Taking that first step into therapy can be hard, yet it can also change your life. Here, 41-year-old ‘Sara’ shares the story of her own therapy journey, including her challenges with anxiety, panic attacks and eating issues…
I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t reached out for help and worked with a therapist — every aspect of my life has improved, including my social life, relationship, family life and career. Most importantly, therapy has made me resilient again. I am not only happier but have learned to deal with the scariest, most challenging part of being human — emotions.
Because of the difference that therapy has made to my life, I’ve decided to share my experience with anyone who is considering it but feels guilt or even shame about doing so...
In April 2017, at the age of 37, I met up with a friend for coffee. I told her that I had had a panic attack the night before, how scary it was and that I was afraid of hurting myself in an attempt to stop it. My friend carefully asked me if I’d consider talking to a therapist about it. I scoffed at her comment and felt offended. This was just a physical issue that needed to be addressed, not a mental one.
At that point in my life, everything I did in life was grounded in a need to prove myself. If I wasn’t the best or excellent at something, I wasn’t worthy. There was always an aspect in my life where I was pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. I had done this so consistently that by the age of 27, I started developing health issues.
I wanted control over how I was feeling and also over my health, so I believed the answer was my diet. I started eating ‘clean’ and eliminated foods like gluten, dairy and sugar. I tried every diet from veganism to ketogenic diets. I focused so much on being ‘healthy’ that the restrictions perpetuated the cycle of feeling isolated, helpless, and sick.
I felt depressed, lonely, helpless and angry but above all, I hated myself for feeling this way. There were days I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed. My body ached and I would experience horrendous panic attacks at night. I felt guilty because I kept thinking of people who were dealing with real grief, poverty or abuse, and I hated myself for not being able to pull myself together.
In August 2018, a month after some serious family drama and an ugly panic attack, I told my husband that I didn’t think I was going to get through this alone. We were living abroad in Europe at the time and I then spoke to a clinical psychologist friend based in the UK who referred me to a colleague, which was the start of a one and a half year journey to getting my life back. I think I was very lucky that I serendipitously ended up with my therapist as I liked and trusted her completely from the get-go. She was kind and had a lot of empathy but also maintained clear boundaries and was very professional.
All our sessions were online which worked out great for me because we were moving around a lot. If I had had a therapist who only did in-person sessions, I would have had to find three different ones in a year. As I was living in Germany at the time the UK fees were steep, but looking back it was worth every penny.
The first sessions were sob fests, it felt like years of emotions surfaced out of nowhere. Those sessions were liberating, creating a space and lightness within me that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Part of me, however, also felt indulgent for talking about myself. I often worried about how trivial my problems were and felt ashamed of bringing them up in sessions. I worried about how privileged and spoiled I sounded, and I found it hard to believe that someone wanted to help me.
Whatever issue I brought up, I would minimise it and compare it with the ‘real’ suffering of others. Despite feeling resistant to acknowledging the pain, grief or disappointment that I felt, my therapist did an excellent job of guiding me through those feelings and opening me up to them. Therapy caused a lot of emotions to resurface. I felt a lot happier but sometimes I also had to go through feelings of incredible sadness. I stayed in therapy for about 18 months as I liked having that point of stability and safety in my life. It was an anchor in my week, helping me to reset and forcing me to deal with emotions.
Besides gaining a better understanding of why I was struggling and had felt so stuck, therapy gave me the resilience to deal with life again. It also taught me self-compassion. I was the meanest, harshest critic of myself, but therapy gave me permission to be there and console myself when I needed it. It showed me I could do this instead of turning to addictive behaviours or relying on others to feel better.
The anxiety attacks I had disappeared almost immediately after I started therapy and I never had a serious panic attack ever again. I’ve been in stressful situations that have caused sleepless nights but they never escalated the way they once did. I now know exactly when I was spiraling in negative thoughts and have the tools to calm myself down.
I struggled with a series of chronic health issues in the past years, so I became very focused on them and trying to ‘heal’. Although the issues didn’t disappear overnight, once I started therapy they no longer consumed me. I started to trust my body again and the health issues became more of an afterthought in my life.
Being able to connect with my feelings was one of the biggest revelations when it came to my energy levels. I had been struggling with low energy for years before therapy — I had to lie down several times a day and rest a lot even though I didn’t want to. I’m not like that anymore, I have the energy to do the things that I want to. Since therapy, I know that when my energy is low that I need to take care of myself and be mindful of my inner critic.
Trusting my feelings and understanding how my mind impacts my energy has opened me up to pursue a career that fulfils me. For years, I worked office jobs for managers that drained me and I truly believed that inspiring work just wasn’t available to me. With the energy that I found after starting my therapy journey, I could start focusing on topics that inspired me and found the courage to transition to a completely different line of work. It’s the first time I’m excited about work again.
Loneliness was a big issue when I started therapy, I felt like I couldn’t reach out to anyone and that nobody cared about me. Therapy helped me to fill my void. Once I started feeling better about myself, I automatically felt less lonely and needy. I didn’t need others to make me feel better but I started to connect more with others again and establish stronger and healthier relationships. Even during the pandemic, I hardly ever felt lonely or disconnected because I am very comfortable with myself, grateful for my family and have strong relationships I can fall back on.
The relationship with my husband also benefitted greatly from therapy. I had a lot of unexplained anger towards him because I didn’t know how to voice my needs and never spoke up. You could say that I expected him to be a mind-reader. Therapy taught me that I’m allowed to speak up and that I matter. It changed everything.
Therapy has improved the quality of my life in so many ways. I know that the people around me benefit from who I am now, which is why it’s the best investment I’ve ever made.
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