Gabrielle, 19. Anxiety, insomnia, depression, Mindbody syndrome.

Name, age, and occupation: Gabrielle, 19, student.

Mood today? Irritable and homesick

Wine, coffee or green smoothie? Wine

3 vices: my irrational fear of sugar, wanting everyone to like me, zoning out of conversations while pretending to pay attention

3 virtues: I love arts and crafts, I can keep myself busy for hours, I am determined

If you weren’t a student, what would you be? I'd be making podcasts and films 


What’s in your Headcase?
Anxiety, insomnia, depression, Mindbody syndrome (where your emotions build up and become physical pain)

When did you first notice things might not be quite….’right’.
The first time I remember feeling deeply unhappy was when my parents were splitting up (I was 11). It came and went for years after that, but I never had a name for it.  In my 1st year of uni, I started dealing with health anxiety which was the first time I thought of myself as having mental health issues.

What were the symptom, and what happened?
I was getting this weird pain in my jaw, which I became increasingly obsessed with. I would google my symptoms and imagine horrible scary scenarios. I’d do this for hours at a time. When it wasn’t my jaw, I’d find other things that could be going wrong with my body. It was like an addiction in a weird way; I could tell it was a negative cycle but I couldn’t stop. I felt miserable for days at a time and was barely sleeping. 

How did you feel?
I was utterly terrified. I felt so alone, hopeless, and ashamed. I felt guilty for not being stronger and more composed.   

Do you know why it started?
As a kid, I developed the habit of pushing down or hiding my feelings, which stayed with me as I was growing up. I also had really low self-esteem. Going off to uni was like throwing gas on a fire: I put so much pressure on myself, but at the same time I was terrified of people seeing how deeply insecure and scared I was. I think my symptoms were an escape valve for all the shit I didn’t want to deal with, a way to relieve some of the pressure.

Did you know what it was, or what to do?
At first it didn’t cross my mind I could be dealing with mental health stuff, because I was so focused on the physical problem and how to fix it. Eventually it made me miserable enough to ask for help. But I didn’t know what I was looking for, and my inability to help myself tended to leave me feeling even more scared and lonely.   

How long did you wait before telling anyone?
When my symptoms got bad, I tried to keep them to myself. After a few weeks, I was having anxious outbursts in front of my family and boyfriend, so they knew something was up. But it took me 2 years to fully admit to myself and to them how bad things actually were.

Who did you talk to? 
My boyfriend when I felt sad; my dad when I couldn’t sleep; my mom when I felt like my head was going to explode.

What help did you get?
I tried a bit of CBT and meditation thinking it would make the pain better and I would feel better. A year later, I got a counselor to talk things out.

What happened then? 
I expected CBT and meditation to fix everything, but it didn’t. It felt like an added pressure in my life. Talking things out with a counselor helped me become aware of my emotions and accept them. I learned to say ‘I’m angry and disappointed and I want to feel loved’ instead of googling kidney failure for an hour.

How are you now?
I’m a lot better. Changing how I see myself and the world is a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.

What was the moment you remember things changed for the better? 
This summer I was feeling depressed and paralysed by weird pains all over my body: in my teeth, eyes, wrists, legs… The pain started when I reverted to my health anxiety patterns which was too weird to be a coincidence. But I thought: surely if this is all in my head, the pain wouldn’t be so convincing? My sister’s boyfriend was reading about the power of suggestion on our brains and suggested the pain could be real without there being anything wrong with my body. I ended up finding all this info online about how your brain can distract you from your emotions with pain, anxiety and depression. It was a eureka moment that put all my mental health stuff in perspective: in a twisted way, my brain was trying to protect me from something it thought was scary. That’s the first time I remember thinking ‘I’m going to be fine’ and actually believing it. I felt like I’d understood something fundamental about myself which would help me get better.

Who helped you the most? 
My boyfriend was steadily supportive through all this. He didn’t have all the answers, but the fact that he kept trying meant a lot. At the end of the day though, no one could help me more than me. It sounds cheesy, but once I learned to love myself I was in a much better position to accept the help and love of the people around me.

What is the best piece of advice you were given? 
Figure out what you needed but didn’t get from your parents; now learn how to give it to yourself.

What worked best for you?
Journaling about my feelings, talk therapy, positive affirmations, yoga, going for walks.

What would you say to anyone who is suffering similar things, or to yourself in that state?
I know you feel ugly, worthless and broken, but you deserve to be seen fully. You deserve to love yourself, no matter what you’ve got going on in there.

What’s the biggest change in mental health you would like to see?
I’m biased because this worked so well for me, but more people learning to identify and accept their feelings. Feelings, all kinds of them, are normal and harmless. They’re only scary if you try to hide from them.

Liz Fraser