Hello! Who are you?
I’m Anna, I’m 28 years old and I live in Leeds, UK.
I work in the charity sector currently but have previously worked in special education with secondary-aged children. I’ve been in a relationship for 8 and a half years now – we met at uni and got together at the end of the first year. We’ve been living together for nearly 6 years and we have no pets or children, but my partner is pretty keen on us getting a dog in the next couple of years.
I would say at the time of writing I’m not at my happiest. It’s been a really tough year and a half for me personally and for my relationship, on top of a difficult time with Covid over the last few years and general world events that leave me feeling quite down sometimes.
My mental health took a big hit at the end of September 2021 and so the last year has been spent trying to pick up the pieces and heal myself, as well as trying to settle into a new area, make friends and find things that make me happy.
The last few weeks have been a lot happier but I am not under any false illusions that I’ve finished “doing the work” by any means. I know I still have a way to go, but I try my best to find pockets of happiness along the way.
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What is your struggle and when did it start?
My main struggle is anxiety, though in the last year or so I’ve started to resonate a lot with the symptoms of OCD. I don’t have an official diagnosis of either, but I have been in formal treatment for social anxiety before and in less ‘traditional’ treatment for anxiety and OCD, specifically ROCD (Relationship OCD). I have also seen various counselors at different difficult periods of my life.
With anxiety, my main symptoms are a fast-beating heart, that horrible ‘drop’ in your stomach, and tenseness, especially in my jaw and shoulders.
It’s hard to say when the anxiety started because I feel like I’ve struggled with it for as long as I can remember. It definitely got worse a year or two before the pandemic (I stopped socialising as much as I wanted to and I avoided trying new things because of a couple of less-than-ideal experiences I’d had) and this led to me seeking help around the start of lockdown number one.
Weirdly, I felt a lot better during the lockdowns but I know now that it was just because I had a good excuse to turn down invitations and be comfortable avoiding life by staying at home. That said, the CBT I had in 2020 really helped and I felt a lot better in some areas of my life (mainly work) for the best part of a year until OCD came onto the scene.
I find OCD symptoms more difficult to describe (I am still getting an understanding of this for myself, really) but my compulsions come under mental rather than physical things. So things like rumination, lots of reassurance seeking or ‘checking’, and ‘confessing’ my intrusive thoughts when I can’t cope with them – these things can of course happen to anyone in certain circumstances, but for me when my symptoms are bad it can become really debilitating and affects my day to day functioning.
My understanding of it is that it was triggered in a big way not long after me and my partner moved to Leeds (where we live now). I now recognise that this was a really big life change – it was something we’d talked about for a while (even before the pandemic) and it felt like, for me at least, where we were going to ‘settle down’ and have a family one day.
I’d never thought of myself as someone who struggled with commitment before so it took me a long time to recognise that it was this that had affected me so negatively and that actually it was a really big life change.
I found myself in a cycle where I would experience an intrusive thought (a doubt) that was latched onto my OCD ‘theme’ of relationships, I’d experience extreme physical symptoms of anxiety, bottle it up for a couple of days (I only got through it by distracting myself at work and then crying my eyes out on my lunch break or in the toilet, then coming back and pretending I was okay) before breaking down on my partner and ‘confessing’ my horrible thoughts.
OCD is the “doubt disorder”, so it was largely focused on doubting whether the relationship was right, or on whether I even loved my partner.
It was the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced because none of it made sense at the time. I didn’t even know I was going through a mental health crisis – I genuinely just thought my relationship was about to end.
Once I came across the idea of ‘relationship anxiety’ and ROCD, I realised I wasn’t alone and that what I was experiencing had a way out.
But I won’t deny that at first, I thought it was a load of rubbish (hello more doubts!).
Through reading and consuming content about these topics, doing workshops and online courses (and a lot of work on myself along the way) I overcame the worst of the symptoms and now feel a lot more at peace with my decision to stay in the relationship.
I still have intrusive thoughts sometimes but I have a lot more tools to deal with them and get to the root of the issue before it consumes me now.
How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?
I can remember one day in particular in 2020 when I had been working myself up to have a potentially tricky conversation with my manager, but they hadn’t been in for a few days.
Every day that week I had been building myself up (“today’s the day!”) to then have it drag out longer and longer each time – it felt excruciating because I wanted it over and done with and I didn’t know how to cope with the discomfort and disappointment every time.
