You don’t know me, and I don’t know you. Because you don’t know me, you don’t know about the daily war I wage with my anxiety and that being an anxious person makes me overly aware of my surroundings, usually to a fault. So when I walked past you with my son — who on that morning chose a fuchsia rose headband to wear with his Batman flip flops — as he pulled me towards the Barbie section, I saw you. I saw the look.
Going places with my son can be difficult for me. I panic when I think of the stares and the thoughts people are thinking about him. He, thankfully, does not appear to notice or care. On this particular outing, we were going to buy him a new Barbie with the money he’d saved. Oh, if you could’ve seen the happiness on his face when we arrived at the all pink-purple-and-glitter aisle filled to the brim with beautiful dolls. Pure. Innocent. Joy.
But we passed you with your husband and sons in the aisle filled with trucks and action figures, so you did not get to see that joy. You probably didn’t notice me catch my breath as we approached your family in that aisle, wondering what my reaction would be should you or one of your sons point and laugh. But I noticed you. I saw you.
You looked down at my boy with his pretty headband and beaming blue eyes, and then you looked up at me. Our eyes met, and you smiled. You smiled. And then you looked back at your boys who were staring at my son, and you smiled at them. And so they went back to picking out Hot Wheels, and we went on to find the perfect ballerina Barbie doll.
It was a mom-to-mom high five. No words exchanged, no hand gestures… just a smile and a small reassurance that maybe it’s all going to be all right. Right there in the toy section of Target of all places. So thank you. Thank you for noticing my son and making sure your boys saw that his differences were just fine with you. Thank you for easing my anxiety that morning. Thank you for giving me the look.
The Mighty is asking the following: Write a thank-you letter to someone you never expected you’d thank.If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
If you live with anxiety, sometimes it’s difficult to understand your own everyday battles — and even more challenging to then explain these to your significant others. That doesn’t mean people with anxiety can’t try to communicate how or what they’re feeling. And it doesn’t mean their significant others can’t do something to help.
We asked our Mighty readers who live with anxiety what they want their partners to know:
Here’s what they had to say:
1. “When I’m anxious and snappy and hiding in bed, join me and put your arms around me instead of avoiding me. Sometimes it’s all I need. To be held together when I can’t hold myself together.” — Michelle Hatfield Prestriedge
2. “Anxiety is like a rabbit hole, the deeper I get, the stranger things become.” — Morgan Victoria
3. “When we argue, and I tell you I need a minute, give it to me. It’s not that I don’t want to resolve the issue, or that I don’t care about your opinion, it’s that I’m about to fall off the cliff and neither of us wants that.” — Heather Polum
4. “If I’m having a panic or anxiety attack, ask me what I need from you.” — Anna Moore
5. “Please know this is not the real me. When I’m having an episode, it’s like a parasite living within me, feeding off my worst fears. I don’t know why these things happen but you being here with me is the only light at the end of this spinning tunnel.” — Terri Brown
6. “I’m not overreacting… I can’t control it.” — Mayte Garcia
7. “When I run away, let me be. Give me a few minutes. Then come tell me it’s all OK. Tell me my world is not falling apart, let me know it was just a rough few minutes. Tell me you love me and I am important.” — Jasmine Connolly
8. “Sometimes all it takes is a touch of a hand to calm the biggest storms.” — Jeremiah Swing
9. “Don’t rush me to stop being anxious. If I could speed up the process, I would.” — Michaela David
10. “Sometimes all I need is reassurance that I’m not constantly bothering you or that you do actually want my company.” — Jessica Cotton
11. “When I get anxious, don’t take it personal or get defensive thinking it’s because of something you did. It’s not.” — Becky Hone
12. “When I retreat ‘inside my head’ please don’t take offense that I don’t want to tell you what I’m thinking. Most of the time it’s actually a blank screen up there and I’m not thinking of anything. Literally. I’m just recharging.” — Samantha Frei
13. “I know sometimes my fears don’t make sense, but it’s real for me.” — Summer Ivie
14. “Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean I never have a real reason to be upset about something.” — Robin Levin Konen
15. “I often feel ashamed of my anxieties and depression and will keep them from you. It’s not that I don’t trust you, it’s that I don’t like feeling weak and helpless in front of you.” — Nicole Howard
16. “I don’t need you to try to ‘fix’ me. If I have an anxiety attack, I often just need to let it run its course.” — Emma King
17. “I still love you, and I know this will pass eventually. Just give it time and remember I’m still me.” — Maddy McCandless
18. “If I have trouble getting things done it isn’t because I am unmotivated or lazy or making excuses.” — Megan Kulchar
19. “I’ll probably try to convince you to leave, but that’s really the last thing I need or want. Don’t leave, stay and hug me.” — Kallie Boothe
20. “Don’t take it personal. Getting upset with me will only make the anxiety worse. Just listen and be there. I’ll come around.” — Angel Deidloff
21. “Please don’t get mad at me if I get anxious over something you might deem as nothing. I can’t help it, and I’m trying my best.” — Taylor Nicole
22. “You need to reassure me you still love me because my mind will make me think the worst.” — Jessica Matthews
23. “I know I’m not being myself, but that doesn’t mean I can just switch it off.” — Robyn Murphy
24. “Sit with me and talk with me. More so listen to me. Hold me like you will never let me go.” — Debi Justice Fletcher
25. “Please stay no matter how hard I push away. Be my anchor in the midst of an oceanic storm.” — JT Gentry
26. “When I say I don’t want to talk about it, don’t drop the subject. Ask what you can do to help.” — Amy Waguespack
27. “You don’t have to agree with the reason I’m anxious, but please don’t down play it.” — Emily Simisky
28. “No one is more frustrated with me than me.” — Danielle Pépin
29. “When I am having a panic attack, comfort me with love. Don’t scream at me to calm down and breathe.” — A Marie Bellamy
30. “Your acceptance helps me heal.” — Francesca Marie Cwynar
Editor’s note: Everyone experiences anxiety differently. These answers are based on individuals’ experiences.
