Heather, Generalized Anxiety Disorder & Panic Attack Disorder

NOTE: Heather and I talked for an hour and I learned so many amazing details about her that I wish I could have fit it all in. I’d love to write Part II in the future to provide more insight into her life as an RMT.

“I just know I’m going to die someday.” As a little girl, that’s what Heather would say to her parents to explain why she was so upset at bedtime. Around the age of 12-13, she knew something wasn’t right. She remembers, as an eighth grader, going to a boyfriend’s house and getting so worked up she’d get physically sick. At 19 Heather finally had two diagnoses for what she was feeling – Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attack Disorder.

By then Heather had already been dealing with her mental health in the best way she knew how, so her and her doctor decided to forgo medication and therapy. She admits that some of her coping mechanisms might not have been the best choices. For example, when she finally had a label for what she was feeling she feels like she might have used it as a shield. “Don’t judge me – I have anxiety.” But some of her coping mechanisms are the same ones she uses today – a lot of conversation. Heather remembers choosing to go to the same university as her older brother where he was always there for her. Any time she needed him all she had to do was call and he would come over and talk through whatever situation she was facing. I really relate to Heather’s descriptions of that sibling relationship. It’s a relationship of unconditional love and understanding that differs from that of a parent. If you’re lucky enough to share that bond with your sibling I’m sure you get it, too. It’s something I can’t fully put into words but even as I sit behind my computer I feel what that relationship is.

Other relationships in Heather’s life play a strong role in taking care of her mental health. Heather and her partner were incredibly supportive of me during my struggles in 2019 so I was unsurprised when she talked about how her partner helps her. She describes how he can lock eyes with her wherever they are and know exactly what she’s feeling – sometimes before she even recognizes the anxiety coming on. 

“What do you need? Take a moment. Take a breath. You are safe. I have you. You are protected.” All that sits in the look they share and he’s able to take care of her by doing exactly what she needs – whether it’s joining her to get some air, grabbing her a glass of water, or knowing if it’s the right moment to make her laugh. Not everyone is equipped to be in a relationship with someone that struggles with mental health (and that’s OK!) but to be able to find someone that is able to support you exactly how you need – that’s a beautiful thing.

One of the most common themes about what works for Heather in coping with her Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attack Disorder is the conversation she craves around it. However, Heather is very specific in how this works for her. When we talked about how people in her life can support her in her mental health struggles she says it’s important for there to be dialogue before she reaches her crisis-point. “I can’t even tell you my name at that moment. I equate it to being an animal where that complete instinctive mode has turned on… I’m just trying to protect myself.” 

Heather also states it’s important for people to know that mental health and how to help someone struggling with their mental health is also very circumstantial; “Asking what I need because one circumstance could be completely different from another circumstance. Sometimes we’re at a house party and I can step outside and get air, but I get anxiety getting on a plane. You can’t really step out and get air.”

Heather opened up my eyes to a side of mental health I don’t usually consider. Aside from communication, her daily yoga practice, and her love of tea, she also credits seeing a naturopath to being helpful in her healthy mental space. Together, she and her naturopath are fixing dietary and supplemental needs she has. Fixing how she feels physically has such a positive effect on how she feels mentally because the more discomfort she feels in her body, the more her anxiety increases. She also stays away from caffeine and alcohol. Heather laughed as she told me that now when her and her partner visit their friends, he gets offered a beer while she gets offered to search their tea cupboards (if she hasn’t already brought her own).  

Personally, talking to Heather about what doesn’t work for her was a reminder that I need to be careful in the ways in which I view mental health. Despite only being back on medication for a year, I’m a strong advocate of trying medication. However, Heather recalled her experience in using medication within the last couple of years. She described how the medication increased her anxiety and number of panic attacks she faced, and as well as understanding suicidal ideation for the first time in her life. Heather makes it clear she wasn’t suicidal but she says she understood how those thoughts can develop for some people. Luckily, Heather had enough experience with mental health at that point and a partner that supported her and listened to how she was feeling, that she was able to advocate for herself and demand what she knew was best for her – getting off medication immediately. Listening to Heather was a reminder that while there is no shame in taking medication – there is also no shame in not taking it. 

One of the biggest reasons I wanted to talk to Heather was because I’ve been really inspired watching her grow over the last year. As a Registered Massage Therapist, Heather left the field to pursue other options. She’d been feeling the urge to return to massage for a while before circumstances finally led her to jump in head-first. Since then, she hasn’t looked back. She loves being in control of her path, knowing when she needs to take a step back or when she needs to step it up. And, best of all, Heather knows exactly what type of health care practitioner she wants to be. After her own experience with an RMT (the RMT she now works with!) made her realize she didn’t always need a massage focused on digging as deep as you can handle to take care of the body. Heather had the most relaxing massage that had her walking away feeling zen and peaceful. Now, when you head to her Instagram page, her description includes her goal to treat stress and burnout, “For me, because I’ve gone through the burnout in many ways…that is a huge component coming back into it.” So Heather makes sure when she’s taking health histories she includes questions that ask what her clients’ health goals are, how they rate their stress, and what else they might be trying to achieve.

“Their mind and their social health have not met up with the physical, so they’re still physically manifesting whatever emotional pain or stress they’re feeling as well.” As someone that’s always been a fan of massage therapy, Heather really made me think about what I truly want out of my sessions and what I want in a massage therapist. Every part of her practice takes into account the mental well-being of her patients – from choosing the perfect playlist to knowing if her patients want to chat while on the table, and also being able to put her ego aside to acknowledge that she is not going to be the right RMT for everyone.

Heather is an incredible human being. She is so thoughtful and introspective that I felt like our conversation flew by and I could have continued listening to her thoughts on mental health. I felt like I walked away not only having been reminded how vast the mental health spectrum is, but like I’m viewing the spectrum with a new perspective. With that, we’ll end with what Heather wants people to know about mental health:

Don’t assume you know how to help.
Ask questions.
And, most importantly, take time to listen.