Mental health issues don't discriminate. They affect people from all parts of society regardless of ethnicity, religious beliefs or gender. The following story is the first of a two-part series written in collaboration with Peace Over Panic that examines the impact of societal values and pressures on the physical, emotional and mental health of men and women.
I was 24 when anxiety first made an appearance in my life and the biggest impact I found was on my emotions. I wasn’t usually a person who got upset and cried over uncomfortable and challenging situations. I especially never exposed any vulnerability to others. However, the more frequently I began to have panic attacks, the more this emotional side to me came out. Initially it wasn’t great. I was having panic attacks 3-4 times a week and this meant a lot of tears were shed. I couldn’t help it – it was just such an automatic response. Some nights I would reflect back to what had happened earlier in the day and look at how red my cheeks always were and how dry my skin was from all the tissues; I could just sit there for an hour hysterically crying. I thought it would go away as I started to open up to others about what was happening and I tried so hard to maintain my ‘usual demeanour’ but I couldn’t do it.
One day when I was working, I couldn’t even fight back my tears back in the office. One of my closest friends took me to the breakout area and I just broke down. As my friend held me in her arms, I saw that another colleague was walking by. I was so embarrassed and my mind instantly started thinking about how they could go back and tell others what they saw but I was surprised when they instead came over, gave me a warm hug and left. No questions asked. No judgement. Just empathy and support. I was truly thankful and this whole situation made me realise that letting your guard down doesn’t mean people will attack you.
On the flip side, this experience made me so much more emotionally aware and understanding when it comes to being there for others. When we see others crying, we can tend to say ‘don’t worry, don’t cry, stop crying, it’s okay’. We may look at tears and crying as a negative but have you ever noticed how much lighter you feel once you have got it all out? As if there’s been a big weight lifted off? Now, whenever I see a loved one who is anxious and upset, I always tell them ‘let it all out, whatever it is, get it out’. I was speaking to my sister one day about this new emotional side and she told me something really beautiful. She said, tears are just weakness leaving your body. So, if you have found that stress and anxiety have had a knock-on effect on your emotions, please don't feel like you need to hide this or that you are weak. Embrace this natural process and trust that it will help you get rid of all that tension that has been building up in your mind and body.
My anxiety also affected me physically in a number of ways, the biggest being:
pains in chest
My weight was probably the most visible impact that stress had on my body. The worrying thing was that it was everyone around me who noticed it – I on the other hand was so completely oblivious. This became a really challenging and sensitive topic of conversation for me because so many people, in fact almost every single person around me would tell me ‘you’ve lost so much weight’. Now, this as a single statement most would find flattering but when ‘is everything okay?’ comes after, it’s not really what you want to hear. I couldn’t see any difference and I was still trying my best to ensure I was eating enough, so my reaction was always to be confused and a lot of the time, very defensive. I would get told that I needed to eat more and that I didn’t look good. It hurt a lot; I’m not going to lie. As a young woman, body image issues are already so prevalent in our society but when someone tells you to your face that you don’t look good, these existing pressures we face become amplified. When you are stuck in such high levels of stress, anxiety and panic, your body is working so incredibly hard to keep up with everything. Your heart is pounding, your brain is in flight-fight mode which can suppress your appetite and the remaining energy is used to make up for the lack of sleep you are battling against. It’s a non-stop cycle. You are exhausted 24/7 but you have to keep going and unfortunately weight fluctuation can be a common side effect. I know that what everyone was trying to tell me came from a good place because they were worried and wanted to help but I do wish there wasn’t such judgement attached to their statements. If this is something you can relate to, my biggest advice is to acknowledge what others are saying but try not to take each word to heart. I really regret being so defensive because If I had listened to the message more than the criticism, it might have helped me to realise I needed a break and to focus on myself much earlier on. Be kind to yourself, try not to judge and if there are many people telling you the same thing, it could be time to reflect and make yourself a priority.
