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What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About the Bad Days With Anxiety

I am 25, I think as I white knuckle my steering wheel, watching the bridge creep into my view. I can do this.

I was told by my therapist that I do this thing called “catastrophize,” which means that in every situation I find myself in I assume there will be a negative outcome. For example: If I go to the beach I am going to get skin poisoning. Or if I drive in my car today I am going to get in a tragic, life-altering car accident. This is how I have lived since I was a child. My panic attacks have transitioned from when I was 8, but I do worry about the other things I have fabricated to be real problems, like death during dental surgeries and terminal illnesses that don’t even exist. I am on a broad spectrum of terrified of everything at all times.

Being diagnosed is actually an incredible thing. It means you have a name for all of the feelings happening inside of you that don’t seem to make sense. The best thing for me to come to terms with was that I can have this diagnosis and also come into it on my own. I have 17 years of a diagnosis, of the cold sweat on my forehead, the urge to wring my hands and wash them under scalding water, the panic attacks gripping and keeping me up at night. And I am proud of that.

You will have moments when you feel like the earth is on top of your shoulders. Nothing you do is working and the panic attack techniques you’ve learned are not helping. Great, I can’t calm down and I can’t feel better and I am going to just be this horrible mess of a person for the rest of my life. That type of spiraling thought pattern is anxiety disorder at its worst. You may feel helpless, alone, like your entire being is not being controlled by you anymore. But you will have moments of joy again. I know that sounds impossible, but hear me out.

You can learn to live with anxiety like a birthmark or a strand of gray hair. It will hover quietly in the background, waiting for an off day to come. And the off days come. It’s what you do with them that matters. Always remember to breathe, provide yourself with positive affirmations (I’ve survived this before, I can do it again) and know that panic is not permanent. It will go back into its cave soon enough, and you will be you again. Just tell yourself you are OK, you are alive, you are safe. Even if you don’t believe it, repeat it until you think you can open your eyes again. The more you find success in these moments, the more confident you will be the next time an attack overwhelms you.

When I was at my lowest I refused to leave my bedroom, curled up in a ball, and wished the panic would shut itself off. I spent a lot of time thinking about how the heart heals. What allows it to be put back together? Time, certainly. But also those moments when I am distracted and at peace. Real, gut-wrenching laughter, biting into a piece of chocolate, singing along to my favorite band — the good things. You need to know there are good days, weeks and months. On those negative days you have to tell yourself: “Wait a minute, I can get through this. I have before.” Despite how low you might feel, living without fear is possible; even if it lasts as long as the new “Game of Thrones” episode. Knowing this has been a comfort for me since I was too young to understand what I was experiencing.

I am terrified of bridges, vomit and tight spaces. I have cried at school, felt the embarrassment of saying I can’t do something because anxiety was holding me hostage, and know how horrible it feels to enter a classroom every day frightened to sit in your seat. Long hours spent awake, thinking of final destination possibilities. And as I feel my fingers ache from my tight grip on the wheel, I realize I am doing it. I am going over this bridge. I am getting to the other side. If someone told me six years ago that I’d be able to drive without crying, I would have never believed them. But here I am, doing it. I am trying, growing, and becoming everything I have ever dreamed of. And that is something I have to remind myself of every day.

So on those bad days, those ugly days where anxiety is keeping you imprisoned, when you can’t get out of bed because the fear and the defeat hurts your bones: Remember you have good days. You’ve made it this far, right? You can keep going. You might be stuck today, but tomorrow is an entirely new opportunity.