Exploring my confrontation with mental illness

For today’s post, I would like to share with everyone insight into my own personal  and very humbling experience with mental illness – specifically what I felt during my engagement with mental illness and what I was able to take away from the ordeal.

Up until 3 years ago, I can safely say I had no idea what mental illness was. Whether it was my lack of education or personal ignorance towards the subject, I paraded around with the notion that “I have a strong mind, only those who are weak experience mental illness”. What I believed to be correct at the was not only incorrect, but shortsighted.

I can remember the event so vividly. I was sitting in a chair at a friend’s place and I remember starting to feel odd. It was a feeling I’d never felt before, which was quite alarming at the time. It started with a sense of dread, as though something catastrophic were about to happen, followed by a variety of unpleasant symptoms: severe chest pain, hyperventilation, I felt like I was choking on an invisible object, started shaking and sweating uncontrollably and, to top it off, was unable to concentrate on anything. When I looked at words on a page, I had difficulty understanding them. Sounds started to echo inside my head. When I heard a noise, I would hear it 4 or 5 times. This would happen for every noise. After what I believe was 5-10 minutes of this, I started to experience something else – the most terrifying event of the whole ordeal for me – derealisation.

Derealisation is an altered perception of subjective reality which may be brought upon by a traumatic event, such as the loss of a loved one, or, in my case, an anxiety attack. When derealisation set in, I had no idea what I believed in anymore. The only thought that I had at the time was “all that I perceive is a figment of my imagination”, which led me to start thinking that every person and object that I interacted with externally was an internal recreation that my brain perceived as reality. I couldn’t cope with all of this at the time. Life felt like it was spiraling out of control. I felt as though I was losing my mind. I called my girlfriend and had her take me home, thinking that rest would help the situation, but it did not. I continued to experience these symptoms for about a week until I consulted a doctor. At the time, I did not have a family doctor. If I was ill, I saw a doctor at a walk-in clinic.

When I first went to a doctor, I went while I was experiencing a full-blown panic attack. Again, I didn’t know it at the time, but reflecting upon it now, I am able to understand that. The doctor I saw asked about my symptoms, saw me for a few minutes and sent me off with a prescription for an antidepressant. Because the doctor’s diagnosis was so brief and I perceived my symptoms as being life-threatening, I went to another doctor for more answers. Thankfully, the second doctor I spoke with was more willing to explore my symptoms. I had various tests done – blood work, ECGs, x-rays, even a CT scan. All came back showing normal results, except for the ECG, which showed something that the doctor couldn’t quite put his finger on, so he consulted a colleague to figure it out, which turned out to be heart condition.

A year and one cardiac ablation later, the condition was no longer present, yet I was still plagued by anxiety. This forced me to start reflecting upon everything in my life. I couldn’t live like that anymore – I felt like I was going insane daily, having maybe 2-3 hours out of any given day where I wasn’t struggling with my thoughts. I wanted relief from my thoughts – an out, of any sort. At around this point, I had been having intense intrusive thoughts which weren’t comprehensible to me. The thoughts were relating to suicidal ideation, self-harm and harm to others. Having these constant thoughts made me a recluse. I wouldn’t leave the house in fear of harming myself, others, or because I didn’t want the possibility of something I perceived as “bad” to happen.

About 2-3 months after the ablation, the anxiety worsened until I eventually broke. For the first time in years, I cried like a baby. This didn’t just happen randomly. At the time, I was reflecting on my moral compass after reading something awful that just happened in the news about a large-scale manipulation of people. This resonated particularly well within me, and I started to realize that I had been manipulating people – taking them for granted. I had a purely subjective view of things, only seeing how things could benefit me, not the impact my actions would have in relation to the world and those around me. Having that thought opened up a whole new avenue of understanding for me, which allowed me to see my actions from an objective point of view. With this understanding, I started to see the error of my ways; certain things about myself that I disliked. The manner in which I was acting directly clashed with my morals and beliefs. This was the root cause of my anxiety.

After a year of reflection upon my actions, I was able to see the so-called error of my ways, which helped shape me into the person that I, in the long run, wanted to become. My anxiety stemmed from many factors, but largely, it came down to how I was interacting with the world around me. I wasn’t acting in a harmonious manner with the world. I was acting with selfishness as my motivator.

