Posted in Advocacy, Managing Mental Health, Mental Health, Personal Growth

Journey Through Panic Attacks

The first time I experienced a panic attack I was 11 years old. I had come home early from school that day with a headache and some other physical symptoms I now know were anxiety, and I had gone upstairs to have a nap before dinner. My mum came to wake me up when it was time to eat, but I must have been in the wrong phase of my sleep cycle because I awoke disoriented, thinking it was the morning. We’ve all been there when we wake up not quite sure what’s going on. So I thought it was the morning, and when my mum told me it was time to eat I responded asking about breakfast. There was some confused back and forth with my mum trying to convince me it was in fact dinner time, and still the day before, and I suddenly spiralled into my first panic attack. I don’t remember a whole lot of the details while it was happening, but I do remember how terrifying it was. I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe; I simply could not get the air into my lungs. I felt faint, and sick, I thought my legs couldn’t hold me up. I don’t know if I had the thought that can come alongside panic attacks where you think you’re going to die, but I knew something was very, very wrong; I definitely thought I was going to faint. Somehow I ended up at the bottom of the stairs, gasping for air and sipping water out of a bottle cap (I think that was the only way I could manage to do it?) as it subsided, and I can still recall the exhaustion after that first one and how foreign it felt. My mum suggested it had been a panic attack, and at that point I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea they would become such a huge part of my life. 

I have had many panic attacks since this day. I’ve also had some anxiety attacks, which are more prolonged and less intense, and I experience sensory overload too as an autistic young person. Sometimes sensory overload meltdowns and panic attacks can be hard for me to distinguish, and sometimes they overlap or morph into the other, but it’s helpful sometimes to figure out which is which as it can aid in the recovery process both long and short term – for example in a panic attack changing my jumper probably isn’t going to help and may not even be a possibility, but with sensory overload changing the material of my clothing or my environment may help it to subside or avoid it altogether when I feel it building. This year I have felt the strongest mentally overall that I have in a very long time, but I still have panic attacks. Some months I have none; others I have many. For example in May I had seven.

 It’s important to note that while I find the label panic attacks useful, it is a pathologised word. That means there is a certain medical connotation attached to it. However panic attacks are a total overload of our nervous systems; an explosion of tension and anxiety. We cannot talk about expressions of mental distress without recognising that they are often responses to a traumatic and stressful world, whether immediate results of a specific trigger or a build up over time. For example in May I was dealing with exam stress, difficult atmospheres at home, grief for my safe place, and more time on my hands. These all contributed to my spike in panic attacks I have no doubt. Other times I may make it to the other side of a stressful event and then experience panic attacks, almost like a hangover of emotions. It’s not an individual failure, but an understandable reaction to a difficult world. You are not broken for experiencing anxiety. You are not shameful for having panic attacks. 

I am a firm believer that to appreciate life fully we need to be able to laugh, even at the bad stuff. There are certain events surrounding some of my panic attacks that I find kind of hilarious looking back on and that helps me to deal with any embarrassment or regret surrounding them I may have. For example, I have terrible stage fright (despite being an actress, ironic I know). Before the final dress rehearsal for Bugsy Malone – my first show in a proper theatre – I had a panic attack in the wings. I was crouched behind a prop box in heels I could barely walk in and my tailored sparkly dress writhing my legs in pain and sobbing without air. It was a pretty desperate moment, though the juxtaposition itself is amusing looking back. The next thing I remember is a stagehand saying into their walkie talkie ‘can someone please come and remove the fire hazard from the wings?’. I was the fire hazard because I couldn’t move myself out of the way, and I was carried back to my dressing room by my director. Talk about a diva moment. Looking back I cannot help but laugh at the absurdity of the experience. 

That particular panic attack also showed me how loving people can be. I hope that someday everyone experiencing mental health issues gets to experience the pure love and support that I did that day. I had to go on stage just after recovering to do a mic check. I was so exhausted – my bones were heavy; the exhaustion of a panic attack travels to your core and can make you feel like your body isn’t your own – so all I could do was stand centre stage. The rest of the cast sat in the audience as I weakly sang ‘My Name is Tallulah’. Half way through the song I raised my eyes and saw that they were all swaying along, waving their hands in the air; at the end of the song they stood up and cheered and called out encouragement. It was beautiful. No one judged, no one whispered or pointed. They rallied and supported me. That’s what we all deserve. 