What do you want your partner to know about your anxiety? Let us know in the comments below.
I can count the number of close friends I have on one hand.
I cannot, however, count how many times I have had a panic attack when put into a new group setting.
I am great at one-on-one conversations.
But when it comes to speaking in front of people I scream inside.
I have coped with being legally blind my whole life, but the social anxiety is a new struggle. In my head I know I do not need anyone’s approval, but I want people to like me. I want to like myself on the days I am overcome with self pity. Every day I deal with insecurities but try to put on a happy face. I’ve found it’s important to note my struggles and figure out how to push myself to the line past my comfort zone. There are good days and bad days.
While “normal” people feel the respect of quiet stares while talking in front of people, I feel pressure building up and a heart wishing to escape my chest.
I always call someone while walking alone.
I am quiet because I worry people will judge me if I talk, not because I am stuck-up.
Going to parties takes all my energy.
I feel overwhelmed in crowded places, like I am suffocating.
I repeat words in my head over and over before I ever say them.
I want to hang out with you, but sometimes it is hard.
I crave familiarity. Going to new places makes me nervous
Realizing these struggles does not make me or anyone else feeling this way weak; it reveals our strengths. Remember to see the light in the dark.
I care about people wholeheartedly.
I invest in what friendships I have long term.
I communicate more effectively on paper than orally.
I am good at talking to people who are by themselves.
I do not have to worry about getting into trouble at parties.
I think before I speak.
You can always count on me to be where I say I will be.
The Mighty is asking the following: What is a part of your or a loved one’s disease, disability or mental illness that no one is aware of? Why is it time to start talking about it?If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
I told you I was being put on medication a month and a half ago, and you were so accommodating. I warned you I might have side effects, and you told me it was fine and if I needed five, to just tell you. Thank you.
Three weeks ago, I started a new medication. I woke up in the morning hardly able to focus. It was a big weekend at work — a double discount weekend — and I’d agreed to an all-day shift. When I called in sick because I was spacing out and could barely walk, let alone drive, you said it was fine, and if I felt up to it, I could make up the hours tomorrow. This job is my only income. I felt so embarrassed about having the day off.
Today, you were on lunch when I started shaking and hyperventilating and the tightness in my chest caused me to walk out of the back door on a line full of customers, and sit outside, riding out the panic attack. When I came back in, served two more customers and immediately started crying, another staff member suggested I should go see you about going home.
When I got to the staff room, my face bright red with embarrassment and wet with tears, my voice shaking so much I could barely speak, you told me it was OK. You took me to a side office and sat me down and told me it was OK again. You told me to stay in there until I felt I could drive, and then take myself home.
Those words in that moment meant the world to me. I had never had a panic attack in public before, nor one that lasted more than 10 minutes, let alone the 30 or so this one was. I was scared, I was embarrassed, I was sure I was going to lose my job, but you were compassionate and kind. I can’t thank you enough.
A grateful colleague
The Mighty is asking the following: Share with us an unexpected act of kindness, big or small, that you’ve experienced or witnessed in an everyday place.If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
Nope. Not really. But the way my anxiety is set up, I catastrophize events and situations to protect myself from yucky feelings like frustration, worry, heartache or disappointment. I make my perception my reality because I constantly have negative thoughts — I hate and beat myself up every day because of them. When I read a text, Facebook post, or email “presenting” as evil, insolent or dismissive, it takes my brain longer to convince my body (and soul) I’m not in danger or being personally attacked.
