I had the privilege of meeting up with a friend to chat about her experiences relating to mental health. Tara is a friendly, confident lady who will help anyone and everyone she can. I never guessed she had her battles with mental health. I learned that she would never have described herself as having a mental health problem until she started reading my blogs. They made her think about herself and certain “feelings” that overwhelmed her on occasions.
“Anxiety doesn’t affect me every day but when it does happen, it comes up with a huge smack in the face.”
Many people can certainly relate to that huge smack in the face as one minute they are fine, then they encounter a trigger and a panic attack kicks off before they’ve had time to blink.
Tara feels that her anxiety was brought on by the experiences of losing close family and a good friend. Her Dad passed away when she was 34 years old. She remembers her Dad being quite peaceful throughout his illness but recalls one moment when he was upset whilst with her, thinking about how his death would impact her and her family. When he actually died at home, Tara couldn’t bear to see his body taken away by the undertakers and went into a room so she couldn’t view the removal.
The next sad event in Tara’s life was the death of her best friend at the age of 42.
“I would never say I had anxiety in my younger years. After my best friend died I believe I developed a fear about losing my mother. I would call her every day, sometimes twice a day to see if she was ok. She was always fine, there was nothing wrong with her.”
Tara’s mum died suddenly. She had a heart attack whilst at Tara’s house doing some gardening. Another close friend died shortly after her Mum.
“I have seen myself building up with anxiety gradually.”
Tara is a committed Christian and in the past has found herself telling God that she doesn’t want to know about death, she wants Him to protect her from it. She also wrestles with why she has this anxiety if she really believes what she confesses to believe. Why doesn’t God remove these fears and anxieties and heal her?
Tara’s anxiety appears to present on crowded trains. She used to travel daily on the underground to her job as a nurse in a central London hospital. She hasn’t used the underground since her Dad died.
“I make myself get on the train and hope to control the feelings. I call my husband and talk to him, I pray, but if the train is very crowded and hot it’s not long before the feelings take over and control me.”
I asked Tara if she felt she grieved well. She had never thought about it. When her Dad died she had support from her mother who encouraged her to do things like going to see her Dad’s body. She felt this helped give her some closure, knowing it wasn’t him anymore. With her mother, she felt she didn’t grieve as much for her as she did for her friends and wonders if she didn’t grieve fully for her. She said she handled it well considering her anxiety while her mother was alive. She has never been angry about any of the deaths of her parents or her close friends.
Tara didn’t seek out counselling with any of her bereavements and hasn’t for her anxiety. She has always felt that she’s a strong person and is in control. She bravely admitted to denying for a while that she may have had a mental health problem.
Tara was incredibly honest and courageous as we chatted. She’s certainly not alone when it comes to a tendency to neglect one’s mental health and perhaps to just accept and accommodate anxiety with avoidance.
We discussed the potential impact of praying whilst having a panic attack. As I was talking to her, it occurred to me that asking for help could exacerbate the state of panic. Perhaps a better approach is to pray expressing gratitude to reframe the fearful thoughts that are driving the anxiety.
Here are two things that struck me most about Tara’s story:
Not many people can encounter loss without experiencing mental health issues subsequently.
The more unexpected, shocking, or traumatic the loss, the more inevitable the mental health fallout. I remember reading Grief Works by bereavement counsellor Julia Samuel and her telling the story of a client who came to see her after her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Huh, I thought, she went BEFORE he actually died. Now that seems smart, why didn’t I think of that? I didn’t even see a counsellor regularly after both my losses. Just one trip to a psychologist. He was very good in that one session but I expect I would have benefitted from a long-term talking therapy. You live and learn and perhaps if more people sought out a counsellor as soon as a difficult time hits, there’d be less breakdowns occurring.
The biggest challenge with anxiety is letting go of the need to control your feelings.
This is extremely challenging because it’s so unpleasant. The physiological and psychological symptoms are all-consuming and all you want is for them to stop. So, we panic about them never stopping and not knowing how to make them stop. Cue some more adrenaline being pumped around our already frantic system. As Tara expressed, we feel completely at the mercy of our feelings and try to regain a sense of control by trying to push the feelings away. Breathing is proven to counter the physical fight or flight reaction and if we can step back and allow ourselves to notice what we are feeling and accept that it’s ok to have these feelings, they are just feelings that won’t cause us any harm, it is much easier to engage with the techniques that do work at bringing us back down to a calmer place.
Thank you Tara, for your story.
(Name has been changed)