When the 'Anxiety Dam' Breaks

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It’s early on a warm Sunday morning, and I am awoken suddenly by my feet, which are already shaking and moving about restlessly beneath the covers. A sign that my anxiety is already in full swing despite the fact I’m not even awake yet.

There are roughly 30 seconds each morning between the moment I open my eyes and when the “anxiety dam” breaks — flooding my brain with everything I “should” be concerned with and worried about. Those 30 seconds each morning are my only peace these days, and I cherish them. This is my life — the life of someone with extreme anxiety.

As I sit up and ready myself to face the day, I have to remind myself to breathe in and out… in and out… otherwise I find myself holding my breath. I wonder what it may be like to wake up each day and breathe easily without effort. I try to remember the last time I was able, and I cannot. I assure myself, as I do every day, that the feelings of dread, the rapid beating of my heart, the tightness constricting my throat, is simply my anxiety already creeping up and settling in. It has made itself at home in my skin. Taken up residence in the deep crevices of my mind and thoughts. An unwelcome guest. It stays close to me at all times, like a parasite. Making its presence known as much as possible throughout the day. Trying to ruin each day in whatever ways it is able.

Anxiety is a bad relationship we would all like to break up with. But it’s here to stay for now, with its arm around my shoulders, around my neck. Sitting too close. Suffocatingly close. Breathe in… breathe out…

For so many of us who have extreme anxiety, each day is an exhausting struggle to make it to the finish line that is the end of each day. Only to find that despite our exhaustion, once we make it there and fall into bed, our racing minds won’t allow sleep in any reasonable amount of time. Nighttime proves to be the worst for my anxiety, so each night I pray for daylight to come quickly. Because maybe tomorrow I may have 60 seconds of peace when I wake up. Because maybe tomorrow is the day I will have a day with no panic attacks. Because, after all, the night is darkest just before the dawn… and my feet are already shaking me awake.

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5 Things You Should Know About My Anxiety Before We Date

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As a person with anxiety, dating has always brought its own set of struggles. Because a lot of my anxiety has to do social situations, dating is something I tend to avoid. And when I do find someone I want to go out with, my anxiety isn’t something I want to talk about. Because, I think, who wants to date the anxious girl?

Instead, I hide it. 

But why should I have to feel like I need to hide such a big part of who I am? If someone is scared off by my anxiety, it’s going to be better for both of us if I’m upfront about it from the beginning. Because even if I can hide it successfully for a while, it can’t and shouldn’t stay hidden forever. 

So in the interest of full disclosure, here are five things you will need to know about my anxiety before we date.

1. There are physical symptoms.

Anxiety is a mental illness, yes, but there can be a lot of physical side effects that go along with it. Something I struggle with a lot is feeling physically ill from my anxiety.

If I say I can’t go out with you because I’m not feeling well, what it probably means is that I was feeling so anxious I threw up, and now I feel like crap. Or maybe I feel like I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to chance going out with you in case I get sick on our date. Unfortunately, this has happened before (it was exactly as horrible as you might think), and it’s not unlikely it will happen again.

The more I get to know you, the more comfortable I’ll be and the less anxious I’ll feel. Until then, the best thing you can do is to try to be understanding, and not blame me for something I have no control over.

2. Sometimes I need to organize my thoughts.

If we’re having a tough conversation, anxiety can make my brain lock up. Sometimes it feels like I literally can’t speak, as if my mind has gone blank or I can’t figure out how to put into words what I’m feeling. I’m not trying to be difficult, I just sometimes need a minute or two to collect my thoughts and calm down.

Chances are, the anxiety comes from fear of how you will react to what I’m feeling, and I’m trying to fight my way through that to say what needs to be said. I might just need a minute to breathe and think without the pressure to speak, or I might need to leave the conversation entirely and come back later once I have processed my thoughts.

3. I don’t jump into relationships quickly.

Like I said, I tend to avoid dating. I’m sure there are people who will say the only way to get over dating anxiety is to go out with a bunch of different people, but that sounds unbearable to me. I’m much more comfortable getting to know the other person slowly. If I’m going to date you, it’s because I think you might be worth fighting through all my mental obstacles for. It will take me a while to really open up, so you’re going to have to be patient. If that’s not something you can do, then you should move on.

4. Sometimes I feel needy.

My anxiety likes to tell me you probably aren’t really all that interested in me, and even if you are interested, you won’t be for long. So I have a tendency to feel a little needy. Not that I will share these feelings with you, of course. Because then you definitely won’t be interested anymore, since no one likes a needy person.

Instead, I’ll just feel anxious and sad and overanalyze every interaction, waiting for the moment I can tell you are no longer interested. In an ideal relationship, I’d be able to share these feelings of insecurity or neediness without the other person judging me or putting me down for them.

5. It’s OK for us to laugh together about my anxiety.

In my family, humor is how we cope with difficult situations. I make jokes about my anxiety all the time because it helps me deal. If I make a joke about it, it’s OK to laugh. And if you know I’m feeling anxious, trying to get me to laugh can be a good way to help me calm down.

