There's No Off Switch for Overthinking

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Every morning you open your eyes, and before you can consciously take a deep breath, you hear the whole crowd that just woke up with you. They all start talking at the same time. They say things you don’t want to hear, terrifying things about a dangerous future or vague ideas about unimportant topics. If you had a switch button for these thoughts, then you would turn it off right away.

But that button doesn’t exist, and every day becomes a battle to try to conquer at least one minute a day and finally rest your mind. I’m not talking about conscious thinking, of course. When that happens, you make decisions based on reasoning. When what I’m talking about happens, you become a slave of 1,000 witches flying around your head. No matter where you go, they are always with you. You can’t listen to anything other than their strident voices.

Besides overthinking, I also battle with anxiety. So it’s easy for me to believe what those voices say. I remember last year, I spent months visiting doctors here and there. I was sure I had cancer. I used to say to myself, “Well, it’s better to know it officially once and for all than to wait.”

I used to sit in front of the doctor, my hands shaking and my eyes almost tearing up because of the devastating news I was about to receive. Doctors looked at me with sympathy and compassion, “You are fine. It’s nothing serious. Now go home and have a rest. Don’t worry.”

My friend, one of the few I have, used to be patient, “You don’t have cancer now. Maybe in the future, but not now. Stop worrying, if you are always this worried then I’m not going to marry you,” he would joke.

He tried to lighten up my fear with a little bit of truth and a little bit of humor. My mind was not thinking about the situation. It was only feeding the fear with whatever source it found at the moment.

And because of this fear, because of this unstoppable thinking, I can’t focus on anything. I’ve tried relaxation methods. Something inside me warns me about being so quiet, “You are vulnerable, unarmed. Horrible things will happen if your guard is not up!” So I start worrying about whatever my mind catches.

I used to think I must have a big problem because when I would try to think, my mind was blank. I don’t think, I concluded. I know now it’s just all those voices making a lot of noise. I have wondered many times what would it be to walk in life without this monumental fear all the time.

As I said, those of us who overthink don’t have an off button, but here are some suggestions that might help send those voices to sleep once in awhile:

1. Take a moment to be grateful.

What on earth does anxiety have to do with gratitude? Well, when you start noticing all the things you have, something inside of you can find some relief — if only for a moment. I’m not talking about being wealthy or having a nice car. I’m talking about being able to smile even though you’re facing a problem. I’m talking taking the time to enjoy the wind or a sunset. I’m talking about the times you realize no matter how awful a situation in your life or your mind might be, there is always someone who loves you and cares for you.

2. Remember bad things are not a punishment.

know it’s a strong statement, but when you realize life is not against you, it’s easier to relax and open your arms to it. You start living in love. You don’t have to fight with life anymore. You don’t have to ask why because you know there is nothing wrong with you. It’s just life and it’s never against you.

3. Remember you are not alone.

Anxiety makes you think you have to solve all of your problems, and quickly, or it will be too late. The pressure on you is huge. You find yourself locked in a small room running and trying to find the exit. Your head is about to explode and you need a break, a hug and someone to tell you it’s going to be OK. Well, you will.

4. Be patient.

Overthinking just doesn’t stop being. It’s a process, a slow process, and maybe these friends will be with you your whole life. You need to be patient with yourself. Remember every rough time you’re facing is a new opportunity to hug yourself a bit tighter.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When You Have Anxiety About Getting Help for Anxiety

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I’ve lived with anxiety my whole life. I didn’t realize all of my fears and hesitations since I was a child were a result of anxiety until I was in my early 20s and learned what exactly anxiety is and how it can manifest itself.

When I was young, I was always scared to try new things and activities, worried I would fail or things would go wrong. I was so worried about how others saw me, I always just wore jeans and a hoodie or T-shirt, despite wanting to wear “cuter” clothes. I almost never spoke out in class unless specifically called on. I successfully became invisible in school, and didn’t have any close friends. Some people just deemed me as shy, and while to a point that may have been true, it went way beyond that. I was constantly worried about everything, and the social pressures of childhood/teenhood just made it worse. I fell on and off into depression.

