Although I wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety and depression until my mid-20’s, when I look back on my childhood, my teenage years and my early adulthood, I can now see that it was very evident that I had been suffering all that time. I’m guessing the anxiety and depression came on around the same time that my fibromyalgia symptoms began (10 years old), but it could have been well before that. I was a moody, negative, anxiety filled, angry child.
Growing up, my thoughts and feelings had always felt a bit on the negative side, but I figured that was just normal. When you’re sick with anxiety and / or depression, sometimes you don’t realize you are, because you’re not aware that what you’re thinking and feeling isn’t actually “normal”.
Going through high school is difficult for any teen, but it felt especially so for me. I fit in perfectly on my soccer team, but at school I was very anxious around people I didn’t know, and incredibly insecure and anxious hanging out with groups larger than three. Because of the way I felt in high school, I’m sure people who didn’t know me well in high school thought I was a stuck up snob, which I swear I was not, I was just constantly anxious and didn’t know how to act around others. I tended to stick close to home, spent time with my parents, my brothers, their friends, my close friends, and my high school boyfriend.
I worked at a Canadian bookstore, Chapter’s (now Indigo Books and Music) as a cashier for 5 years, continued to play soccer competitively for Oakville, spent the weekends up North at our new cottage in the North Kawartha’s, and tried to enjoy my teenage years as best as I could.
My two best friends going through high school were Natasha and Katie, and they were both very positive, talkative, happy-go-lucky girls. I WANTED to feel happy the way it seemed like they were, and always looked up to them and wanted to be like them. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t be “happy” or positive, due to my depression clouding my brain and my life. My other close friend was and still is, James, who continues to be an amazing source of support for me.
There were a few traumatic events that happened in high school, which I will not go into detail about, however, those events sparked me to reach out to my mom and the school counsellor for help and guidance. There were a few times where I felt so down and depressed that I had thoughts of suicide, but didn’t think I could ever possibly go through with it. Looking back now that my depression and anxiety is under control, I can’t believe I ever felt down enough to have thoughts of suicide.
My mom and the counsellor were very supportive and suggested I speak to a psychologist. I spoke to two separate clinical psychologists at the age of 16, however, did not continue to speak with them because I just did not feel like talking about my thoughts or feelings at the time. I continued to talk to the school counsellor on and off for support, as well as my mom, so at least I had some type of support I could count on.
At 18, during my final year (grade 13) of high school, my grandmother whom I was close to, passed away of cancer. This death hit me incredibly hard – so much so that I cried every single day to my boyfriend after school. This went on for six months (the poor guy!) and there was nothing he could do to help. This should have sparked me as being abnormal behaviour, however, because my mood had always been up and down since childhood, I assumed I was grieving her death normally. Looking back now, that behaviour was not normal and I needed help.
I somehow maintained a straight A average through high school, and was accepted into one of the top University’s in Canada, Queen’s University at Kingston, which was my parent’s alma matter.
At 19, I began my first year at Queen’s University in the Arts and Science program. At this point, my anxiety and depression hit an all time low. I was extremely homesick, I cried a lot, I called my mom quite often, I spent time alone in my room on the computer, and avoided many social activities. Looking back, I really missed out on the true first year university experience due to this awful illness. For the first time in my life my grades suffered, which only intensified the feelings of negative self worth. I had tried out for the Varsity soccer team, however, I was cut after the last round of try-outs due to a couple lingering injuries (I can no longer play soccer due to torn tendons and ligaments in my hips). Being unable to play soccer, my true passion, most likely contributed to the worsening of my symptoms.After my first year at Queen’s, I decided to transfer to McMaster University in Hamilton, which was closer to home (20 min drive from Oakville), as I hoped this would ease some of my anxiety and depression. I lived off campus with five other girls, made the varsity women’s soccer team (where I played every game on Saturday and Sundays and trained 3+ hours a day), and majored in sociology (the study of people & society). It helped that my older brother Chris was studying Engineering at McMaster, so I spent a fair bit of time with him (he and I were and always have been close). He was a great support during my time at University. I graduated from McMaster University in April of 2007 (at the age of 23) with an Honours Bachelor of Arts, major in Sociology and officially left the “bubble” called school.
