My Mental Health journey
So, bit of a different one today, as I’m going to talk about my story dealing with anxiety and depression. I wrote this piece for a mental health series on the Sports mind blog (insta: sportminds_irl) and it’s obviously extremely personal, but I wrote it with the main purpose to help someone. I know by hearing other people’s stories, it helped me open up and I also feel that the stigma will lessen if we start these conversations more often…
My name is Orla and today I’m going to talk about my story dealing with anxiety and depression. If you told me a year ago that I would be writing that sentence for people to read, it most likely would’ve sent me into a panic attack. Today, I’m actually very passionate about being pro-active when it comes to mental health. I do so by making it a priority and raising awareness, in the hope of helping anyone else that may be struggling. Obviously, there are a lot of complex elements to any mental health disorder, but today I just wanted to share my story on how I returned to somewhat normality.
It took me a year or two to realise I had anxiety and a further year to admit it. I was initially suffering with it, not having a clue what it was. In 2016, I suffered continuously with chest pain, to the point I had to get investigated medically. I suffered when it came to speaking to people that weren’t close friends or family. All that would come out was a mumble and a stutter and I actually thought that I was beginning to develop a speech impediment! I also suffered with my stomach, as I have IBS and my symptoms at that time were severely debilitating. It wasn’t until I had my first panic attack before an exam that I realised what was going on. I was always told by people that I was doing too much or that I put too much pressure on myself. To paint the picture, I was studying my full time Biotechnology degree, working 20-30 hours in a busy emergency department, training 4-6 times a week and going out 1-2 times a week.
In 2017, I finally acknowledged that I couldn’t carry on like this, so I began to work slightly less hours and began to look into my health, with the goal to control my IBS and feel a bit better in myself. I was always into my health and fitness, but I really started to do my research on nutrition and training, following more ‘fitspos’ on Instagram. I began tracking macros and decided that I was going to ‘shred’ so that I could be as lean as these people I saw plastered all over my feed. I set myself a goal of 8 weeks and watched the weight fly off me. Towards the end of the 8 weeks, I didn’t feel like I thought I would. I was definitely leaner and happier with my physique, but it didn’t bring me the ultimate happiness I thought it would. I had no menstrual cycle and I developed acne and insomnia. My anxiety levels were through the roof and I became depressed. Similarly to 2016, I didn’t know what was happening. I was extremely low, lifeless and I felt lonely – despite being surrounded by so many great people. I kept pushing myself further thinking, ‘oh, I’ll be happy when I reach X goal’. The list of ‘happy whens’ and ‘what ifs’ continued to grow, with me sinking further and further into this deep, heavy sadness, full of self-doubt. I still remember being at a comedy show with my friend and finding it hard to find the energy to laugh at the comedians (who were gas).
I began to look for something that would ‘cure’ my symptoms – nutrient supplements, herbal medicines, the lot. I wouldn’t admit to myself that I was suffering with depression because that would mean that I was weak, right? I’m a strong, driven young woman that likes to work hard and exceed in most aspects of life, but that right there was the problem. I told myself to cop on and pushed it to the back of my mind. The more I tried to forget about it, the further both the depression and the anxiety consumed me. I just couldn’t understand – how could I feel this way as someone who has everything she could possibly want? I had great friends and family, a good job and I was in college. There was nothing wrong with my life? I was so ashamed of this feeling, that I couldn’t possibly imagine admitting that to someone. I remember thinking that I just wanted to get back to being the old, happy and lively Orla.
The remainder of 2017 was very hard for me, constantly battling with my thoughts and fearing what people thought of me. However, it was also the year that I decided to open up to friends and family. I view myself as a strong person, so for me to admit that I suffered with my mental health, felt like I was weak and defeated. It was extremely hard for me to even say the words out loud as I was self-stigmatising. When I finally brought myself to talk, I instantly felt a small sense of relief. When you ‘open up’, you realise that it’s not about what that person says back to you, it’s about no longer having to suffer in silence, alone.
2018 is the year I put my mental health before everything. Before work, college, events, other people’s thoughts, other people’s feelings. Everything. I began to care less about what people thought about me and really focused on doing less. I stopped getting caught up in the latest trend in HIIT training or doing hours of cardio. I returned to the weight training that I like and made it a priority to get outdoors more. I stopped being so restrictive with nutrition and started having a more ‘balanced’ approach to my diet. I’m not a bikini competitor, so why was I acting like one? I unfollowed any Instagram accounts that made me feel less than and followed ones that share useful information on health, fitness and nutrition. I stopped comparing myself to others and started focusing on myself. I soon realised that comparison really is the thief of joy. I started getting more sleep and taking more time out for myself to unwind. I started doing what I wanted to do in all aspects of my life and not what I thought I had to do. It sounds cliché and perhaps a bit cringey, but ask yourself, are you doing what makes you happy in life? If not, why not? It’s your life, so why are you not doing things you want to do?
At the end of all this, I discovered an underlying passion of mine and started my own health blog – the Health Hun. I started it while procrastinating one Saturday – expecting slagging from my mates of course. Surprisingly, I received great feedback and even messages from people saying that they’re finding them very helpful. I use the blog to show people that health doesn’t need to be so complicated. I also share information on how beneficial making better lifestyle and nutrition choices can be and things that I’ve done to improve my overall health. A goal of mine is to get the message out there that health needs to be addressed from all angles, with mental health and physical health being treated in the same way, with the same priority. I still suffer slightly with my anxiety, but I work at it every day – meditation is really beneficial. What still strikes me is how our lifestyle and dietary choices can massively impact our mental health in such a negative way. There is a tonne of growing research out there, showing that mental health disorders can be caused by nutrient deficiencies and dysfunctional hormones eg. Cortisol, the stress hormone.
If you haven’t already, start putting your mental health at the top of your priority list. We can get so caught up with our busy lifestyles making a career, looking at social media, trying to look our best and trying to please everyone, that we can lose ourselves in the midst of it all. It’s time to put your happiness first and time to stop being so hard on yourself. It’s time to stop tying it to things in the past or future and time to start living in the now. If you are currently suffering, please know that you are not weak, you are human. We all go through hard times in our lives and I’m a firm believer that it helps us grow. I hope that this piece will help someone along the way and know that I’m always here to talk – even if you are a stranger. Talk through what you are going through and please know, that you don’t have to do it alone.