You’re so judgmental. You’re a Judgmental Jack.
No, that’s not what I want people to know, but it’s how I feel when I’m accused of being a pessimist. This is especially hurtful when I have disclosed my struggles to people who still stigmatize me for something I cannot control.
I want people to know individuals do not choose to have a mental illness. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean I don’t have scars. So why shame me because I have cognitive distortions and scars you cannot see? I want others to know I am not my anxiety; I am a loving, giving and charismatic individual who will use my pain as my platform.
So to those who call me “negative,” you don’t know the whole story.
The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold his misconception? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.
Fear usually pops up when we do something scary: jumping from planes, running from bulls… going clothes shopping…
But sometimes our response gets out of control, and we end upspending a disproportionate amount of time feeling afraid. We call this “anxiety.”
Language is limiting, and it’s frustrating we use the same word — anxiety — for both “reasonably worrying about a job interview” and also “crippling terror which prevents me from leaving the house.” It’s like having the same word for “all-out nuclear war” and “playful tickle fight.”
Anxiety is a spectrum, and so the association each of us has with the word might be different. For me, I’ve always been at the more unpleasant end of the spectrum. As a child, I was deeply worried about mortgages — for some reason — and then as I grew up it became obvious worrying was my main way of relating to the world.
Whatever I had to deal with, I would worry about. And then I’d worry about the next thing… and the next thing… until eventually this conveyor belt of worry got out of control and I ended living with horrible anxiety.
I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t enjoy life at all.
And naturally, my response to this was to worry about it —which just made it worse!
At some points I felt so trapped, I even wondered if suicide was the only way out.
Now, I wasn’t very open about this. If you had met me at the time, I would have given a fairly convincing impression of having things mostly together. I was putting up an image. And that was bad for me, because I didn’t get to share my problems with anybody else… but it was bad for others too, because they didn’t get to see the truth. Andif we all put up an image, then everyone struggles alone.
So I’m trying to be more open about these things, and I began to think about how we could live less anxiously. I’m sure it won’t surprise you in the slightest to learn the answer lies in advanced fluid dynamics.
Let’s divide all the liquids in the world into two groups – which, by the way, is a fun game if you’ve got a lot of liquids and nothing better to do.
The two groups we’re interested in are Newtonian fluids and non-Newtonian fluids. This distinction described how liquid behave when they’re subjected to an outside force. In other words, we’re answering the classic scientific question: what happens if I hit it?
If we hit a Newtonian fluid like, for example, water — we know what happens. It splashes! Going all over the place and soaking everything in sight. And, generally, I get politely asked to leave for causing an unnecessary disturbance.
But if we hit a non-Newtonian fluid like, for example, popular pudding sauce custard, it acts differently. Instead of splashing apart when you hit it, it hardens temporarily before relaxing back to its previous state.
In other words, if I punch custard — for my own personal reasons — then it hardens. So essentially, we can do really awesome things like filling a swimming pool with custard and then walk on it!
And as I thought about walking on custard – and I thought about it way more than anyone probably should – the more I realized how exhausting it would be. Once I start I can’t stop. I can’t pause. I can’t enjoy myself. I have to keep hitting the surface underneath me.
I must keep going… if I stop, the custard softens and I drown in custard… which is definitely in the top three most embarrassing ways to die there is.
Years after I first learned about this, I was in the middle of a terribly anxious period. This image of walking on custard came to my mind and I realized I was running and running and running on the spot. Exhausted. Unable to stop…. and with this constant fear of drowning in my own mind.
And the more people I talk to, the more I realize this feeling of exhaustion — of not being able to rest, of not getting anywhere – is common.
And I wondered what it would mean to stop.
Not to stop on the custard,where we drown. What would it mean to make it to solid ground.
Somewhere where we can rest, somewhere we can be at peace without struggling. Somewherewe can live.
So I made it my number one priority to figure out what this custard was for me. What was this anxiety? And to figure out how to get to solid ground.
I learned a whole lot of things, but the idea I want to share with you today is what I came to think of as “custard traps“: unhelpful mental habits which were causing my anxiety or making it worse.
I think of them as traps because at times I’d be going along quite happily and then suddenly I’m having a panic attack!I’d fallen into a custard trap. At other times, it was more like a vast ocean of custard, and I’d be trudging exhausted for months before finally getting to somewhere I could rest.
Some people have told me this image resonates with them, but for them the custard doesn’t feel like anxiety. It feels like shame or depression or some other emotion. But what it feels like and whether it’s a temporary custard trap or a chronic sea of custard, these unhelpful mental habits share a number of features.
Firstly, they appear invisible.