As I began my career in Human Resources, I really noticed the stress of working a full time job begin to affect my mood and my actions. At the age of 24 or 25 I was going through a rough time at work with my other illnesses, and I think it was flaring my anxiety and depression. I had a new GP at this point (a young woman), and she was the first doctor to suggest anxiety and depression to me, and prescribe medication. What she was saying made complete sense, and I dutifully took the antidepressant and anxiety medications (two separate) daily. After a few days of taking the medications, it felt as if this dark cloud was lifting off my brain, and started to see and think much clearer. I remember saying to my mom “wow, is this how most people think and feel? I wish I had been on this medication over a decade ago, my life would have been much easier, and so much happier!” Better late than never though right? At the suggestion of my GP, I also began seeing a Clinical Psychologist on a weekly basis for close to two years, who diagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Major Depression. She was an absolutely fantastic doctor, who taught me the proper coping mechanisms in order to manage my anxiety and depression effectively. I walked in there on day one with an 8/10 depression score and 9/10 anxiety score, and after my final appointment close to 2 years later, my anxiety level had dropped to a three, and my depression to a four. I have now been on the same medication for 6 years, which seems to help keep my symptoms manageable, however, it’s definitely a continuous struggle living with a mental illness.
A bit of medical information on Anxiety and Depression below:
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences at times. Many people feel anxious, or nervous, when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders, however, are different. They can cause such distress that it interferes with a person’s ability to lead a normal life.
An anxiety disorder is a serious mental illness. For people with anxiety disorders, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be crippling.
What Are the Types of Anxiety Disorders?
There are several recognized types of anxiety disorders, including:
- Panic disorder: People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning. Other symptoms of a panic attack include sweating, chest pain, palpitations (unusually strong or irregular heartbeats), and a feeling of choking, which may make the person feel like he or she is having a heart attack or “going crazy.”
- Social anxiety disorder: Also called social phobia, social anxiety disorder involves overwhelming worry and self-consciousness about everyday social situations. The worry often centers on a fear of being judged by others, or behaving in a way that might cause embarrassment or lead to ridicule.
- Specific phobias: A specific phobia is an intense fear of a specific object or situation, such as snakes, heights, or flying. The level of fear is usually inappropriate to the situation and may cause the person to avoid common, everyday situations.
- Generalized anxiety disorder: This disorder involves excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there is little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
What Are the Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?
Symptoms vary depending on the type of anxiety disorder, but general symptoms include:
- Feelings of panic, fear, and uneasiness
- Problems sleeping
- Cold or sweaty hands and/or feet
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- An inability to be still and calm
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in the hands or feet
- Muscle tension
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown; but anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress.
Like other brain illnesses, anxiety disorders may be caused by problems in the functioning of brain circuits that regulate fear and other emotions. Studies have shown that severe or long-lasting stress can change the way nerve cells within these circuits transmit information from one region of the brain to another. Other studies have shown that people with certain anxiety disorders have changes in certain brain structures that control memories linked with strong emotions. In addition, studies have shown that anxiety disorders run in families, which means that they can at least partly be inherited from one or both parents, like the risk for heart disease or cancer. Moreover, certain environmental factors — such as a trauma or significant event — may trigger an anxiety disorder in people who have an inherited susceptibility to developing the disorder.
How Common Are Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders affect millions of adult Americans. Most anxiety disorders begin in childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. They occur slightly more often in women than in men, and occur with equal frequency in whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Diagnosed?
If symptoms of an anxiety disorder are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by asking you questions about your medical history and performing a physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose anxiety disorders, the doctor may use various tests to look for physical illness as the cause of the symptoms.
If no physical illness is found, you may be referred to a psychiatrist,psychologist, or another mental health professional who is specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illnesses. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a person for an anxiety disorder.
The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on the patient’s report of the intensity and duration of symptoms — including any problems with daily functioning caused by the symptoms — and the doctor’s observation of the patient’s attitude and behavior. The doctor then determines if the patient’s symptoms and degree of dysfunction indicate a specific anxiety disorder.
How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?
