For most of my life, mental health (and in my case specifically, anxiety) is something I thought I’d just ‘get better at’
Like, I’d just keep improving somehow and one day I’d turn around and say ‘Hey, I’m cured!’.
Phobias are a form of extreme anxiety caused by something specific－ people get over those, right? Some exposure therapy or CBT and over time, arachnophobics are holding tarantulas when the very thought of a spider used to bring them out in a sweat.
Except what I’ve come to realise as I get older is that, while I may be marginally more okay with things that used to bring about avoidance behaviours or panic attacks, mental health is not some linear journey.
Peaks and troughs
Even if you don’t have a specific mental health issue, sometimes you’ll have good days and sometimes you’ll have bad days. The good and bad may not even be caused by things that happened that day. Sometimes you just wake up and ‘feel’ a certain way－down in the dumps, or energised.
The same is certainly true of my anxiety. Sometimes it’s oppressive, other times it’s a mild, relatable niggle. Sometimes, I might even have had a few months of not truly feeling the weight of anxiety and I genuinely think ‘Hey, I’m cured!’
But then I’m usually rudely reminded of it.
Of course, we know our mental states can be affected by all sorts of things. Sleep is a prime example. If you’ve slept well and feel refreshed, chances are you’ll be in a better place to take on whatever the day has in store for you. If you’ve got a hectic day, you may find yourself flagging towards the end, or have difficulty coping if things start to go wrong.
And hormones? Well, I’ve already dedicated an entire post to that.
The point is, it ebbs and flows because there are always going to be highs and lows to deal with. It’s only now that I’m sort of beginning to think that’s alright.
Worst case scenarios
Now, this is not to say that I’m giving up on ever ‘feeling better’, or trying to better manage the anxiety I face day-to-day, or week-to-week. For example, it’d be really nice if I didn’t have to mentally prepare for every phone call I make because I just can’t predict what the other person is going to say. It’s something I continue to struggle with, and continue to work on.
No. It’s more just accepting that, in spite of having droves of evidence and examples where I can rationally see that something has gone well, my brain still seems to be wired to prepare be for the absolute worst case scenario.
Be it a phone call. A presentation. Stuff I’d even consider myself good at－NOPE, let’s just think about all the ways that this time it might go wrong. I need to anticipate everything.
That’s the trouble with generalised anxiety. It can be exhausting with seemingly endless ways for it to manifest.
But it’s okay. Some days feel like giant leaps forward, others are minor setbacks. Some, the worst ones, feel like being dragged screaming back to where I started, with no progress at all.
A quick story
Gather round children, I’m going to interrupt this already waffley ramble with a probably-too-lengthy aside.
When I passed my driving test, I was literally afraid to drive my car. It would take me up to an hour to psych myself up to drive somewhere. Some days I’d cry at how frustrating it was knowing that I could drive but didn’t feel like I should. This is stuff thousands of people do every day with no problem.
I considered taking more lessons. I considered hypnotherapy (not whilst driving, of course 😉). I passed my test with ZERO MINORS, what more evidence did I need that I was capable? I still thought I ‘didn’t know how to drive’. It’s classic anxiety.
It took some time but these days I don’t even think about getting in my car. I essentially just did exposure therapy on myself: gradually taking more passengers, doing longer drives, and so on.
I have MANY of these little case studies that demonstrate times where something has felt insurmountable to me, but eventually is barely a second thought. Knowing there are these successes (and they are) and breakthrough moments －as much as my mind may not be great at focusing on them －means that even the bad days are progress.
Good mental health takes maintenance
So what’s the point of this post? I might be late to the party on this one, but I’ve come to realise that good mental health isn’t some end game we all reach. It’s not some ‘enlightened’ state. For many people (myself included), it’s fragile and difficult to maintain.
It is still a conscious effort for me to unclench my jaw, put my thoughts to one side and just accept the things I cannot change, rather than obsessing over them. Even the happiest people I know take time out for themselves so they can continue being their best.
So ultimately, give yourself a break. You might not be a superhero, but you are doing just great as you are. 💙