author with dog 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.

You’re so negative. You’re a Negative Nancy.

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.

The following is an adaptation of a TED Talk from TEDxLeamingtonSpa called “Walking on Custard: How Physics Helps Anxious Humans.”

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 up spending 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. And if 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.

bowl of custard
photo source: TEDx Talks

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. Somewhere we 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.” This link 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.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

lead photo: screenshot, Walking on Custard

I was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) a while back, and that comes with a lot of social anxiety. Luckily, I also have some amazing friends who have always been there for me.

Here are some things my friends do:

1. Give me a free pass when I need it.

There are days when just existing with anxiety is exhausting. If I feel anxious about going to work, then spend all day at work worrying, I’ll be exhausted by the evening. This means I may have to pull out of things, sometimes at short notice. This makes me feel awful, but my friends have been generous and accepted I won’t always be well enough to do the things I want to.

2. But still, invite me out.

I may not be able to make everything, but I’m still on the guest list. This helps me feel included and reminds me people do care. This helps.

3. Be understanding when I don’t want to be in group photos.

I know people like to take group photos, and if I’ve been invited out, people will want me to be in said photos. But the thought of photos makes me feel ill, and any photo I’ve been in under these circumstances has been terrible, with a forced smile and awkward posture. So, please don’t make it a big deal when I duck out of the frame. Or, you know, I can take the photo and let you be in your group photo. Problem solved.

4. Give me hugs.

Sometimes I’m not able or ready to explain myself. But my friends will offer hugs when needed. It says a lot and allows me to take some comfort without feeling I’m burdening them. This won’t work for everyone, or every time. Some people need space. But sometimes a hug just works.

5. Listen.

I tend to bottle things up for far too long. As such, when I do talk, there tends to be a lot and it seems urgent. I recognize this can be overwhelming for people, but if I’m shot down, I’ll just bury it all and may not be able to talk later. I have some great friends who will just listen to what I say, even if it seems totally irrational. Most likely, it will be irrational; my brain tends to do that. Sometimes just saying it out loud can give me a sense of perspective. Even when this doesn’t happen, knowing someone cares enough to let me talk always helps

6. Don’t force a compliment.

I find it incredibly hard to accept a compliment, even when genuine. Sometimes something will get through, but often I’ll accept it for a short while until I see something that makes me disbelieve it. As a defense mechanism, I tend to just discount compliments. I will often appreciate people are trying to make me feel better, though. Many of my friends have found a middle ground when they will only be entirely genuine, and not push it if I disagree with them.

7. If I do have a meltdown, know it’s not about you.

This is a hard one. It may seem like a tiny thing they said or did triggered a flood of tears, hiding in the bathroom for an hour or refusing to take down my hood. In reality, 101 things that happened before are still swimming around in my head. It doesn’t help anyone if my friends feel guilty for something that isn’t even their fault.

8. Let me be weird.

Sometimes I need to wear a bit of a mask, so I’ll hide behind rainbow hair or wear a hat with cat ears. Or, I don’t know, go to a party and hide under a table for my own amusement.

The author hiding under the table.
Karen hiding under a table.

9. Tell me what I need to hear, especially when I don’t want to hear it.

A good friend is one who tells you the tough stuff — like when you really need to get yourself to a doctor. Or when you need time off work. Or when you need to stop looking in the mirror. When I’m at my least rational, common sense doesn’t sound at all sensible. So they may need to say it more than once. Eventually I will listen because, well, they’re right.

10. Expect the same from me.

Mental health problems or not, I’m still their friend. And friends will provide the above as it is needed. Everyone may need some or all of these on different occasions, healthy or not. There may be times when a face-to-face meeting is still out of the question, but I may be able to communicate via messenger or text. I secretly suspect I’m a terrible person, so even if my friends are only doing it as a chance to prove the opposite, we all benefit.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or illness. It can be lighthearted and funny or more serious — whatever inspires you. Be sure to include at least one intro paragraph for your list. 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.

When I first started getting panic attacks at 20 years old, I did plenty of googling. I read about the symptoms, causes, treatments and complications. This is how I learned about agoraphobia, a common complication of panic disorder, in which sufferers are afraid of many everyday places and spaces. I learned many people with agoraphobia become housebound because they’re too afraid to leave their home. I thought it sounded strange and truly did not think I could ever feel that way.