Everything we do becomes normal. If we change something in our homes — paint it, move it around, adopt a vicious angry bear to come live in the hall — then after a few days we don’t even notice anymore. The change just fades into the background. It becomes normal. We’re like “oh don’t worry about that bear… that’s just Steve!” And we do this with a mental habits, too. The number one reason I didn’t do anything about my anxiety for so long was that I wasn’t aware of all the thought habits I had fallen into. They were invisible to me.
And the solution to this is observation. Self-observation. Getting to know ourselves.
Now, this idea offended me the first 100 times I heard it. “You’ve got to get to know yourself!” So patronizing and irritating, but it’s unfortunately true.
Self-knowledge doesn’t just magically appear. There’s no process monitoring our mental habits and letting us know we could change things around a little bit to be happier. We have to do the work ourselves to understand what’s going on inside.
Let’s have an example: Imagine I’m walking away from a group of friends and a thought pops into my head. Something proportional, rational and reasonable, like “you said goodbye a little awkwardly there…. maybe all your friends now hate you!”
If I’m not paying attention and that thought pops up, then I’m gonna have an emotional reaction, I’m going to feel bad. I’m thinking “all my friends think I’m super cool — of course! —but what if this is the moment they realize I’m not. I could be doomed. I’m gonna die alone!”
And there I am on the custard, having a bad time over nothing. But if I’m paying attention when that thought pops up I can choose my reaction. Maybe I’ll choose to have an emotional freak out, but maybe instead I could choose to react to it more rationally.
Recognizing what’s going on inside using observation is crucial to making these custard traps visible so we can deal with them.
The second key feature of custard traps is that they are self-reinforcing. The trap themselves remove our ability to escape the trap. They’re devious like that. Anxiety, for example, protects itself because it’s exhausting being anxious. It sucks up all our energy and leaves very little energy to deal with the root of the problem.
This self-reinforcing aspect often appears in the form of a cycle.
For example, being anxious takes a toll on our bodies which can make us feel ill. And then we can be anxious about being ill, which feeds itself with more illness and then more anxiety. The cycle gets stronger.
Or perfectionism. I have perfectionist tendencies, so I beat myself up for every mistake. Then I beat myself up for beating myself up because a perfect person wouldn’t do that either! And again the cycle continues.
It’s so easy to get stuck in these traps — and the solution is to do something different. This is based on the simple idea that clearly whatever I’m doing isn’t working. My natural impulse is to do the next step in the cycle: that’s what makes it a cycle!
So if my instinct is to sit and dwell on some mental movie of something terrible I’m convinced is about to happen, instead maybe I should stand up and sing the Danish national anthem. It won’t help — not least because I don’t know the Danish national anthem — but it will break me out of the loop I’m in.
I do something different. And if it’s not helpful, that’s fine: next time I’ll do something different again. Eventually I will learn some things I can do that are useful ways to escape these traps.
The third key feature of custard traps is that they are habits.
They’re difficult to escape from in the moment, but we keep falling into them in the first place because they are habits. Now, I’m no “brain scientist,” but I do know our brains are constantly forming physical pathways. They’ve essentially rewiring themselves all the time, and this makes us prone to habits.
It becomes instinct for me to go from “there’s a pain in my left leg” to “oh God, that’s definitely a blood clot and I’m on the verge of death.” Thislink between these two concepts has been strengthened in my brain through habitual repetition.
So we need to have a long-term outlook. This is about learning what it feels like to dip our toes in the custard. What does it feel like just entering a custard trap?
For me there are physical sensations: I get a stab in the chest, a fizz in the brain. But there are also situational triggers. I know anything about my health is likely to send me onto a custard trap. This is different for everybody: maybe it’s social situations, fear of contamination — there are a million different things — but once we’ve learned what these triggers are for us and what it feels like to be getting caught in one of these loops, we can use that feeling itself as a trigger to do something positive.
So as I feel myself falling into a trap, those feelings remind me to take a positive action. Maybe it’s drinking some water, calling a friend, meditating for 10 seconds or relive a sporting triumph (not one of mine, obviously, just one I’ve seen)… but the point is to associate something positive with what was formerly negative. Over time this can replace the habit.
It’s like laying the foundation over the custard, transforming it into solid ground.
Does this sound too easy? It probably should. It’s good to be suspicious of easy answers to tough problems, and anxiety is a really tough problem. I have only touched the surface of the mind management aspects of it today, but there are also chemical aspects, social aspects, situational aspects…
Mind management is really good to focus on because we can we can always take more control over what’s happening in our minds. But it is difficult. I’d love to be able to give you, personally, the actions you need to individually take to be less anxious. But these things are so unique to us. We have all spent years developing our own individual mental habits, our own personal custard traps. And only we can put in the effort required to escape them.
But it’s my hope that if we’re all a bit more open and honest about these difficult personal expenses, these tough solo journeys across the custard can be journeys we can all make together.