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When Happiness Is Not 'a Choice'

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For years, I have seen a quote floating around social media. Shared over and over. And over again. A post  I have a really difficult time “liking,” because it’s one with which I don’t always agree. Not because I don’t think it’s beautiful and inspiring. No, not one bit. Simply because I don’t always find it to be true:

“Happiness is a choice. You can either choose to be happy or miserable. The amount of work is the same.”

Gulp.

You can “choose.”

That’s where I have a difference of opinion. Because, I know for both myself, and countless others reading this, happiness is not always a matter of choice.

You see, for as long as I can remember, I have been at the utter mercy of a relentless thief. Literally stealing the joy, the happiness, from so very many of life’s most-treasured moments.

A crook that has always been a part of my life. But one that totally and completely grabbed hold of my life, when becoming pregnant with our oldest, and that has kept its grasp for a very long time.

A.n.x.i.e.t.y.

A seven-letter word. That took control of my existence. And wouldn’t let go. That forced me to feel as though I was living my reality inside of a glass box. Watching the world around me thrive and grow and flourish. While I was entrapped. Held captive. By a force over which many times, I have no power. And I hate it. Despise it. That doesn’t even seem to cover it.

A bully. Pushing me around, forcing my mind to spend hours at a time set on a closed-circuit of “worst-case” scenarios, without a stop sign in sight. Like going scuba diving without my oxygen tank. Or sky-diving without my parachute. Grabbing for any kind of life-preserver around me at the moment. Literally, at times, struggling to catch my breath.

Thankfully, through each and every one of my experiences, as hard as they may have been, and still are, I have learned my “triggers,” and how to map out successful strategies for combatting these worries. Still, the path to feeling as though I am finally able to exist without feeling as though I am encompassed in cage bars has not come without a bumpy trail. My mind is always left reeling, constantly thinking about just how much I have missed out on. Because of this stupid force. This invisible predator. That took my joy. And let fear seep in to every moment meant to be amazing. That robbed me of my confidence. And stole so much contentment.

If you look at me from the outside, you would most likely never label me with “mental illness.” And neither do I. When I look in the mirror, I see someone who has achieved. Who is well-educated and graduated at the top of both my high school and college classes. Someone who excelled in sports, setting records and breaking them. Someone who loves to give and be around other people. An elementary teacher for over a dozen years. A wife. A mother to four. Who is “highly-functional” on a daily basis.

But I also see someone who is continuously filled with worry. A type of worry that deprives me of more moments of happiness than you could probably ever imagine.

My mental illness does not define me. It is simply a part of me. Some days, a much larger part than others.

While my anxiety has taken so very much from my life, it has also given me something for which I am so grateful: a story to share. One full of encouragement. The strength to step out of the shadows. Away from my comfort zone. And share my experiences with others. In hopes of encouraging them to know they are not alone. That anxiety isn’t something that has overshadow the entirety of someone’s being. That it is only one piece. And most importantly, that this is never something about which someone should feel ashamed. Ever.

The one thing I hope to share more than anything else? The one small piece of the puzzle I would wish for everyone to understand? Having anxiety and struggling with these smothering feelings is not a choice. There are days when it feels miserable to be happy. Standing in total anticipation of the next “bad” thing to happen. The “amount of work” that simply goes into keeping it all at bay, and to very well make it through a given day, can be utterly exhausting.

You may never have experienced anxiety. You may not think you know anyone around you who has. Yet, chances are you do. You may never know. Because this person may not speak up or reach out. Chances are, he/she is struggling. In complete silence.

Respectfully learning something about this illness can move mountains in the eyes of others. You see, it only takes a moment to know:

Those with anxiety can’t predict when it might hit.

In the mind of someone with anxiety, the seemingly irrational thoughts and worries are so very real.

There is often not an explanation for the anxious thoughts.

Those with anxiety are typically always in “limbo,” even when all is well… just waiting for the next worry to reel through their mind.

Experiencing anxiety tends to cause hours of overanalyzing.

Anxiety “looks” different for each individual. And it can “look” different from day-to-day for just one person.

You may or may not be part of someone’s “comfort zone” at any given moment.

You may not fully understand, but you can still be part of someone’s support system.

And if you think for even one second that those with anxiety, depression and beyond would not “choose” happiness and tranquility in those moments of panic, suffocation, and sometimes pure fear… “mistaken” would be an understatement. Truly, those things are all we want. Even for one moment.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Inside the Mind of a Special Needs Mom With Anxiety

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You can’t handle this.

This is another disease that could end his life.

This can’t be happening.

What if he dies in his sleep?

