Illustration of woman taking a photograph of herself in the mirror

As a teenager, I’m used to emotions. Every day, my head and my heart are a rush of feelings I can’t quite explain, my body awash with hormones that make me feel like I’m upside down most of the time. That’s probably why I didn’t notice something was wrong for the longest time.

It wasn’t until I sat on my bed, crying for reasons I couldn’t understand as I texted with a friend that I found out. She asked me if I’d ever been diagnosed with anxiety or depression. My gut reaction was to deny it. Me? Depressed? Anxious? Please. Overachievers like me don’t get anxious. I’m a straight-A student with parents that are still married and friends that were as nice as could be. My life was great. I had no reason in the world not to be happy.

But I wasn’t.

“When was the last time I was happy?” I found myself thinking. Yesterday? Last week? Three weeks ago?

Three months. I hadn’t been happy in three months, the best I could determine. And that’s when I realized my life had changed.

“What happened?” I couldn’t help thinking. What could of possibly triggered this?

And the answer is, nothing happened. Nothing concrete, anyway. The more I’ve thought about it since that day, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t take some traumatic event to cause anxiety. It doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, I couldn’t even tell you when it all started. It could’ve been years ago.

All I knew as I sat on my bed, in my room, alone that night was this: I didn’t know who I was anymore. I found myself finally acknowledging all the self-depreciating thoughts I’d been having recently.

You’re not good enough, and you never will be. Nobody likes you. Your friends just hang out with you because they feel like they have to. They feel sorry for you. And why shouldn’t they? You’re pathetic. You’re a burden who’s just weighing them all down. They’d be better off without you. You are never going to amount to anything.

I made a list of the physical symptoms I’d been having. (The fondness for lists was a fairly recent development, at the time. I’d come to find later that that is yet another lovely symptom of my anxiety.) Chest pains, trouble breathing, headaches, trouble sleeping, feeling faint, loss of appetite… The list went on and on. And they all added up to one thing for me: Anxiety.

Wow. Anxiety. That’s a huge word.

Let’s just say I was terrified.

And I still am. Six months later, I am still overwhelmed by it. Some days worse than others. Parties aren’t as fun; before accepting an invitation, I have to think about how I will keep my anxiety at bay. If I don’t think I can, I just don’t go. Shopping is stressful because I worry about whether the cashier will try to talk to me. Driving leaves me petrified; answering the phone makes my hands shake. Some days, even answering a text or an email takes 20 minutes because I worry about saying the wrong thing. And you can just forget about small talk with strangers.

But I’m so much better off than I was those three months when I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I think that once you realize what it is, anxiety is easier to deal with it. Giving it a name gave me a real and palpable problem to confront. Anxiety is my constant companion now, yes. And, as result, it changed my life. But as long as I don’t let my anxiety control me, it hasn’t ruined it.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images


We woke up today, just like any other day. It’s just you and me and a pancake date planned. After all, we don’t get many days where it’s just us. I thought I was ready. I perfectly planned your purple tutu and favorite polka dot bow last night. It was laid out neatly, right next to my list of quick things we needed to grab at the store. It would be a quick stop. After all, I was prepared.

We’re shopping away, laughing and giggling as we work as a team to knock things off my perfectly planned list. Toilet paper — check. Milk-check. Tampons — check. Bathmat — check. Wait. Wait. What size do I need? And then I feel it coming. It comes like a freight train, and I am chained to the tracks, forced to watch the wreckage.

Why didn’t you measure the bathroom, Shelby? How could you forget? When will you have time to come back to look for another mat? There’s no time. There’s too much to do. Because, Shelby, you must always be doing, and if you stop doing, then something will fall apart. Something always falls apart. Something will go wrong. My God, what if something goes wrong? And people will expect you to have a damn bathmat. Why can’t you do this? Why are you constantly failing? People expect you to have it together.

Now I’m sweating. I feel like I’m being swallowed alive by the shelves of bathmats in all different unfathomable sizes around me. And feel the train run over my chest. I am gasping for air, but my chest feels like it’s been crushed. And I struggle to breathe. I didn’t realize it, but people are looking, waiting to see if I can relax. Because, for f*ck’s sake, Shelby, you should be able to relax. Why can’t you relax? Then I try to relax but my heart won’t slow down, and I panic all over again because I can’t get the damn bathmats to stop swallowing me alive. OK, think about other things. Oh sh*t — all those things. Things you need to do. If I don’t do them, I will let people down, and if I let people down, I am failing and Shelby you cannot fail.