I remember walking home from work in the rain absolutely crying my eyes out. I was so unhappy and it all felt too much, and on top of this, I was beating myself up because, in my mind, the conversation wouldn’t have been a big deal to someone else but for me, it felt huge.
At the time, I wasn’t super close with my colleagues in that job so I tried my best to hide my anxiety. I opened up to one or two people, but at the worst time only my friends outside of work knew what I was going through, plus my partner. My family knows a bit of what I struggle with but I don’t tell them the full extent usually as I don’t want to worry them.
I still have odd days where I’m barely able to move and my partner has had to force me out of the house and he’ll walk me crying to a coffee shop or the local park. This is about as bad as it gets now, but it only lasts a day or so at most and there is usually a reason why I’ve got myself into this headspace and I have ways I know to get out.
Otherwise, the worst it gets is in moments when I am with new people and if I’m feeling more shy than confident. I will go into my head and clam up. I then start comparing myself and berating myself for not being ‘interesting’ or ‘good at conversations’.
I think a lot of my unhappiness comes from comparison to other people who I see as Not Anxious. I always think it’s really obvious to others when I’m struggling, but I’ve learned over the years that people aren’t mind readers, which can be both a good and a bad thing! It’s good that people I’m getting to know don’t see my nerves, but it means I have to communicate more clearly to my partner when I’m struggling because he doesn’t always pick up on it (even when I feel it’s obvious).
For my OCD, it is another story:
At my worst moments, I felt completely and utterly hopeless, like life as I knew it was as good as over. I felt a huge amount of guilt for the intrusive thoughts I was having, and it massively impacted the happiness of my relationship.
My partner, family, and close friends knew things were bad, but they didn’t know it was OCD (I didn’t know either at that point). Now that I know more about what I was going through, I have tried to explain it to a couple of my closest friends and to my partner, and my younger brother.
But I find it so difficult to articulate – OCD is really misunderstood and I am still coming to my own understanding of it, so to explain it to other people is tricky – this interview is the most detailed and clear I’ve ever articulated it before.
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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?
For my anxiety, it’s been more of a slow process than a sudden change of any kind, but when I look back I can see big improvements.
Attending Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for social anxiety was a big part of this. My therapist helped me to see that my expectations or evaluations of things were not accurate and that I could do hard things even when I felt uncomfortable doing them.
Taking the example of having difficult conversations at work, I would say maybe 35% of the improvement was my circumstances changing (I have an incredible manager now and feel much more able to bring things up to her than any previous managers I’ve had in other jobs) but 65% is due to my actions. I worked hard to realise that my needs are worthy of bringing up. It’s taken me most of my life to find things that help my anxiety and I’m still very much in that process now.
For my OCD, things changed a bit for the better when we started going to couples counseling. I had some really difficult conversations with my partner and he stuck around, which reassured me that he was worth sticking around for, too. But what made the biggest change was discovering that ROCD was a thing and finding ways to treat that.
I came across somatic healing work, movement therapy, and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy. I would say that 95% of the improvement in my mental health came from my own actions (taking courses, workshops, and implementing these into my life) and 5% came from the efforts my partner put into improving the relationship.
It’s important to mention here that the presence of ROCD didn’t mean there weren’t also some issues we needed to work on, but the ROCD made it feel 100x worse than it was in reality.
I struggled with OCD pretty severely for about 4 or 5 months before I came across ways to get better, and I’ve been continuing to work on myself for a year and counting. I can now see that I have maybe experienced OCD from being young (the earliest I can pinpoint is from about 9/10 years old), but with less intensity, so in some ways, it’s taken me years to get to this point.
What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?
CBT, mindfulness (I mostly use the Headspace app), movement (specifically yoga, but any movement is good if you enjoy it), and fresh air are all things that help my anxiety.
CBT helped me to see that my overthinking mind was not accurate. My therapist would have me predict what I was worried about happening in a particular scenario and rate how likely it was that each thing would happen and how I would feel as a result of these things happening.
So in a difficult conversation with my manager, I would predict things like “they will be angry at me”, “they will treat me poorly afterward”, and “I will cry” or “I will be visibly sweaty” and I would rate these as percentages of likeliness that it would happen.