What if he doesn’t wake up? What if he falls off his bed, I don’t hear it and he goes in to shock? What if I don’t know how to help him? What if I’m not capable? No, I’m not capable. I can’t do this. This is too hard. I’m not strong enough for this. Why does everyone think I’m strong? I’m not strong. I’m weak. My body is tired. It’s probably because I’m sick. I’m probably dying of an undiagnosed disease. Cancer. Heart attack. Stroke.

I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. My mind is on another sprint through every dark scenario that could maybe happen. As I lay there wide awake, I cannot turn off my brain. The only thing in my mind is how to get through another day of handling a chronic illness I cannot control. How do I manage to care for a child who is chronically ill when I have generalized anxiety? Even though I’m on prescription drugs for anxiety, I still have panic attacks. My heart will race so fast, I feel like it will explode. My appetite will be completely gone. I can go days without even thinking about eating. There have been points in my life where I have lost more than 20 pounds in a matter of months due to high anxiety.

At its peak, I could do days without more than two to three hours of sleep a day. In my experience, doctors often want to medicate with sleeping medication only. They don’t always tell you how much of a zombie you might feel like the next day. They don’t always tell you that you will feel so foggy, you may not remember the first few hours of your day. Instead of sleeping pills, I just opt to try to sleep on my own. It’s horrible. Most days I feel like I’m debilitated in exhaustion. When I do finally drift off to sleep, my son will wake up from a night terror, discomfort from his feeding tube, or be scared because his night light is out. Somehow you get use to not sleeping, or at least, not sleeping well. Even though each and every day, I feel physically exhausted, I keep on moving. The truth is, there is no other choice. There is no one else to care for my son. There is no one else I want to care for him, and with his debilitating disease, I have yet to find a balance of caring for myself and caring for him.

When I’m surrounded in a crowd, I am easily seen as a bubbly, extremely happy person. Yet, at the end of the day, I’m drained and incomplete. My brain is buzzing thinking about what I said or if I said something inappropriate due to my anxiety. I analyze and critique everything and consistently worry and panic that I’ve somehow upset someone or I’ve made an enemy. More than 99.9 percent of the time, none of this has actually occurred. I have learned to train my mind to know it’s just the paranoia of anxiety. It’s just what happens to people who are anxious. When the anxiety gets too loud, I have to tell it shut up. Or I wait quietly for my fears to be refuted.

There are days I wonder if I will ever feel OK. Will the anxiety that rips through my mind ever stop? Will the panic I feel subside, and will I be able to just breathe? Medication can only dull the noise that goes on in my brain. It never totally goes away. Therapists teach self-talk, and they teach you to reel it in. Yet on the worst days, nothing is actually able to reel it in. When anxiety takes hold, it’s like I’m stuck on a ship I desperately want to get off, but I’m stuck at sea. The waves are rocking back and forth. I feel sick to my stomach, but I know vomiting will do nothing to ease the pain of what I feel. I close my eyes to make it stop. All I want to do is sleep, and yet my mind continues to race. I slowly drift to sleep, but it only lasts moments.

I know many of us in our community experience anxiety and depression. I know so many other parents who are suffocated by fear. They can’t seem to move forward because the reality of what they are facing is hard to bear. The only thing I can do is continue to lean on God. I need to try to find comfort that he will take care of me. I need to trust he will take care of my son. I need to give my fears to God. Each night I quietly pray for him to guide me, watch over my son and help me manage another day. He is my strength. He is my backbone. He is the feet that carry me when I am too weak to move. I pray each and every day that one day I will feel less anxious, and as I pray, I feel more and more calm. One day I know he will carry all of these fears. One day I will feel peace. One day my son and I will both be whole.

Follow this journey on Without a Crystal Ball.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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5 Habits That Help With My Anxiety

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If you told me five years ago I’d go on medication for anxiety shortly after graduating high school, I would have laughed. I would have told you intelligent, successful, self-aware people are not prone to mental illness. Partly because of denial and partly because of my own young naivety, I would have told you I was “above that sort of thing.” Alas, no.

Mental illness can happen to anyone. It took me several months and a brief bout of depression to realize that a hypercritical analysis of my achievements and a constant need to strive for ever-loftier goals was not healthy. I now recognize I do have some tendencies toward anxiety. That’s OK. It does not change who I am, and it does not define me. I’ve learned not only to cope, but also to thrive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s taken a lot of effort, tears and time to get to where I am now — a point where I can accept anxious thoughts and use them to my advantage. Doing so has not been easy, but it has been paramount to my happiness. 

I’m not going to tell you that learning to live with anxiety can be summed up into five simple steps, but I’ve tried to highlight what has been most integral to my experience in doing so.

