In the midst of a global pandemic that has impacted the economic, health, and housing sectors to name just a few over the past two and a half years, there is one sector that has been put under immense strain and pressure: mental health services.
On a national level, Ireland ranked third out of the 36 countries in Europe that experienced the highest rates of mental illness. In 2016, 18.5% of the Irish population were recorded as having a mental health disorder
Getting my mental health back on track
Many of us look back to lockdown with memories of all-nighters and finally having the perfect excuse to binge on our favourite tv show, but for some, it only exacerbated ongoing mental health issues and there seemed like there was no end to the lockdowns.
On the other hand, lockdown allowed some people suffering with mental health issues to tackle their symptoms. While it wasn’t an entirely ideal environment to face our problems head-on, it allowed for contemplation and a time to reevaluate our progress and get back on track to recovery.
That’s what I did. My OCD and anxiety had been left to fester in the isolation and social mandating of 2020 and 2021. My fear of contamination intensified with COVID-19. It became increasingly more difficult to even go to the shops for food or meet up with friends and family. I ultimately decided to start exposure therapy, which seemed daunting at first because the last thing I wanted to do was to face my fears of contamination and anxiety head-on.
Getting help for OCD and anxiety
The process was gradual, which made it easier as I didn’t feel like I was jumping into the deep end. I had the opportunity to check in with my mental health nurse to reflect on my progress and keep me on track. Mental health nurses play a vital role in the support and treatment of people with mental illness. They assess each person’s mental health and provide support by assessing and providing treatment and resources that aid in recovery.
Mental health nurses keep patients on track on the road to recovery by carefully constructing an individualised and achievable plan, such as exposure therapy. A beneficial part of the process of exposure therapy was the hierarchy of fear in which I would scale my fears in order of severity and tackle them bit by bit.
Of course, it was challenging in the beginning as I had to look at my anxiety and number one enemy in the eyes and confront them. It was easier said than done and progress did not happen overnight. In fact, my anxiety was still at the forefront and my OCD was still being affected due to my avoidant behaviour around cleanliness and contamination.
For me, exposure therapy alone was not enough to get me on the road to recovery. While it had some positive aspects, such as making me more attuned to my safety-seeking behaviours such as washing my hands, its most beneficial method was that it planted a seed in which I became more aware of things that I do and how to overcome and challenge them.
Medication helped my recovery
It was the addition of medication that ultimately led to my recovery. My anxiety was not reduced with exposure therapy and as long as my anxiety was still in the background, my OCD was still on constant high alert.
Initially, I was apprehensive about starting medication and worried about certain side effects I might experience. It is so important to research the medication you are thinking of trying and discuss any concerns with your prescribing doctor. Become as well informed about how it works as you can, as well as what the potential side effects are.
This step, along with speaking with my mental health nurse who informed and talked me through the potential combinations of medications I would be taking, aided me in feeling more confident about taking medication.
With mental health, patience is key
Medication does not change or reduce symptoms overnight. It is a gradual process with ups and downs, and it is important to be patient as well as note any possible changes in your behaviour good or bad.
Personally, it took a couple of weeks to notice any changes in my behaviour, but I started to notice that when I would challenge my ritualistic behaviours my anxiety was dampened. Gradually, I became less and less avoidant of everyday tasks that were a challenge for me and ultimately my OCD became less intense.
From this point on, I became less avoidant and continued to challenge myself every day with the help of exposure therapy. I still had intrusive thoughts, and some days were better than others. Yet, the all-consuming voice of the threat of contamination at the forefront of my mind was quieter and the voice of reason was louder.
This possibility could not have been attainable had it not been for the combination of medication and exposure therapy, which when combined allowed for my treatment and recovery to ensue. Had I not started medication that reduced my anxiety levels and thus allowed for me to engage in exposure therapy and challenge my avoidant behaviour I believe my mental health recovery could not have begun.
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