Mind & Spirit

How to face anxiety, panic attacks and depression to discover inner peace

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

How to face anxiety, panic attacks and depression to discover inner peace

This story was originally titled "Peace, Hope & Joy" in the January 2010 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

Award-winning Canadian broadcaster Valerie Pringle readily recalls the moment at which she felt the deepest admiration for her daughter. It was several years ago, when Catherine Pringle, now 28, went back to work after taking time off to deal with anxiety and panic attacks. Her employer wasn't aware of her illness, and Catherine wasn't sure if she should disclose it.

"Catherine asked us, 'What do I tell them?'" says Valerie, who has three children. "Her father said, 'Tell them the truth.' She did, and today she will stand up and tell people, 'This is something I live with.' Her dad and I have never been more proud of her."

Sadly, not enough people speak up about mental illness because they fear how others will perceive them. Reports show that almost half of those who say they have experienced depression or anxiety have never talked to a doctor about it. And only half of Canadians surveyed said they would tell a friend or coworker they have a family member with a mental illness. At the same time, 72 per cent would openly discuss cancer or diabetes in their family.

Valerie and Catherine – who are both advocates for mental health and have shared their story with the public – want change. "Mental health has lived in the shadows for way too long," says Valerie. "People don't talk about it. But we have to open up, be sympathetic, understanding and look at the reality of this illness – it's everywhere."

Here, three more Canadian women bravely share their inspiring stories of facing down mental illness and finding a renewed sense of hope, joy and inner peace in their lives. 

"Lying on my yoga mat is such a peaceful place to be. I am calm within minutes." 
By Kelly Giddings as told to Astrid Van Den Broek

You need to come live with us." That's the first thing my brother-in-law, Robert, said last Christmas, after taking just one look at me. It was December 2008 and my mother and I had travelled from our home in Sudbury, Ont., to celebrate the holidays with my sister, Leslie, and her husband at their place in Ottawa. I was 26 and had been having a really hard time for awhile. Leslie and Robert could see my pain, that I was going downhill quickly.

Looking back, my journey with mental illness began around the time my dad died, in February 2003. His death left me feeling numb for at least six months. That fall I went back to university in St. Catharines, Ont., but I wasn't able to function and I was binge drinking. My mom picked me up and brought me home to Sudbury. But things just got worse. Mom tried to help, but I was in this terrible head space and pushed her away.

I'd wake up in the morning and feel this pain, this weight. I'd lie in bed and cry and wonder, How am I supposed to get through the day? I got so anxious that my heart would speed up and my breathing would become shallow.

A year after my dad's death, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and general anxiety disorder, and was given medications. I saw a psychiatrist, counsellors and social workers, but it didn't feel like any of my treatments were really working.

Page 1 of 4 – Learn what techniques and therapies worked for Kelly in finding a road to recovery on page 2.

Things didn't start to get better until I went to live with my sister and her family about a year ago. I ended up going to grief counselling at St. Paul's University in Ottawa, which helped a lot. I also joined a 14-week group program with the Anxiety Disorders Association of Ontario.

Walking into that group, I realized I wasn't alone, and it gave me hope. I also gave up caffeine, which helped curb my anxious feelings. I stopped feeling jittery all the time and started doing ashtanga and hatha yoga three or four times a week. Going to yoga made a big difference for me; lying on my mat is such a peaceful place to be. I am calm within minutes. Yoga makes me feel so much more relaxed.

Another thing that was a big help was simply living with my sister's family. Having my nephew, three-year-old Julien, and my one-year-old niece, Eleonore, around and excited to see me when I got up in the morning made me feel as if I had a purpose. I also had responsibilities around the house, such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. Having something outside of myself to focus on was also an important part of my recovery.

Today, at 27, my life is different. I'm still on medication, and see a psychiatrist once in a while, but I wake up each morning and look forward to the day. I am also working at a community health centre as a child and youth worker, and have moved into my own apartment in Ottawa (with my cats). I enjoy relaxing at home and just being me.

My mom has supported me every step of the way, and she let me make my own choices about my health care, which is important. I want other people to know that it's okay to feel the way I did and to figure out how you need to cope. Most of all, I want people to know they are not alone; there's help out there.

"Never lose hope."
By Gillian Mulvale as told to Barbara Righton

I'm a 48-year-old woman, but my story could be anyone's – and it's nothing to be ashamed of. I was only 30, with a good job and a good marriage, when depression hit me out of the blue, turning the next decade of my life into a roller-coaster. There was no history of mental illness in my family, so no one was prepared to deal with it – least of all me.

My husband and I had our first baby, a daughter, in 1990. Suddenly, I was living under a dark veil. I couldn't make the simplest decisions. I was lost. When my baby was two months old, I begged my boss to take me back. Going back to work part-time gave me balance, and as soon as I stopped nursing and my periods returned, it was like the veil lifted. But my depression returned – and worsened – two years later, after I had my son. And when my third pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, I went off the rails. That was when my sister-in-law made the first call to a doctor.

Over the years I saw a number of psychiatrists who diagnosed me with everything from postpartum depression to premenstrual dysphoria to bipolar II disorder, and put me on a multitude of medications. But it was only when I became a partner in my own treatment that I began to get better.

I was grateful to find a postpartum support group in Oakville, Ont., where my family lived at the time. It helped to hear other women were feeling as inadequate as I was. Eventually, along with a professional, I helped lead a support group. In helping others, I began to get better. I also found a psychiatrist   who did psychodynamic psychotherapy (a type of therapy that helps people understand the roots of their emotional distress), which was extremely beneficial in helping me understand everything I had been through.

