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