How a single book changed my perception of anxiety

Trigger warning: mention of anxiety & antidepressants

This guest feature has been written by my good friend Charlotte, in which she opens up about her lifelong experiences of anxiety and how the book Lost Connections by Johann Hari encouraged her to wean herself off antidepressants – something that she had been unable to do in the past.

Before we launch into it, I want to remind you that this is only one person’s viewpoint; the best treatment for your mental health is the one that works best for you!

“I needed to take antidepressants before any form of counselling would even be considered”

Let me preface this by saying that I’ve always been an anxious person. But more recently, I’ve decided that my anxious disposition is a part of me I’d never change. Yes, it means I overthink every small detail but in a lot of cases that is quite beneficial. Don’t get me wrong, some days I could do without a constant nagging about everything I do, yet my perfectionism has got me a solid degree, a great job and a set of friends I could not be without. Fundamentally, I now see my anxiety as that extra level of care that has led me to be the person I am today.

For me, it all boils down to control. Right from when I was little, if I lost control of the norm, it would quite often result in what I now know is my own personal form of a panic attack. Things went the most downhill when I moved to university – I had moved away from the routine I had been used to at school since I was 5 and was suddenly faced with endless hours of time to fill, to overthink and to try and motivate myself to do something, rather than being told what to do.

My first year at university resulted in me nearly dropping out at Christmas. At this point, all I wanted to do was become a teacher – something I knew wasn’t an option unless I stayed at university and earned a degree. Despite staying at university and even choosing to spend another 2 years there, I still regret the actions I took to get to where I am today. I know regret is a wasted emotion, but now, knowing what I know, I think things could have been improved in a different way.

Image by @charleytate from Instagram

In January 2017, I was prescribed a low dosage of Escitalopram, which is an antidepressant drug used to treat anxiety in young adults and falls under the umbrella of antidepressants called SSRI’s. At the most basic level, they increase one’s uptake of serotonin: the happiness hormone. I was told I needed to take antidepressants before any form of counselling would even be considered; the drugs would ensure I was “more receptive to talking therapies”. As soon as I was put on the drug, a placebo effect kicked in and I *thought* I felt instantly better.

Yet I think it’s important to reflect on my time on this drug. Did it stop me worrying about my relationship at the time? No. Did it stop me questioning my successful integration into university? Not once. And did it stop me worrying about every little thing I couldn’t control? Certainly not. I had a panic attack one-night walking home from a night out because someone was sick in front of me. In my mind, this drug should have helped me to rationalise this, but instead I had exactly the same reaction I would have had before, if not worse.

Fast forward to 2019 and my rather radical GP decided it was time to stop relying on the drugs. With the help of a free service in my university city, I was to try and come off the drug over the course of 2 weeks. Looking back, it was completely the wrong time.  My long-term relationship had just ended, and I didn’t believe I could rationalise this without the drug. So, I quickly went back to the little pill I trusted. But now I know, what I needed to do was to look at my life objectively and work out what wasn’t making me happy.

“My depression and anxiety are a message, and I must listen to it.”

2020 came around, and during a lockdown FaceTime a great friend of mine recommended I read a book called ‘Lost Connections’. In her words, it looked at how we should stop trying to medicate against depression and anxiety. All the stars aligned as I forgot to cancel my audible subscription. So, with one of my monthly credits, I bought the book. At this point I was having a few body confidence issues so decided to take up swimming and running. Coupled with a few extra endorphins and time to listen to the book on the way to the pool or on my runs, this was my lightbulb moment.

My first takeaway refers to the author’s experience with severe food poisoning in Vietnam. He was taken to hospital and was told he was an hour away from death. His constant pain and sickness had been the motivator to send him to hospital and ended up saving his life. Once in the hospital, he asked the nurses whether they could give him something for the nausea but was quickly told “You need your nausea. You need your pain. It is a message, and we must listen to that message”.

Now, I am a big believer in the idea that physical illness is just the same as mental illness and should be treated no differently. In this instance, the authors vomiting was telling him something was fundamentally wrong. So why am I not listening to my body? If I wake up every day with a pit in my stomach, I need to listen to this message. In the words of the nurses, my depression and anxiety are a message, and I must listen to it.

Image by @charleytate from Instagram

This is why the answer for me isn’t medication, with this personal decision being backed up by an experiment done at Harvard. The scientists created a control group, giving one group a sugar pill and the other a real antidepressant. Of those who were given the antidepressant, only 15% stated they actually felt any improvement in their mental state. Antidepressants do work for some people and yes, we can use medicine to increase the serotonin levels in our bodies, but it isn’t able to address the external factors affecting our mental state.

Throughout the various chapters of the book, the author talks about different reasons as to why the way we live our lives creates a highly stressful and anxiety-inducing environment. From meaningless work to consumerism (guilty), we are constantly bombarded by stressors in the modern world, but we alone are in charge of changing this – it cannot physically be changed by simply increasing levels of serotonin.

Another major takeaway from the book has been the realisation that there is no such thing as a ‘chemical imbalance’ in the brain. Thinking about it rationally, when is a brain ever chemically balanced? Everyday there are so many different hormones flying around your body, so how could we ever work out what a chemically balanced brain looks like? Certainly, the addition of Serotonin won’t magically balance it out.

My mentality has completely shifted. A single pill cannot fix the monotony I feel at work sometimes, or the constant bombardment of adverts telling me I will feel fulfilled with the ingestion of some laxative tea. What I can do, is change – not myself, but my circumstances.

“My medication has now become change”

At present, I’m typing this whilst back at my family home in a rural part of the UK. I’m not afraid to admit that I reached a virtual breaking point during lockdown. I thought it was my job at first, so I talked to my boss and put measures in place to protect myself from the everyday nonsense I take from the general public. Things also started to pick up as I took on a more varied role, but unfortunately I was left feeling the same.

Instead of asking for my usual prescription, I looked elsewhere. I tried to give myself more control over my body by running or swimming every morning. This provided a slight improvement, just enough to motivate me to keep looking for my own solution. Most recently, I decided that living in a city without the countryside I was used to, and of course without my dog, was too much for me; so I’ve moved back home for a month. If that is not my solution, then I will look elsewhere. Patience is a virtue here.

Image by @charleytate from Instagram

Now we come back to my need to be in control, which my antidepressants didn’t give me. My medication has now become change – I feel empowered to change my external forces and I can be in control of this. I decide when and how to make changes, and there are no side effects if I decide that something hasn’t quite worked for me.

I’m by no means there. I still haven’t found my key change, but that’s okay; I am back in control of myself and I am so much more in touch with myself than ever before. A tiny pill is not the way forward for me anymore, and I think this realisation is the start of one of the most positive changes in my life.

Thank you Charlotte, for sharing your story! You can connect with Charlotte on Instagram (@charleytate).

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