Page 2 of 4 – On page 3, discover how Gillian is using her experience with mental illness to help others across the country.
That psychiatrist also told me about mindfulness-based meditation, and put me on to the books and tapes of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Eckhart Tolle. They taught me about living in the present and being aware of what I was doing every minute. There was a strong element of spirituality to it, which spoke to me.

In 2001, I went back to university to do a PhD in mental-health policy and service delivery in Canada, applying all my studies to mental health care. I was passionate about bringing my experience, and the experiences of others, to bear on the issue and wanted to play a role in changing how we treat people who have these illnesses.

I now work for the Mental Health Commission of Canada in Ottawa, and am helping to write a new mental-health strategy for our country. Among my goals is addressing the stigma that makes mentally ill people isolate themselves instead of reaching out.

My children, who are now teens, say they are proud of me. I have explained to them – and want others to know – that when people recover from mental illness, they can be more confident in what they want out of life. I am an example of that. Today, I live on the Rideau River. Walks along its banks are good for my health. I also exercise regularly, read meditative books at night before I go to sleep and use light therapy for seasonal affective disorder.

While I would never wish it upon anyone, I see mental illness as a part of life. When I can, I try to act as a friend and counsel people with mental illness. I tell them, "It will get better. You will find your inner strength. Keep trying." We can never lose hope. 

"I am more gregarious: I'm not the wallflower anymore and I'm not missing out on life."
By Shelly Jones as told to Astrid Van Den Broek

Worry was a constant background noise in my life. I'd often wake up at 2 a.m. convinced that my mother had died at that very moment, and since I couldn't call her right then, I would worry for hours until I could contact her.

Growing up, I recall that my parents were both real worriers, as were my brother and sister. So I thought it was normal to worry all the time.

About six years ago, when I was in my late 40s, my worrying reached the tipping point: I went to my doctor in Burnaby, B.C., with vague symptoms of an upset stomach, insomnia and lots of muscle tension. She prescribed Paxil (an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication) and suggested some sleep strategies, such as not reading or watching TV in bed. It didn't really help, though.

A year later, I told that same doctor about my "worry rituals," such as calling up my mother when I thought she had died, and she referred me to the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at UBC Hospital in Vancouver. A psychologist there determined that I had generalized anxiety disorder. I was referred to a 15-week anxiety disorders program based on cognitive behavioural group therapy. When I started the group, I was absolutely stunned to hear people sharing their experiences, because they all could have been talking about me. That was a real revelation.

The therapy worked on changing my thoughts and behaviours. In one exercise, I had to write down a worry of mine and what it would be like if it actually did happen, and then read it out to the group. I was embarrassed by how emotional I was, but I was confronting my worst fears.

Page 3 of 4 – Shelly attributes her success in dealing with anxiety to a peer therapy class she oversees. On page 4, find a list of resources to help you or someone you love find help.
At the end of the program, I felt I had my life back. My neck and shoulder aches disappeared, and I just felt calmer and better overall. I even started volunteering at a soup kitchen, which is where I met my husband, Patrick, who is a cook there.

Group therapy worked so well for me that I went on to co-lead other support groups for people suffering from mild to moderate panic disorders. It's quite powerful to get up in front of a group and say, "I had anxiety, and the very treatment we're going to do today is the treatment that helped me." Being a peer leader also helps me keep my worrying at bay. I tell group members, "You are my therapy." I'm also the president of the board of directors of Anxiety B.C., a nonprofit organization for people who have panic attacks and are chronic worriers.

Sure, there are times when I still worry. But I now know what I can do to stop it, and at age 55 my life is 100 per cent better than it used to be. I have a good network of friends and family to lean on for help, and I run a wordprocessing business out of my home. I'm more gregarious. I'm not the wallflower anymore and I'm not missing out on life. 

Help is a click away
Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia: www.anxietybc.com
Can be used by all Canadians; explains the different types of anxiety and ways to deal with them.

Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada Student Zone: www.anxietycanada.ca/english/youth
Teaches students the difference between typical anxiety and anxiety disorders, how and when to get help, and how to best help a friend who's experiencing anxiety.

Canadian Mental Health Association: www.cmha.ca
Includes information relating to children and the elderly, as well as dealing with divorce and stress.

Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments: www.canmat.org
Offers links to provincial groups and general information on depression, anxiety, grief, divorce, seasonal affective disorder, and mental illness in kids and the elderly.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health: www.camh.net
The website for Canada's largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital provides links to treatment programs and information in 17 languages, as well as online tutorials, new research, and resources for families and friends.

Mood Disorders Society of Canada: www.mooddisorderscanada.ca
Contains fact sheets on coping with issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and problem gambling; offers guides that assist families and children dealing with mental illness; and hosts helpful online discussion forums.

Mind Your Mind: www.mindyourmind.ca
Created by youth for youth, this site has information and resources for understanding and managing stress and mental health problems.

Mental Health Works: www.mentalhealthworks.ca
Intended mainly for employers, this initiative of the Canadian Mental Health Association also offers a section for employees, featuring tips on how to discuss a mental health issue with your boss and coworkers, as well as your rights and responsibilities.  

Facts about mental illness
• About one in five Canadians will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. The rest have a friend, family member or coworker who will.
• As many Canadians suffer from major depression as from other leading chronic health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease.
• Every day, about half a million Canadians are absent from work due to mental illness.
• Within 10 years, it's estimated that depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide.
• Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problems, affecting one in eight people.
• Twice as many women as men experience major depression. Similarly, more women are diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
• About 13 per cent of women experience clinically serious postpartum depression. 

Page 4 of 4 – Discover why many people struggling with mental illness often suffer alone on page 1.

Click here for more articles about women's health.
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Mind & Spirit

How to face anxiety, panic attacks and depression to discover inner peace