In SANE's COVID mental health series, Anita talks about living with anxiety. She shares her thoughts on the challenges facing healthcare workers during the pandemic and importance of self care.
Anxiety has been my friend in life, and at times, it has been my foe.
Anxiety is a normal and often healthy emotion. It allows us to focus and pay attention to detail, it motivates us to complete tasks well and to take action when we’re challenged. However, disproportionate levels of anxiety can lead to excessive nervousness, fear, apprehension and worry. Left unchecked, these symptoms can lead to panic attacks, characterised by feelings of impending doom, and physical symptoms which include heart palpitations, sweating, poor concentration, sleep disturbance, irritability and muscle tension.
I have lived experience of the full breadth of anxiety.
Four years ago, my generalised anxiety combined with the overwhelming stress and grief of losing my beautiful brother Ven, who had bipolar disorder, tipped me into major depression. It was a dark, scary and lonely place, that I almost didn’t make it back from.
‘Recovery’, took about 2 years, though in many ways, I know it will be a lifelong process of learning to live what happened to me. Especially since the downward spiral into depression occurred without me having any insight, until quite late in the piece, when I was very unwell.
The raw guts of that experience shone a bright spotlight on so many things about myself.
I can now see that the place where my emotional scars exist is also the source of my strength and power, as a human, mother and a doctor. It has provided me with insight into what it feels like, to walk the hard yards of my patients living with any degree of complex mental health issues.
I am a healthcare worker, at high risk of contracting COVID-19. I continue to work full time, exposed to many people during my day, when most people are staying home. Staying home to avoid contact with the outside world, to reduce their risk of acquiring the illness and transmitting it to others. My anxiety levels have been at an all-time high since restrictions began in Victoria on Monday March 16 in response to the pandemic.
My greatest challenge over the last few years has been to become skilled in understanding the ins and outs of anxiety. Including how to identify what my triggers are, to understand whether it is mild, moderate or becoming severe and overwhelming. Fortunately, I’ve learned to put in rigorous self-care routines, to prevent it from overwhelming me.
This exercise is an ongoing work in progress. Strangely, the most difficult part has been to approach myself with kindness, compassion and to learn to forgive myself when I don’t ‘get it right’.
Working as a doctor, I’ve always set high standards for myself. This has resulted in me sometimes being my own worst critic when mistakes and failure arrive, as they inevitably do.
I have come to understand that mistakes and failure are learning opportunities. Opportunities to discover how to look at things from a different perspective, without judgement and self-criticism.
Applying this learning to my anxiety and depression has resulted in me becoming more accepting of it in my life, and has enabled me to manage it more effectively. I have learned that allocating time for self-care is as important as eating and drinking, in order for me to remain functional and well.
Self-care looks different for all of us.
For me, it is practicing yoga, adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise. Sometimes it is having a bath, or snuggling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book. I’ve lost some work due to COVID-19, which has resulted in me not travelling to regional Victoria once a month, and not working on Saturdays.
Whilst I miss the work, I now have more time at home. My teenage boys and I enjoy a sunset walk by the beach with our puppy each evening, and we spend more time together on our couch in front of the fire, watching Netflix and eating ice-cream. These simple pleasures have brought us the joy of connection.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for us healthcare workers. With increased risk of contracting the virus, stress levels are high. Many of us are conflicted about going to work. On one hand, I feel compelled to do the best job I can at work, yet I find myself simultaneously wishing I was at home playing Scrabble with my children and assisting with home schooling.
Many healthcare workers have prepared for the worst on the personal front, ensuring that our wills and medical power of attorney documents are up to date, so that our wishes around dying are clear and known. Putting one’s ‘affairs’ in order is a confronting reality check.
These unprecedented issues in the workplace have demanded that I institute the full range of self-care activities when I’m at home. Mindfulness and gratitude for the blessings in my life keep me centred and better able to deal with the uncertainty of the world around me.
In time, our world will return to a new normal. This time in lockdown has been difficult for many. It has also provided opportunity for reflection, about many things. I’m grateful to have my loved ones close by, a roof over my head, and the ability to keep choosing to manage my anxiety in healthy ways, so it remains my friend, and not my foe.
Guest blog by Anita, SANE Peer Ambassador
If you (or someone you know) needs support - the SANE Help Centre is open from Monday - Friday, 10am - 10pm AEST. Our team of counsellors are available by phone, web chat and email, so you can comfortably communicate in the way that feels best for you.
We can provide you with counselling, support, information and referrals, and we specialise in assisting adults who identify as having a complex mental health issue, complex trauma or high levels of psychological distress.
We also provide support to the family or friends that care about these people.
Click to visit the SANE Help Centre now.
If you'd like to chat with other people who understand what you're going through, the SANE Forums are online 24/7. There's one Forum for Lived Experience, and another for family, friends or carers. The Forums are anonymous, and moderated by health professionals, to keep the conversation safe and supportive.