Ten months later, my world had shrunk to the 980-square-feet of my university apartment. 

As soon as I began experiencing panic attacks, I feared them. I lived in fear of the next one and did not know how to handle them when they hit; yet I did not seek treatment, thinking they would go away someday. I lived every day on edge, with a tension I had never felt before. Slowly, I began to feel anxious in normal places like movie theaters, classrooms and restaurants. My mind would be obsessively asking, “What if I have a panic attack? What if I can’t leave? What if I die from the attack? What if I embarrass myself or who I’m with? I am trapped here!” I was physically there, but mentally I was worlds away. These thoughts did not subside, but grew louder and took over during activities I used to love. 

Having experienced three attacks at my work place, I became scared to go to work; I called out for as long as I could. Eventually, I quit; I felt defeated. After having an attack in my car, I became fearful of driving. It was my final quarter of college and I was skipping as many classes as possible because I was too afraid of being far from my safe space — my university apartment bedroom. Many days, I’d walk to class, stop, turn around, turn back around and keep walking to my destination. My inner dialogue consisted of me arguing with an anxious self, telling me to just go back home where I am safe and comfortable. 

Graduation was rapidly approaching. When I should have been rejoicing, I was wishing I could drop out. I dreaded my graduation. I didn’t know how I could handle sitting there with my anxiety, walking on stage to receive my diploma, celebrating with my family and friends. My parents realized something was going terribly wrong when I cried to them that I should quit and finish when I was better. They knew I was incredibly close to finishing and that I could pull through, even though I had lost all confidence in myself. They began to urge me to see a therapist they had found, but I stubbornly didn’t because I didn’t know how I could handle driving to her office. They offered to take me, but I refused, still terrified.

Graduation day came. Running on an hour or two of sleep, I pulled myself together. I knew my family was excited to see me, so I had to power through whatever may lie ahead. My arms were numb the entire time and I had to maintain rigid control over my thoughts and breathing. My hands were balled into fists as I dug my nails into my tingling palms. My bottle of water and cell phone acted as false security blankets that somehow comforted me. As I sat at the ceremony, I kept imagining myself fainting just as I received my diploma — a fear that would continue to limit my life. Not surprisingly, as my name was announced and I confidently shook various hands, I did not faint. I forced myself to smile the entire day in hopes of tricking my anxious brain… and surprisingly, it somehow worked.

The author at graduation, wearing her robes.
Erica at graduation.

The day I was dreading was a success and one of the proudest days of my life. Despite experiencing uncomfortable anxiety the entire day, I had successfully faced a huge fear. Graduating from college often represents overcoming various challenges. Many college students have so many things going on in their lives aside from academics. There are young parents, full-time workers, immigrants and students with disabilities. As a student with a disability, receiving my diploma was less about now being qualified for certain jobs and more about defying my self-imposed limitations.

My life was falling apart when it was nearly beginning. Since graduation, my struggle with anxiety disorders has gotten more difficult. But I am proud to say I finally found a therapist who has helped me regain my confidence in my ability to cope. Treating agoraphobia is challenging and not what I expected to be doing as a new graduate. However, I am not only hopeful, but grateful. Learning to live with panic disorder and agoraphobia has humbled me, blessed me with empathy and introduced me to hundreds of amazing people through support groups. I am currently housebound, but every day I take steps to increase my little world by spending time outside, getting comfortable in my car and, most importantly, staying positive. 

If you are experiencing panic attacks, know that you’re not alone and that it’s OK (and good!) to talk about them, especially with someone who can help you, like a doctor or therapist. Your life may feel limited and, even, forever changed, but you will regain peace of mind, joy and freedom. Know it’s OK to take time off from studies when you’re ill, but also know we are often more capable than we think. I was 98 percent certain I couldn’t finish my final quarter of college, yet somehow, with the encouragement and support of family, friends and professors, I pulled through.

If you are afraid and doubting your abilities today, recognize the lies and replace them with the truths — you are stronger than you think and will overcome; it might take time, but you’re on your way.

Erica and her family at graduation. Erica holds her diploma.
Erica and her family at graduation

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a moment you were met with extreme negativity or adversity related to your disability and/or disease (or a loved one’s) and why you were proud of your response — or how you wish you could’ve responded. 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.

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