I can’t breathe now. I am gasping for breath, sweating and shaking, in the damn bath aisle of Target.

You saw it all. You witnessed mommy break. I promised you princess outfits and pancakes, and you got Mommy’s panic attack.

Soon, after I regrouped, after the train had backed off my chest and the air was back into the room, I stood up. I took you from the Target employee who had come to help, and I held you in my arms. This is my coping skill. In those moments of fear and the feeling of doom, I need to know what is real. I need to touch what’s important.

Anxiety is different for everyone. I have learned mine is stress-induced. I function just fine and lead a seemingly full, happy life because I know my triggers. Most days, I know I am so much more than my anxiety. I am smart and brave and kind and good. I am not a failure. I am enough. But some days, the doubt and feelings of inadequacy creep in the cracks of my tired, overworked, over-stressed self. It gets under my skin and spreads like a rapid virus that may show its ugly head, or may lay dormant until triggered by an outside force. My outside force is fear of failure. I just don’t want to mess anything up or let anyone down, especially you, my sweet girl. I want you to know your momma is strong and capable and knows what she is doing.

At the end of the day, I just have to remember to be in the moment. Whatever it takes to get me through. In seconds, in minutes, in hours. Just get through. Just get off the floor. Just breathe. Because there will always be things to do and lists to make.

But right now, I owe you pancakes.

Lead photo source: Peter J. Romano 2nd on Wikimedia Commons

Living with anxiety can feel like a constant battle. You have to stay alert to catch anxiety creeping up on you. It can turn into an all-day fight to keep from being overwhelmed. Different therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help manage anxiety, but when you’re in the throes of an anxiety attack a therapist’s office might as well be a world away.

During times when it seems like anxiety is “winning,” many look for even one small saving grace to get them through the day. To see what techniques people living with anxiety use to combat their mental illness, we asked our mental health community to share their tips for getting through rough times.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “I say hello to the anxiety (in my head of course), give it the name of someone annoying and invite it along on my day because I have things I need to do. Sometimes it works, some times it doesn’t.” — Kimmie R.

2. “I avoid anxiety triggers by keeping my house clean, and on days everything is too much, I try to keep stressors down.” — Amanda C.

3. “The only thing that really helps me instantly is holding my oldest cat. We have a special bond, and if I’m not feeling well and reach out for her, she just stays in my arms and I listen to her breathing and purring” — Lisa O.

4. “I listen to music and try to focus on just the music and nothing else. Sometimes if I am able to, I lay down in complete silence or with my music and just lay there concentrating on my breathing.” — Jade C.

5. “I pray or read my favorite Bible verses. Focusing on my faith is a great tool for getting refocused on days when I feel like a nervous wreck. It’s also very encouraging and lifts my mood.” — Autumn J.

6. “I try to ground myself using a five senses technique I was taught. I take off my shoes if I can first. Then I name five things I can see, four I can feel, three I can hear, two I can smell and one I can taste. Surprisingly, it works really well by putting me in the moment.” — Kelli C.

7. “Meditate. I always thought it was one of those cheesy ideas people gave that would ‘cure anxiety,’ but it really has helped me. I generally use YouTube for guided meditations, they help force you to clear your mind and just focus on the words guiding you.” — Rachel H.

8. “Regardless of how anxiety creeps up on me and seeps into myself, I just breathe. If nothing else. I just survive and exist. Sometimes you just have to exist.” — Syed K.

9. “I never fight it — I try to determine what’s causing it. Negative self-talk? Fear of speaking my mind? Too much stress? Then I remind myself that although the physical manifestations and symptoms are very frightening, they cannot hurt me. I will not have a heart attack or stroke. Of all the things I’ve learned about my anxiety, I believe that has been the most comforting.” — Kelly L.

10. “Belly breathing! My therapist and I have been working on this a lot. Also acceptance, which I’m still working on. If I beat myself up and feel like I’m all alone with my panic and anxiety, the anxiety only gets worse. So I’m also working on saying to myself, ‘OK, this is a panic attack. I’m accepting it.’ I’m still working on a lot of things obviously but these have helped somewhat.” — Sarah B.

11. “Go for a walk in the mountains! After a while my brain stops going over and over my worries and just focuses on getting up the next peak until I’ve finished my intended route — then I focus on getting home.” — Sian H.

12. “When anxiety is winning, I need alone time. I need to be on my own to relax, breathe, journal and just be by myself. I’ll come back when my heart has stopped feeling like it’s going to burst out of my chest, my hands aren’t shaking and I can breath again.” — Chelle H.

13. “I tell myself ‘I’ve gotten through worse and I’ve come so far from where I used to be.’” — Brandon H.

14. “Sometimes, if my husband can see I’m having a difficult time, he will get me to go out somewhere special with him — even if it is just for ice cream or something.” — Wendy Z.

15. “I do whatever my mind and body wants. If it wants to sleep, I sleep. If I want that hamburger, I eat it. On the days anxiety is winning, it is easier to not argue with yourself about the small things. Tomorrow will be better and you will be better. So, you can fight with yourself tomorrow.” — Shelby D.

16. “Since the bulk of my anxiety is exacerbated by my internal monologue and self-directed hate speech, I try to focus on external things such as sending thank you notes, texts, e-mails, celebrating someone else’s successes or some other act of giving or expressing gratitude.” — Kris G.

17. “I close my eyes and try to imagine myself removing the energy creating the anxiety from my body and placing it next to me. It’s still there, staring me in the face as it sits near me, but it isn’t inside consuming me anymore.” — Jen D.

18. “I write down all of daily successes and put them on my achievement board so I can see what I’m capable of on my darker days. It’s a great form of self-praise and recognition.” — Jordan H.

19. “I give myself a set amount of time to be anxious. I set a timer for a half hour and just let it run its course. Surprisingly, once the alarm goes off, my brain can function again.” — Abby D.

20. “I look backwards. If it was worse in the past, I’m assured I’ve come a ways, and can do better. If it was better, I’m assured that I’ve done better before and can repeat that performance, so either way, the anxiety was/is wrong.” — Tommie M.

21. “I surround myself with those who love me and make me laugh. Just their presence is sometimes enough to settle my anxiety to a more ‘manageable’ level.” — Laura B.

22. “Take things in steps. Let’s say I am going to meet someone new. Step one is to smile. Since it wasn’t so hard, step two is to say hello. Each step is like a mini-win.” — Jess T.

23. “I cry, then wipe my face take a deep breath and blast some music — music gets me through anything!” — Katie S.

24. “I spend some time with my planner. It helps me get an idea of what I can control, and then helps me plan the realistic steps I can do right now or in the near-future.” — Claire M.

25. “I remind myself I am more powerful than my anxiety. I just repeat that over and over until it subsides. I am more powerful than my negative thoughts. I am more powerful than my anxiety. I am in control.” — Nichole M.

26. “I sing — usually slow songs. It calms me down, and I later realized it’s most likely because it helps me slow down my breathing.” — Sofie L.

27. “I say to myself, ‘These are just thoughts. That’s all they are. They are not real. They are not true. They are about as realistic as unicorns.’” — Jeanine H.

28. “Nothing I can do except go with it. If it gets the best of that day it gets the best of me, and that’s not the end of the world.” — Bobbie S.

29. “Working out always makes me feel better and reduces my anxiety.” — Vanessa H.

30.I like to immerse myself in a good book, to escape into a different world, without the racing thoughts.” — Crystal H.

31. “A therapist told me you can’t be anxious and sing at the same time. It works except when the anxiety is extreme.” — Tracey F.

32. “One thing I do when my anxiety is winning is take all the pillows and blankets in my house and curl up under them to watch television. The weight is like a calming technique.” — Bri M.

33. “I write. Writing is a natural talent for me, and I feel blessed to own it. Writing allows me to self-express while tuning a skill. It is both therapeutic and productive.” — Hillery S.

34. “I think about what my preferred outcome is (for example, arriving home safely in a storm). Then I visualize that outcome happening in my mind several times. It helps to distract and focus me at the same time.” — Donna B.

35. “I have a ‘3 Fs’ plan. Feel: let myself have a good cry to let it all out. Fun: do something I love to cheer myself up. Focus: find one little thing I can accomplish to gain control.” — Nicole C.

36. “I dance. It may not be the most graceful, but releasing those anxious feelings through movement to songs truly helps. Sometimes tears are falling from my eyes as I dance because the anxiety tries dancing with me. I know I’ve won when the tears stop and I suddenly quit dancing.” — Elizabeth G.

37. “I make a ‘to do’ list and make sure it’s jam packed so I stay really busy with not a lot of down time. Then it feels good to start checking things off the list.” — Elyse G.

38. “I stand next to my sons bedroom door and I I close my eyes and listen I him giggling it helps me to remember things aren’t as bad as my anxiety tells me it is.” — Paula G.

39. “I have a selection of cards my girlfriend made so that I can be reminded of what I’m thankful for and the good things to focus on.” — Claire S.

40. “Give myself credit for fighting, and permission to rest.” — Mary B.

The process is relatively the same for everyone. You meet someone with positive qualities, you develop a friendship, and sometimes those feelings bloom into a romantic journey. Eventually, you and this significant individual label your relationship as “official.”

You care about this person tremendously. You do things to make sure they are happy, and in return, they do things to make sure you are happy. They have become so important to you. And if you are struggling with depression and/or anxiety, it can be difficult to communicate your concerns with them. For that matter, it can be difficult to talk about emotions in general.

Before you know it, friends and family are telling you they have never seen you this overwhelmed, and that something must be wrong. Before you know it, little things make you irritable. Little things make you angry. It is hard to control your emotions. You begin to lash out when least expected. You have given into the pressure from depression and anxiety to withhold genuine wants and needs. You have not articulated your needs to your partner in quite some time. You no longer participate in hobbies and activities you once found enjoyable.

Below you will find three easy recommendations to keep in mind and to practice in order to keep communication of wants and needs free and active in your current relationship.

1. Thoughts are not always facts: It is important to remember fears about what “might” happen in the future are not necessarily facts. If we avoid addressing issues, if we avoid communicating wants and needs, we never create an opportunity to challenge our fears. If we do not have an opportunity to challenge our fears, then we miss out on an opportunity to grow as an individual, and as a couple. I recommend having a discussion with your partner early in the relationship about the importance of free and active communication.

2. Emotions are a direct result of our thoughts: If you experience intensifying depression and anxiety within the relationship, it might be due to the way you’re thinking about the relationship, or the specific conflict or situation at hand. Pay attention to which thoughts increase fears. Thoughts such as “I will not be able to make it on my own,” or “I am nothing without my partner,” are examples of negative thoughts that only increase the pressure to avoid conflict. There have probably been moments in your life where you have done things independently, solved problems on your own and managed dilemmas through the support of family and friends. The definition of “difficult” is not the same as the definition of “impossible.” It is important that you remind yourself of this. By keeping this in mind, you are creating an opportunity for a more effective balance of communication in your relationship.

3. Behaviors are a response to our emotions: The way we think influences how we feel, and the way we feel influences what we do. In theory, the avoidance of conflict (choosing not to address fears or concerns) is a direct result of our emotions (fear, anxiety), which is a direct result of our thinking (“I can’t lose my partner, I can’t handle this”). If we can recognize our negative thoughts, identify the emotions and re-evaluate the truth to those thoughts, we can obtain more desirable emotions, and healthier behavioral responses.

My advice is to start a thought journal. Start to record each occurrence of negative thoughts and the emotions associated with conflict in your relationship. As your awareness increases of your negative thoughts, take the time to challenge them, modify them, remind yourself of moments when you were independently “OK.”

By following these recommendations, you will likely start to feel less overwhelmed, less pressured and be more equipped to address fears and concerns in your relationship, thus creating an increased opportunity to achieve wants and needs through active communication.

Brandon S. Ballantyne is a licensed professional counselor and has been practicing clinical counseling since 2007.

Two and a half years ago, I did something I thought I would never do in a million years. I stepped way out of my comfort zone to share an untold story with my closest family and friends. Though trembling and immediately wishing I could rewind time and “un-press” the enter button that day, I am so very grateful I did. Because in sharing something so uncomfortable and personal, I learned I was not alone.

My struggle with anxiety started at a very, very young age. Before I never knew what these nonstop thoughts reeling through my mind were. It’s something I now know a considerable amount about because I have “lived” it for so long. In learning there were countless others out there just like me, a newfound calm formed in my heart, giving strength and volume to my quiet voice, which has become such an advocate for so many.

To those suffering, as I have and still do daily, I understand what it can feel like to wish someone around you even remotely understood how you were feeling or what you were experiencing in a given moment of pure panic. When the words can’t come to mouth or shame still holds its grip, I want you to know you are not alone. I am here to help you articulate those feelings.

See the thing is most of us actually know someone “suffering” from anxiety. We may just not realize it yet or ever. Nonetheless, I want to share with you what so many of us feel about this mental illness and completely wish others understood. Today, I serve as a voice to millions, to stand in courage, to shed shame and to remind you that you are amazing, incredible and destined for beautiful purpose. Chances are, these are the things you would want me to share, too.

1. You may or may not be a part of my “comfort zone” at any given moment.

The thing is, it’s probably not you, at all. It’s most likely something in the environment, or simply a situation that is bothering me.

2. I never want to hurt you.

Ever. I am probably the biggest people-pleaser you will ever meet, which, in itself, can be utterly exhausting. Trying to mask my anxiety, in-lieu of a situation or experience on top of not wanting to hurt you or your feelings in any way possible, breaks my heart to the core.

3. Sometimes, I pull away.

Please, respect me. I just need my space from a moment, from a situation or from an experience. I may be gone for just a few minutes in the room next door or you may not see me for a few weeks until I feel comfortable again. Please, please don’t take it personally. I would love to talk or for you to check in. Please, don’t push me out of my comfort zone if I am not ready.

4. Please don’t tell me, “It’s nothing to worry about.”

Because in my mind, it is. It is real. It’s a worry. It’s not “nothing.” When you say things like this, it can be dismissive and beyond hurtful.

5. I tend to be very protective.

You might call it “overprotective,” about the ones I love the most. I may not hand over my 6-month-old baby when you ask for her. It’s not that I don’t want to, but to me, she is safest in my own arms. I promise to try and be super polite about it. Please, don’t push me into something I am not ready to do. I tend to keep my clan very, very close.

6.  Sometimes, I shut down.

This may look different from another person who has anxiety. For me, I may stop talking. My mood may shift. I may try to leave the situation. I may have tears. For some, a full-blown panic-attack may set-in. It’s as simple as asking what you can do to help. I may tell you “nothing,” but I may also talk your ear off or borrow a tissue. I can’t really predict how I will respond.

7. I am great at making excuses.

I tend to back out of things last minute because, most likely, I am worried something will trigger my anxiety and I won’t know what to do. Please don’t stop inviting me to things. As you become more a part of my comfort zone, you will most likely not see me shy away. If you know me well-enough, then I know you will be able to support me when something is making me feel worried.

8. I am super indecisive.

I often can’t decide if something is or is not going to prompt anxious feelings. I may be excited about going on a trip, and at the last-minute, I can’t figure out what to pack, how to get there or where we should stay. Please, bear with me, as my mind is whirling, and I am trying to settle it down. It’s not that I can’t make a choice. It’s simply that I am worried it is going to be the “wrong” one and something bad might happen.

9. I get frustrated when you don’t listen.

If I am trying to explain something to you in regards to why I am worried and you blow me off or tell me I’m “silly,” then I most likely won’t confide in you again. You may lose some of my trust. You may not see me around as much until I feel comfortable once again.

10. I tend to be hyper-aware of my surroundings.

Honestly, I’m super sensitive in general. I may find something in a given area that you would have never even noticed. I may need a moment just to take it all in.

11. I am well aware of my anxiety.

I know I “have it.” I know it is a part of me. I know it can be a hindrance, a speed bump, a shadow. Believe me, I hate it. I completely despise it. Those words don’t do it justice. You don’t need to point it out. You don’t need to highlight it in shame. I know it is a part of me, a part I want to shed. Generally, I am a work-in-progress.

12. I love it when you tell me you are “proud of me.”

For anything, for sharing my story, for trying something new, for stepping out of my comfort zone, for making up my mind, for showing up when I didn’t feel like it. It gives me a great boost of confidence in the right direction and the support I so desperately need.

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.

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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