The Spectrum of Anxiety

I often hear people say things like “oh yes, I get anxious too…” but I know that we are not talking about the same thing.  Anxiety is not “you have it or you don’t” (I have yet to meet a person that I honestly believe is never anxious). However, anxiety is a very broad term for a huge number of symptoms of immeasurable variations.  It is a spectrum, and people can move all over that spectrum over their lifetime.  Sometimes it is problematic and prevents people from functioning fully in their lives, other times it is a healthy reaction to an uncertain situation.

I recently spent the weekend with 420 awesome people at Good Life Project camp for creative entrepreneurs and change makers of all sorts. Kind, supportive and open minded folks who want to do their part in creating a better world (lofty goal I know, but they are an ambitious bunch).  But something happened to me on the first morning and I felt too embarrassed to share at the time,  my mind playing tricks.  For me, anxiety plays tricks but the worst part is that it also robs me of the ability to see it as a trick until it is over.  So I am sharing this story to give you a glimpse of what my anxiety looked like on that particular morning.
I woke up with an intense sense of panic that my head was covered with lice, I could actually feel them crawling around. I ran to the bathroom to check, and found nothing. I took deep breaths, said my mantras reminding myself that everything is ok. I tried to forget. I distracted myself with activities of the morning. But each time I was near a bathroom I’d run in to examine my scalp. I scratched till I realized that I was pulling out hair and had blood in my fingernails. I went to my first workshop terrified that people would start pointing and screaming as they would surely see the bugs that I felt. By lunch I could hardly stand it and knew I had to tell someone. I needed someone else to look. To reassure me that it was just my mind playing tricks on me. Luckily, a bunkmate came in to our cabin as I pacing trying to figure out what I’d do once the lice were finally seen. I whispered to her what was happening and she kindly looked through my hair. The horror of her telling me she could see them was almost as bad as the embarrassment I felt as a result of having to ask. But she did look and found nothing (and said kind, reassuring words). Ah, I could breathe, it was over.  I could finally get on with my day.

I can go months without an episode of anxiety and this is the first time that ever showed up like this.   I am sharing because I think it is too easy to lump all anxiety into one pot and assume it looks the same for everyone, it simply does not.  Regardless of how it shows up for you;  butterflies in your stomach or hiding under you desk, anxiety is real and can be overwhelming and exhausting.  So if someone says they are feeling anxious, don’t assume you know what that means. 

I now know it is my mission to share my stories so we can we can openly talk about mental health issues like we talk about everything else people struggle with. Openly, authentically, and with compassion.  If I sprained my ankle that morning I would not have cared who knew, nor would anyone wonder why I was asking for help. 


Hit the Pause Button

A few years ago, as I started to feel a little bit better and the fog was starting to lift, I decided I needed to do something differently. I had been thinking that had I made some different choices in life, I may not have had the major depressive episode that I was just starting to recover from. At the time I don’t think I had anything specific in mind, but I promised myself that before I said an automatic no (or yes) to requests or opportunities I was going to sit with them, pause, and ask myself why I was answering the way I was. Often the answer was based on fears. Fear of looking silly, fear of failing or embarrassing myself or my family. Was it really what I wanted, or what I thought I should want? So the change was not answering with my automatic answers, instead really look at those feelings and see if it was something I really wanted to try or was just not my thing (I still don’t want to go skydiving or watch boxing).

One of those things was horse back riding. My daughter had been riding for almost 2 years and I loved watching her, I loved being around the horses and even the smell of the barn. I used to ride as a kid but hadn’t in many years. But one day I wondered ‘why don’t I ride anymore?’. I mean, I’m a little out of shape,  and I’ve probably forgotten how to ride, but that’s why people take lessons. So I signed up for lessons and I never looked back.  It might seem like such a simple decision, but for me it was huge. I risked looking silly, failing and embarrassing my family (all the things I desperately avoided). But so what? None of those things were the big deal I was making them out to be in my head. And yes, I do sometimes look silly and fail miserably, and I’ve probably embarrassed my daughter a few times, but overall I love it, and it has definitely worth it.

Another amazing opportunity was when a friend posted on Facebook that she knew someone who needed to sell their ticket to a adult camp in New York.  I googled it, and it looked amazing, but NEVER something I thought I could go to (I don’t know why, but it very clear to me at the time that it was just not an option). But as I read over the details, examined every page on the website, read every review, I knew I wanted to go. So I did!  I bought her ticket and off I went with 2 other new friends from my neighbourhood.   Again, one simple ‘yes!’ led to some pretty awesome experiences!

Although it might not seem like a big deal,  for me these choices were life changing.

So if you are feeling like you’d like to try new things, I challenge you to make a small change. Give yourself time to pause before answering requests or opportunities, think about the ‘why’ behind those automatic replies, maybe you’d like to answer differently,  it may offer big rewards!  I’d love to hear what you try and how it turns out, feel free to write in the comments.

(Similarly, I decided to say no to things that I thought I ‘should’ be doing but really didn’t want to, but that’s for another day).

To learn more about camp and all the amazing things create by Jonathan Fields and his team , visit The Good Life Project . 


Life Is Not Fair & Neither Is Stigma

Your co-worker tells you that Mary called in sick today. ‘But she looked fine yesterday’ you think. Then she tells you that she heard Mary is dealing with depression and is seeing a therapist. “But she laughs all the time, she’s such a joker, how can she be depressed?”

We’ve all heard these things, and if we’re honest, we’ve probably said some of them, or at least thought it. Whether its migraines, mental health or back pain. Those issues that cannot easily be seen and there’s often no visible signs.  ‘I get headaches too but I don’t call in sick’ or ‘I’m tired too, maybe I should take a few days off?’

We work hard and its frustrating when it feels like we are doing more than others.  But this problem goes deeper.