1. Accept help.

John Donne wrote that “no man is an island.” Don’t get me wrong, I value independence pretty highly, but accepting help — professional help — is not a sign of weakness. It will not rob you of your independence. Rather, it’s a sign you are independent enough to know what is best for you. As a scientifically minded person with little patience for emotional talk-therapy, I had my doubts as to how helpful seeing a professional might be. I was also highly skeptical of medication. I didn’t want to become dependent on someone or something for my own happiness and well-being. What I failed to realize at the beginning, however, is that sometimes we need a little push from others to get us back on our feet. (Because mental health is often not covered by insurance, it can be difficult and expensive to find care. Some therapists offer sliding rates on the basis of income. Take note.)

2. Be private. Or don’t.

Though there have been some improvements regarding the awareness and understanding of mental health issues in the past few years, mental illness is still highly stigmatized. There’s no way around it. From telling people I’ve got a dentist appointment when really I’m off to a psych evaluation to picking a therapist in different city to avoid running into people I know in the office parking lot, I’ve done a lot of hiding. I’m not proud, but maintaining a degree of privacy was necessary at first. It’s hard to be vulnerable. As time has gone on, I’ve gotten more comfortable with sharing my experience, but it still makes my skin crawl a bit. Tell people you trust, but go at your own pace. It can feel like a huge risk to tell someone you have issues with anxiety. This is OK. Allow yourself some space if you need it.

3. Keep tabs on yourself.

I never thought I’d preach the values of mindfulness, but it works. Sometimes it’s good to do a little self check-in. When I start to feel anxious, I ask myself how and why a situation is affecting me. This is usually a helpful tactic in reducing my anxious thoughts. One benefit of this practice is that it’s helped me develop a more heightened awareness of my own and others’ feelings. Anxiety has made me a more compassionate and aware human being, and for that, I’m actually pretty grateful.

4. Find healthy ways to channel your anxious energy.

For me, this means always having a creative project to pour myself into. For others, this means practicing yoga, going for a jog, listening to music, etc. Sometimes my thoughts are too much to handle, and I need to put my focus on something else. Finding a way to channel any anxious energy you may have is a great way to turn what can be a debilitating condition into something that actually helps you increase your productivity and level of functioning.

5. Stay in the present.

This is super important. Don’t get caught up in expectations set by yourself or others. Don’t blame yourself for not living up to whatever standard you set for yourself. Recognize that what really matters is not what you were doing a year ago, or what you think you should be doing 10 years from now, but rather where you are in the here and now. Take some time to drop your thoughts of the past and future and focus on the present moment. Close your eyes. Remember you’re alive and breathing, and everything will be OK. Smile.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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When Anxiety Is Like a Big, Heavy Backpack

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I love backpacking.  When I was younger, I always said that my dream honeymoon was a backpacking trip. My mom used to tell me I would change my mind one day for “grown-up reasons.” She always said there were “other” things I would want to do on my honeymoon. Well, she was right. (Yes, Mom, I just admitted on the internet you were right…don’t get used to it.)

Maybe I didn’t go backpacking for my honeymoon, but two weeks after getting married, my husband and I took off for the mountains on our first of many backpacking trips.

The funny things is, when I take my backpack off at the end of the day, the weight on my shoulders doesn’t seem much lighter. That’s because to me, anxiety is like a big, heavy backpack full of fear — a backpack that never seems to come off.

I mean, sure, you realize a lot of these fears are completely irrational. You try to explain that, but few will ever understand.

“I know the universe doesn’t have a big clipboard where it checks off all my flaws, but that doesn’t change how I…nevermind.”

“Yes Mr. Tour Guide, I realize the monkeys aren’t actually going to hurt me, but for some reason they are triggering me really badly right now and holding one right in my face isn’t going to…” *Gasps for air, returns to the boat and faints*

“I understand he is most likely not going to get in a fatal car accident, but I still feel the need to check his location every few minutes…Yes I know it seems silly but…well…fine, I’ll put my phone away and listen to you. Oh, why are my hands shaking? Maybe because my brain is screaming at me right now telling me my husband is probably dead!”

“Look, I get that it makes no sense that I can slide down the side of a volcano in a cardboard box without a problem but driving on the freeway terrifies me…it’s just…it’s just a me thing, I guess.”

But it’s not a you thing — it’s an anxiety thing. And now, anxiety is a part of you. Try as you might to explain it to them, they won’t understand the fears you carry around in your backpack.

The worst part, though, isn’t dealing with the fears in your backpack. The thing that terrifies you the most is the thought of losing that backpack.

You don’t understand it. How is it that the thing making you the most miserable is the thing you are most afraid of losing?

You feel as though your fears — as irrational as they may be — are somehow protecting you. It’s as if dropping your backpack would make you vulnerable to all the things inside it. If you were to drop your backpack, perhaps all the things inside it would escape and attack you and then dance around your remains as they chatter about how imperfect you were.

