World Mental Health Day

Today is World Mental Health awareness day. I thought it would be appropriate to share some of my struggles and speak out about my own issues, in the hope that it will help others do the same. I've always struggled with Anxiety. As a control freak, the thought of not being able to control everything around me is something that really used to affect me. I always had to over-analyze everything so that I could mentally process every possible outcome, and in that way, I thought I would be prepared for all situations. The unknown was unacceptable. Thoughts of everything that could go wrong, the bad outcomes and pending doom consumed me. I could never just "go with the flow", I had to try to control it all. Sounds a bit excessive doesn't it? Things that were out of my control left me an anxious mess. I've suffered from terrible panic attacks too. Heart racing, limbs tingling, rapid breath, sweating, cold shivers, trembling, frozen in fear. Panic pumping through my veins, frightened of unnecessary things, fears out of keeping with the perceived " threat", it all seems so ridiculous but it feels extremely real. I believed I had quite a good grip on my anxiety, I was still able to function through it and it never affected my life - or so I thought. I don't express my anxiety the way other people may. I hold it all in, repress it and prevent the world from knowing what is happening in my internal world. I could be having a severe panic attack internally, where I may truly believe I'm going to die, but on the outside, no one would ever know. There have been a few instances where doctors have suggested I try anti -anxiety medications, however, I I never went on them, always believing I could overcome it myself. My survival mechanism has always been to repress my emotions and feelings. Some say that it is a contributing factor to why I developed this disease, but that's a story for another day. At the beginning of the year, when I was bouncing between doctors, trying to figure out what exactly was wrong with me, I was told by one of my doctors that he believed I had burnout. Unfortunately, burnout is not something that is appropriately recognised in South Africa, or in many other places. It is often missed, underdiagnosed and undertreated. Owing to the highly stressed environments we now find ourselves living in, the rate of burnout has skyrocketed. Demanding jobs with inconceivably long hours, growing expenses, personal life issues, increasing crime and violence, all contribute to this high intensity, highly stress invoking world. What is burnout? When placed under excessive levels of stress, we become exhausted, not only physically but mentally and emotionally too. When you keep pushing yourself, or others keep pushing you, despite being overwhelmed, drained and exhausted, you become like a car running on empty. Eventually, when the last of the fumes have been consumed you become hopeless, empty, lack motivation and frankly, you lose the ability to care. You lose interest in work, withdraw from friends and family, suffer from anxiety and start having negative feelings. During burnout, it becomes difficult to get through the day, everything seems bleak, you're exhausted from the moment you open your eyes to the moment you fall asleep, you become irritable, you feel dissatisfied with life, you isolate yourself and find coping methods to help you, most of the time these are bad. Basically, you feel like you have been squeezed dry, there is absolutely nothing left for you to give. I'm generally a happy, energised and positive person, so when I started this year feeling down in the dumps, I knew something had to change. I didn't experience severe depression with the burnout, I was still able to function but it took all that I had to do so. How it manifested was with my anxiety being heightened, I was having more "down days" than usual, but the major issue for me was that I felt like I was running on empty all day every day. Everything I did was difficult and required more energy than I could give. My memory and concentration began to dwindle, which is something I've never experienced before. It was difficult to separate the symptoms of my disease from the symptoms of burnout because they do overlap but I knew that there was something very wrong. Blood tests confirmed that my adrenal glands were affected. They were "exhauste" too and therefore, they weren't producing DHEA (a hormone that is the precursor or building block for testosterone). As a result, I had to start supplementing it to DHEA and raise my levels. I started seeing a psychiatrist who booked me off work and said I needed a minimum of 3 months to recover. She diagnosed me with Burnout and Adjustment disorder. On top of this, I was dealing with the new diagnosis of my disease, which further supported my need for time off and was the cause of the Adjustment disorder. My psychiatrist had wanted to start me on an SSRI (serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a medication used for managing anxiety and depression). However, I insisted that I would like to try and overcome this without any psychiatric medication and if that failed, I would take the medication. Please note that I do not have a problem with psychiatric medication and I wholeheartedly encourage its use when it is needed. For me, however, I wanted to try alternatives before taking the pharmaceuticals, just as I did for my disease. I began seeing a therapist, who I still see regularly. I had preconceived ideas about therapists and I was initially hesitant to go. My therapist came highly recommended and I cannot tell you how glad I am that I bit the bullet and went to see her. She is so well suited to me and the complete opposite of what I assumed she would be. She has helped me tremendously and I am beyond grateful for the tools she has given me. These tools have helped me manage my anxiety, my illness, and my life in general. She is also helping me uncover the root of my anxiety and my repressive mechanisms and helping me overcome them. Along with the therapy, I began practicing yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. I cannot emphasize enough how important I believe these practices are. Not only do they leave you feeling reinvigorated and emotionally stable, but they also allow you to dive deeper into yourself, to spend time with your thoughts and worries and to process them properly. Exercise in any form does the same thing. A new hot topic at the moment is gut health and its link to mental illness, and I look forward to sharing more information on this topic with you soon. For now, I will just mention that a healthy diet, results in a healthy body - the whole body, including the mind. What you put in, you will get out. Dealing with any kind of illness, be it physical or mental illness, requires a holistic approach. Holistic meaning a combination of medicines (natural and pharmaceutical if necessary), exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, stress management and other psychological tools and an amazing support system. Where do I stand now? Well, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I really hope that someone can find some hope in this. Through all of the work I have done, the help from my family, friends, therapist and doctors and remaining true to myself, I have been able to manage the burnout and anxiety. Don't get me wrong, I still have moments of anxiety and I'm in no way cured, but I am able to manage it and deal with it in healthier and more helpful ways and it has made a massive difference in my life. To be brutely honest, I truly feel that a really important contributing factor to handling my anxiety has been dealing with this disease. I have had to face challenges I never thought I'd ever face, I have had to make decisions that I thought would have shattered my whole world, I have had to find strength when I genuinely had none. All of these steps have challenged me on every single level, and I have overcome each of them. These challenges have put a lot into perspective for me. They have made me aware of the weight that situations carry, they have made me realize that the small things that we place so much emphasis on actually mean nothing and that the big bad things we make up in our mind, well they are actually manageable. This journey has been grueling and almost incomprehensibly difficult, however, it has provided the most beautiful lessons, indescribable growth and a new lease of life. Mental health is omnipresent. It affects everyone's life, whether it is yourself, a family member or a friend, an acquaintance or colleague, there is someone you know who has a mental illness. So why is it so stigmatized? So undervalued and overlooked? Because society doesn't give it the credit it is due. So I urge you to speak up about these issues if you have them, to support anyone who is struggling with them and to spread awareness and love. To all those facing what seems like insurmountable struggles at the moment, keep fighting, things will get brighter! Sending love, Cayla

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