundational truth in my life has been the biggest help. Whenever I spiral into anxiety and depression, thinking, “I’m going to make a mistake and lose my job” or “I don’t have any friends”, the only thing that can bring me back out is trusting that “Even if I fail my job, I still have God and He loves me and cares for me” or “Even if my friends abandon me, I still have God.”
Through Scripture, I recall stories of God working through His people. I can relate to Moses feeling inadequate, but God still used him. I think of Paul and Silas in prison praising God when they had nothing, and the assurance Paul had in his faith despite everything he went through (2 Timothy 1:9-12). Knowing that the same God is still working in me today gives me strength to keep going.
Where I am today
Anxiety is definitely still present in my life, although it has become less frequent in stopping me from doing the things I want or need to do, and my relationships with the people around me have improved.
Battling anxiety is an ongoing journey and I’m still taking medication, which I have been on for two years now, and I occasionally still see a counsellor.
God’s Word has also been a great tool in combating my anxious thoughts. So these days, I’m working on my own faith, spending time with God in His Word, and fellowshipping with other Christians, all of which play an important part in my healing.
The irony is that even though I have experienced anxiety, sometimes my initial reaction when I hear someone worrying about something untrue is to be critical about it. It goes to show that it can be incredibly tiring and frustrating to support and reassure someone whose head space is clouded by anxiety. Often it might feel like they are extrapolating half-truths and ignoring the facts or likely outcome of the situation. So I’m very grateful for the people who have persevered in supporting me.
It wasn’t easy for me to admit I needed help, and to then take the steps to ask for help, but I don’t regret any of it. Professional help and medication got me to a point where I rarely feel depressed and I’m able to manage my anxiety.
I can say this for anyone who is hesitant to seek help: It may be easy to think “I’m managing okay at the moment”, but it is better to get help earlier, before you really need it, than to wait until the situation is worse. Starting earlier can make it easier to change course.
If there is any chance that seeking help will make a difference, it is worth pursuing.
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