Another amusing panic memory was when I fell on my face in the mud on a rainy day trying to escape prying eyes and instead drawing them all to me; again, it wasn’t as embarrassing or well remembered as I feared it would be. Or when my teacher gave me their scarf to wrap around me and help me feel safer and I immediately snotted into it – I got to keep that for a while rather than immediately returning it. Or the time I went to get help while having a panic attack but there was already a girl in the office having a panic attack and it became like a queue for a very strange and unwanted product.

 I’ve been alone on bathroom floors, writhed my legs, hit my chest, backed myself into literal corners to try and feel a bit safer, thought I was going to die, taken off most of my clothes because I thought my skin was going to burn, and just general cried and made weird sounds while trying to breathe. Point of all of this is – I survived. And each one has become a little easier to recover from. The worst a panic attack will do is make you pass out; it cannot kill you. Remember that – it cannot kill you. If you are having one, it is horrible and tiring and painful, but you are safe. And if you are with someone experiencing one it’s ok to remind them of that; if you can recognise what it is and call it what it is. Tell them it’s a panic attack and that they are safe. Often it helps not to try and suppress it either but rather to ride it out, let it be. Because they are not the end of the world, but they are super scary and it’s ok to recognise that too. 

I hope that maybe reading this has helped someone feel a little less alone in their experience. If you’d like a more in depth guide on how I deal with my panic attacks let me know in the comments below! Sending love and support to you all today! Xx

Posted in Managing Mental Health, Mental Health, positivity

Identity in Mental Illness

As an autistic person with mental illnesses sometimes it can be hard to figure out who I am.

If you have diagnoses you might feel like you have to split up parts of yourself and your actions into boxes, like this part of you is autism and that part of you is anxiety, for example.

Or you might feel like your whole identity is your diagnoses.

Even without a diagnosis you might feel like parts of you are defined by the way you feel, split up and separate.

This can make us feel like we have to be ashamed of these parts of ourselves or like we are not really whole. It can be confusing to know who we are and find our identity in the midst of it all.

Then you add in other identity factors like sexuality, gender, and race which in many cases can complicate our mental health and understanding of ourselves even further – especially because it impacts how others see us, and this is even more prevalent for minority identities.

Rather than trying to see ourselves as a selection of different parts and separate ourselves into these parts, maybe we can start to think of it more like colours blended together and filters on the image of who we are.

Like my anxiety is red and it bleeds into my passion for theatre which is blue. They mix to create a purple in the middle, and that’s where stage fright lives. But all the colours are a part of me, blending together to make me who I am.

And my autism is a filter with a yellow tinge and that does affect how I view and interact with the whole world, but it isn’t my whole identity, nor is it separate to every other part of me. They all work together in different ways to make me who I am.

At the end of the day, you don’t have to have everything figured out about your life and who you are. No one does. It’s a journey and an ongoing process which can be really scary to think about. But it’s actually pretty amazing, all these colours that make up the rainbow of you, changing and growing each day. Remember – no one but you gets to define who you are; your identity is personal and you don’t owe it to anyone else, nor do you need to define who you are! 

But you are wonderfully unique, allowed to take up space, and your rainbow is so much more than you could ever imagine.

Posted in Happy Notes, Managing Mental Health, Mental Health, Personal Growth

An Anxious Experience

Today’s post is a guest post written by Eya, a follower of Our Happy Notes on Instagram (their username: @the_dangerous_me). It was edited by Millie Bevan, founder of Our Happy Notes. If you would like to collaborate please email ourhappynotes@gmail.com or fill out the contact form on the website.

Anxiety can be a very physical experience where you can’t understand what’s happening to your body.  It’s hard to rationalise; it feels like your hormones have gone into overdrive. And really they have – being afraid or nervous is your body and brain’s way of telling you that there is danger nearby, so you may think at first that the feeling will pass, but anxiety means your brain sees danger everywhere. It doesn’t pass so easily. 

Anxiety is a silent killer. It kills your soul, it cuts you to pieces. Consider yourself as a game to anxiety because it makes you feel like a doll which it plays with. You can’t sleep at night and you constantly question what the people around you might be thinking, getting stuck in a loop with these thoughts going round and round in your head, replaying everything you’ve said and done. I have experienced anxiety since I was 13 years old when I started to lose sleep andi cried at night and i suffered. I felt so alone and it was a dark time in my life. I lost friends, became isolated, and soon started to experience depression as well. But there is  hope. I went to a therapist and day by day I felt better. Anxiety is not a topic to be taken lightly. It can make life so difficult. But you are not alone and you can look after your mental health. Eventually, with patience, it gets better.

