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Not so very long ago, I’d have been labelled a hypochondriac; mid-last century I’d have been labelled a hysterical woman and perhaps reside in a sanatorium. I’m far more comfortable with the term “health anxiety.”

For most of us, the onset of a headache might prompt us to seek relief with paracetamol without further thought. A sudden, short-lived pain in the chest might lead most of us to believe we are simply experiencing indigestion or need to adjust our posture. For me, these sensations spark a “What if?” What if it’s not a cold at all but the sudden onset of meningitis? What if what I’m feeling is my body is sending me a signal of imminent danger and probable sudden death? For the last 18 years my health anxiety has trained my brain to interpret changes in my body’s normal function, no matter how small, as a sure sign of impending death. In the same way a person with a fear of flying is hyper-alert to the slightest vibration of a plane or a change in the sound of the engine, I am deeply sensitized to any transient or lasting physiological sensation my body may experience and am sure they are harbingers of certain death.

My health anxiety holds me hostage, demanding I put measures in place to minimize the perceived danger of being away from medical help. I am the local (and perhaps only) leading expert in which medical clinics are closest, the hospitals that lie not too far off the freeway exits, and where ambulance stations are located; my expertise covers an impressive 100-kilometer radius. My pervasive fear of sudden death and the what-ifs fear creates dictate that I must undertake the appropriate preparation for any drive, including making detailed notes of the location of potential sources of “help” and checking that the important medical contacts in my phone are up to date (including a doctor friend and my paramedic uncle). While on the road, I take regular breaks outside hospitals or medical clinics before plunging myself into the fearful unknown again, a leapfrog of terror from “safe” spot to “safe” spot.

My overwhelming need to be close to medical help has many and varied implications for the way I live my life, none of them positive. When looking at potential new homes, the distance between the house and the local hospital must be calculated. If it exceeds 6 kilometers, it must be re-evaluated. Weekends and public holidays, so eagerly anticipated by most, for me pose a serious threat – most medical clinics are shut. There are some nights, when my fear is at its worst, that I park outside the local ambulance station, lurking in my car with the seat down and with the glow of my phone turned low so as to avoid detection. In, what with the passing of time I can now see as a funny turn of events, the time I did call the ambulance while parked outside the station it was busy with another call out and had to travel further than it would have had I remained in my own home.

My life’s motto used to be “seize the day.” Over time this has been replaced with “What if?” Attempts to rationalize my fears are met with the all too familiar refrains: “Yes, you’ve felt this way before and there’s been nothing wrong, but what if this time (insert medical catastrophe here)?” At times the what-ifs are more specific: “Sure, odds are nothing will happen to you if you drive to the beach, but what if it does and you die before the ambulance gets there?”

The what-ifs keep me from so many of the activities I used to take for granted. Last-minute shopping trips in the city, camping, playing competitive basketball, and trips away with my partner are now things of the past. I’ve become a flaky friend, cancelling plans at the last minute with silly and oft repeated excuses that have resulted in fewer invitations being extended. The what-ifs have meant I’ve avoided multiple Christmases and family celebrations, and by extension, so has my partner, who has also had to learn how to offer a range of excuses for my absence should he attend without me.

I’ve now been expecting to die for longer than I’ve been alive. Perhaps the scariest what-if for me is, “What if I waste my life waiting for a what-if?”

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Thinkstock photo by meganeura


We talk a lot here about what it feels like to be consumed by depression — how the darkness isn’t just everyday, moderate sadness but a consuming black hole that can take over your life for weeks, months and even sometimes years.

Whether you go through periods of deep depression or feel mildly depressed all the time, the goal — the journey — is to wiggle out of depression’s grip and start to feel like yourself again, even if only for a bit.

To get a sense of how people with depression knew they were starting to feel better, we asked our mental health community to share little ways they knew they were recovering from depression.

Here’s what they shared with us:

1. “When I can wake up and get ready for the day. I shower, cook, clean up the house and just face the day like a ‘normal’ person…” — Amanda T.

