Battling Mental Illness in Isolation

As someone who’s suffered from anxiety first hand, I can’t even begin to put into words how debilitating the combination of anxiety and self-isolation can be. I’m one of the lucky one’s who has learned how to manage my anxiety and find creative outlets for my mind when it begins to wander but not all of us have gotten there yet. And honestly, there are going to be some people who develop anxiety and depression because of these circumstances who would ordinarily consider themselves “normal” on the spectrum of mental illness. They will need our help as sufferers and survivors.

When I had my first panic attack, it felt like the world was closing in on me despite sitting on my deck under the stars. I found myself hyperventilating for hours, numbness creeping up from my toes and fingertips until my limbs were pins and needles – lack of oxygen. It wasn’t until I thought I was going to pass out that I made the trek from my bedroom to my moms room. I call it a trek because the thought of moving from the shelter of my bed made my head spin.

When I finally got to her room, she took one look at me and knew exactly what was happening. She took my hand, led me through some deep breaths and sat me on the deck outside with a glass of water. I’ve lost a lot of my memories from those six months of constant panic attacks but one thing I do remember was her telling me to find something that would ground me.

The weight of that word – ground – really resonated with me. If you’re someone who has suffered from panic attacks before, you understand the sensation of floating while waiting for your mind and body to come back to one another – that out-of-body feeling as if you’re looking down at yourself. What grounded me was the sky.

I didn’t understand how fortunate I was during those first few panic attacks. My mom also suffered from anxiety after a traumatic incident. She told me of her struggles a few days later but up until then, I thought I was fighting this thing alone.

Soon, my panic attacks became more frequent. I would wake up to them in the middle of the night – it was always worse at night – dizzy with panic and out of breath from hyperventilating. My mom slept in my room with me for at least four months until the anti-anxiety medication (Prozac and Ativan) got into my system. I’d eventually throw up. She’d try to calm me down by rubbing my back, reminding me to breath and grabbing me a glass of water or the trash can that we always kept next to my bed. Then I would lay awake for hours watching something mindless on TV and willing myself back to sleep.

Soon it began to trickle into my social life. I couldn’t drive at night. I couldn’t be in big crowds. I couldn’t sleep over anyone’s house. If I did leave the house, I had to be the one driving. I couldn’t drink or smoke. I couldn’t be around people who drank or smoke. I couldn’t be in confined places. If I thought I had left my emergency medication at home, I would panic. If I couldn’t find my emergency medication, I would panic. I had that tiny little bottle glued to me for years. Some days it was so bad I couldn’t sit still for more than 5 minutes, let alone make it through a whole day of classes. I lost my appetite, I stopped doing my homework, I stopped living.

And this was all while I was able to leave the house, attend my therapy sessions and distract myself with friends and family. Take all of that above, one single mental illness in comparison to many, and add self-isolation. You can imagine how anxiety and depression would flourish in this environment.

This is a time where people are dying from a deadly virus, yes. But this is also a time when buried mental illnesses are returning to haunt us with every waking moment we spend alone. It’s a time when they’re planting their seeds of self-doubt and manipulation in the heads of those who thought we had overcome this battle already. And it’s spreading probably quicker than COVID-19 as the endless days drag on. People who would not consider themselves to have depression or anxiety are no doubt feeling the effects of this quarantine and those of us who have overcome it before are lucky enough to recognize the signs. But, for those of us who have not experienced it before, you might not know what to look for and you might mistake the symptoms as the effects of isolation.

From my own personal experience, I want to share some of these symptoms to look out for, for the people who just maybe have’t been feeling right lately.

If you’re about to stop here and not read further, I want to remind you that you are not alone. It is not embarrassing or shameful to suffer from mental illness. It does not have to control you or debilitate you. You can live with this. It does get better. This situation is not forever. My door is always open, I am a phone call/DM/email/letter away – if you need anything at all, please don’t be afraid to reach out. We need to be here for each other and I can do my part to contain the virus by staying home but I also want to do my part by being an ally and fellow survivor for those of you/us that are suffering.

ANXIETY (some symptoms overlap with depression)

I suffered more from anxiety than I did from depression but I no doubt suffered from both at one point throughout my self-recovery. I had strong feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts coupled with the common symptoms of both so it was hard to differentiate at times what I was feeling. But there was no doubt in my mind that when I was anxious, the signs were there. When I was depressed, I categorized it as a side effect of anxiety. 

