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Young Women Are Anxious, Depressed And Lonely. I Was One Of Them.

About three years ago, I was diagnosed with severe depression.

It came after a difficult few years with lots of changes -- leaving the safety of school, having my heart broken, starting uni, getting my first full-time job.

I was trying to work out who I was and what I stood for. But it was more than that. I didn’t know where I fit, and I didn’t know how to ‘do life’ -- to pay bills, get a lease and do my tax return. It was overwhelming and made me feel like a failure.

According to a new study, this time of life is challenging for a lot of young women. And I mean A LOT. The Jean Hailes For Women’s Health annual survey, released on Wednesday, found that almost 40 percent of young women have experienced anxiety, and over a third have experienced depression. Of the 10,000 respondents, 42 percent said they’d felt “nervous, anxious or on edge” nearly every day in the past month. For women aged between 18 and 35, these numbers are even higher.

This is me in 2016 -- pretty much in the middle of all the mess. (Image: Supplied)

That was me. I was nervous, lethargic and drained every day. Even simple tasks like going for coffee was enough to cause a meltdown. I was irrational and unpredictable, and it controlled my life. I was constantly close to tears, retreating into myself further and further as a way of dealing with the guilt I felt, the shame. I didn’t want to be a burden. I was scared my friends and family wouldn’t be able to handle it, that they would tire of my constant negative moods, my outbursts and my tears.

From the outside I had this seemingly perfect life, and I wanted it to end.

I’ve written before about how I recovered from my depression. That was over a year ago, and yet I still have days when I struggle. Recovery isn’t linear, and it’s got a hell of a long tail.

The past 12 months have had a different focus for me. Once I was safe and able to function, I spent a lot of time rebuilding my resilience. Because when I was diagnosed, I all but lost it.

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You see, once I had depression, I had a really good excuse for not doing a lot of stuff. Didn’t feel like going to a party? Eh, I’ll just stay in today. Applying for that job feels hard and scary. Oh no, I don’t think I’m up for it. #selfcare

I pretty much stopped doing hard stuff, altogether. Anything that gave me that nervous excitement you get before a big speech or a dance performance became a red flag, and I retreated.

Put simply, I made a nice little nest in my comfort zone and didn’t come out for a while. I wasn’t sad, but I also wasn’t omg-life-is-wonderful HAPPY. I was able to do my comfortable job, see my comfortable friends and hang out with my family. But I still hadn’t regained my sense of adventure. I still hadn’t recovered my sparkle.

I wanted magic. (Image: Supplied)

This is fine if you want your life to be safe, cozy, and predictable. I wasn’t prepared to live like that.

I wanted magic.

And so, I began to work my resilience muscle, in small but powerful ways.

I SET MYSELF A CHALLENGE OF TALKING TO ONE STRANGER PER DAY.

This was extremely hard for me. I’d once been a chatty, talk-to-anyone kinda gal, but this had become almost impossible. I had all these incessant thoughts: “What if they don’t like you? What if you say something stupid? What if you trip over your words?” Blah, blah. My inner voice is pretty mean, but I’m trying to ignore her.

But slowly, it got easier. And easier. And easier. Now it’s like breathing. Sure, I still get nervous sometimes and I often put my foot in my mouth, but hey, the Earth keeps spinning. Also, I’m starting to think people like you better when you’re not perfect.

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I SAID YES TO A LOT OF ACTIVITIES I WANTED TO DECLINE

Hiking, camping, double dates with new people, rock climbing, a dance class, a protest (the climate one, and yes, I was nervous AF). Each time, I wanted to cancel. I’d gotten SO GOOD at cancelling. Any time I felt that familiar bubble of fear (or was it excitement?), I tried to find excuses not to go. Sometimes I did cancel. But mostly, I pushed through.

And guess what? It was FINE. I actually had a lot of fun and made new friends. I came home from all these activities with the fizz of dopamine, giddy. And that made the next time much easier.

My cheer squad. (Image: Supplied)
I QUIT SOCIAL MEDIA

I talk to a lot of people about recovery and what worked for me, and it’s the ‘quit social media’ one that turns people off. That, and exercise.

Hey, whatever works for you. If social media adds joy and meaning to your life, go forth and scroll.

For me, it was like a time-sucking, life-sucking vortex of comparison. It numbed me, distracted me. It took me out of everything I was working towards; mindfulness, presence, connection.

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Towards the end of last year I suffered a minor mental health breakdown.

So I quit. Well, kind of. It’s a bit awkward to quit social media when your job is social media. (Yes, I appreciate the hypocrisy of this.)

I quit Instagram. For me, Instagram is the worst. Endless scrolling through perfectly curated lives, while your own life is just… what? On hold? Or being wasted? Honestly, we don’t have that many days on this planet.

I still use Facebook, mostly for work, but I don’t have the app anymore, so I can’t use ‘work’ as an excuse to sit on the couch at 9pm and ignore my boyfriend.

Me in 2018. (Image: Supplied)
I BUILT A ROUTINE AROUND EXERCISE

I knew I needed to exercise for my mental health (as well as my physical health), but I was struggling to make it stick. Every time I went felt like an effort.

In my childhood, dance, gymnastics and swimming were part of life, so I knew I needed a commitment, a routine. For example: Tuesday night is yoga, and that’s not negotiable. It doesn’t get shafted for work, friends, family or Netflix. Birthdays are an exception.

When I was feeling motivated and happy, I built this routine. I started with one session per week. Then I added more, one at a time. Now, I try to move every day, and do a class four-five times per week.

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When I’m having a bad day, or a bad week, this routine tethers me to some sense of normality. It props me up. It allows me to hit reset. I occasionally skip a workout, even have three or four days off, but the routine is strong enough that I always come back to it. And that’s pretty awesome.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that there is a future beyond the struggle. But also that the struggle is part of life. It’s a rich tapestry, and you’re going to experience sadness, loneliness, stress, being overwhelmed, grief and nervousness. Hopefully, you’re also going to experience giddy, take-your-breath-away joy, contentment, excitement, and deep peace. Maybe all in the same day.

But that joy, those moments of exhilaration don’t just happen while you’re sitting on the couch. You have to do the work. You have to step outside your comfort zone. You have to chase the magic.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about anxiety, depression and mental health contact beyond blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.