TW: References to physical experiences of severe anxiety.

The theme for this Mental Health Awareness Week (15-21 May) is anxiety. As part of this week, Jenny, one of our Peer Support Workers with the Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service team, has shared their experiences with anxiety, how they manage it, and how their experiences help them in their role.

My First Experiences of Anxiety

My first experience of anxiety was when I moved from primary school to secondary school when I was 10 years old. Although a lot of children struggle with this transition, I found this particularly difficult. I now recognize that this was down to being undiagnosed and unsupported as a neurodivergent person. My ADHD and Dyspraxia made for a nightmarish school experience, as my lack of organisation and concentration, forgetfulness, and inability to sit still, meant that I was often getting into trouble with teachers. While everyone else was settling in and making friends, I found the environment at school really overstimulating, which made me come across as rude and uninterested in chatting to other people.

As a result of this, I started developing severe anxiety. The idea of going into school made me feel nauseous and shaky. I lost huge amounts of sleep to overthinking. At first, I could pass this off to my Mum as being ill, which was ideal because it meant I got what I desperately wanted – not having to go into school. Obviously, this was only a temporary solution. My Mum recognized I was avoiding school and not ‘really’ ill. She hoped that if I continued to go in every day, I would eventually build up a routine and get used to it.

Being told I wasn’t ‘really’ ill felt very hard to hear. As many of us know, one of the hardest parts of dealing with anxiety is dealing with the physical symptoms it causes. As mental health issues go, anxiety does a really good job of being everywhere outside of our heads too. It was in the back of my throat, making me feel nauseous every morning, struggling through breakfast, and worrying about what my day at school would have in store for me. It was in my chest, my heart pounding as I stepped out of the door and saw people in the same uniform as me walking in the same direction as I was. It was in my aching muscles, my tense shoulders, my clenched jaw. Maybe I wasn’t ‘really’ ill, but it felt as real as any illness could ever be.

This was something that I dealt with for the following 4 years, as there was no alternative for me. Attempts to get support from the staff at my school were futile. I was having regular appointments at CAMHS (Children and Adolescents Mental Health Services) and had a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Although this works well for some people, as my anxiety was stemming from being put in a difficult environment that I couldn’t escape, there was only so much that challenging the negative thoughts in my head could do.

When Things Started to Look Up…

It improved slightly when I moved to my college at 14 (in my hometown, secondary schools are ages 10-14, then 14-18 for GCSEs and A Levels). There was more freedom for students, which meant I could leave the college during break and lunchtimes to find a quieter environment if I needed one. Having this time to recharge also helped me make friends, and the less anxious, more affable side of my personality began to shine through.

It was when I moved to university that the real difference was made. Even though it was hard at first, I ended up settling in really well. When I noticed myself feeling anxious again, this was quickly picked up by my personal tutor, who recommended that I went to see my doctor, and made sure I was granted reasonable adjustments for my essays and exams. I was prescribed propranolol, which has really helped me keep the physical symptoms under control, and calm down when I feel myself getting overwhelmed. Five years on, I still swear by it.

The reasonable adjustments meant that I pretty much had the same support as someone with ADHD and Dyspraxia would get, even though I didn’t realise I had either of these things until after I’d already left university. The extra time in exams, extensions on essays and extra supervisions were incredibly helpful, and I was getting good grades for the first time in my life. I remember getting my first 85 in an essay I’d really enjoyed writing, and feeling so far removed from the Jenny I was at school; I wasn’t just coasting by anymore, I was finally capable of producing work I was genuinely proud of.

My Work as a Peer Supporter

Now, I feel very lucky to be working in a job where I can be open about my mental health. As a Peer Support Worker, I use my experiences of anxiety, depression, neurodiversity, and trauma to help people who are currently going through this themselves.

I have one-to-one phone calls and visits with my clients, where I share tips I’ve learned from my experience to help others. Clients often feedback that it’s really helpful to feel less alone in their experiences with anxiety and speak with someone who can relate with their own experiences. We also do befriending work and signposting and help people with their journey before, during, or after therapy to help them get the most out of it.

Peer support can be delivered in person, where we meet with clients in places convenient to them, such as nearby cafes or parks. It can also be delivered via telephone for clients who find it easier to talk on the phone. This support is delivered either by myself and my team or our wonderful team of volunteers.

People are usually referred to us during their mental health assessments with Leeds Mental Wellbeing Service (LMWS). They often either express interest in peer support or get it recommended by their Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner. People can also access peer support alongside therapies provided through LMWS, or just as they’re finishing therapy, by asking their therapist about it.

Every day, I feel really proud of the journey I have made with my mental health. I still have bad days with anxiety, and periods of time where things feel more difficult, but I feel much better equipped to manage it now. Above all, my experiences at school have taught me that if something is making me unhappy and anxious, it’s important to recognise the areas that are under my control and adapt them as best as I can, even if that seems terrifying at first.