For the most part, we live in a world where we are supposed to do ‘our share’. As if there is a score keeper tracking our effort. We put value on hours and on productivity.  People that work hard (aka. put in the hours and are highly productive) are often seen as ‘good’ people, certainly better than those we deem as ‘lazy’ people.

However, that is not the whole picture and it never will be. Hours and productivity are one thing, but effort is another. The effort required for someone with major depression to get up, showered, dressed, and off to work requires significantly more effort than someone who does not.

I know both sides of this. I used to work in a office setting where the director wanted ‘our butts in the chair’  a minimum of 7.5hrs a day’ (their words, not mine).  Before I had my breakdown, this seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I was usually one of the first to arrive, took a quick lunch and a few bathroom breaks and left over 8hrs later. Then when things started to spiral, I would be nauseous on my way to work, exhausted by 10 am, and ready to burst into tears in meetings when I felt I couldn’t express myself.  At my desk I couldn’t concentrate. Not that I wasn’t trying, I put more effort into my work than I had ever before, but anyone watching couldn’t see that.  When I was put on extended sick leave, I knew I left a hole and others would have to pick up the slack.  It was not fair.

It was not fair that I was sick and it was not fair that other people had to do more.  Life is not fair.

Until we can accept that, we will continue to stigmatize those who we believe don’t pull their weight (and trust me that it does not help anyone).

So how can we accept that life is not fair?

When I’m feeling like I’m getting the short end of the stick,  I remind myself that there are too many things I don’t know for me to make an informed assessment of the situation being fair or not. Regardless of the relationship I have with the person involved, I don’t know what is going on in their heads, in their bodies or in their homes. What kind of support they have, do they have an elderly parent dependent on them, or a child with special needs , or partner in the who has severe PTSD.  Even when we think we know, we don’t.

Doing this helps me put things back in perspective. I don’t need to know their whole life story, I just need to remember that I am only seeing a tiny slice of their life and therefore I am not in any position to judge or criticize.  So it might seem unfair, but its just that, my perception.   By accepting it as my perception I’m not judging or labelling the other person. It is one step closer to lessening the stigma, because people with mental health struggles are usually the ones being judged as not doing their share and that’s just not fair. IMG_1718




When Paperwork Trumps People

This Canadian veteran and mom was asking for accessible housing and therapy.  She had a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down.  She did not want to die.    She wanted a chance at a normal life.   But instead she was posted to the JPSU: “Before leaving the army in 2014, Leah was assigned to the Joint Personnel Support Unit, which offers support and rehabilitation services to sick or injured Canadian Armed Forces personnel.”  So how could this happen? It happens when paperwork and budget trump people and compassion.  However, I believe that we don’t have to choose one or the other. People, compassion, budget and policies can actually work together if there is the will to make them come together.  Not just the desire to make it ‘look’ like they’ve come together. Leadership needs to decide that people are in fact more important than their image and that they are willing to open the doors to what is really happening and not what is ‘supposed’ to be happening.

To read the article about Pte. Greene:



Depression Can be Like Cancer

When you break a leg, you have difficulty walking. You may use crutches or a cane, and you may be able to manage ok, but you don’t go as far or as quickly as you would have before.

Depression can be like breaking your leg. I had difficulty thinking clearly, problem solving was exhausting, if not impossible, and I certainly couldn’t do it as quickly or easily as I would have before.

When you have cancer, you may feel like your life now revolves around the diagnosis. With possible surgery, various treatments options, pain management and doctors visits.  There is a lot to figure out.

Depression and anxiety can be like cancer,  I felt like my life revolved around them for a while.  There are so many self help books, treatment options and of course personal opinions on how to ‘get over it’. And if you ignore just ignore the cancer and pretend it is not there. We all know it will eventually get much worse and more difficult to treat, just like depression. But I often hear of people trying to manage these things alone.  Although there are medical professionals available to most of us, in some form, we rather do it ourselves then jump through the hoops to get help.

Now, I know some people may disagree and say depression and anxiety aren’t like cancer, they won’t kill you. Well, to them I say ‘yes they can’.  It can literally make you feel hopeless and want to end the pain so badly that you commit suicide. Or forces you to self medicate with drugs, alcohol or high risk behaviours, which can also kill you.  Or they simply takes over your life is such a way that you are no longer truly living.
So why would we want to manage any of these things alone? We don’t expect people with a broken leg to manage it themselves? You go to the hospital, get an e-ray, have a cast put on and go of follow-up appointments. We don’t expect someone with cancer to read some books on the subject and the various treatment options and expect them to get better.  We don’t advise them to just focus on the positive, practice better self-care, change their diet or question if they really have a problem or are they just making a mountain out of a mole hill?   We don’t judge them for trying to get on with their life as normally as possible, like going out with friends. We don’t think they are weak because they demanded to see the best doctors if they feel they were not getting the right care for their situation.
But this is exactly the kind of advice many of us get from well meaning people when we share the fact that we are dealing with a serious mental health issue, whether or not there is a clinical diagnosis.

“But don’t we all get sad? Don’t you know it will just pass if you let it?”
“Maybe its hormones? Sounds just like pre-menopause.”
“Why not just take a holiday and shake it off? You just need to take better care of yourself”
“But you looked great when I saw you out last week, what happened?”
And I could go on…
So what can we say?
“Please get professional help, this sounds serious and you shouldn’t have to figure it out alone.”
“I have never experienced this, so I don’t know what to say, but I care about you. What can I do?”
“I’m sorry to hear you are going through this, I hope you are getting the support you need.”
So the next time you are talking about mental health issues, imagine you are talking about cancer or a broken leg and see if you choose your words differently.
 I’d love to know so please leave a comment.
Thanks, RobinIMG_3466