  • I find myself to get tired more easily. I’m run down by the most mundane things such as making my bed in the morning, cooking breakfast, emptying the dishwasher. Anything that requires more energy than sitting in bed all day is immediately a red flag to me. Definitely attributed my exhaustion more to my mental state fighting this seemingly endless battle than I did to depression.
  • Difficultly concentrating was a big one for me. I got stuck in my head a lot, milling over the what if’s and the when I’m better’s. I worked myself into panic attacks because I couldn’t concentrate on the task at hand and I let my mind get away from me.
  • Racing heart. This was the absolute worst physical symptom for me. I had EKG’s done, stress tests done, heart tests done just to determine that my heart was healthy and my palpitations and chest pains were caused by anxiety. For those of you that don’t know, panic attacks sometimes directly mimic the symptoms of heart attacks. For me, my heart felt like it was fluttering and skipping beats which would send waves of anxiety through my body to my head, resulting in dizzy spells and feeling lightheaded. I’d eventually throw up and then my body would come down. The trauma would cause me to shake violently, which is when I knew it was finally over but I couldn’t warm up for hours no matter how many blankets I bundled up in.
  • Insomnia/over sleeping/trouble falling asleep. I have had insomnia my entire life but when my anxiety was at its peak, I laid awake all night praying for the sun to shine so I could get some sleep. Something about the dark made my anxiety worse and the second the sun started to rise, I would fall into a deep sleep and sleep all day. I was eventually prescribed to Trazadone which is a heavy duty sedative that I finally got off a little less than a year ago.
  • Emotional changes: Restlessness, irritability, feeling on edge, lack of control over yourself, dread and panic. I lived my life worrying when I was going to have my next panic attack which would result in more panic attacks. It was the feeling of panicking that made me panic which I’m sure doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but when I panicked, it was like trying to escape my own head and find clarity but I was so consumed with the overwhelming feeling of dread that I lost sight of what I was working towards. My panic attacks left me defeated, embarrassed and absolutely exhausted. They took such a physical toll on me. If I had a panic attack in the morning, my day was considered over. I needed hours to recover and nurse myself back from that edge.

DEPRESSION (some symptoms overlap with anxiety)

I strongly believe any depression I endured was a direct result of the mental battle I was fighting every single day with anxiety at the forefront. I no doubt was depressed too but mine was more from wishing every single day that I would just catch a break. And of course, the nagging feeling that I couldn’t endure my anxiety much longer. 

  • Exhaustion/heightened fatigue with everyday, mundane activities.
  • Lack of concentration is a big one too. If you find yourself aimlessly scrolling through social media, bouncing between apps and games on your phone, even if you know you have stuff that you should be doing or want to be doing, force yourself to get up and engage with anything other than your phone and your bedroom.
  • As I mentioned above, I lose my appetite and lost a lot of weight. This is a telltale sign of depression and anxiety. Not wanting to eat or not having an appetite of course leads to weight loss. For me, it became a battle to eat anything before noon and when I did eat, it was normally a breakfast bar and then nothing until something small for dinner.
  • DIFFICULTY SLEEPING AND OVERSLEEPING. If you notice that you or a loved one is spending all day in bed or is having trouble falling asleep/staying asleep, encourage them/yourself to just get up. The first step in fighting mental illness is getting out of bed in the morning. Take it from someone whose own mother wouldn’t let her get a lock on the bedroom door because she knew I would not get out of bed and she would need to come get me.
  • Loss of interest/no longer finding pleasure in activities or hobbies. This was a big one for me. I would do what I was supposed to do (read, my homework, go to my horseback riding and dance lessons) but anything more than that, I lost interest in.
  • Some emotional changes: heightened irritability, hopelessness, sadness, anxiety or restlessness. I know this can easily be confused with self-isolation in general. I think given the timing, we are all a bit irritable, anxious and restless but this is still something to keep in mind throughout your days as things continue to get harder for us.
  • Suicidal thoughts/tendencies or feelings of self-harm (cutting, burning, pinching, biting, etc.)

I know these are very personalized to me but if any of these symptoms resonate with you, fight it. It’s so easy to give in to how you’re feeling and let it consume you but the only way out is to fight with everything you have because this is not a road you want to go down. And I know so many people will say, well you don’t have a choice if you’re depressed or prone to anxiety and you’re absolutely right but there are ways to fight it as opposed to letting it consume you. Get angry, resist it and push back.

It’s okay to give in to the feeling, temporarily. A lot of people find comfort in their depression and their anxiety because it’s constant and familiar to them whereas fighting it is unfamiliar and unnatural. That said, if you’re going to give in to it, allow yourself a couple of hours or a day at most. Find little things you can do to take your mind off of how you’re feeling. Ordinarily, people suggest hanging out with friends and family, going for drives, shopping and other self-care options. Obviously, that’s not something we can do given the circumstances. And I say “we” because this is undoubtedly something we as a society and a community are going to go through together and we are also going to overcome it together.

Just the other day, I spent the day in bed. Monday, it rained all day. I felt defeated, exhausted, filled to the brim with sadness and fear and total uncertainty at what was going to happen tomorrow let alone the next couple of weeks. Being in the situation that we are in, we are all fearful. For our jobs. For our income. For our health. But we should also be equally as fearful for our mental health. This isn’t a battle everyone will overcome. They are estimating that there will be a dramatic increase of suicide/suicide attempts, self-harm and reported mental illness in the following months.

For whatever reason, this isn’t something people are talking enough about. We are all-consumed by COVID-19 and the threat to our physical health but this is a trying time for those of us that are susceptible to mental illness and to those who may have already relapsed. We are on the brink of a very difficult time as a community and I think opening this discussion and reminding people that it’s okay to talk about it and that it SHOULD be talked about is incredibly important, if not more important, than COVID-19. They’re developing a vaccine for the virus but what vaccine is there for our mental health?