That’s why meditation is so scary at first. Your therapist tells you to relax, to release your fear each time you exhale. You try your best, but releasing your fear just scares you even more. Relaxation becomes impossible, and your backpack gets heavier and heavier. The heavier your backpack is, the scarier it is to let go of it. It’s a vicious cycle.

So, you live your life with your big, heavy backpack constantly weighing you down. Faith, therapy, exercise, medicine and healthy distractions can make you stronger and more able to carry your backpack, but they don’t always help you get rid of it. Maybe that is a blessing that can come from anxiety, after all — you learn to get stronger. Maybe that’s what makes us so special.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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The Paradox of Existing With Anxiety

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People often ask me for words to describe my diagnosis, the terms that define my illness. I have struggled for years to find such words, to put a definition to my mental illness. I have embraced a few terms, as simplistic as they may seem. Yet they encompass so much.

Broken.

It’s the only way I know to describe who I really am. The people around me don’t see it but the cracks are there, just below the surface, cleverly hidden by my smile and perfectionism. Maybe if I am good enough, do enough, smile enough and serve enough, then my brokenness won’t show. Maybe it won’t be the thing people remember about me.

Although they don’t see it now, I know one day I won’t be able to hide the cracks anymore and they will rear their ugly head. Everyone will know the fraud I really am inside and the horrible things I think of myself, all the while trying to teach others to love themselves despite their flaws. I pour my energy and thoughts into fixing their lives so I don’t have to focus on the thoughts running rampant inside my mind. While I know we are all beautifully broken, I feel as if I’m somehow the one beyond repair, unable to be mended.

Strong.

I am strong. I want to scream it to the world when I’m having a good day, when I’ve overcome an obstacle and feel as if I can do anything. When I am feeling confident, energized, capable and whole. I want so badly for people to understand I am much stronger than they realize and that battling my inner demons may not leave physical scars but the scars are there none the less. Yet, I persist.

I want the world to see that making it to work today was a hard task but I faced it anyway, knowing I am better than this disease. I want them to understand the determination it takes to battle daily with simply trying to exist and deciding I’m not willing to give up, knowing that once my spirit is that broken I will never recover. Instead, I focus on willing myself through another day until the pain lessens, and I find a safe foothold.

I have mental illness, and as a result, I am both broken and strong. The paradox of this statement is not lost on me. I am broken, but this brokenness has produced in me a strong will to fight, to never give up. Although fighting for me might mean having to stay home, avoiding relationships or taking medication, it is what must be done to continue the daily battle for my mind, my sanity.

I wish the world would see although I know the brokenness is there, I don’t let it stop me. Even though there are days when it would be so easy to give up the fight, I know I cannot do so because only then would this illness win. I would rather be broken and strong than simply be defeated.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page. 
 
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
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4 Lies Anxiety Tells You (and How Not to Listen)

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Anxiety is sneaky in the way it affects our internal dialogue. One of the problems with anxiety is that it’s so exhausting, we take these lies seriously. Because we’re so tired from trying to cope, when anxiety whispers in our ear we listen to it.

Here are some lies anxiety might tell you, and why you shouldn’t listen.

Lie #1: There is something wrong with you.

Once anxiety has our attention it quickly tries to show us evidence to support its lies.

A useful tip Susan Jeffers talks about in her book, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway,” is to write on a piece of card “I can handle it.” She recommends keeping that card within your sight.

Get used to questioning anxiety’s lies. Don’t just accept them. Look for evidence that you are OK. Think of the last time you felt OK and think about what you can do right now to help yourself feel calm and in control.

Lie #2: You will always feel this way. 

No one always feels anything.

This is one of anxiety’s favorite tricks. To freeze us in bad feelings and minimize our happier moments.

Negative thoughts often derive their power from being generalizations.

Pay attention to your internal dialogue and look out for statements featuring words like: always and every. For example: it’s always like this, or every time…

Getting specific with these generalizations helps contain them and bring them down to scale. Once they have lost their drama you can start to look at ways to address them.

Practice noticing the times when you feel OK. Sketch those times, or note them in a journal. Practice being present.

Lie #3: Nothing works.

Look at the success stories of others with a curious and open mind. Keep trying and find what works for you.

Pick one technique and try it every day for two weeks. Make it a game — draw 14 boxes for the next 14 days and make sure you tick each box. Or get a streaks app and make it your goal to do something every day and don’t break the chain.

Recommended techniques for increased resistance to anxiety’s lies:

Lie #4: You are losing your mind.

Your mind may be disturbed, but it can be supported. You are not your body and you are not your mind. You’ll be OK.

For more anxiety-reducing tips, visit Anxiety Slayer.

Listen to the podcast below for detailed support on how to handle the lies anxiety tries to tell you:

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