There’s a lot of love out there and people that care. You can learn to love yourself again; know that there’s nothing that could stop you from your dreams and achievements. Nowadays I feel so much better, so I want to pass that hope onto you so you can enjoy everyday for yourself. 

Posted in Managing Mental Health, Mental Health

How to Support Someone With Mental Health Issues

It can be extremely hard to watch someone you love and care about going through a tough time regarding their mental health. It can also be painful if someone close to you discloses their mental illness or mental health struggles and you had no idea about it. You may feel like a failure yourself, like there’s nothing you can do, like you are useless. Essentially it may start to impact your mental health as well. That’s why the most important thing to remember when supporting someone with mental health issues is that you need to look after yourself as well. You have to.

1. Look after yourself

Sometimes we want to rush in and save the whole world – fix everything – but this simply isn’t possible. Perhaps at first it may seem like a good idea to try and take on the other person’s issues entirely as your own, without giving yourself the space needed to process your own emotions. In fact for a short while this may actually help the other person – but that’s not sustainable; long term it will lead to you burning out, struggling yourself or becoming resentful, likely making the entire situation worse. That’s why it’s so important to look after yourself, even if this is just journaling at the end of the day to help you sort out the feelings of the day, or doing a hobby once a week, the possibilities are limitless and you have to find what works for you. The important thing is that you do find it. And putting in boundaries with the person you are supporting can also help this, and most likely will help them in the long run too.

2. Listen to them

Many people with mental health issues, especially when they are first opening up about them, doubt themselves, feel ashamed or invalidated. By listening to them with an open mind you can help lessen these feelings. And by listening, I mean just that. Not everyone wants (nor even needs) advice or solutions all the time, sometimes they just need to be heard so they feel a little less alone. When having a conversation about their emotions/ experience it can be really helpful to ask the question ‘would you like me to offer advice or just listen to you?’. Validating their experience through listening to them can have a huge impact for someone struggling and give them confidence and reassurance. Remember that they are the one that lives in their brain, and they know what they are going through better than anyone else; it’s not your job to dictate to them what they are undergoing. However, linking to my last point, it is important that you don’t take on all of their feelings for yourself, so placing boundaries can be really helpful – for example requesting that before they talk to you, they ask you if you are in a place to have that conversation.

3. Involve them

Going through a tough time mentally can feel very isolating, and our brains can make us feel very lonely and rejected. That’s why it’s important to continue to involve someone who is struggling mentally. This could mean continuing to invite them to social events while making clear there is no pressure or expectations placed upon them to attend. If they accept and invitation, it might then mean making some accommodations for them, like helping them order food if that’s a point of anxiety for them or giving them some space if they need it for example. It might also mean offering to meet them one on one for a while if that’s easier for them, or talking with them about plans to keep them safe and checking in with them regularly. To relate to my last point, if you’re unsure of what to do, you can always ask them if they have any ideas or if there’s a way you can accommodate them better. This is a huge sign that you care for and accept them still.

4. Research their experience

If the person you are supporting has a diagnosis or has disclosed to you specific symptoms, it can be helpful for your own knowledge to research this. A quick google search will bring up symptoms lists and examples of how these might affect them, but I would also encourage you to look beyond this and read up on the personal experience of different people from different walks of life to get a clearer picture. This can help you understand the person you are supporting better without the worry that you are prying to much, and it can help them to feel seen as this informs how you support them.

5. Make them a happy kit

I’ve made a previous post on this, which you can read here. A happy kit is essentially a little collection of things that can help someone process their emotions, get through a crisis moment, or just generally cheer them up. It can include some things that they find calming or cheering, and maybe a list of distractions and mini coping exercises to try. Distractions are also a really great way to help someone with a mental health issue – it’s not a long term fix but it can help them escape their brain for a minute and feel more ready to face the day. If a distraction is creative it could also be a way of helping them to express themselves, and feel less alone if you’re doing it together.

6. Help with small tasks

Small tasks such as cleaning, ordering food, or remembering deadlines can become seemingly impossible for someone experiencing a mental health struggle. If you feel up to it you can offer to help them with these small tasks, even if that’s just by doing it with them (for example cleaning together one afternoon, or going food shopping together). As always, asking them how best to help is always a good idea, and if they’re not sure offering something specific – such as sending them a reminder text – might appeal to them.

7. Show them you care

It’s simple, but one of the most helpful and meaningful things anyone has ever done for me during my own struggles has been showing me they cared. This could mean writing someone a supportive letter, or making them a playlist. Just something simple that lets them know you care.

