For World Mental Health Day: How Language Changed The Way I Viewed My Mental Health

As a child, it’s hard to know if the emotions you are feeling are the same as everyone else’s. It’s hard to identify what’s normal from what’s not. From a young age, you have words like happy, sad, angry or excited in your vocabulary, but nothing to help capture feelings with any subtly. You certainly, for example, don’t have the word anxiety or its real meaning, and therefore are not well placed to identify or explain this hard, sinking feeling you walk around with.

Recently, I was reflecting on my anxiety and how my life has changed over the years, and I came to a startling conclusion: the most powerful weapon I ever gained for tackling these feelings and these behaviours, as I would come to call them, was language.

Words allowed me, in a way I would never have suspected, to define and explain what was happening to me and then gave me the vocabulary I needed to change the narrative. From anxiety and adrenaline to intrusive thoughts and catastrophising, terms helped me to understand the nature of ‘things’ that I never realised even had names.

When I was little, I’d lie awake sometimes, I can’t really remember how often, desperate to hear my parents breathing. I’d creep down to my sister’s room to check she was still alive. Back then, it was impossible to say what was making me do it; I had no control over this feeling, this need to make sure that everyone was okay. Later on, I was able to explain that this anxiety was driven by an overactive sense of responsibility –a belief that I had to ensure that everyone was okay, and a misconception that a slip on my part would result in unimaginable consequences that I would be unable to cope with.

These habits, or behaviours, changed as I grew up, but the root thinking – something a wonderful counsellor helped me understand – remained the same. Whether I was stuck (for that’s what it felt like) in the house checking electrical appliances and taps for ten minutes before going to work or revisiting the days events to try and figure out how to repair the damage from the “stupid” things I’d done or said, I was acting on this deep-rooted belief that I always had to be responsible or else something bad would happen and I’d get the blame. Furthermore, I remained convinced, whatever the situation, that the consequences would be unbearable, so unsolvable even, that I could envisage no possible means of coping.

There was no overnight cure, no magic button, but working through some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and completing assignments over the course of a year or so made a huge difference. It was, ultimately, however, having a language to talk about this element of myself that had been so mysterious for such a long time that helped. Furthermore, it’s these words, this knowledge that helps me through lows and dips now. When anxiety takes over I can call it out. When I’m imagining the worst, I can recognise it and challenge it. I can take back some control over things I felt were controlling me. It’s a relief I’d never dreamt possible.

Words can’t solve all problems, of course. We’re each unique. But, being able to name the beast, spot its weaknesses and understand them, certainly helped me to tame the beast.

Best foot forward, taking care care of yourself, recognising problems, and looking ahead.

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