My second year of teaching was in a school which used merit-based pay that created a competitive, high-stress environment. While I ultimately feel that led to high-quality instruction and engaged teachers, it took a toll on my stress levels and overall mental health. Towards the end of the year, my hard work was rewarded with two promotions and a hefty raise. With my new raise, we were able to afford a house and we began our hunt.
In April of 2012, the day our offer was accepted on our first house, was the night of my first panic attack. While my job was stressful, it didn’t add up. I was doing well, I was promoted, and we were buying a dream house. So why did I feel like I was falling apart inside?
I didn’t realize I was having anxiety attacks or feeling depressed right away. My mind worried something more serious was wrong because the symptoms were so physical: racing heart, vomiting, upset stomach, weight loss and more. The symptoms continued and came to a head the week we moved into our house in June.
Normally, I’m such a doer, but all I wanted to do was lay on the floor while my mom painted cabinets. My mom stayed with us for a few days to help us tackle projects and on her last day, my anxiety increased as I dreaded her leaving. I asked her to take me to the hospital before she left because I just felt so off. While I wasn’t provided with much relief from my short hospital visit, it helped me realize I wasn’t physically sick and needed to take steps to deal with my mental health.
Ultimately, here is what I did to help treat my anxiety and depression. It took almost a full year to feel back to myself and feel like I finally had the symptoms under control.
Go to Counseling: I made an appointment with a Christian counselor in our area. Luckily, our church bulletin had a blurb in it each week with information about a counseling agency and that’s how I found my counselor. Don’t delay in setting up an appointment because it will most likely take you several weeks to see someone. Your first appointment will be an evaluation and many practices block off certain times for in-take evaluations. Those spots are limited as they save the rest of their appointments for current clients. Once I completed my evaluation appointment, it was much easier to schedule appointments. I usually would schedule a month of appointments at a time to make sure I could get after work sessions.
I began seeing my counselor every single week for one hour. In the beginning, I probably would have been happy going every few days, but once a week was doable. Then, I stretched it to every other week, every three weeks, and then once a month. I continued to see my counselor off and on as needed. I’d call to make an appointment if something big was going on in my life that I wanted to talk through. When I was pregnant, I went every other month just to check in because I wanted to make sure my mental health was strong while pregnant. Counseling was a huge part of getting my anxiety and depression under control and I would not have been successful without it.
My counselor, while a Christian, did not necessarily use the Bible as a means for therapy. He used typical techniques used in talk therapy, but knowing he understood more about my beliefs and values helped me to talk freely with him. Every person has their own needs when it comes to finding the right counselor for them, so don’t give up if the first counselor you meet with isn’t the right fit. It may help to speak to someone of the same gender, race, sexual orientation, or religion and that’s totally okay. Find someone that you feel comfortable with and don’t feel guilty if you don’t connect with someone. Here’s a list of therapists compiled by Dr. Joy Hartford on her website Therapy for Black Girls that specifically cater to Black women and girls.
Take Medicine: I made an appointment with my family doctor, who really did not seem to have a deep knowledge of psychotropic medicines. They prescribed an antidepressant but I didn’t see much change. Luckily, the counselor I was seeing was connected with a psychiatrist and they referred me to their office. The psychiatrist switched my medicine and dosage amount and had strict rules for check-in appointments to manage the medicine, which was necessary. At the first check-in, the psychiatrist expertly adjusted the amounts and I noticed positive changes because of it. Counseling was key during this point because antidepressants can take one to two months to reach therapeutic levels and often the first medicine does not work. I cannot stress how important it is to see a psychiatrist and not a primary care physician. My psychiatrist was baffled with the first medication my PCP choose to start me on as it is known for having a higher number of side effects, of which I was experiencing. Seriously, go see a psychiatrist if you’re struggling with any type of mental health issue. While I don’t think a PCP is the best path, it may be beneficial to make an appointment with your family doctor if your insurance requires referrals for specialists.
Force Yourself to Do One Thing: Normally, I love to be productive and tackle my to-do list. Depression takes that all out of you. My counselor suggested I do just ONE thing each day and force myself to do it. He said that just getting out of bed and doing one thing would often create a domino effect. He was right, and normally one thing would lead to another and I’d be able to feel better about myself because of it, but I kept my expectations low and only gave myself one thing to get done. The brunt of my depression happened in the summer when I had off from full-time teaching and was only coaching summer school teachers part-time. This was also before I had a child so I didn’t have as many responsibilities as I do now. I’m very lucky that I was able to care for myself, occasionally call off of work, and just generally take it easy.
Get Outside: Sunshine helps. Fresh air helps. Walk your dog, sit on the porch, read a book on your deck, take out the trash, go for a lap around the block. Just get outside for a few minutes. It’s not going to suddenly make you all better, but it’s these little habits that help lift you out of the hole depression digs while you participate in counseling and allow the medicine to do its job. I also took Vitamin D as there are studies showing Vitamin D can help. If it wasn’t summertime, I would have considered buying a sunlamp to sit next to inside.