2. “When I start cooking my own food again instead of wasting money on fast food. When I start showering and brushing my teeth on a more normal basis. When I start to laugh with meaning again. When my hobbies become enjoyable again. When I can get myself to work on time. When I sing. When I cuddle my significant other to enjoy his presence, not just to try and feel better. When I start enjoying the little things again, like a full moon or beautiful sunset.” — Stephanie F.

3. “Laughing, really laughing and realizing in that moment you are actually happy, and you forget everything else for those few seconds and relish in the moment because it’s been so long.” — Rebecca M.

4. “When I can start reading again. My concentration and focus improves.” — Sharyn H.

5. “It’s little things for me, and it usually happens without me noticing. Caring about what I put on in the morning, wanting to cook dinner, remembering and wanting to watch my favorite TV shows, actually laughing instead of saying ‘that’s funny.’ I’ll catch myself making the bed or washing my face in the morning and realize I am actually feeling better.” — Nichole H.

6. “When I no longer go to bed praying I don’t wake up and instead go to bed smiling because I feel worthy of life and happiness.” — Megan E.

7. “When my eyes get the life back into them. (When I smile with my eyes.) Becoming productive again. Spending less time in my room.” — Amanda A.

8. “When I start doing the things I love, no matter how skilled or unskilled I am: singing passionately; dancing as though my life depended on it; baking while licking the batter off the mixing spoons; and even laughing, and going outside, taking in just how beautiful the world can be outside of my windows.” — Ashley H.

9. “When I start noticing the beauty in the sunrise, how the clouds have different colors, actually seeing the leaves on the trees instead of them just being there. When I get motivation and energy to do stuff like housework, socializing, taking a walk. When I manage to enjoy a cup of coffee, not just drinking it to kickstart my level of energy.” — Rita O.

10. “Either of these, which will seem like the easiest things in the world for some people. 1. When I find I still can and do find things funny. 2. Getting up without feeling I’m about to explode from the pressure in my head or the need to immediately get back under the safety of the duvet.” — Louise F.

11. “I become more present during the day. Instead of feeling like I am just going through the motions, I begin to feel like life isn’t a hassle. To sum it up I look forward to my days and getting out of bed.” — Anjelica M.

12. “When I’m able to look past the present. When I am able to make future plans and further be excited about them. When I can see myself accomplishing more.” — Caroline S.

13. “When I feel like I can support those around me, like my husband and my mom. Like I can carry them on my shoulders rather than being crushed by the weight.” — Emily M.

14. “The days I accomplish something — anything — that’s when I feel like, ‘I can do this.’ After a year-long battle and months of therapy, I surprised myself when I not only played music but sang along! I imagine the true sign of getting better is when I can read, clean house daily, shower more than once or twice per week, and make a real meal more than once per week. It’s amazing how much of your life depression affects that others simply see as ‘normal.'” — Jazmyne F.

15. “Wanting to take care of myself. Simple things like taking a shower, brushing my hair, even putting make up on. Not because I have to but because I want to.” — Andrea B.

16.When I actually try and make plans with the few friends I have left. Or I finally do household things I’ve been putting off for over a month because I don’t have the energy to get out of bed.” — Alexis M.

17. “I feel lighter. Like something has been lifted off my shoulders. I feel a warm burst of sunshine in my chest. I also feel relief.” — Sarah V.

18.I start singing again, just humming while walking or doing things. I stop singing completely when depressed. First sign of light at the end of that dark tunnel is music back in my head and heart.” — Gaia F.

19.When my sense of taste and smell improves and I can have lights on in the evening. (I normally live in the dark.)” — Julian N.

20. “When you can eat a meal willingly without your stomach feeling like there is a weight inside of it.” — Ashley B.

21.Leaving the house to do things because I want to and not because I’m obligated.” — Alyse W.

22. “Singing in the car.” — Lucy D.

23. “When I wake up and don’t feel like I want to cry anymore.” — Adam B.

24. “When I no longer get angry at everything and everyone.” — Ceri C.

25. “I don’t have to force myself to smile.” — Hailie H.

26. “Colors get a little more vivid, and the world looks a little less hopeless.” — Michaela R.