7. Be patient

We all have mental health and it can be a long term challenge to face for many. Someone in the midsts of a struggle isn’t going to overcome it overnight, but with amazing people like you willing to support them, they can find their way through. Keep in mind that you need to be patient – one of the reasons why looking after yourself is so important – and that their struggles are not a comment on you, ever. Eventually the sun will come shining through!

Posted in autism, Managing Mental Health, Mental Health, Personal Growth

How to Make a Happy Kit

I still struggle greatly everyday with my mental health, and that can be enormously frustrating. It can also make it feel like the smaller things I can do to help myself are useless in the long run. However, I know this isn’t true. I know that when I add up all these little bits and pieces (like writing and walking for example) they do make an impact. And, yes, sometimes it’s a very small impact – but I know how much more hopeless and desperate it would make me feel if it wasn’t there. One of my favourite things I ever did to help myself manage my mental health was to make a ‘Happy Kit’ (as I call it). The great thing is that it’s totally unique to me and my needs, so I thought I’d share a little guide on how to make your own Happy Kit to suit you. I really love mine and I would recommend that everyone make something like this, because we all have mental health and challenging days – or simply just bored days. In my case it has loads of stuff in it to help me manage my anxiety, depressive episodes, sensory overload, and boredom; I keep it in my school bag at all times. So here’s how I made it:

My ‘Happy Kit’ is almost like a summary of all the tools I’ve gathered over the years to help myself. However, before you decide on the specifics of what will be in your kit, decide how you want to use it. Do you want it to be a box full of stuff that will keep you entertained when you’re bored at home? Or something you can always keep in your bag? Or maybe it’s something you use to help you wind down in the evenings? Once you’ve decided this, you can then choose what container you’re going to keep it in. I keep mine in a black makeup bag with sparkles sewn into it – I like the texture and the way it catches the light. You might choose to keep yours in a box or on a shelf in your bathroom cupboard for example.

Before I go further, here’s an overview of the contents in my own Happy Kit to give you an idea of what to keep in mind when making yours:

Me and My Happy Kit
  1. Fiddle toys – they help me focus in lessons, ease anxiety, and remain grounded during sensory overload. I have several different kinds with different textures
  2. A list of distractions – I have so many different activities on this list! And they range from things that are easier for me to do when I’m feeling low, more creative for when I’m hyper, and calming for when I’m anxious. I have this list because I’m learning that if I can direct myself towards an activity, it eases how I feel, but sometimes I can’t think of anything to do, so I refer to the list. And if I still can’t decide, I can always just pick a random number and do that activity!
  3. Gemstones – I’m not entirely sure if I believe gemstones work, but I do believe they can act as a placebo at least, and I find it very calming to hold them, if only as a way to remind me to try and bring myself back into a more neutral place mentally
  4. Items with sentimental value – To remind me of good times and the love of people in my life
  5. A toolkit list – This is a list with easy to follow steps that summarise particular tools I’ve learnt to help me manage and think more clearly, like how to accept emotions and reduce judgements
  6. Sweets/ mints – Sometimes I have Rescue Remedy sweets in my kit and sometimes I just have normal sweets, but something that tastes nice and I can suck on is just pleasant and calming for me
  7. Something smelly – not smelly in a bad way! Just something that smells pleasing to me, like lavender or essential oils or a mini perfume. Sometimes because they’re calming scents, and sometimes just because they make me feel fancy. As someone who’s autistic smells can also help when I am sensory seeking (kind of the opposite to sensory overload/ avoiding such) in a really simple way
Some of the things in my happy kit

Obviously all of that is specific to what helps me, but it might give you some ideas. If you like fiddle toys or nice textures then put something like that into your kit. For me they represent something calming and soothing to me that I can also use to engage my brain. I’d definitely recommend you to make a list of distractions/ activities regardless of what you’re using your Happy Kit for – you can tailor it to yourself but it comes in really useful in lots of situations. For example if you are making your kit to help you relax in the evening it could have a a list of ten things that you can do to help you relax and you could pick one each evening. If it’s to calm anxiety, then put down a few distractions and a few activities that might calm your anxiety – like breathing exercises, colouring, or reading a book perhaps. And if you’re making your kit for when you are bored then throw down a load of different activities, and make sure to include some you might not usually do (for example, writing a song even if you’re not musical). My list includes a mixture of all these different things! Here’s some of the things on my list:

A picture of some of the activities on my distractions list

I hope this has inspired you to think about making a little toolkit for yourself (or even for someone else). Please feel free to ask for any advice or share your ideas for your own happy kit. Sending all my love and support. Xx