Light Exercise: Heavy exercise mimics the effects of a panic attack. I went to an intense workout class just a few months into my recovery process and as expected, I started sweating, I was short of breath, and my heart was pounding. Obviously, that was a result of exercising, but the effects are so similar to a panic attack that my thoughts began to race. My body wasn’t ready to tell the difference between exercise and panic so I backed down on the intensity of my workouts. I stuck to walking my dog and not over-doing it until my panic attacks were under control.
Breathing Exercises, Visualizations, and Mantras: I wasn’t the biggest fan of breathing exercises because I felt it left too much empty space in my brain for my thoughts to race, but I had a specific visualization and mantra that really helped me ride out anxiety. My counselor explained anxiety as a big wave. Imagine you’re in the ocean and a big wave is coming. You know you’re going to get water in your mouth and thrown around, but it will pass and you’ll end up on the other side of the wave. That representation of an anxiety attack really resonated with me. I would repeat to myself that it was just a wave, and I needed to ride out the wave, and that would help me be okay with the anxiety. The key is not to fight it because the wave was coming, but to focus on the fact that it wouldn’t be forever. Focusing on the end helped the wave of anxiety not to be debilitating. The mantra that I repeated and still do was also given to me by my counselor. He told me an acronym for the word FEAR: False Expectations Appearing Real. Whenever I had an irrational thought, I’d repeat that acronym to myself and remember that my fear is just a false expectation appearing real.
Create a Support System: Tell whoever you feel comfortable that you are struggling, but don’t feel obligated to tell anyone you don’t want to. My husband and family were a huge support. Nate took off work several times to stay with me when I needed company, called my counselor when I couldn’t and was supportive of me saying no to commitments. I originally only told one co-worker just so I had one person I could be real with and could let know when I was having a rough time. I eventually told two other co-workers I knew I could trust. I never told my bosses as I didn’t want to worry about them doubting my ability to do my job or feel judged. I don’t necessarily think they would have, but I felt more comfortable keeping it private while I was in the midst of it. I told a few close friends and my church small group. Sometimes the work of pretending you’re normal is more stress than it’s worth.
Find Pockets of Hope: My faith in God is a huge part of my life, but unfortunately a marker of depression is hopelessness. My faith is defined by hope in God and the work that Jesus did on the cross, but that hope felt out of grasp while depressed. I’d read the Bible to find no relief, which was extremely disheartening. I felt guilty that the Bible wasn’t encouraging me and angry that it didn’t provide relief. One night, while particularly upset, Nate called my counselor for me. I told my counselor I felt like I would feel hopeless forever. He told me that while I couldn’t have hope, he was confident in the hope that we have in Jesus for the both of us and that would be enough until I felt hopeful again. I can’t even tell you how encouraging that was to me. He would hope for me when I couldn’t. That is how Christians should support one another. Once I was beginning to feel better, the words to this song provided me with a lot of comfort and this verse also made me feel better: Psalm 94:19: “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy.” I found it reassuring to read that even people in the Bible struggled with anxiety and yet they still found joy. Find what brings you hope and hold it close to your heart.
Take Control of the What Ifs: A huge part of my anxiety was the racing what if thoughts. What if I lose my job? What if we can’t afford our new house payments? My counselor told me if I was going to play the what if game one way, then it was only fair that I flipped it around for the opposite. What if I got a raise? What if we had plenty of money left over after paying our mortgage each month? The simple exercise of reversing the what-ifs helped them not to have as much power.
Remember You Are Normal: While in the midst of my depression, I hated how unnormal I felt. Feeling sad, hopeless, tired, and unmotivated was so unlike me. I just wanted to feel normal again. My counselor informed me that depression is totally normal and that lots of people deal with this. He said most people deal with some level of depression throughout their life. It is normal to feel depressed. Knowing I wasn’t crazy or alone was a small comfort.
Something I struggled with a lot in the beginning, is why did this happen to me? I hadn’t had any significant trauma and life was generally going my way. I didn’t understand why I was struck with anxiety and depression so suddenly and severely. Through counseling, I learned a few things that helped me work through that. My counselor used a bathtub to represent the process. Let’s say you turn a bathtub on and leave the room. When you come back, the tub is overflowing. Which drop of water caused it to overflow? Which drop is to blame? There’s no way to ever know that. The only thing that you really need to understand is that there was too much water in the tub which caused it to overflow.
I think that’s what triggered my anxiety and depression that spring. The bathtub was running and it just overflowed. I was 22 years old. I didn’t realize I had taken on more than I could handle until it was too late.
Through that year, I learned so much about myself and others. I learned about the importance of counseling and have encouraged friends and family members to attend. I’ve become more compassionate to those with mental illness and understanding that it can happen to anyone. I’ve learned to say no and not to overcommit and overexert myself. I’ve learned to pay attention to the signs my body sends me when I’m feeling overwhelmed. While I wouldn’t wish depression and anxiety on anyone, I can reflect back on that year of my life and feel thankful for the growth that came from it.
If you’re struggling, I hope some of these tips can help you on your way to healing. Call your doctor, tell a family member or friend, and keep fighting. If you’re feeling suicidal, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. While it does take time to feel better, don’t give up.