26 Little Signs You're Recovering From Depression

Every day I wake up and try to keep my mornings as routine as possible. Brush my teeth, have my coffee and go to work. Come home, have dinner, watch mindless television until it is time to (hopefully) go to bed. Anxiety keeps me up, nervous about the fact I may not get enough sleep to make it through my following day. This is a normal day.

My anxiety elephant sits on my chest and follows me throughout my day. Sometimes he is heavier than normal, but he is always there. I try to ignore him or talk him into lessening his weight on me, but it doesn’t seem to be a choice of mine. If it’s really bad I turn to my prescription medication.

Nights are the scariest. As soon as the sun sets I feel that elephant pushing and squeezing in between by ribs on my heart and throughout my chest. Like a wild and restless beast. This is when I begin to feel overwhelming sadness. I’m irritated, and I’m frustrated with myself and with the only people around me, my parents — the ones who have been my biggest supporters. I snap and I’m mean, or I cry and I scream out of frustration, confusion and such heavy sadness.

The elephant wins another night.

Once I have stopped crying and am able to regulate my breath, the elephant sits softer or maybe I am too tired to bear his full weight or to even notice. I reflect on the attack of emotion I had: Was it anxiety? Was it panic? Was it just sadness? Do people just cry and scream on a regular basis? I feel strange, out of body. Who was that? And what was that? I’m embarrassed people were witness to that, even if it was just family. I say things I don’t mean and am always asking to go home… although I’m already home.

My elephant sits with me tonight again.

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Thinkstock photo by Brian A Jackson

I have dedicated so much time and energy to focusing on the physical symptoms of my chronic illnesses that I was completely caught off guard when I started experiencing pretty severe anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms.

My anxiety snuck up on me, but it didn’t slowly creep up behind me. Instead, it seemed to smash me in the back of the head so I couldn’t miss it. It’s not the kind of nervousness you get before you take a final exam or speak in front of people. It’s the kind of anxiety that my typical coping mechanisms of writing, adult coloring books and guided meditation couldn’t handle. This couldn’t be ignored. This is agonizing anxiety. It’s an intense and constant state of worry, where you can’t turn your brain off from the rapid fire irrational thoughts. It’s the kind of anxiety where your thoughts consume you to the point where you are physically debilitated. I will play out every scenario to every situation in my head, even meaningless tasks. Sometimes I will fall so far down the rabbit hole of nightmare I forget what I was thinking about didn’t even happen or isn’t real.

At first, I wasn’t going to seek help. I didn’t want someone to perceive my mental illness symptoms minimized the physical symptoms that stem from my very real chronic illnesses. I didn’t want to deal with the stigma associated with having mental health problems or seeing a therapist. I didn’t want to be called “crazy.” However, it got to the point where I was desperate for help. I was in a battle with my own mind and was my own worst enemy. Almost every single waking and sleeping moment was spent in a constant state of worry.  

It was almost a relief when the therapist confirmed I struggle with anxiety and PTSD. It was almost a relief when I was prescribed medication to relieve my symptoms and began therapy sessions.    

Therapy isn’t easy and is truly a lot of work, but it is worth it. I think of my therapy sessions like Thanksgiving leftovers. I have so many things running through my mind at any given time. Therapy or counseling sessions help me put each of those thoughts into separate boxes, much like the food containers that house slices of turkey, dressing and cranberry sauce the day following the holiday. I don’t have to deal with everything at once and things can be put away in the refrigerator to handle at a later date. Each therapy session, I can take a new container out of the fridge and process those thoughts one at a time. It makes all of the leftovers seem less overwhelming.

As a public health professional, I think mental health is just as important as physical health. It has such an impact on almost every aspect of your well-being. Be nice to your body and mind. Take care of yourself.  

Although I was at the point where I probably wouldn’t be alive without my psychiatrist’s help, you don’t need to be at that low of a point to attend therapy. You don’t need a catastrophic event in your life to benefit from counseling sessions. I honestly recommend it to everyone, just to deal with the regular stuff life throws at you.