When we go about day-to-day life, our minds try to communicate with us in various ways. In my case, anxiety was my mind’s form of communicating. While the entire ordeal was very taxing, both mentally and physically, I learned a lot about myself and the world around me, which is something that I won’t ever forget. Although the experience was truly and utterly terrifying, I found that now, it was very humbling and helped shape who I wanted to become in life.

Mental illness may present itself in a variety of ways. My story above shows how important it is to see a medical professional when symptoms start to interfere with your day-to-day life. You may find an underlying condition that could be detrimental to your health. While it may not be a cure for your mental illness, cooperating with a medical health professional can help improve your quality of life, both physically and mentally.

Exploring emotional manipulation stemming from external stimuli

Having explored active and passive thoughts, intrusive thoughts, stress and a handful of mental maladies, we are ready to being to understand how external stimuli may manipulate an individual if they do not possess preexisting awareness.

As we know, external stimuli are enabled by emotional vulnerabilities – that is not to say emotional weakness at all. Certain external stimuli may affect one individual more than another depending on a number of factors, but largely comes down to how an individual feels toward a certain stimulus, or their connection to it. This could be something emotional, such as the death of a loved one, to something such as a political outcome that makes one party happy, another miserable, and the rest apathetic to the matter.

In the case of an emotional stimulus, such as a loved one passing, a person who has a strong emotional connection with the deceased individual will undoubtedly be affectedly more than a person who had little to no emotional connection to the individual at all. The same is the case with a political outcome – one party may express content in the situation if they have invested their time in it, where as a person who did not invest the time in the situation will be affected very little if at all by it. Everyday external stimuli are exploiting our emotional vulnerabilities in some way, shape or form, for some period of time. The duration may be instant, such as a reaction to a funny picture from one’s betrothed, perhaps of a cat, or it may be prolonged, such as if someone destroys another individual’s car, leaving the individual to feel furious. When an external stimulus exploits vulnerability in an individual, the individual becomes focused on the thought at hand, which can either be negative or positive. Anger, however, is quite different.

When an individual is angry, their heart rate rises, increasing their adrenaline, inducing a fight-or-flight type of response. When this type of intense emotion is triggered, all thoughts on the individual’s mind (not pertaining to the anger) are no longer important, which can lead to potentially detrimental behavior if prolonged. When angry, it is very easy to lose sight of why one was angry in the first place, which may induce even more anger. Being in this state of mind for extended periods of time can be very taxing to an individual’s mental well-being, which may lead to further mental health issues arising in the future.

Knowing how emotions and thoughts may be manipulated in this way provides awareness to help alleviate unwanted manipulation from external stimuli from occurring. Nobody has to be a slave to this form of manipulation. Being fully aware of how certain stimuli affect an individual is a key factor in maintaining and developing good mental health.

If anyone feels they are plagued by issues with anger, please see here for more information, or contact your local mental health association.

Exploring and understanding OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)

When referring to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, there seems to be a very common misconception among society: that it is simply an odd or erratic behavior, which masks the seriousness of the illness. According to Wikipedia, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is “an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear or worry (obsessions), repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety (compulsions), or a combination of such obsessions and compulsions”. An individual suffering from OCD may exhibit odd or erratic behavior, but there is a reason; they are doing so to try and prevent intrusive thoughts or alleviate their anxiousness. The afflicted individual may act in this manner because they feel it will circumvent what they deem a potentially life-threatening or catastrophic event.

The repetitive actions that afflicted individuals makes are called compulsions and may take form in a variety of ways, but generally can be referred to as: a repetitive, compulsive action performed by the afflicted individual which usually adheres to a pattern. Some of the compulsions may be: constantly checking an object to make sure it is in order (adhering to a pattern), hoarding various goods (such as perishable items, news papers, etc.) and organizing them in a certain manner, adhering to a pattern (alphabetically, by expiry date, by weight, etc.) or; excessive cleanliness, stemming from fear of contamination (contracting germs). These are some but not all of the potential compulsions an individual may exhibit.

OCD is also usually accompanied with one of the other various mental illnesses (anxiety, depression, etc.) which has the unfortunate side effect of exacerbating the accompanied illness, making it quite difficult to diagnosis. If anyone feels as though they have been experiencing symptoms of OCD or any other mental illness, or even simply have further questions about mental illness in general, please contact your local Mental Health Association or a medical health professional

In closing, I would like to share with you all this video. It gives more insight as to what OCD really is and the ramifications it can have on an individual’s life.

Exploring and understanding Depression

Often times, society is perplexed about what depression is and ends up correlating it with sadness, which is not only incorrect, but also hinders understanding what depression truly is.

