mental health

Mental illness isn’t just emotional – The Irish Times

Mental illness isn't just emotional - The Irish Times
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When I think back to my childhood, one word comes to mind: “Sensitive”. The term was constantly thrown at me like a dart for not understanding or being able to control my whirlwind of emotions. As I mentioned in previous articles, my mental health issues have been with me for as long as I can remember. In fact, my mental health was at its worst during childhood because I had no understanding of mental illness. Struggling mentally was also seen as something to be ashamed of when I was growing up.

The act of crying was not considered or looked at from a positive perspective of allowing the release of emotions. Instead, if I cried, expressed sadness, or let out a complaint about something I was struggling with internally, I was a problem and abnormal. Every time the sensitive word was thrown at me, I felt like someone was tearing my heart apart and I felt even more separated from everyone else. People were like, “What’s wrong with you now?”

I regularly hear that mental health is described as an invisible disease or disorder. It’s understandable that people feel this way since, unlike many physical health issues, it’s not so obvious. Most of the time, depressed people don’t wear it on their sleeve. Although anxiety may be more obvious, many also dust it off as someone who is shy, a little nervous, or has poor social skills.

I can’t blame people for thinking that way in some ways. After all, when I was a kid, I didn’t have the answers. With this in mind, however, it is clear that we still need more compassion. In my case, the fact that the mental illness is invisible or more hidden is usually a sign that I am doing quite well.

On the other hand, if I’m not doing well, I find that my mental health starts to show up and become a physical health issue as well as an emotional one. As I sit here writing this article, I reflect on last year and the beginning of this year. I still have physical evidence of how much I struggled with my mental health and how this intense emotion began to manifest physically on my body. I look at my fingernails where I’ve plucked all the surrounding skin and my chin which still bears the scars from the many stress points I’ve endured.

This year I experienced what is considered one of the most stressful experiences in a person’s life: house hunting. Although I’m glad I got a new home, it wasn’t easy to go months without knowing where I was going to end up. I stayed in two rental properties in areas I had never visited in my life. I had no friends in any of the fields and kind of put my life on hold, at least the social side, for the year.

During this time, I was also learning to drive, which is definitely one of my biggest fears. Most of the time in my life, I don’t step out of my comfort zone much. With driving, however, I definitely did. It was a place where I felt entirely vulnerable and where all my anxiety was vented.

I felt my inner child – with whom I have always associated so much shame – ready to pierce my chest. I’ve been learning to drive now for over a year and I still struggle with anxiety considerably when behind the wheel. It’s something about showing off, being in people’s way and feeling like I don’t belong.

For most people these are weird thoughts to associate with driving but like I said it’s a vulnerable place for me where I’m totally out of my comfort zone hence the reason for which those thoughts that plagued my mind during my childhood years arise.

These great challenges have brought ups and downs to my mental health in the last quarter of 2022 and the start of 2023. I have never felt more alone or isolated. I’m not exactly a social butterfly, but I’ve definitely noticed the difference this year in not having that 10-20% social interaction and activity each week.

The problem with the increased loneliness was that I found myself with my thoughts on a 24/7 loop. My mind became such a toxic place, but one that I couldn’t really escape from. I overworked myself to distract myself and that only made me more exhausted. I found myself not getting good quality sleep, tossing and turning and having nightmares. Alternatively, I would miss random nights of sleep. When I got out of bed, I avoided eating and nourishing my body because I didn’t think about supporting myself.

I was bursting in places. When one place disappeared, three others would appear. I nervously picked at the skin around my fingernails until I was left bleeding and sensitive. As for physical health, I lacked the motivation to get out and exercise. Self-care and self-compassion were definitely last on my list of priorities and my immunity was low.

I want to remind people that mental health issues aren’t totally invisible or just emotional. It is second nature for us to prioritize physical health issues, but we also need to be aware that mental health can become just that.

We need to support each other and facilitate open conversations about mental health. While a person may seem “normal” on the outside, they may be experiencing a high-level mental health issue on the inside. They could bottle everything up and therefore release that stress on themselves.

According to Mental Health Ireland, this country has one of the highest rates of mental illness in Europe. Thinking of mental illness as only invisible makes sufferers feel more isolated and alone. This continues to make them the “other” – the person who can’t handle their emotions, who is always upset and who you need to watch your words and actions.

Just because the signs aren’t always in physical form doesn’t mean our struggles are any less important. That being said, we should not only receive adequate support when our mental health issue begins to impact our physical health.

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