That doesn’t mean it’s OK to make fun of me. What I’m saying is sometimes my anxiety is ridiculous, and I have to laugh about it or the weight of it will bury me. You are encouraged to laugh with me.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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Summer Vacation: The Unlikely Worst Nightmare of Someone With Anxiety

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The pulsing panic, incessant self-doubting and debilitating worrying starts when the airline’s e-itinerary shows its bolded subject line in my inbox. Or when a friend or family member hits send on the text message to confirm when we’re leaving for that road trip…in that hot, cramped car.

Sure, I know I was an over-eager brainstorming machine when the trip was just an innocent idea. But now it’s real. The date is branded on my irrational brain, and the worry countdown has begun.

You see, a “vacation” is another word for the worst nightmare of many people who have anxiety. Being in a controlled space with no escape route with people constantly watching you, expecting you to be happy. Expecting you to be relaxed.

I have an anxiety disorder. Being happy and relaxed is an exhausting battle I wage every minute of my waking life. And now, since we’re going on vacation, it will be on display.

And I’ll have nowhere to hide.

I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be purely excited and carefree on vacation; the only tough decision being where we’d go for dinner.

Instead, I am constantly wrestling the questions and infecting thoughts of my anxiety disorder:

What if I get sick? Did I get an aisle seat? What if people can tell I’m anxious? Will I ruin their vacation? Why can’t I be carefree? Did I pack the right clothes? What if I am not fun enough? OK, then how can I look like I’m having fun if I am anxious? I should bring a book. That’s what relaxed people do, right? They read books on vacation. But what book should I get? What if I have a panic attack? Where will I go? Where will I hide? What if I’m having a bad day? This is supposed to be fun. Just go with the flow. Wait, the flight is three hours?!
 

I love vacations. I love traveling. And just like you, I love having fun with my family and friends.

But remember, I don’t choose these relentless thoughts. I didn’t choose this brain. See, anxiety never takes a vacation. My struggle travels with me — and now with you.

There are a few simple ways, though, that can help make vacation enjoyable for myself and others with anxiety.

Here are some tips:

1. Let me ask (a lot of) questions about the details.

When I ask those annoying questions, I am processing. Asking the same questions over and over in the three weeks leading up to the trip is how I prepare myself. So let me into the details a bit and entertain my incessant questions. It’s how I cope.

I promise I am not doing it to be annoying. I am trying to reassure myself I’ll be OK by knowing what to expect.

2. Make flexible plans.

Try not to schedule that three-hour massage and yoga class for me without asking. Personally, it gives me something else to dread because I can’t get out of it. Instead, let me know what your plans are, and let me choose what I want to do when I am ready.

I know my limits and tendencies, and I will let you know what I’m up for. While you may find these plans exciting, they add to my cauldron of worries.

3. Ask me how I am feeling.

This is so simple, but don’t assume because I’m on vacation, I am happy and relaxed. Kindly and authentically asking how I’m doing can do wonders. That way, I can let you into my world and if we’re with a group, I know I have an advocate.

4. Allow me to have alone or quiet time without feeling guilty.<

Alone, quiet, unstructured or unplanned time in a comfortable place is what a real vacation looks like for me and for many with anxiety disorders. Spaces where I don’t have to “pass” for being carefree will allow me to be myself, lower stress and reduce the exposure to anxiety triggers. Now that’s my kind of vacation!

5.  Remember I love vacation too.

I love spending time with you, having fun and going on vacation. But just like you would need to modify your vacation plans if you had a cast on your arm, I too have to adjust for my anxiety. It’s nothing personal.

And know for someone with anxiety, it is hard to commit to these types of things. The fact that I decided to come along with you means I really want to be there, with you.

Now, let’s have some fun.

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To the Friends Who've Stayed Through My Anxiety

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I know my anxiety can be annoying.

The constant reassurance, the questions, the shaking, and so much more.

But I’m trying.

I know it may not seem like it because lately most of my days have involved me hiding away or just silently sitting there, but believe me, I am.

To my friends who have seen me shake uncontrollably and struggle to breathe, yet still stood by my side, thank you.

To the ones who do more than just stand there and wait for me to calm myself down, I love you.

But there’s also a big part of me that just wants to apologize — for all those times you witnessed me go from calm into a full on panic. For that time you had to listen to me ramble on and on till 4 a.m. about bullsh*t because we both thought talking would help calm me down. And especially for all the times I needed you to reassure me we are OK.

I want to apologize, but I was told I never should say sorry for the things I can’t control. I know you love me, and I know I am always welcome; but sometimes that feeling telling me I’m not needed is louder than your love, and it causes me to hide away or look for reassurance.

I never forget the first time someone sees one of my panic attacks. Confusion and worry fill their face, and I am always left embarrassed and filled with shame, but it’s the handful of people who actually decide to stick around and figure out how to help that make me want to get better.

