What it feels like to have anxiety and depression
After years with anxiety and depression, Laura Dernie, 33, from Cardiff, has her life back on track. Now she wants to change taboos and help others realise it affects ‘normal’ people, too
“I barely remember the first weeks after my second child, Poppy, was born four years ago. I know that I wasn’t eating properly and could hardly get out of bed. I wasn’t particularly sad, I just didn’t feel anything. I recall sitting on my bed holding my children and telling my husband Henry, ‘I love them with every fibre of my being, but I just feel hollow and empty’.
My pregnancy with my first child, Jack, was difficult – it felt like I was falling apart as I was fighting extreme morning sickness. My chest constantly felt like I had a tight corset on and I couldn’t breathe. I would shake uncontrollably, and felt so overwhelmed, sick and dizzy that everything looked fuzzy. My thoughts raced out of my mind like scarves out of a magician’s hat. I worried endlessly over things like what I was going to do the next day, until my thoughts spiralled into an abyss.
I now know I was suffering depression and anxiety, which took over my life for years. I felt continually exhausted, but was unable to sleep properly, and couldn’t switch off my brain and relax. There was blackness all around me.
Coping with my office job as PA was hard and I often phoned Henry at lunchtimes, crying. To be honest, I hated myself. I wondered whether my family would be better off if I left, though I was never suicidal. I found myself snapping at Henry – everything seemed his fault. His kindness in response was amazing.
After three years of this, I broke down. The trigger was simply my mother-in-law going into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. I have no idea why this set me off, but in a sudden panic attack, I couldn’t cope and had to get away. I jumped into my car and drove down the road. Henry followed me on foot and told me I had to get help.
After that, I started seeing my GP weekly. A mental health nurse stayed in touch regularly, too. Their support was amazing. My doctor put me on SSRI antidepressants – they evened out my feelings and the daily panic attacks turned into one every few months. I practised cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – so, if I was feeling overwhelmed in a shop, instead of telling myself I was a waste of space, I’d walk down an aisle and tell myself ‘well done’.
I still struggle, but it’s nowhere near as extreme. I know antidepressants don’t work for everyone, but for me, they do. I also try to be active – going outside makes me feel better. The trigger for my mental health issues was illness was pregnancy, but for others it could be any stressful event.
Last summer I launched a charity, My Discombobulated Brain, to help fight the stigma of mental illness. I used to worry that someone might take my children away if I admitted to my illness, but when I started talking about my experience, a lot of family and friends told me they’d also had depression and anxiety.
I want to change taboos – by talking openly about mental health, I can help people realise it affects ‘normal’ people, too. I tell my son Jack when I’m feeling anxious – and he tells me when he’s sad or angry and knows it’s OK for boys to cry. On Facebook, people don’t always share what needs to be shared. No-one posts ‘I had a panic attack today’, but it’s vital to know you’re not alone.”
The expert view
Psychologist Professor Anke Ehlers, co-director of the Oxford Centre For Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, says:
‘Data suggests around 20 per cent of women aged 30-50 suffer from anxiety and/or depression. Depression’s symptoms include low mood, loss of interest, and problems concentrating and sleeping. In severe cases, there can be ideas of suicide.
In clinical anxiety, fears are unrealistic – people can become unable to work or socialise. Stressful life events play a role in triggering both anxiety disorders and depression. The psychological causes include certain thinking patterns, such as worrying, and behaviours like excessive avoidance of feared situations.
Biological factors – an imbalance of neurotransmitters or regulation of stress hormones – may also play a role. For anxiety disorders, the treatment is CBT, and sometimes SSRI antidepressants. For mild cases of depression, support, development of good sleep habits, exercise, and guided CBT self-help via books or computer programmes can be helpful. For moderate to severe cases, a combination of medication (usually SSRIs) and psychological therapy is recommended.’