Every time, without fail, my predictions either didn’t come true at all or if they did, my predictions about how it would feel or the extent of these ‘bad experiences’ were so much lower than I had first thought. Through ‘experiments’ of this kind, she helped me to build up what she called a ‘mental filing cabinet’ of evidence for the fact that I was capable of doing hard things and evidence that what I thought would happen didn’t ever happen as badly as I thought it would.
Somatic healing work, movement therapy, and ERP therapy helped me with my OCD. Also, consuming content that actively challenges my thinking about love and relationships has really helped.
Somatic work and movement therapy is all about using the body to heal the mind. It assumes that we cannot solve a thinking problem with more thinking. There is also an argument that anxiety and OCD are not thinking problems anyway, but feeling problems – it’s the uncomfortable physical sensations and emotions that are so horrible to experience, not the thoughts alone/in a different context.
It deals with nervous system regulation and I have learned a lot of body-based tools to make things much more tolerable when anxiety hits after an intrusive thought (e.g. breathing exercises, tapping).
It also works by addressing the root causes of anxiety/doubt and is very much trauma-informed – it doesn’t assume that our anxiety is actually about the topics we are excessively thinking about, there is usually much more to it. It’s impossible for me to go over everything I’ve learned in a couple of paragraphs, but I honestly think this work has been life-changing and should become more mainstream and used for all kinds of anxiety-related disorders.
Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?
I generally think I’m quite open about my mental health – my manager knows bits and I have no qualms with taking a mental health day off work if I need to. I am okay with dropping the odd thing into conversation with colleagues or people I don’t know that well, but I wouldn’t go into much detail about how badly I struggled with all of these people unless they asked me directly.
My family knows I have struggled but they don’t know the full extent – I don’t want to worry them and I’m not sure they would understand the OCD side of things. I have mentioned OCD briefly to my younger brother and to my sister-in-law because they also struggle with their mental health so these topics come up fairly easily for us, but I am hesitant to share more because I don’t have a diagnosis and I don’t want them to think I have just self-diagnosed something willy-nilly.
My partner and my best friends know more, but as I’ve said previously, I find it all quite hard to describe sometimes. I think they still see my last year as a ‘rough patch’ in the relationship rather than a full-blown mental health crisis with OCD (I would argue it was 80% OCD and 20% rough patch).
If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?
Find people that are either going through what you are going through or have come out on the other side. Knowing you’re not alone in this means so much and helps to normalise your experience.
Know as well that there is no shame in needing support.
For me, this meant:
- Understanding that other people are nervous about talking to me just like I’m nervous about talking to them.
- Everyone else is worried about their own things and will barely take notice of you saying something ‘weird’.
- If you’ve had a particular set of scary thoughts, there are almost certainly other people who have experienced them too (yes, even that one!).
- Other long-term couples I look up to have gone through rough patches too – in fact most couples will at some point and that doesn’t mean you’re in the wrong relationship.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?
- The Anxious Love Coach podcast: This was the first time I heard someone talk about their experience of relationship anxiety and I felt so seen. Natalie Kennedy (@anxiouslovecoach on Instagram) has helped me see love and relationships in a whole new way, as well as in other areas of life. I don’t agree with everything she says, but a lot of her content has been really helpful.
- Healing Embodied: I mainly follow their Instagram content (@healing.embodied) but I’ve done a couple of their courses (Get Outta Your Mind and Safety Within), masterclasses, and workshops and they now have a podcast too. This is the bulk of where I’ve learned about movement therapy, somatic work, and nervous system regulation.
- Esther Perel’s work: I’m yet to read her books (they are on the wishlist) but every time I hear her speak or read one of her blogs she expands my mind. She has a podcast ‘Where Should We Begin?’ and has done TED Talks as well as having her own Youtube channel. Her work has helped me to realise that relationships take work and that some of my previous beliefs about love and relationships were flawed (and were contributing to my ROCD).
- Russell Kennedy, MD (@theanxietymd on Instagram): He talks a lot about healing anxiety through working with our ‘inner child’ and with our bodies – it felt very woo-woo to me at first, but actually makes a lot of sense.
- NOCD (https://www.treatmyocd.com/): I haven’t worked with this organisation, but they have a great app that connects you to others with OCD for support. They also have really good content on their Instagram (@treatmyocd) that helped me to understand what OCD actually is and they’re good at clamping down on myths or misinformation about OCD.
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