I know I can be a handful. I know you never know how I am going to react to something. I know you always have to worry if I am being “too quiet” or even just straight up disappearing from events without letting anyone know, but I know, even at my lowest I can call on you for help.

You may not fully understand what’s going on in my head, and I may never be able to fully explain it as more than just a “feeling,” but the fact that you decide to continue to stick around means the world to me.

I don’t say this enough, but I love you.

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When You Tell a Person With Anxiety to 'Stop Worrying So Much'

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Webster’s defines worry as: “to think about problems or fears.”

Stop worrying so much. Don’t worry. Calm down. It’s fine.

This is what I hear on a daily basis. When my fingers start running up and down my arms, when my eyes get wide, when my breathing gets heavy. This is what I am told… don’t worry.

If my anxiety took the dictionary form of worrying, this would be understandable to me. But my anxiety is not simply “worrying.”

First, my brain starts going faster and faster. It’s like a train without the brakes, constantly moving at a faster pace until the only solution is a collision. The negative and paranoid thoughts start slamming into me, and there isn’t an off switch. They don’t go away.

Then, my chest tightens. Every breath feels like someone is waterboarding me. My stomach starts to turn and twist. I lose control of my senses, and I can’t tell where reality ends and my mind begins.

Finally, I shut down. I disassociate, and I just can’t process anymore. I throw my phone at the wall, or I sink to the ground and put my head on my knees. If I can, I leave. I lock myself in my car and I drive until I can draw breath without a struggle.

This happens, in some capacity, 10 to 25 times a day. On bad days, it is constant. There is no relief; there are no breaks from the chaos.

Next time you want to tell me to “stop worrying,” take a pause. Grab my hand, don’t say a word and just stay with me until my brain calms down. It’s the best thing you could possibly do for me.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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A Guide for Anyone Who Needs to Support Someone With a Chronic Disease

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Bringing awareness to this guide is very important to me. I found myself feeling all alone after my diagnosis. My whole world changed and I felt that no one understood what I was going through. My friends and coworkers had a hard time understanding the pain I was in. I didn’t look “sick” so I should be able to continue to do the things I used to. Having an “invisible” illness can lead to people being judged and mistreated. So please, if you have a friend or a loved one who has a chronic illness, please read the following tips so your loved ones do not have to go through this journey alone. I ask that you please share this because the more we educate and bring awareness, the more supported they will feel.

So if you are in a position where you need to support someone with a chronic illness such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis or any other chronic disease, there are a few things you should know. It will make the entire process much easier, both for you and for the individual who is battling the disease.

Education is key.

Finding out as much as possible about the disease is vitally important. It is essentially the only way that you can arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to ensure both you and the affected individual are capable of dealing with the disease in the most positive manner possible.

Respect physical limitations.

People will try to keep up with you by doing all the same things they’ve done the past. This can be painful for them, both physically and emotionally. It also might make them prone to injury. Remember that they may have physical limitations you don’t have to worry about. However, you should always respect their limitations and choose activities that you can both enjoy.

Look for signs of pain.

Many individuals will not tell you that they are in pain. If you know what to look for, you might be able to help them. Notice when they seem subdued or when they are not quite themselves. Watch how they move, the expression on their face and whether or not they are breathing easily.

Have empathy.

If possible, try to put yourself in their shoes and understand how you would feel if the disease were affecting you personally. This might help you see things from their perspective more readily.

Listen to and validate feelings.

One of the best things you can do is simply listen to what they have to say. Validate their feelings about their disease. Above all, don’t get in the habit of having a contest where you are constantly trying to one-up them with your own ailments. This might be meant as a show of support to help them understand that everyone is battling something, but it often comes across as though you are more interested in yourself than you are in them.

Be patient and helpful.

Do your best not to get frustrated with an individual who is slower or can’t do something because of their disease. Instead of expressing frustration, give them the chance to do what they need to do themselves and then offer help when it is appropriate.

Treat them with dignity and include them in your life.

Nothing is worse than being treated as though you are less of an individual because you have a certain disease. That doesn’t change who that particular individual really is. Try to see past their disease because it doesn’t define them. Include them in your plans and make a special effort to do things with them they can comfortably do.

Be positive.

Staying positive is key for anyone who is battling a chronic illness. Many times, their personal outlook on the situation can have a dramatic impact on the way they feel. Give them the chance to take an otherwise negative situation and turn it into something positive. If you can, help them along the way.

Silence is OK.

There will be times when the individual in question doesn’t want to talk about their illness. This has nothing to do with you. It is OK to simply be together in the moment without having to find something to say.

Remember it’s not your fault.

So many people who are close to someone with a chronic illness blame themselves. There is no point in doing this. It isn’t your fault any more than it is anyone else’s. It is simply something that happened and now it must be dealt with.

If you follow these tips, you and the person who is going through their own challenges can find better and more effective ways to deal with the disease. It is a challenge for everyone involved but as long as you rely on each other, the entire process can become much easier.

Follow this journey on Rockin RA.

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