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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The Moment I Realized My Anxiety Was Getting Better

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Something important has happened.

My boyfriend is out of town this week, and I went to work every day he was gone. I know this seems like duh, why wouldn’t you go to work? But in case you haven’t been following my story for very long, I have a history of having to take a day off while he’s gone because of anxiety. But this time, I went to work every day and I am so pumped. Seriously. On a scale of one to curled up in a ball on the floor of the bathroom sobbing and alternately going to the bathroom and puking my guts out, the most I felt this whole time was a two. I woke up 45 minutes before my alarm yesterday with some tightness in my chest and some rapid heartbeat, but it was gone by the time I left for work. And this morning? Nada. I woke up early, cuddled closer to the dog, and the next thing I knew my alarm was dragging me from the depths of sleep with its stupid incessant chiming. It was glorious.

I know that to people without anxiety this might feel like a weird thing to celebrate. But to me, this is huge. This is the first time I’ve been in a situation that has caused me intense anxiety in the past and not felt any. It’s crazy. I feel like I’ve leveled up in a big way.

I was telling my therapist about it during session yesterday, and she goes how did that make you feel, to know this might go away? And, to be honest, my answer to that question might not be what you think, because it feels like I’ve been dealing with this for so long. Two out of 30 years is not actually that much, but it’s been so intense it feels like it’s eclipsed the not-having-anxiety years. When I think about not having to deal with it anymore, I’m kind of torn. On the one hand, it’s amazing. It’s like I can finally see a future where I’m not dreading traveling, I’m just excited about it. And it feels like I’m getting back to me, to being able to do more and experience more and be a little busier and not need as much downtime. I can see a life with my boyfriend where my anxiety is not something that keeps us from doing things. That’s so awesome, and I’m so excited about it, and it’s nice to be excited. I haven’t been this excited in a while.

I also kind of don’t want it to go away completely because, in a weird way, anxiety also makes me feel really grounded. It forces me to care for myself in a way I never really have before; I always just kind of barreled ahead and told myself I would deal with things later and then never did. Anxiety doesn’t work like that. I have to be in the moment; there’s no way not to be when the physical symptoms are so intense. And I have to be mindful of it every day. I’ve changed my life to accommodate things I know help, and that has been great because it means I’m accepting it by making room for it. I’m not fighting it. I still have those moments where I really don’t want to go to the gym or set up all of my yoga stuff — still working on looking forward to exercise, ugh — but each time I’ve reminded myself that this is part of accepting anxiety’s place in my life. That going to the gym is helpful not only because the endorphins are great for my brain, but even more so because it means I’m making space for anxiety and I’m practicing noting its presence and then letting it go. Which is awesome for when I’m actually feeling anxious — it’s so much easier now to be like oh, hey, my chest is kinda tight. Let me belly breathe for a minute and then go about my day.

I cannot explain how freeing that is. What a huge sense of relief I feel. It’s kind of like when you’re playing a video game and your character dies again and again and then finally you start playing the level that gives you trouble and all of the information from your past lives clicks and you beat the boss. I feel like I just kicked the boss’ ass and now I don’t really care what I have to deal with on the next level because this one was so hard.  Beating it has made me feel like I can take on anything.

And I know, too, I won’t always feel like this. That I will probably still feel pretty anxious on our next trip, and I will still feel like throwing up on my wedding day, and I will still want to hide from everyone sometimes. And that’s OK. It’s even good — those feelings tell me I’m highly evolved and I care. It’s weird to realize I’ve actually kind of come to love my anxiety a little bit, and to know I would (only slightly) miss it if it went away completely, because it helps me cultivate my empathy and compassion not only for others, but for myself. And it’s made me healthier because now I go to the gym and own a ton of workout gear and that is not ever a thing that I thought would happen. Anxiety has made me proud of myself in a way I have never been, and that is such a wonderful, unexpected result of my time in therapy.

Follow this journey on It’s Only Fear.

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I'm Not Anxious. I Have Anxiety.

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Thanks for asking, but I am not anxious about any specific thing. I don’t have anything specific that is worrying me. There is no real and pressing immanent doom. Not really. I am not anxious. I have anxiety.

Instead, I have a liar that lives in my head. The liar was planted in my head many years ago and is part of my complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The liar tells me I am incapable. It tells me I am ugly. It tells me I am not worthwhile, and it’s probably not worth trying. It tells me I am foolish. It tells me my life isn’t worth living. It’s a draining soul-eating voice, and it rules my life sometimes. There are times the liar immobilizes me.

I also have low self-esteem based on failures the liar has caused me and based on my history with the liar. Together, the low esteem and the liar can create a psychic pain that is palpable physically. The pain starts in my chest and travels along my arms. At those times, I sometimes want to die to get rid of the pain. I feel worthless, hopeless and useless. At times like that, the act of holding on and continuing to breathe and even to exist takes all of my will and courage. And I do.

Medications help some people. I don’t take any medications. They don’t work for me. I just hold on and do my best. I really do.

I remember the times I used to have hope, and I hold onto those times. I force myself to do things, to get out of bed, to shave and to shower and to work out. In horrible pain, I push myself to go and write daily. I push myself to go perform comedy at night. Still, the liar is subtle and remains with me

The liar tells me people don’t like me. The liar tells me I am not good enough. It will allow me to make my way, all the way to a comedy performance and then just when I think I am safe, the liar keeps me from entering the establishment to perform. I have taken public transit, which is a soul sucker of another sort, and just as I am about to defeat the liar, it wins!

And yet there are some ways to, if not completely defeat the liar, make his power over me smaller. There are small victories that over time can build into successes.

I work out daily. I walk on the treadmill for a minimum of 45 minutes a day. I watch my diet. I meditate on a regular basis. Meditation has allowed me to separate the voice of the liar from the other voices. I make myself get dressed and leave where I am staying every day. I write this blog.

I keep myself occupied.

I try not to compare myself with others. I have learned comparing who I am with what others have is a way the liar likes to beat me up. I try hard not to do that.

I no longer use alcohol or pot to try and defeat the liar. I was in trouble the first time I had a drink because, for a time, alcohol silenced the liar completely. Pot made me friends with the liar. For a time the liar and I coexisted, I thought happily, with the aid of alcohol and pot. Then the liar became demanding. It wanted more and more and more of me and more and more and more pot and alcohol. And more. There were times I was high all day long. Then, over time, alcohol and pot stopped working. It took more and worked not at all. That’s why, today, I choose, for myself, to stay sober. Some people claim pot helps them and it probably does. For me, I have to stay clean and sober.

I wish I knew where my life was headed. I wish I knew what was going to happen next. Right now, I am on disability and I am technically homeless. I try and stay optimistic. Maybe my writing will work out to be a job of some sort? Maybe I will become well enough to work. Maybe I will be stuck here for the rest of my life. I try to not despair. Despair is what the liar uses to defeat me.

I do what I can, one day at a time.

This post originally appeared on Medium.

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.

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