Hair can mean a lot to us women – it has the ability to entirely change our appearance and it’s something we take great pride in. So, you can imagine how scary it was when I started to notice that big chunks of my hair were falling out. Every time I washed, brushed and styled my hair, I was so scared because I could see the collection of stands on the ground. At one point, my hair even stopped growing. I was devastated and started trying everything out there to see if it helped but even oil’s, vitamins and masks in abundance didn’t change anything. It’s funny because you would think something like your hair could be treated with products but I only noticed a significant improvement when I took time out to help myself and focus on my mental health. The minute I began to feel more in control of my thoughts and I was kinder to myself, my hair, skin and nails all began to flourish – naturally. So please don’t worry if you experience anything similar, have faith in the fact that when you begin to look after your mind, this will reflect in your body too.
A subtle but really important matter to also keep your eye on are your hormones. From the moment I began to feel stress and anxiety, my periods became extremely irregular. For the first few months, you might think oh well, this is normal given the circumstances but before you know it, a significant amount of time may have passed. This is where I went wrong – the irregularity became my norm and I began to think nothing of it. I’ll be completely honest with you; this is something that I am still trying to resolve after many years. The connection and impact stress has on our hormones is extraordinary and not to be overlooked. When issues like this come up, it can be really concerning and you begin to think ‘am I not functioning the way I should be as a woman?’. So, my advice to you in this situation is, don’t make the same mistake I have. Keep an eye on these things and the moment you start to notice irregularities, get some help because even though it is very common to have hormonal fluctuations, it is best to always check in as soon as you can so you feel more reassured and informed.
One quite scary element of anxiety is the physical pain that you can feel. For me, the most prominent pain I constantly seemed to have was a tight chest. I know this is a very common symptom but it is still frightening nevertheless. I felt like I was never able to take full deep breaths easily, it made trying to exercise much harder and the pain can leave you feeling really tired. Warm drinks were always my go-to as the heat can help reduce any tension but as always, it was only when I started to look after myself more and began trying different therapies that this heavy chest began to slowly disappear.
I’ve gone into quite a bit of detail about the symptoms of my anxiety and now I want to briefly share the impact it had on my mindset.
The biggest shift in my mindset was the thought that my anxiety was going to hold me back in life and these feelings of having to ‘prove myself’ started to crop up. I therefore wanted to show to myself and others that I could still do it all. At work, I was working lengthy hours and even logging on during the weekend. In my workouts, I kept trying to push myself every single day to do more. I filled up my week with social events whilst still trying to balance family life. However, the biggest thing I forgot was me. What about putting in effort and time into myself and my mental health? The moment I started to take time back for me and investing in myself, my mindset changed from caring too much about other people’s perceptions to instead ensuring that I devoted the time to myself that I deserved and then letting everything else fall into place.
I also became increasingly restless in my mind. I always try to explain to others that at times my anxiety used to make me feel mentally hyperactive. There were millions of different thoughts sprinting through my head and I constantly felt like I was in overdrive. I began trying to get tasks done quicker, spoke quicker and often used to sit at my desk shaking my leg all just to keep up with the pace of my mind. It was only when I found meditation that I was truly able to switch off and not burn myself out.
The last impact on my mind was that I also felt lonely and very different to those around me because of my anxiety. This resulted in me trying to keep up with trends such as social media, dressing a certain way and trying to have particular interests. The problem was I wasn’t being true to myself and this triggered a new wave of unhappiness in my life. I feel like ‘trying to fit in’ has become a really big thing in our society. There is no one way of being to follow and if it feels like hard work, it’s probably not right. Why try and be the same when it’s so much easier to be the authentic you? The moment I stopped trying, I started living again and became so much more comfortable in my own skin.
Having anxiety as a woman can impact you mentally, physically and emotionally. I hope that by sharing my experience, you don't feel alone and as if something is only happening to you. There are so many people out there unfortunately going through similar things. Regardless of their gender. The more we feel able to talk about the harder things, the easier they will become to overcome.
Peace Over Panic is a website founded by Nav Sohanpaul that provides various mental health support materials, including guidance on therapies, blogs based on real-life experiences and lots of tips on how to make small changes in your everyday life to feel more in control of your mental wellbeing. Visit the website here.