As with all things, we must define what it is before we can delve further into understanding it. According to Dictionary.com, depression is “a condition of general emotional dejection and withdrawal; sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason”. Depression is a prolonged state of mind, whereas sadness is an emotion, which can (and usually does) accompany depression. The feeling of sadness is completely different when a depressed individual experiences the emotion. It is amplified tenfold, to the point where the individual feels hopeless, dejected or eternally unhappy.

Depression is unique in this regard. Because it is a state of mind, it takes time to onset, meaning the individual has to be exposed to certain external stimuli to invoke a certain thought pattern. Some of these external stimuli are: loss of a loved one, isolation from friends/family/activities you enjoy, a particular argument with a significant other or even constant exposure to stress. After prolonged exposure to a certain stimulus, an individual starts to develop negative thinking patterns, becoming hyper-critical of oneself, setting unrealistic expectations for them self, which eventually evolves into the individual feeling jealousy, sadness, anger, anxiousness, hopelessness, etc.

Not only does depression impact the mental aspect of an individual’s life, it impacts their social life and physical well-being. When depressed, an individual may experience lethargy beyond anything experienced before, causing them to not want to do anything but stay at home and lay in bed. This causes social withdrawal, leading to poor self-care, adding fuel to the depressive cycle. Individuals can therefore be depressed for months, or even years if they do not seek assistance, which may lead to suicidal ideation or even suicide attempts. With this information, we can therefore ascertain that depression is not sadness – it is something much more terrifying and disturbing.

Depression is not inevitable; there are preventative measures one can take. Some of them are, but are not limited to: eating healthy and exercising, getting a proper amount of sleep, taking time out of one’s day to relax and analyze what has happened (managing stress), and allocating time to recreational activities (video games, friend outings, date nights, etc.). If anyone feels that they’ve experienced a prolonged period of intense sadness that isn’t what they believe warranted, please seek medical assistance. Depression is treatable if help is sought. Nobody needs to suffer in silence when there are treatment options available.

Exploring and understanding Anxiety

This week’s subject of focus will be mental illness – specifically the types of mental illness. We will be exploring several of them in depth; however, the first we will be covering is anxiety.

As with all things, we need to define what it is in order to be able to understand it. According to Webster, anxiety is “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (such as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it”.  This definition in itself is a good explanation of what anxiety is, but it doesn’t explain why people become anxious.

Anxiety is always triggered by a certain stress in an individual’s life. Like all stress, if not dealt with, it can compound upon itself in the subconscious, manifesting into anxiety over time if not recognized and dealt with. When a stress manifests into anxiety, it is an experience quite unlike any other. The symptoms for each individual may vary, and they can be very debilitating. The most common symptoms are: feeling of impending doom/general uneasiness, sleeping issues, heart palpitations, muscle spasms/tension, cold/sweaty extremities and potentially dizziness. Other symptoms may include: feelings of going insane/losing your mind, derealisation (feeling detachment from reality/self or a continued perception of reality being “unreal”), suicidal ideation/tendencies, etc. As one can imagine, these symptoms can be quite terrifying. Usually when an individual experiences anxiety, they are unable to properly communicate their thoughts – they are so focused on the particular anxiety that they’re unable to focus on anything else. The key to combating anxiety is to manage stress efficiently so that it is unable to manifest into something that one cannot cope with.

To help manage anxiety, an individual should be aware of what is stressing them and why. As with all thoughts, anxious thoughts begin with an external stimulus. Being aware of what and why a thought is stressing you allows you to deal with it before it can manifest into something unmanageable. It should be noted that anxiety is never a flaw or personal weakness – it is merely a thought that has lingered too long in the subconscious. In addition to external stimuli inducing anxiety, drugs like alcohol, caffeine, marijuana or cocaine may also exacerbate certain anxious thoughts, bringing them from a dormant to active stage, or amplifying the intensity of a currently active anxiety. This is not to say that all anxiety is bad. Anxiety can help an individual out in dangerous situations, giving adrenaline for intense focus (think near-hit collision while driving).

If one feels like they are suffering from anxiety and unable to cope, awareness is not an immediate cure, but definitely a step in the right direction – please seek help from a medical professional. Medication and other methods have been proven to help treat anxiety. Awareness, although not a cure to anxiety, is a great tool in managing and preventing it. Practicing awareness isn’t a skill one masters over night – it may take months or even years for an individual to effectively utilize.