But you don’t look ill?

Just before Christmas I had an ambulance called for me. My face had fallen on one side, I couldn’t speak properly and when I called the non-emergency line (111 in the UK), they sent an ambulance straight away. Suspected stroke. I’m 42 years old.

The paramedics did all the usual assessments and could rule out a stroke – I was so so grateful! They didn’t feel I needed to go to the hospital – well to be honest, I refused. With so much strain on the NHS, I couldn’t live with myself taking up precious services for something minor …

I spoke with my doctor who prescribed antibiotics for a suspected infection in my facial tissue – I had significant swelling and partial paralysis. The drop in my features was put down to possible Bells Palsy and I was prescribed a course of steroids too.

Symptoms eased over the next few days. The paralysis passed and my face returned to normal. But it terrified me! I was in constant contact with my doctor over this time, he suggested with my mental health struggles it could also have been brought on by stress.

This is the thing. Mental health wise I thought I was fine. I felt ok, happy, positive. There were a few home stresses I was dealing with, but dealing with them I was and I thought I had a handle on everything. I had a hard time over Christmas every year after losing my mum, so a little stress, melancholy and sadness were nothing new to me over this time frame.

Let’s add to the mix though a few extra ingredients. The unknown of a global pandemic for example. The fact we were meant to be going away for Christmas this year – something we had planned for a very long time – and then couldn’t go. Add a touch of anxiety, breathlessness and palpitations each time I go to the supermarket for the family shop. Then sprinkle a little festive PTSD panic (which started in 2015) following the birth of my third child. And finally, pour over the hidden pressures of making everything ‘perfect’ on the big day itself.

It. All. Adds. Up. And is a recipe for, well, you get the picture.

I let myself get to a point where the emotional stress of the situation had no choice but to present itself physically. I wasn’t even aware I was bottling things up! Those with years of experience of these struggles can ‘go through the motions’ for months, even years and we often become experts in our field at showing a ‘united’ front to the world.

When you have a physical ailment a blood test can tell you lots about what you might be deficient in. When it is psychological, I’m yet to come across one that tells us just how damaging our hyper-critical self talk can be to our esteem, or can mark on a chart our exact feelings of helplessness.

As with any hidden illness, I didn’t ‘look’ ill. Until I did. It was a wake up call, without a doubt.

I hadn’t been taking care of me. I was used to being busy and pre-occupied – it’s kind of my thing, but it wasn’t necessarily healthy. I often met with friends and had a half decent social life outside the pandemic. Things were different now.

Some of my depression symptoms presented as a ‘numbness’ or a lack of any emotions at all. In retrospect that’s what it was like living through a pandemic for me – just coasting along, not feeling much of anything.

It’s so important to feel though. Sadness, euphoria, excitement, disappointment, happiness, anger. All of it. Good and bad. If we don’t feel it, we can’t compare it to anything. We can’t make decisions as effectively, it’s harder to rationalise situations and comments you might receive. It becomes more difficult to consider the future or even start to imagine change.

Our emotions have evolved over thousands of years. Teaching us ways to survive and enabling us to make plans to prolong that survival. Think of it this way. If you were to encounter a hungry tiger for the first time, it’s likely you’d feel some kind of fear. If we are fearful we might well run away lol! As our thoughts and emotions evolved, we became more conscious of our past and future selves. We figured out what we might need to survive for even longer. We were able to reason about our future, resulting in us learning to set traps for our predators, rather than just running from them all the time!

So how do you ‘feel’ in a healthy way?

Mindfulness is one of the most effective ways of taking your feelings back. We are living hectic, stressful lives. Just stopping for five or ten minutes when you’re overwhelmed in emotion and using this strategy can help greatly:

  1. Identify how emotions are affecting you physically. Do you have shortness of breath? A tight chest? Tension in your neck or shoulders? A pounding heart? Acknowledge it.
  2. Label it. Instead of saying ‘I am angry / sad / stressed’, try saying ‘This is anger / sadness / stress’. Recognising it for what it is gives that emotion a little less power and is a little less intense.
  3. Accept it. If a friend were to describe the feelings you were experiencing, how would you comfort them? Say those things to yourself. We’re often so much harsher to ourselves, be as accepting and understanding as you would be to your BFF.
  4. Recognise this emotion will pass. Our emotional state changes, what we are feeling passes. Observe your emotions with patience, it is not a permanent state.
  5. Explore it. When the feeling starts to pass, delve deep and see if you can discover what happened to trigger this emotion. What was said or done? What were your expectations of the outcome? How far off were those expectations? Is there a pattern? Is there anything that could change?
  6. Let it go. A toughie but a biggy! Most of us want to be in control, especially of how we’re feeling. If we become more open to these feelings and start to learn self insight, it helps us manage similar situations we come across in the future. We are less likely to be triggered to act in the same way as before.

If you have other techniques you use that have worked well, especially over the past year or so, I’d love to hear more about them. I run the Facebook group Paula Middleton’s Mental Health Hub and I’m always open to hear others stories and experiences so please get in touch.

Love and light

Paula