How I got through a nervous breakdown
This. This photo was taken just months before a really hard time in my life. It almost perfectly depicts what I hadn't even realised for myself yet. That I was putting on a brave face when inside things were slowly deteriorating and I wasn't even aware enough to notice or to listen - I was ignoring all the warning signs my mind and my body were trying to set out for me. Looking at this picture, I see this exterior displaying a great sense of achievement and happiness - and now knowing that what was happening underneath was a deep sadness and dread almost makes this picture a little painful to look at.
Stress is different for everyone, and each individual mind has it's own tipping point. I won't go into all the details that caused my tipping point but I would like to share what that tipping point was like for me in case it resonates with anyone else reading and I hope it can help shine some light on a very serious and distressing topic.
My stress manifested in my body so much so that I was left immobilised following a nervous breakdown.
I've always held stress in my body without realising - ever since childhood to early teens to adulthood I would have fluctuating leg aches and pain in my lower back. Osteo, physio and chiropractors would sometimes ease the pain momentarily, but eventually it would always come back one way or the other in times of stress. This time, it started off as a niggle in August 2019, and over time the pain became more and more extreme and spread through my lower back, mid back, hips and right leg as my stress levels got higher and higher and more and more unmanageable. I was convinced that I had done some irreversible damage to my back and the thought of not being able to move again was terrifying.
Like I said, I’m not going to share the events that lead to my tipping point for fear of getting too deep or sounding too flippant - but this is how my tipping point played out. I was making my way to work one day and I was hobbling because the pain was so intense. Eventually I was stuck. Immobilised. The pain that was surging through my body meant I couldn’t move. It was a sorry sight - I was crying and desperately holding on to a wall near the back of The Albany willing my legs to move. I thought to myself ‘Just get yourself home and you’ll be ok’. So I managed to battle through excruciating pain with each step and eventually made it home. I laid down on my bed and the pain was so bad I was writhing, I had sharp pain surging down my leg, I started breathing quickly, panicking, my lips went numb, my hands were tingling, my mind was racing and jumping from one issue to another to another, I was shaking and didn’t know what to do, so I eventually called an ambulance. And a full blown nervous breakdown ensued.
I’d been to see many healthcare professionals about my fluctuating back pain in the past but no one had ever even considered that it had anything to do with my stress levels. There had been no injury to cause any of this pain so I felt at a loose end. Luckily, I found the marvel of a Doctor that is Dr. Agarwal and he took everything into consideration and agreed that my pain was due to stress. He gave me the key to start my recovery.
Firstly, I had to convince my brain that the pain was due to stress and not due to a terrible and terrifying injury. It’s only quite recently that the mind body connection is starting to solidify in modern science as a real cause to chronic pain and other ailments so it really did take me a while to rewire my brain to grasp this concept. I then unloaded - I went to therapy, I meditated daily, I journalled daily, I wrote gratitude lists morning and evening, and I hobbled my way to Wavelengths to take a gentle swim or join in an aqua aerobics class to help keep my body moving before everything completely seized up.
The brain is absolutely marvelous at the same time as being very challenging. After hitting the level of breaking point, of not having any space left for any more emotional baggage, my brain had decided enough was enough, and it hit me where it hurts. I could ignore the warning signs that my mind was sending me to slow down, but I couldn’t ignore the physical signs. Because I literally had no choice but to stop and listen.
Following my nervous breakdown, my brain had gone into high alert mode and was instinctively preparing me for any threat that was coming my way. It was my amygdala - the part of the brain that is responsible for your fight or flight response - that was taking control of all of my thoughts and emotions which made my world a scary and intimidating place. A nervous breakdown for me was just as painful physically as it was emotionally. I couldn’t move without crying, I couldn’t speak about anything remotely upsetting without crying (I mean, crying if we’d run out of my favourite type of yoghurt kind of crying). I couldn’t concentrate on anything that required any thought. And I couldn’t do what I usually do to take my mind away from my stresses - movement and yoga.
I decided to learn as much as I could about the brain and how pain is interpreted by your mind and body. Being a yoga instructor and studio owner - my body is not only a vessel to carry me around in - it’s my livelihood, my passion, my goals and my identity. It was like my body was giving me a signal that things had to change, and by leaving me immobilised, I really had to listen and make those changes.
Slowly slowly the pain started to ease off and I started being able to move around a bit more. It started with some long walks, then a cycle, then some very gentle yoga. I did use drugs - the mind body connection is a cycle - the more stressed you are, the more pain you feel and the more pain you feel, the more stressed you become and so on and so on.. So I calmed my nerves with prescription nerve drugs used to treat epilepsy and depression, I took strong codeine tablets and anti-inflammatories to ease muscular tension and slept at night with the help of valium. Needless to say I spent a good few weeks in a sleepy, frustrated, painful and confused state but I needed that little boost to help make a break in the cycle. I eventually weaned myself off the drugs when my body started moving more freely and when the pain began to subside. There were some days when painkillers didn’t work and I would feel myself slipping back under into the depths of fear and darkness but I kept having to remind myself that I was making progress, I just had to be patient.
My situation was very extreme, most people with chronic pain aren't left immobilised, but I want to create awareness that this can happen and there is a way out. If you take anything away from this, please take away this; don’t ignore the warning signs. Look after yourself. Pain isn’t always physical. Give your mind and body the maintenance it deserves. You might read this and feel inspired to take up meditation, movement, journalling or therapy to maintain a healthy mind. Or you might forget about it but then remember it if something like this happens to you (and I desperately hope it never does!) but at least you’ll know that there is a way out and hopefully you’ll know that you don’t have to live with chronic pain and stress, and that there is always help out there, even if it feels really far away from your grasp.
There were still times through all of this when I felt very happy - I wasn’t depressed, I was actually really enjoying my life, but there were underlying issues both from the past and the present that were overloading my stress levels. If you think you might be edging towards a similar place that I was, here are a few warning signs that I felt that I chose to ignore for months on end that could help you decide to start the journey to a happier and healthier mind and body;
Feeling constantly overwhelmed
Feeling constantly nervous
Not being able to fully concentrate on any task without the mind being flooded with more tasks
Not being able to fully relax
Sinking back into old body image issues and repetitive thoughts
Wanting to control my food consumption - both overeating and controlling intake
Feeling unworthy and useless
Using alcohol to help numb the pain both physically and emotionally
It's hard to write this now, it almost feels icky. It's not the way I'd learnt to experience my feelings. Feelings were supposed to be hidden away, feelings were supposed to be bottled up so that on the surface everything looked peachy when really everything was in turmoil underneath. It was how I preferred to live - and it was how I preferred to be perceived. I preferred that I looked as though I had all my shit together. But I didn't - and I still don't, but I’ve learnt that I can be vulnerable. And that vulnerability invites others to be vulnerable too.
Having spent the past few months being completely open about what I went through, I’ve noticed that so many more people were ready to open up - or had experienced similar things to me. The mind-body connection is real, and I’ve experienced it first hand. The worst is over and I’m having so many more good days than bad but I know I still have a long way to go and my God it’s taking a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of patience, and a lot of talking, journalling and breaking down walls that I’d built up that I thought would protect me, not leave me in a pit of despair.
Some really helpful tools;
'Healing back pain' by Dr. John Sarno
'Curable' - a pain management app
'Waking Up' - a meditation app by Sam Harris
'Give yourself kindness' journals
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