Fortunately, much progress has been made in the last two decades in the treatment of people with mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, one or a combination of the following therapies may be used for most anxiety disorders:
- Medication: Drugs used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders include anti-depressants and anxiety-reducing drugs.
- Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a particular type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to troublesome feelings.
- Dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Relaxation therapy.
Depression: What Is It?
It’s natural to feel down sometimes, but if that low mood lingers day after day, it could signal depression. Major depression is an episode of sadness or apathy along with other symptoms that lasts at least two consecutive weeks and is severe enough to interrupt daily activities. Depression is not a sign of weakness or a negative personality. It is a major public health problem and a treatable medical condition.
Shown here are PET scans of the brain showing different activity levels in a person with depression, compared to a person without depression.
Depression Symptoms: Emotional
The primary symptoms of depression are a sad mood and/or loss of interest in life. Activities that were once pleasurable lose their appeal. Patients may also be haunted by a sense of guilt or worthlessness, lack of hope, and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
Depression Symptoms: Physical
Depression is sometimes linked to physical symptoms. These include:
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Insomnia, especially early-morning waking
- Excessive sleep
- Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment
Depression can make other health problems feel worse, particularly chronic pain. Key brain chemicals influence both mood and pain. Treating depression has been shown to improve co-existing illnesses.
Depression Symptom: Appetite
Changes in appetite or weight are another hallmark of depression. Some patients develop increased appetite, while others lose their appetite altogether. Depressed people may experience serious weight loss or weight gain.
Impact on Daily Life
Without treatment, the physical and emotional turmoil brought on by depression can derail careers, hobbies, and relationships. Depressed people often find it difficult to concentrate and make decisions. They turn away from previously enjoyable activities, including sex. In severe cases, depression can become life-threatening.
Suicide Warning Signs
People who are depressed are more likely to attempt suicide. Warning signs include talking about death or suicide, threatening to hurt people, or engaging in aggressive or risky behavior.
Depression: Who’s at Risk?
Anyone can become depressed, but many experts believe genetics play a role. Having a parent or sibling with depression increases your risk of developing the disorder. Women are twice as likely as men to become depressed.
Causes of Depression
Doctors aren’t sure what causes depression, but a prominent theory is altered brain structure and chemical function. Brain circuits that regulate mood may work less efficiently during depression. Drugs that treat depression are believed to improve communication between nerve cells, making them run more normally. Experts also think that while stress — such as losing a loved one — can trigger depression, one must first be biologically prone to develop the disorder. Other triggers could include certain medications, alcohol or substance abuse, hormonal changes, or even the season.
Depression in Children
In the United States, depression affects 2% of grade school kids and about one in 10 teenagers. It interferes with the ability to play, make friends, and complete schoolwork. Symptoms are similar to depression in adults, but some children may appear angry or engage in risky behavior, called “acting out.” Depression can be difficult to diagnose in children.
As of yet, there is no lab test for depression. To make an accurate diagnosis, doctors rely on a patient’s description of the symptoms. You’ll be asked about your medical history and medication use since these may contribute to symptoms of depression. Discussing moods, behaviors, and daily activities can help reveal the severity and type of depression. This is a critical step in determining the most effective treatment.
What Are the Treatments for Depression?
The stigma depression carries drives many people to hide it, try to tough it out, or misuse alcohol, drugs, or herbal remedies to get relief. To effectively treat depression, it is important to seek care from a licensed mental health professional and get a correct diagnosis and treatment plan. Many treatments for depression are available and typically include a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
Psychotherapy teaches patients how to overcome negative attitudes and feelings and helps them return to normal activities.
Drug therapy is intended to treat symptoms that are thought to result from abnormalities in brain circuits that regulate mood, thinking and behavior. It may take several weeks for an antidepressant to fully work to ease depression symptoms, so it’s important to stay on the medication.
In the midst of major depression, you may feel hopeless and helpless. But the fact is, this condition is highly treatable. More than 80% of people get better with medication, talk therapy, or a combination of the two. Even when these therapies fail to help, there are cutting-edge treatments that pick up the slack.
Thanks for reading my story around my diagnosis of mental illness. In future posts, I will be discussing treatments, how this illness has affected me since being diagnosed, and the affect on my career, and my relationships.