Lois; “Anxiety doesn’t define who I am.”

Lois is sitting on the edge of a wall, smiling at the camera. There is some grass in the background behind her.

The focus of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is coping with stress. At RNC (Royal National College for the Blind), we are in the middle of exam season so the levels of stress are high amongst students sitting the exams, and our staff who are supporting them. We recognise that stress is a part of everyday life and this can be heightened with certain events, such as exams or moving away from home or starting a new college. But what happens when there is more to it and you realise that you are not just stressed, but you may have a mental health problem?

 

Today we hear from 20 year old Lois Turner from Sutton, London; a second year RNC student. Lois is a talented sportswoman; Captain of the England Women’s Blind Cricket Team, a sponsored Goalball athlete through Sport England and a massage student preparing to start university in September… she just so happens to suffer with anxiety.

 

“I had no awareness of my anxiety before I started RNC. I knew that there were some things I wouldn’t do because it made me nervous or uncomfortable so I would avoid certain situations and I didn’t ever want to talk about how I was feeling. It was only when I came to RNC and was around other people with VI (visual impairment) when I realised that my feelings of anxiety and panic were something more.

 

Through a mixture of learning from experience, speaking to professionals and peers, and from my own research I’ve been able to rationalise what’s going on in my head. Dealing with difficult situations is all about learning strategies, which is easier said than done. It’s very easy to sit here now and talk logically, but when you’re actually in the situation you feel anxious, nervous and sicky like you’re not in control, it can be really difficult to remember those strategies.

 

I have learned about preparing for situations where I think I may feel uncomfortable then I try and see if I can work out a compromise. An example is where I had an assessment with Guide Dogs and I knew I would have to be in a room alone with a man; to me he was just a random person, something triggered and I panicked. So I arranged for a Mobility Teacher from RNC to sit in the meeting with me, I didn’t need them there because I could answer all of the questions myself and go through the assessment ok, but it was the reassurance of having someone there that I trusted which made me feel safe. Preparing can vary massively between different situations because different situations will obviously bring about different reactions for different people.

 

It’s weird talking about it now, I can be logical and rational and tell you exactly what it feels like and the best way to resolve it but when I’m in that situation I can’t think rationally. I become a different person because my systems shut down, I don’t always remember to breathe and I can’t always remember what happens afterwards. When people are trying to calm me down they’ve said that it’s like my body’s there but I’m not.

 

In certain situations there are three stages that I go through, often all at the same time;

  • Judgement – Judging the situation and often people. As someone with VI I automatically feel more vulnerable.
  • Catastrophizing – I imagine what the worst case scenario is and I worry that because of my VI I might not see something until it’s too late.
  • Memories – Whether it be smells, looks or anything that might trigger something which has happened before and can cause feelings of upset, anger, or anxiety.

 

There are some days I wake up where I’m anxious and I don’t know why. There’s no reason, nothing new or different is happening but my heart is racing and I get that sicky feeling that I can’t control. I don’t feel like talking, I feel pathetic. But I’ve now accepted that it’s still going to happen from time to have, I have this baseline anxiety which will always be there because there’s something going on in my head; a chemical imbalance or whatever causes it.

 

The reason I wanted to speak up today was to raise awareness; not everyone is how they seem. Yes, I have anxiety but it doesn’t define who I am and it’s not the way that I am everyday and I want people to realise that. In the beginning I never wanted to admit I had a mental health problem – who would? It’s embarrassing to say you’ve got a mental health issue, and that’s what it is; an ‘issue’. It’s seen as something that can be controlled or fixed, like therapy will help cure it. But that’s not the case! We have a long way to go in society before mental health is understood and accepted, it’s not thought of in the same category as a physical disability but I hope that more people talking about their mental health will break the stigma.

 

Before RNC I was completely in denial of having a mental health problem but now I’ve come to understand it. Only when you’ve accepted it, can you learn how to manage it. I’m in recovery now and that’s the most I can ever hope for I will never be 100% free from anxiety because I know that I can have an episode at any time without warning because there is something going on in my brain which I can’t understand and I can’t control but I know, in the most part, I’ve developed strategies to minimise the effects.

 

My biggest outlet is sport; it helps me focus and it’s something that I can control. I can work towards an end goal, I can get better. I like the discipline, I like the challenge and I like being part of a team. It’s not like anxiety, where I have no control and in some ways I think that having this anxiety makes me more determined and motivated to achieve. I practice and I train so in a game, if I hit a strong ball in cricket or if I save a shot in goalball then I know I’ve done that and helped my team, it feels good. I like the physical challenge.

 

If you think someone you know may be suffering with their mental health, talk to them. Be open and don’t judge them. If you’re the one who is struggling with your mental health, talk to someone. It can be anyone – a friend, a family member, someone in school or work. It’s talking about it that helps, I was embarrassed in the beginning but once you get over those feelings it can empower you and you can gain control over your own mental health and find ways to and strategies to manage it. Take back control!”

 

Help and support

RNIB telephone befriending service

Mind Charity – information and support

Young Minds Charity – Looking after yourself

Scope Charity – Tips about mental health

NHS advice – mental health

 

If you are thinking about studying with us at RNC, please call our student enquiries team on 01432 376 621 or email info@rnc.ac.uk

Article written by Bik Lee, Digital Media Officer at RNC