My anxiety also manifested in more debilitating ways, like semi-severe phobias, hypochondria and insomnia. I was always scared I had serious diseases. I would constantly worry about my loved ones dying to the point of not being able to sleep and crying all night long.

Because I had depression for so long, I’ve found ways to deal with it. But, I’m tired of just dealing with it — I can’t keep half-living. My anxiety keeps me from fully enjoying life, and I’m tired of being hindered by it.

At my age, you start thinking about settling down and getting your life grounded, but I literally can’t settle down — I am constantly on edge. With the “help” of some previous bad working experiences at previous jobs, I am constantly worried about not being good enough at work. The thought of dating and getting married causes me so much anxiety I get physically sick at the prospect. But the idea of being alone the rest of my life sends me into depression, which has its own toll on my body. Some people don’t realize your mental health can affect your physical health, but they are intricately linked. There is a mind-body connection that exists in all people. This is why how you take care of your body can affect your energy and mood. So, it only makes sense that your mental health can adversely affect your physical wellbeing as well.

As an adult, I know there are better ways to address my anxiety, but here is where I run into a problem: I have anxiety about getting help for anxiety. I know I have anxiety and depression. I know there are things people can do to get help, like talk to counselors or take medications, but it’s hard for me to do these things. Going to see doctors in general puts me in a panic, but there are other factors that add to my hesitation.

The stigma our culture places on counseling and medications has been ingrained in me. I worry about what people will think of me if I started to see a psychiatrist. Only “crazy” people need mental help, right? That’s the way our culture has portrayed it — seeking help is for people who can’t get it together on their own. Often, people with depression or anxiety are just told that they just need to change their outlook, it’s all a “choice.” Additionally, I worry about taking and becoming reliant on medications, and the side effects they might have; it’s not “natural” to mess with the chemicals in your body, right?

While it’s hard to tell a person with anxiety to stop worrying about these things —  though many still try — it’s important to try overcome these thoughts. An article from Bradley University points out reasons to overcome counseling stigma, and the one that hit me the most was “recognizing that you are not crazy.” While I often feel crazy, especially when my more irrational fears come into play, I have to know I’m not. Reasons beyond my control seem to dictate how I feel about things, and needing help to overcome those feelings is not crazy.

That article also mentions “knowing you’re not alone,” which is actually what has helped me come to terms with the idea of medication. Several of my friends I’ve made recently have helped me to realize many people rely on medication, whether it was them or someone they know. Their non-reaction to me mentioning I think I need to be on something wasn’t met by an uncomfortable attitude and an unhelpful comment, but by encouraging statements of “that really helped me, too!” and “that’s awesome, I hope it’s helpful!”

With the encouragement of my friends, and after finally realizing that if I’m ever going to feel better I need the help, I’ve taken steps towards wellbeing. Three weeks ago, I went to a doctor. She prescribed me a medication. After two and a half weeks of being too anxious to start, I have finally taken the first pill. I hope it helps.

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The Trouble With Making New Friends When You Have Anxiety and Depression

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I have anxiety and depression.

In other words, I have mastered the skills of overthinking everything and assuming the worst in every situation.

She’s definitely judging the sweatpants you’re wearing out of the dorm. He thinks you’re so “fat” for eating this cheeseburger and french fries. I’m positive they’re just your friends because they pity you and they’re always talking behind your back.

Welcome to the conversations between anxiety and depression that have been happening in my head since my freshman year of college started exactly 10 days ago.

When entering this new found territory of college, I wasn’t worried about the academics. I could learn how to get my professors to like me and how to study efficiently before a test. The one thing I was worried about was how on Earth I was going to make new friends. For the last six years of my life, I have been able to maintain the same small, happy group of friends I had grown to call my family.

How then was I supposed to leave them and make new friends? