Woman looks out of window

For a teenager who thought introspective conversations were the most uncomfortable, humiliating form of torture possible, I was highly aware of myself emotionally. I knew for years, prior to my official diagnosis, I was struggling with severe depression. The day when I finally accepted five years of darkness were a good indicator I needed help and visited my college’s counseling program, I fully expected to hear the words “depression” and “low self-esteem” thrown around. I didn’t, however, expect to hear “panic attack” or “anxiety disorder.”

To say this diagnosis was a bit of a surprise is a massive understatement. I always thought I was fairly tuned into my mental and emotional instabilities. I never considered myself to be an anxious person. Quirky and particular? Sure. Anxious? Definitely not.

I was a changed person that day as I left my counselor’s office. I was suddenly noticing all of these idiosyncrasies I had always considered to be facets of my personality, which were actually symptoms. I found myself haunted by this new awareness of my constant state of worry. I guess you could say I was worried about my worrying.

I suddenly hated to go places alone because I now felt this imaginary weight of everyone’s eyes on me at all times. I couldn’t ignore it like I used to. I retyped every text and email multiple times to eliminate any chance of someone being offended or upset by a possible connotation of a word I used. I recall one night I spent the better portion of an hour berating myself for answering a question with “yes” instead of “of course.”

My first reaction to this shift in my fragile mental ecosystem was to compare myself to others who had this struggle. Shame on me. I know everyone feels things differently, but I just couldn’t believe I had the same illness as they did. It looked so different in them. It was so much more destructive and it stole their ability to function. Mine didn’t look like that. It was just a mean voice that screamed in my ear when I was around other people and made me occasionally hyperventilate when I got upset. So I decided I didn’t deserve to attribute my “quirkiness” to their agony. I wasn’t in enough pain to deserve a place in their community.

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The night I finally accepted my anxiety, I was locked in my dorm room, having what I realized to be a panic attack. Taking inventory of how this could have been influencing my life over the years, I began to worry my anxiety was so deeply rooted into my personality I would be a completely different person without it. I convinced myself the parts of me everyone found to be so fun and sweet were really just byproducts of this emotional tumor hidden inside of me. In my mind, removing the anxiety meant losing everyone I loved, which, of course, did nothing to help with the depression.

Admitting to myself I had anxiety was a genuine struggle that could have been simplified if I had understood my mental illnesses did not, and do not, define me as a person. They made no statement as to whether I am strong or weak. My anxiety did not determine my personality. It simply altered how my personality filtered out into the world.

Another concept difficult to come to terms with was the idea that other people’s pain does not make your pain smaller or less important. It just makes it different. This world is full of unique people who process and express things differently. A person whose anxiety presents itself in painful, draining panic attacks that leave them completely dysfunctional has a mental illness. A person whose anxiety is an incessant, consistent level of doubt and discomfort can also have a mental illness. It isn’t a special club where only the sickest of the sick are allowed to get help. Mental illnesses are exactly that, illnesses.

Sometimes I wonder if that day was a blessing or a curse. I can honestly say if I could go back in time and do it differently, I wouldn’t change a single thing. Yes, it caused a bit of emotional upheaval, but it also lead me to a deeper understanding of who I am and it made me wiser. If I had never been told I had anxiety, I wouldn’t have recognized my dysfunctional habits as a problem. I would have spiraled even further. A diagnosis can be scary and jarring, but it isn’t a death sentence. It’s a chance to do better.

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It’s like one of those “expectations versus reality” memes.

The expectation of what an anxious person looks like: shaking, freaking out at all times, hyperventilating, socially awkward, stammering over their words.

The reality: Maybe that. But also maybe the complete opposite.

Some symptoms of anxiety disorders are more obvious than others, but there’s a lot about living with anxiety you can’t see. To get a glimpse into this world of invisible symptoms, we asked people in our mental health community to share parts of living with anxiety others can’t see.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “The things I experience are so hard for me to explain. It’s a mixture of a bunch of feelings — dread, stress, nervousness and sickness. And because I can’t explain it, it feels like people don’t believe me.” — Julie W.

2. “The teeth grinding behind the happy smiles in social situations.” — Tommie M.

3. “The freaking non-stop churning of what-ifs and shouldas and how-am-I-gonnas spinning in my head.” — Dannella N

4. “How hard it is to focus on something or slow down my thoughts. How tiring it truly is.” — Stacy L.

5. “The crushing feeling as needles pierce your heart and you suddenly can’t breathe.” — Bri C.

6. “What people don’t see is the energy it takes to try to keep calm while your heart is racing. You have nausea, blurred vision and every ounce of your being is telling you to remove yourself from this moment. You start shaking and nervously twitching. All the while people may get upset because you suddenly stopped talking or carrying the conversation or suddenly have to leave a location. They don’t realize the battles occurring on the inside at that exact moment.” — Amy O.

7. “The body aches.” — Jocelyn B.

8. “My mind isn’t just anxious when I’m talking about it. Many times I’m trying to beat it on my own because I don’t want to burden you with helping (even though you always say it’s not a burden).” — Alissa V.

9. “The itching under my skin, like there’s something trying to get out. Or the fears of everyday things/situations.” — Scarlett E. 

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10. “Something people can’t see is the exhaustion that comes with having anxiety or being anxious in general. On the flip side they can’t see how accomplishing it can feel to overcome something that makes your anxiety flare.” — Austyne W.

11. “Whenever I have a few good days, I am constantly waiting for something to go wrong.” — Rebecca W.

12. “The intense physical discomfort, the pain in my chest and stomach. The way my entire body tenses up and the fast breathing that can take a very long time to go away.” — Erin D.

13. “The sudden rush of panic. It feels like I’m drowning in my own emotions.” — Tia M.

14. “The constant noise in my head. I might look fine from the outside, but my mind is often racing, worrying about what someone thinks of something I said or did last week or something I’m expecting to happen next week, even though it isn’t actually a big deal.” — Keira H.

15. “Having to always send a text or email instead of calling or talking to someone in person, and feeling the pressure of people telling you constantly to either be sociable and get off your phone.” — Hazel K.

16.They can’t see how I am fighting to keep it together on the inside even when I am smiling on the outside.” — Cheryl M

17. “They can’t see the tension inside of me when there’s more than one conversation going on in the room.” — Barbara B.

18. “Even the smallest chore is like looking at the top of everest and I have to get there but I’m wearing concrete boots.” — Con A.

19. “People can’t see the 6,000 thoughts, fears and ‘what ifs’ running through my mind at any given time.” — Kim F.

20. “They can’t see that the sorority girl actually does struggle with social anxiety disorder.” — Jessica T.

21. “Constantly assessing the environment and people for danger or threats.” — Tomo W.

22. “How hard I’m trying to keep it together.” — Gessie P.

23. “It takes a lot of fear and inner pep talks to be comfortable in social situations.” — Nicole D.

24. “The constant running commentary in my head!” — Laura K.

25. “The absolute fear it takes to do anything — and my mini celebration when I do it anyways.” — Aliçia R.

26. “I experience excruciating stomach pain. It’s not just butterflies. It’s knives and bombs and fire all going at my insides at the same time.” — Madelyn H.

27. “Constantly asking myself why I’m not like the rest of my family/friends/strangers – the ‘normal’ people? That nagging, negative voice telling me I’m a fraud, not good enough, not worth listening to.” — Emma C.

28. “They can’t see anxiety exists simultaneously with other great strengths and abilities.” — Beth M. 

Editor’s note: Everyone experiences anxiety differently. These quotes are based on individuals’ experiences. 


It was October of 2014 when I had my first panic attack. Well, the first panic attack I remember labeling as one. Truly, it was quite embarrassing at the time and really caught me off guard. Two kids from my school were arguing, and I was less than a foot away, literally caught in between their screaming, red faces. I remember my throat closing up and feeling like I needed fresh air, even though I was already outside.

Then, I started sobbing. Everyone abandoned the fight and immediately asked me what was wrong and I couldn’t tell them because I didn’t know. At the time, I didn’t know how to explain what had happened. I was scared, confused and was stuck in my thoughts all day, wondering what had gone wrong.

Zoe Sugg, known as Zoella to the online world, is an online blogger and a world famous YouTube sensation with over 10 million subscribers and counting. Zoe also suffers from severe anxiety. She works to normalize her illness and occasionally even films herself post-panic attack. She does this in order to inform viewers anxiety isn’t a thing to romanticize. It’s real and it’s scary.

As time went on, I found myself greatly identifying with Zoe’s videos and blog posts on her mental illness. After having my first anxiety attack, more of them followed. Getting called on in class caused me to start crying and being alone in my room for too long made me panic for no reason. I panicked over small things. My heart rate was at a constant abnormal speed, and I would get this blank feeling and tunnel vision whenever I felt an attack coming.

With time, I realized those were all things I had been normalizing about myself. They were things that had been happening to me for so long, I thought they happened to everyone. When I realized they weren’t, it was like putting glasses on for the first time when you have poor vision. You realize how you were seeing wasn’t how everyone else was seeing.

After reading one of Zoe’s most popular blog posts on her anxiety, I realized it was time for me to stop ignoring things and to start helping myself. I met with my doctor, who confirmed an imbalance in my serotonin levels was causing me to have anxiety and depression. It was all like a weight lifted off my shoulders. I wasn’t imagining things. It wasn’t all in my head. There were steps I could take to start to be happy again.

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I was so nervous, at first, to go to my doctor at all because I was afraid there would be nothing wrong with me or my doctor would say my feelings were unimportant or invalid. I felt like people were comparing their mental illnesses to mine, as if how out of balance your serotonin levels are is a competition and somehow I was losing.

Zoe helped me realize everyone experiences anxiety and depression differently and the way you experience it will never make your mental illness invalid. They don’t teach you what mental illness looks like in high school. They don’t teach you what a panic attack is or how to stop a friend from dying by suicide when his depression gets the best of him.

If it wasn’t for Zoe and the positive and open platform she created, I’m not sure I ever would have realized this about myself or taken the necessary steps toward saving myself. Too often, people have negative opinions about internet celebrities, claiming they find their way to fame through fake personalities and dumb videos. Zoe eliminates that stigma and uses her platform to speak out and help people who may need her words, like I did.

I saw that an Internet sensation had problems a lot like mine. She gave me the confidence to realize if she could talk about her anxiety, so could I. Zoella helped me recognize my mental illness and someday, I hope to thank her for helping me before I knew how to help myself. But, until the day I can thank her, all I can do is try and help others by sharing my story and telling you that your mental illness is valid. You are not weak for taking steps to save yourself.

A woman shares on her video blog about her anxiety.
“I have learned that I might be a bit braver than I thought.” Zoe Sugg

Photos via YouTube.

 
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

 


This is it. The secret is coming out.

It needs to come out so people finally know the truth about my social anxiety.

Here it is.

I love people.

I love people!

People are great. They are interesting, intriguing, and fun to watch. I love watching people interact with each other. I love to study their body language and social cues. I love people, and that is my biggest secret.

It hasn’t been a secret because I made it one. It has been a secret because people have automatically assumed since I have social anxiety I must not like people.

But that’s not it.

Most people don’t get it.

It’s not that I don’t like people. People aren’t what freak me out.

It’s the socialization, the interactions.

It’s the impending encounters at the grocery store, at the post office, and at the video store.

When I say “freak out,” I’m describing a whole body experience.

On the inside, my stomach is upset and I feel like throwing up. My breathing is shallow and rapid, and it feels like my heart is going to bust from my chest.

On the outside, my hands shake uncontrollably. I get itchy hives on my neck and chest that turn bright red. I sweat profusely all over my body.

In my head, I go to the worst case scenario of whatever social situation I’m in. I think about all the mistakes I could make while speaking. I fear tripping and falling on my face in front of people. I’m deathly afraid of being made fun of and stared at.

The mental, physical, and emotional symptoms I experience because of my social anxiety fuel me to avoid social encounters mostly because I am afraid people will notice my visible symptoms.

My symptoms aren’t brought on because I dislike people (I love people!). It’s interacting closely with them that makes me sick.

It’s unfair to assume I dislike people just because I have social anxiety. That’s like saying someone hates the color blue because they mostly wear pink.

I’m not antisocial.

I guess in a sense I am. But I’m fine with social settings. I’m fine sitting at the library as long as nobody talks to me. I’m out of the house in a social setting… I just don’t always socialize. But I’m not “antisocial” in a way that means I’m rude or dislike people.

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It’s been a secret for so long because it’s what I’ve allowed people to assume. But that assumption isn’t true, or fair, and I won’t allow it anymore.

So the secret is out.

I have social anxiety, and I love people.

Image via Thinkstock.


Growing up, conversations about future boyfriends and a husband were ever present from a young age. It’s what my family and friends talked about. So I thought it was the norm. I listened but would rarely engage, as I didn’t feel I had much to add to the conversation.

I’ve always felt different. I wasn’t interested in dating in middle or high school. All my friends had boyfriends by the ninth grade. So I figured it would eventually happen for me. After graduating high school, I started to date men. I was a “one date wonder,” always finding something wrong with the guys and moving onto the next. After years of doing this, I started to think something was wrong with me.

At 19, I started the coming out process after researching sexuality and watching queer based shows and movies. Lesbian characters did not exist for me growing up. So when I found them, I entered a new world, a world I knew nothing about it. Then, it dawned on me, the disinterest in men, the pain of losing a close female friend in high school and countless crushes on my lady teachers made sense. I was gay!

After coming out to myself, anxiety flooded my body with fear and panic. My mind was going 100 miles an hour. I had panic attacks daily. The first and last thought for six months after I came out to myself was “I am gay.” After six months, I was ready to start the next steps in the coming out process. Coming out itself is an anxiety provoking experience. Partnered with an anxiety condition, it can seem overwhelming and too much to handle.

I was able to get through multiple coming outs to friends and family members. My voice was shaky and my hands were trembling, but I did it. I came out! After coming out to my close friends and family member, the daily panic attacks gradually went away, until something else caused my panic to emerge like passing a psychology test or getting a job.

Coming out was an anxiety-provoking time in my life, but trust me when I say, “It will get better.” Today, I am sometimes asked if I have a boyfriend or husband. I say, “No, I have a girlfriend.” I know I will continually have to come out throughout my life as many perceive me to be straight, but the more I’ve come out, the less anxious I feel about it.


I’ve worn this mask most of my life. I believed it helped me. I believed it kept me safe and protected me. I never knew what life was like without the mask, or what I could achieve without the mask. But all along, the mask was just a mask and nothing more. It did not help me, it did not keep me safe or protect me. It only gave me something to hide behind and disguise what was really going on inside. Like sweeping all your dirt under the carpet, it may be hidden, but it is never resolved.

When you have spent a lifetime disguising what’s going on inside, the mask becomes a permanent feature of your persona. While you seem confident on the outside, inside there’s a storm brewing. My heart is pounding, I’m drumming my legs, my stomach is turning over, I’m chewing my finger nails and I’m biting the inside of my mouth to the point it bleeds. Nervous without rhyme or reason, overclouded by thoughts that just simply should not exist.

At a young age I discovered my mask. Like a tool in my toolbox, I used it to bury my emotions and manufacture a facade, building walls and hiding what was going on inside. Day in and day out, the mask was on as soon as my eyelids would open. Sometimes it was even in my dreams. From the moment I was awake the mask had to be on, out of fear — fear of someone learning how I felt. I feared someone would find out I did not like what I saw in the mirror.

At first I thought my mask could be easily removed, like I could take it off at any time and cope. But every time I attempted to remove my mask I found myself putting it back on faster than I could imagine. It was easier to wear the mask than confront the thoughts and actions that led me to wearing it. It was easier to sweep them under the carpet and ignore their existence than addressing them truly. Because addressing them would mean admitting to them and acknowledging I have issues. An admission to my faults and flaws, in my eyes, would be a failure. Failure to be a man like I was brought up to understand. Men don’t express feelings, they don’t show emotions. They’re tough, they’re robust, they are resilient and confident.

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My mask came in the form of drug use. When I was younger it was more experimental, having tried almost everything I could get my hands on — alcohol, speed, ice, cocaine or acid — whatever was available. But my drug of choice, the one that allowed me to mask myself from the world and still function within society, was marijuana. I started using it heavily to calm and hide my anxiety and mask what I felt inside. My anxieties about socializing, going out, meeting people, being around people, dealing with peer pressure, being bullied, having my trust in other people shattered and dealing with life in general. I wanted to mask myself from everything, as if I was protecting myself from harm.

While I had no explanation for the way I was feeling, no way of knowing why or how hard it would strike, I knew one thing — smoking pot masked my anxiety from the people around me. Most importantly, it masked it from me. It allowed me to feel like I could function within the social norms without feeling I had to leave or to sit in silence by myself. But often, that’s what I would do. Isolate myself. Trash myself. Distort my mind with so much pot I was numb to what was going on around me.

I hadn’t realized I was still wearing the mask until recently. I thought it had long gone but it wasn’t. I had become so habituated to the mask it seemed to have dissolved away and become a part of me. But, alas, I was still wearing it all along. Still numbing myself to my issues, not allowing anyone in, blocking them out, sheltering me and protecting me.

It was time for change. It was time to lose the mask and see what life was like without it. To see what I could do, what I could be and who I really was. Open and exposed. No more hiding, no more numbing, no more mask. This seemed paradoxical as the idea raged my anxiety levels, yet I knew I had to confront it and change it. I needed to see who I truly was, and whether I really needed the mask or not.

Could I do it? What if I can’t remove it? What if I do and I fail? What if I succeed and nobody likes who I am? What if I don’t like who I am? It would be easier to put the mask back on and go on pretending everything is OK. I could see unless I challenged myself to remove the mask, I would forever be stuck wearing it. I may never see what I could be, who I could be or what I could achieve.

I faced the challenge and removed the mask, and it’s still gone to this day. I am no longer numbing myself to life, no longer letting anxiety win the battle. I can still feel the anxiety when it appears, when it raises its head, but instead of trying to mask or numb it I can now deal with it and defeat it. There were times I wanted to put the mask on again because it would be easier than facing the challenge of reality, of seeing who I can be. But I will never know what I can achieve if I sit comfortably behind the mask, never dreaming, never challenging myself and never accepting who I could be.

The key to removing my mask came as a result of a decision that had nothing to do with wearing it. It was a butterfly effect on a grandiose scale. I decided I wanted to get involved with helping a charity close to my heart and family. A charity called Touched By Olivia, who design and build inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities — children like my second daughter. They were looking for people to run in the New York City Marathon in November and something drew me in like a moth to a porch light.

To help me commit to the process of training for the run I started a blog on Facebook called Run, Dad, Run. It made me feel responsible for committing to the run and so I started blogging about my training and how I was feeling. As an unintentional consequence of this process I would film myself discussing how I was feeling, what was going on in my mind and why I felt the way I did. I started to talk about my anxiety and drug use, with only the camera to hear my rationalizations. But I knew I needed to make a public post about it so people could realize despite my outward facade, they were only seeing the mask. I’d spend hours reviewing the footage, watching myself talk about me. I felt like I was watching a complete stranger. “This is not me, who is this person? Why does he feel this way?” I would watch the videos and I would cry. I could not make anything of the footage because it hurt so much to see this person and the reasons he gave for his drug use. I was in denial it was even me.

The more I watched the footage and pondered who this person was the more I realized I had to make a difference now before it was too late. If not, I would be on my death bed one day asking myself what I could have achieved, who I could be, where I could go and what dreams I left behind. I realized I couldn’t outwardly change if I couldn’t inwardly change. The videos gave me an overwhelming sense of self-reflection and self-realization. I knew what I had to do. I had to remove the mask. For my kids, my family, my friends and most importantly for me. I had to dig deep inside and ask myself if I wanted to continue masking these things and watch as time faded away, or if I wanted to be the person I should be.

I had never run a marathon in my life. I was never much of a runner at all. Yet for some reason it resonated with me, it called out and challenged me. I wanted to be the guy who said he was going to do something and then went out and did it. I wasn’t going to be the guy who did nothing and watched his dreams pass by anymore. With a new level of determination I set about making a change in my mind and in my life. I quit consuming the drugs and faced my fears. I looked into my own eyes and realized something: I was my own worst enemy all along. I was the problem and I was the solution. I needed to beat the voice in my head that said I would fail, that told me to quit and take the same over-walked path. I was determined to shut that voice down and drown it out with a new mantra — I can do this!

And so it was. Like a light switch that had been turned on, something had changed in my mind. It wasn’t over months or days or hours, but at that very moment I realized I had anxiety issues and a drug addiction and admitted to it. The lights in my darkened room had been turned on and I could finally see there was more to life. I could not turn that light off again. I couldn’t let myself go back to that dark room and be benighted by my anxiety and fears anymore. It was time to change. And so, change I did.

Follow this journey on Run, Dad, Run.

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