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

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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.

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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

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Using the simplicity of an advertisement — and the brain and heart of someone who lives with anxiety — Canadian illustrator Catherine Lepage has created images most who live with anxiety can relate to, compiled in her book, “Thin Slices of Anxiety.

“I always try to find the simplest way to convey an idea,” Lepage, who has experience working as an art director at different advertising agencies, told The Mighty. But while she uses techniques from advertising, these images come from a place within. She’s lived with anxiety her entire life and also has had experiences with depression.

I try to explore myself. That’s what magic about it. By understanding how I feel, by getting to know me better, I can create something people can relate to,” she said. “People always share the shining side of things, but I think it’s also important to show we’re all human, we all have failures, we have things that are more difficult to cope with.”

She hopes these images will start a conversation and make having that conversation less taboo.

Check out the images from her book below:

On the left: Man's expressionless face. Text reads: Easiness. On the left, the same man's face. Text reads: Uneasiness.
Chronicle Books
To images of a man's face. On the left he's looking outward. On the right he's looking in. Text reads: Field of vision for a normal person. Field of vision for an anxious person.
Chronicle Books
Text reads: I live through other people's eyes. I have a fear of judgment. Images shows man standing on a pyramid of cards that read "confidence"
Chronicle Books
Image shows a bull. Text reads: It's uncontrollable
Chronicle Books
Person swimming in their tears.
Chronicle Books
Text reads: Everything becomes blurry. Image shows brain outside of a head.
Chronicle Books
Text reads: I struggle to get out of it, but I only tread water. Images shows somebody rowing outside of a boat.
Chronicle Books
Left speech bubble reads: Try not to always expect the worst. Right speech bubble reads: "and if I can't do it"
Chronicle Books
A drawing of a chipmunk. Underneath it reads: Thinly sliced and illustrated, emotions are much easier to digest.
Chronicle Books

How would you draw you anxiety? Send us your drawing to [email protected]

To see more from Lepage, visit her site.


Fight or flight. As a sufferer of anxiety it’s the most common phrase I hear from doctors and friends. I’ve heard this term so many times it barely has any meaning to me anymore. People with anxiety constantly get labelled the “flight” type of person,  like we run away every time a new situation comes up. Now every time I hear “fight or flight” I immediately zone out. Not because I don’t think it has value, I do, but because I believe people with anxiety do both on a daily basis.

To people not living with anxiety, it may seem like the common response of a person with anxiety is flight, but you have no idea how much effort and fight it took for that person to even get to that point. As I’ve said before, we all have different anxieties. For instance, I am fine when it comes to flying on a plane, but for others it can be completely terrifying. You might see that person get off the plane or leave the airport because of their anxiety, that’s the flight part. But what you didn’t see was how that person booked the plane tickets, packed their bags and drove to the airport. That is them choosing to fight, against all their instincts they are fighting their anxiety.

So why do we choose to focus on the times we choose flight and not the things that we accomplished when we were fighting? Sometimes you don’t even know that what you’re doing is fighting. Every time you hear that voice in your head telling you to flee and you  fight it, it makes you stronger and more confident. I can tell you from experience that when you’re at you lowest point, confidence is key. Start small, even if it’s just going out to your mailbox to get the mail. Every little thing you do builds up your confidence and soon you’ll be doing things you never thought you could do weeks or months ago.

A few months ago I couldn’t leave my house, and I actually couldn’t be alone either. First we would have my parents leave for 10 minutes, then 20, then 30, then one hour and eventually I could be alone at home be myself for a whole work day. After training myself like that I wasn’t afraid I would have a panic attack without someone there. A few months ago if you said this is where I would be, back to being able to drive alone, going into shopping centers and inviting some of my closest friends over, I wouldn’t have believed you. But every little step helped me to become more confident in myself and fight my way out of the depression I had fallen into.

Yes, there will still be times when you flee a situation instead of choosing to stay and “fight,” it’s in our DNA. Our anxiety is a survival mechanism, but that mechanism doesn’t work the same for us as it did our ancestors. When we grew as a species, we all found new things to be scared of. Instead of being attacked by ferocious animals, it became a fear of public speaking and stage fright. Instead of a fear of starvation, it turned into eating disorders and body shaming. Times may be easier now with all the luxuries we have, but that doesn’t make our fear responses any lesser than those of the cavemen.

So little steps, that’s the key. Confidence will develop overtime, so long as you focus on the things you fought and conquered. We all deserve to live in a world where we feel safe and in control of our own happiness.

Don’t give up. Keep fighting. Win.


Dear person in my life,

It’s possible that I’ve shared with you what’s going on with me. It’s more likely I haven’t. I want to be clear this isn’t because I don’t trust you or we’re not as close as you thought we were; it has nothing to do with you. I didn’t tell you about it earlier because how do you say that? Like, hey! So I’ve been a shitty friend and it’s because I’m dealing with some intense mental health stuff and that’s why I’ve basically fallen off the face of the Earth. Who does that?

So instead I’m telling you here. Over the last year and a half, give or take, I’ve been experiencing panic attacks of varying intensity, as well as smaller, more constant anxiety. It’s not so much that it impacts my day-to-day, but sometimes it can knock me flat on my ass. There are days when I literally am Chris Traeger.

anigif_enhanced-16884-1440784588-2

I’ve been trying really hard to learn how best to manage this so that I’m addressing it, but not letting it interfere with my life. And it’s hard. I’ve tried lots of different things; some have worked, some have not, but I’ve learned that the ones that do work deserve my time and commitment. That’s why I’ve retreated to my couch and stopped asking you to get Shake Shack or if I can stop by the office. It’s why I took the summer off from a job I truly love and gave up spending my days with the people I love most. At the time, that was what I needed to do. So I did.

But I miss you. I miss laughing with you and celebrating your joy with you: your marriage, your first kid, your move. I miss sharing my joy with you and sending you regular texts. I miss going to movies with you and doing our secret handshake and knowing when I’m with you that I’m in a place where I can truly be myself. Please know that my heart aches for that, and that I promise I will be around more soon.

Normally I would apologize, but that’s not really what I want to say. I want to say thank you. Thank you for not making me feel like I’m bad friend for failing to hang out with you for a long time. For remembering me in little ways and sending me texts to let me know. For being patient with me when I canceled plans or left early or didn’t reach out. For not judging me, and for always showing up when I ask you to. And for loving me and my mess and for listening with a supportive ear when we talked about my anxiety; for reading this with a supportive heart if we haven’t. And if I haven’t told you in person, I’m sorry for that. You deserve to hear my voice saying this and not to read it on the internet, but to be honest, this is much clearer and it allows me to only have to have this conversation once; over and over is emotionally taxing, and that’s difficult to do. If you want to talk about it more, let’s get together and do so.

But most of all, I want to tell you that I love you, and that I am so grateful for your presence in my life.

XO

Follow this journey on It’s Only Fear.

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