I want to take the rest of this post to talk about some thing’s we can do as individuals to better our mental state. Things that don’t include swimming in our private pools, taking our million dollar cars for rides or adopting dogs at the animal shelter. Reasonable, sustainable solutions and distractions that can benefit us in the long run and that cost little to no money.

  1. Call your friends, family and loved ones: If you’re anything like me and you already suffer from anxiety and depression, then you know that being home alone for hours on end can contribute to the spiral of your mental health. Maintaining a sense of community (outside of necessary trips to the grocery store and pharmacy and client/co-worker calls) is imperative. Keep in touch via text, phone call and video chat. It’ll keep you sane and give you the sensation of socializing without leaving your home. If you think you might get really bad or are already really bad, set up a schedule. Create times throughout the day and maintain these times as we head toward a long isolation and potential quarantine.
  2. Self-care goes a long way: Take a bubble bath, do some facemasks, paint your nails. Make sure you’re eating regularly and you’re eating well. It’s okay to indulge in the snack drawer but don’t make it your lunch. Also please keep in mind that coffee is not a meal replacement! Since we can’t go to the gym, try to get creative with your exercise routine. Whether you do sprints on your street, yoga indoors, stretches before bed or make it a goal to squat the fridge, try to get your heart rate up and your body moving at least once throughout the day!
  3. Self-soothe: A lot of us that already suffer from anxiety and depression have little tricks we partake in to calm ourselves down or remain calm through stressful situations. Some people like repetition, such as a movement, exercise or an app/game. Some people prefer to read or write (this is what I do to stay present and mindful). I also like to make detailed lists like the places I want to travel, the next books I want to read or the next blog posts I want to write. Whatever you do, definitely don’t watch the news.
  4. Stay busy: It’s so easy to get caught up in a lack of a routine while at home, whether it be staying in bed until noon or mindlessly watching Netflix all day. I’m super guilty of not being productive in this environment but I’m forgiving myself and giving myself a grace period to adjust to this new lifestyle. A lot of people recommend creating a schedule for yourself. Something along the lines of when to get up, eat breakfast, read/write, exercise, cook dinner and let yourself relax/enjoy a show or a movie. This allows you to plan your days efficiently and maximize your time. I would respond well to something like this but I wouldn’t be diligent with it which would lead to me being disappointed in myself which is obviously counter-productive. Some other alternatives would be to learn a new language, teach yourself a new skill that you’ve always wanted to learn, research a topic of interest, read more books, write about your days and clear your head, practice yoga/work on your flexibility, buy some plants and learn to take care of them, start a new hobby that you’ve always wanted to try, plan a vacation for when all of this is over. There’s so much we can do with the Internet literally at our fingertips. If you don’t have access to the Internet or don’t want to sit in front of a computer all day you can invest in some board games, brain puzzles (Sudoku, crosswords), card games, new recipes, organizing or cleaning. These are all things I have done personally to get me through the days until my roommates come home at night.
  5. Appreciate the little victories: If you are suffering from anxiety, these suggestions might be extremely difficult when you are lacking motivation. To that, I would start by just getting out of bed. Wash your face, brush your teeth and drink some water. Try to avoid going back into your bedroom by sitting on the couch or even on the floor but resist the temptation to get back into bed. That in itself is a victory to me. If you can overcome the urge to go back to sleep, you’re winning in my mind.
  6. Challenge yourself every day: Create short term and long term goals for yourself. For example, if getting out of bed by 10 was your goal the previous day, challenge yourself to get out of bed by 9:30 the next day. If you only managed to get out of bed and brush your teeth the previous day, challenge yourself to get out of bed, brush your teeth and eat a piece of toast the next day. If you started doing yoga last week and found a pose you want to work on, make it a goal to master the pose by the end of the new week.

I’m sure there are countless possibilities and activities you can do to combat mental illness and stay busy but these are a few that resonate with me and have worked for me personally. If you have any suggestions of your own, please comment – I am always looking for different and new things to do!

I know we are all feeling a bit defeated during this time and some of this stuff seems silly and pointless but I will leave that up to you for interpretation. It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself, no one else’s. You don’t have to fight this battle alone unless you choose to. That said, reach out to those around you if you need help and check on your friends who might be struggling. Everyone can use a little support right now and the least we can do (those of us that are fellow survivors and sufferers) is be present, be supportive and be available to those who might need us right now.

As always, thank you for reading and I hope everyone stays safe and healthy!

 

2 thoughts on “Battling Mental Illness in Isolation

  1. Woodsy says:

    A whole bunch of stuff I was dealing with got worse during lockdown… a bunch of fears bubbled up to the surface (mainly the echoes of a situation I was actually coming out the far side of when lockdown kicked in).
    So on a deeply personal level, I feel this.

    Like

    • James Lee Costa says:

      im so sorry to hear that and i hope it’s starting to get better for you as restrictions begin to ease. i totally understand what you’re feeling and feel free to email me if you need someone to talk to you! i hope you’re doing well 🙂

      Like

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