Season 1 Episode 3 – Raji Aujla

Raji Aujla is a multimedia strategist who spends her days plotting the most interesting ways to curate and culminate exchanges between culture producers and culture consumers. In this episode, she shares how “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy allowed me to actually enjoy my life.”

John Bateman (JB): Hi Raji, how are you doing today?  

Raji Aujla (RA): I’m well. How are you?  

JB: I’m doing fine thanks. So, what is your anxiety story?  

RA: It’s been a long one: silent suffering until my body just couldn’t handle it anymore. And so the panic attacks started coming in quite frequently, but leading up to the panic attacks, and in that time of silent suffering, there was this notion of something’s wrong with me because I just felt anxiety all the time. In social interactions, having more of a public job was difficult because you’re almost required to be an extrovert. And so meanwhile, this would just exhaust me and I would do anything and everything, short of nothing to try to be social. So that included trying to drink coffee and have caffeine, or trying to drink alcohol, and see if these would help me and nothing worked. It just perpetually got worse, to the point that I stopped attending events that I should be at, or birthday parties with friends.  

RA: And then slowly I stopped getting invitations to those. So then I just kept thinking everybody hates me. And all of that was happening in parallel with me just being very self-critical and genuinely thinking something’s wrong. I actually started creating a suicide plan because I just thought there is nothing they could do to feel normal. And I had no medical knowledge prescribing that this could be something that most people feel and was not just, something that I felt in isolation. During this time my sister gave birth to twins and I fell in love with them. That anchored me into saying, wait a minute: creating a suicide plan; well, I have a successful life and I have people that love me.  

RA: There’s something off, and maybe it’s something that I can get help with. I’ll go and speak to my family doctor about it. So that’s kind of what kicked off educating myself anxiety is something that’s felt commonly. So that journey of educating myself began with looking inward, dealing with things I had never dealt with before. Recognizing things in my behaviour that were not helpful or healthy for me to, to do. And slowly from there started setting up the support system that’s required to tackle something like anxiety disorder.

RA: So that’s how it all has been for me. I suppose that’s been now a 10 year journey, five years of silence, suffering another five years just trying to not want to kill myself to wanting to live and choosing that. So, yeah. That was tackling the panic and the agoraphobia, which I was diagnosed with, going through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Really anything that people would tell me to do, I was like, ‘yes, I want to do this. I want to live, I want to be healthy’.

JB: I’ve talked to people who deal with mental health issues and, the first thing many of them do is to research as much as they can and then they find a myriad of different solutions that work for a myriad of different people. Um, and so did, did you find that you tried stuff and it didn’t work or how did it work? Because there’s, there’s a lot of different things you can do. You know, you can change sleep, you can change diet, you can meditate, you can do CBT, you can go to counseling. Um, how did you wade through that and find out what worked for you?  

RA: It was trial and error. I knew how I liked to learn; that grounded me. I knew what works for me and for me, nurturing resources like talk therapy didn’t necessarily work. I really at this point just wanted to get more of a grasp of what is going on biologically, what are triggers like just so reading about that was helpful. During that process, the first person who told me anxiety his experience was the same was, oddly, John Ghomeshi. He told me about his triggers and his anxiety. And this was before, of course, everything hit the fan for him. Sadly, everything hit the fan for him. So that one resource I had suddenly became a trigger for me. And that just perpetuated this self-loathing, lack of worthiness, and me just being critical with myself.  

RA: But that did open up the word ‘anxiety’ to me and I started researching what that is and started to be a little bit more open with my group of friends. The most helpful pipeline that was really successful for me was first not tackling anxiety head on. It was first developing the coping skills, so my day to day life could be easier. And so I didn’t want to dig deep because I didn’t know what was there. But one thing I knew was that obviously my body is giving up on me. I’m starting to faint on flights and I’m having panic attacks to the point of them being very harmful in a social context.

RA: And so getting that mindfulness and that grounding techniques and strategies just to exist today and still be able to operate as a human day to day, I. E. get up, go to work, get out of bed. These things were all very challenging. That was the healthy way for me to begin my journey. And once I was able to maintain those and exercise skills, whether it’s breathing technique, mindfulness meditation practices, writing in a gratitude journal, all of those things in in parallel or cooperation with one another is what helps me just get to the point of, okay, I know how to live now day to day. And now I’d like to dig a little deeper into this panic and what is triggering it. And so then I began to CBT, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And while doing the CBT I didn’t forego doing the other things.  

RA: I kept doing those in concert with one another after the CBT was complete. And it had finally allowed me not only to live in my, it was, I had the coping strategies like mindfulness meditation that helped me just not have a panic attack. CBT finally brought me to this moment in time to enjoy myself and to go to TIFF and be at festival parties without having massive panic attacks. But it actually allowed me to enjoy my life. It was, ‘Oh my God, I’m addicted now’.  

RA: So I began trauma therapy program for women at women’s health college. That is what I’m doing currently. I’m getting educated on biologically, what is the function of our brain? What does the amygdala do? I think that that kind of knowledge helps us be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves. 

RA: So I, I created these milestones and intentions then this framework of how I’d like to tackle this really large issue that I know nothing about. And through that intentional design of how I’d like to go about it, I mean of course things have shifted here and there and I’m learning of new techniques and there is suddenly this openness, to hear other people’s stories and try to see what works for me. But that framework has kept me going cause I’m like, you know what, CBT’s an 11-month program, and I’m going to commit to that. After that I’m going to have some time and then I’m going to start trauma therapy. There is something almost guiding me through it because that initial research was done for me.  

JB: Definitely! And you’ve used Anxiety Canada’s totally free Mind Shift CBT app?  

RA: I use it! In fact I used it prior to Alistair chatting with me and connecting it as a part of Anxiety Canada! I had downloaded it as a part of my CBT. I use it on a daily basis.  

JB: Oh, great! What’s beautiful also is it’s a free resource. That helps a lot. I’ve downloaded other similar apps, and usually you can only go so far before you have to start paying money. It should be free to get mental health help.  

RA: I don’t know why it’s not more prevalent, resources for mental health. I live in downtown Toronto. When I walk up my door and look out my window, there’s homelessness all over the place. I don’t know why we don’t dig deeper and think, wait, there’s mental health issues here. A lot of people go onto the streets cause there’s unsatisfied or unrecognized mental health issues. When I think about that it’s very disheartening. My brother has schizophrenia he tried to kill my dad twice, which is what led to his diagnosis. He was toggling between being in prison and being out of prison in a restraining or it like, it took two years of me happening, his diagnoses for law enforcement to finally take it seriously because that took two years.  

RA: It took two years to diagnose my brother and it was only because I champion to him that he was able to succeed in it. If I didn’t, if I gave up, which I wanted to do several times, he, would be in and out of prison probably for the rest of his life. And I would not be surprised if he was a person who either commits suicide or went into a public space and killed others. Like, that thought is not wild to me. I think that was a very real thought, which is what kept me going in pursuit of getting him the help he needed. Do you know what I mean?  

JB: I do. And you know, I’m gonna wrap up, but I’m going to tell you what you’re doing in what we’re doing here is, is part of this process. And I think it’s great that we’re here now, that the people are sharing their stories and you sharing your stories and incredibly powerful thing and um, it’s all part of what we’re building towards. So I really appreciate you talking to us about that and I, and I’m really happy that you’ve worked through it and that you’ve found, some way to start to cope with this because it’s a difficult challenge.  

RA: I’m happy as well to get this far, but I also feel it’s part of our job to pay it forward and to try keep that space and resources for people who are not there yet.

JB: For sure! Thanks very much for talking to us, Raji. Take care.