I’m hoping that by writing about my own experiences with PTSD and anxiety, I can help people understand what it’s like; that while it may be “all in my head” that doesn’t mean I have control over it. My migraines are all in my head too, and they are real and painful and awful. PTSD and anxiety, as well as other mental illnesses, are no less an illness than migraines or other physical illnesses.
I wish I could control it. I wish I could control my migraines too. People with mental illness are sometimes told they are trying to be difficult or seeking attention, but they aren’t, any more than someone is when they take to bed with a migraine. I am doing the best that I can, as are most people dealing with these same issues, but doing the best I can on any given day is going to be different from what it looks like when your neighbor’s cousin’s roommate’s best friend does the best he can.
Think about migraine meds – on Advil gel caps, I can often function quite well. Imitrix doesn’t do much for me at all, but does wonders for others. I function better in low lighting and with an icepack. Other people are totally different. I drop things and get clumsy with migraines. Some people don’t. Some see auras. I do, but only rarely. Some people are completely bed-ridden. Some people can’t do ice packs but need to be warmly tucked into bed.
Everyone deals differently. The same goes for Anxiety and PTSD.
What it’s Like Day to Day
I don’t sleep much. I fight sleep, even when I’m tired because I’m afraid of the nightmares that usually come after 1 – 2 hours of sleep, which is usually the maximum I can handle continuously. I have terrible nightmares that wake my husband up. When I wake, my heart is thundering and I’m out of breath. I’m sometimes kicking and/or screaming. My body is usually shaking from a high level of adrenaline, and I can’t get back to sleep for hours.
I usually don’t remember the nightmares, but the feeling of overwhelming doom shadows me for hours afterwards.
When I am awake, I startle easily. I tend to constantly have a feeling that I’m waiting for the bad thing to happen, without knowing what that “bad thing” might be. If someone drops a fork and I jump and cry out, it’s not because I think that person is a danger. It’s because my senses are always hyperaware of everything, and I can’t stop it.
Because of that, I may seem overcautious and very insecure. I may ask for reassurance on something that I never would have before, or might seem oversensitive at a remark that would have meant nothing to me previously.
I get overwhelmed easily because of my system being in hyperdrive so often. Sometimes normal daily activities are just too intense for me, like going to the grocery store or dealing with a salesman at the door that won’t go away. Then I might panic, to the point of a full-on panic attack. I take my dog with me almost everywhere, and that’s because I need her calming influence with things get overwhelming.
I have good anxiety days and bad anxiety days. I always want to have good days, where my heart doesn’t race and I can do the things I’ve always done, normally and easily. But I can’t make that happen from sheer force of will.
It’s embarrassing. If I could fix it, I would. And I’m trying, and improving every day. But I still worry about being judged.
What You Can Do
If you have a friend or family member going through mental health issues of any kind, the most important and meaningful thing you can do is to approach them without judgement. Be kind, always.
Tell them you care about them, no matter what. Tell them you will be there, no matter what. And then be there, and show them how much you care. One of the most powerful, loving experiences I had was friends who said, “Tell us what you need and we will do it. Let us be there.” They let me talk, vent, cry. They didn’t judge me. When I didn’t feel up to going out in public, they had me to their houses or came to mine. When I didn’t want to talk, they sat with me in silence. The most important thing was just their presence and acceptance without any pressure for me to be the “old me” or do anything in particular.
Because of the anxiety that is related, knowing that people are in it for the long haul is important. So is knowing that they are going to react with kindness instead of judgement, fear, or anger.
If someone starts cycling into bad memories or negative thoughts, there are ways you can sensitively help without telling them not to feel that way or that they should focus on the positive (that can have the opposite effect!). Instead, bring up plans for the future. Talking about good things that are upcoming helps break the cycle of negativity. It’s hard sometimes to remember that good things are going to happen when you are wrapped up in the bad.
Use positive activities to keep busy, calm and entertained. This is going to be different for everyone, because everyone finds different things relaxing. My husband likes to kill things in video games, which ups my stress level. For me, coffee and conversation with friends helps. Artistic pursuits help. And it all works better when someone supportive is along.
Lastly, one of the most important things you can do is talk openly about mental illness and recovery. The more people who tell their stories, the more people willunderstand how common these issues are. The more people realize that someone “normal” can be touched by this, the more they will see that this is normal. And breaking that stigma is the key to acceptance and freedom.