Most people want to live to their fullest potential and therapy can help you achieve that.  It’s beneficial to talk to someone who gets paid to have a unbiased opinion, who won’t judge you and doesn’t give you unsolicited advice like your friends and family members may do.

Your body is like a car. You have to bring it into the shop for maintenance and fine tuning to make sure it continues to run smoothly. This is like therapy. Although I am out of the depths of my anxious thoughts, it doesn’t mean I don’t need to continue to maintain in order to sustain.

I have heard every excuse for people not wanting to go to therapy. One of the major ones is cost, but there are many free or low cost options, as well as options for students on college campuses. It just takes some research. Those interested can visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness for more resources.

I have no shame in telling people I have sought mental health help, although it took me a while to get to this point. There is no shame in seeking help when you need it. You go to the doctor when you’re sick, right? What makes this any different?  

Honestly, I think seeking mental health help or attending therapy sessions is one of the bravest things a person can do. Opening yourself up to a stranger can be terrifying and can leave you vulnerable with a lot of raw emotions left on the table. However, I believe it is the ultimate form of self-care and is truly worth it. I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t take that step.   

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via vadimguzhva.

My sister and I had been planning a trip for a few months. It would be a road trip during her school’s spring break that would take us on a loop of four states, two of which included friends we were excited to visit. We had the details settled and were excited to see the days on the calendar start to fly by, inching us closer and closer to our departure date.

A week and a half before we left, we got an offer to join a few friends on a side trip for a few days before our planned road trip. It would more or less lead into where we were already headed and could be a fun addition. It could be an added adventure. Sure, it would cost a little extra money, but what else had we been saving for besides adventures like these? It would be good, it would be fun, it would be spontaneous and easy.

Except it wasn’t.

Immediately upon hearing about this side trip offer, my sister’s mind was turning. This would be great! It would be so fun! She was ready to pack up, change the plan and leave the next day. But I clammed up. My eyes shied away from her and my mind began to race. The conversation we had been having shut down. I was a brick wall.

Having lived with me her whole life, my sister knows me. She can tell when I’m gone. So immediately after expressing excitement and anticipation for the trip, she began to back track. She saw the anxiety all over my face and did her best to counteract it.

“It would be fun,” she said, “but we don’t have to.”

Shortly after, she excused herself upstairs, saying she was tired and ready to get to bed. She knew I just needed to be alone. To think. To process. But what she didn’t know — what nobody can really know unless they’ve been there — is where my mind went after she left.

We can’t go. It said.

We had a plan and this wasn’t part of it. The change is too much. It’s too overwhelming. I can’t handle this. I have to say no. But, why can’t I just say yes? Why can’t I be more spontaneous like everybody else? Me saying “no” ruins this for my sister. I’m preventing her from doing something she really wants to do. Why can’t I handle things better? What is overwhelming about this? It’s just a few days, get over yourself. I’m 26, I’m supposed to take trips like this. I’m supposed to live in the moment. I’m supposed to be more fun. Why aren’t I better than this? Maybe I just shouldn’t go at all. They would probably have more fun without me, especially if something as small as this is “overwhelming.” I’m pathetic. This is ridiculous. Breathe!

I leaned into my hands, looking at myself in the mirror. My mind was a mess, but the voice of reason was fighting its way to the front.

Just breathe. It said.

We’ve been through this before. Breathe. You don’t have to decide right now. You don’t have to change everything right now. Take it in steps. Break it down into pieces. Breathe. You are not pathetic. You are not weak. You are not ridiculous. Breathe. You shouldn’t be someone else. You shouldn’t act a different way. You shouldn’t think different things. Breathe. You are perfect the way you are. You are OK. You are going to be OK. Just breathe.

My sister had gone to bed by this point, leaving the house dark and quiet. I breathed in and I breathed out. Maybe I wanted to go on this trip, maybe I didn’t. But I didn’t have to decide in that exact moment, it could wait until morning. I breathed in and breathed out. And whatever I decided, even if it ended up being me saying “no,” it would be OK. There would be other trips. There would be other days. So just breathe, I told myself. Right now, all you have to do is breathe.

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Thinkstock photo via welcomia. 

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