For Mental Health Awareness Week, Emily blogs about how stressful life situations served as a trigger for her anxiety, and how the support of friends helped her to overcome her 'stress sandwich'
Worry. It’s natural and sometimes helpful. But I’ve always been someone who has worried beyond what’s useful. I can remember a handful of panic attacks when I was little, although they usually came on during a pretty standard stressful event for a girl with a nice childhood in Cornwall: like exams, or getting temporarily locked in a closet by my brother. So I never thought of it as something that was a big problem. But if I remember one thing from GCSE chemistry, it’s that dormant things can explode with the right catalyst, and it turns out that catalyst is a sandwich.
Not a normal sandwich, but a stress sandwich. We’re talking some low-level social anxiety, a bit like your bread – always around, and nothing remarkable by itself. It’s the ingredients in between the bread that make a sandwich something to be reckoned with. They can be a thousand different flavours and combinations depending on where you’re at in life. For one particularly stressful sandwich, my ingredients were housing, relationships, and work.
After spending five years living in the North of England for university and work, in one summer a lot of things happened all at once. I left my job, had a relationship end, moved house and city and landed in London, on a graduate scheme, in a new flat with new humans I didn’t know. And it wasn’t very long before I started feeling a little weird about it all.
In the first couple of months, a combination of lots of shiny new things, adrenaline, and some top-notch support from my friends kept me afloat. But the shiny new things pretty quickly started seeming less shiny and more threatening. Like my flat, which suddenly seemed much more mouldy, cramped and loud than it had at first, and my free time, which suddenly seemed much lonelier than I’d anticipated.
I’d imagined a snazzy new lifestyle in London, in a snazzy flat, my time jam-packed with lots of snazzy friends and a snazzy job. Instead, it felt like I was spending most of my time either negotiating with noisy housemates for a bit of sleep, trying to make friends with people to distract myself from feeling alone, or failing to get to grips with a huge (really huge!) city that was starting to feel pretty isolating. (Really - who knew London was this huge!?)
The stress built up layer, by layer, by layer until one day I realised that right under my nose, my little sandwich had become a full-on, foot-long Subway. These stressful life events, which in isolation might seem less significant, combined to have a real impact on my mental health. I started waking up in the morning in a panic, feeling nauseous, with my heart racing. That feeling would stick around for as long as I was awake. 99% of the time, I felt like something really bad was about to happen.
My mind was in overdrive to the point that I was finding it pretty hard to communicate. I’d be sitting in work meetings, with people around me speaking, and feeling like I needed to speak. But I’d second-guess myself whenever there was something I wanted to say, so I stayed quiet and created this vicious cycle. After a while I didn’t feel like I could go to work, so I stayed at home. I found myself starting to think, if I don’t like myself, there’s definitely no one else who likes me, so is there much point in going through all this exhausting worry day after day if no one’s really getting anything out of it?
Here’s where I take this sandwich metaphor to the next level. All stress sandwiches are different, but if they’re really big, it’s often much easier to share them to get them eaten. I feel very lucky that I didn’t have to reach far to find support: my friends, family and colleagues clocked that something was up without me having to say much at all, and gave me the push I needed to get some help.
I talked to my GP, I got referred for some therapy, and I got even more lucky when my waiting time was unusually short (shout out to Waltham Forest). I learnt to talk to people when I was feeling bad. I started understanding how to slow the hurricane of thoughts when the stress was on, and how to build up my defences a bit while things were better.
I saw that with the right help, you can start to see the bigger picture and all its layers. Anxiety isn’t a one trick pony, and it’ll keep finding new angles from which to come back and get at you. I’ve learnt that when I’m faced with stressful life situations I can be particularly susceptible, but I also now know that there’s always someone around who will be willing to help you tackle it. Really, you’re never totally alone with that big old sandwich.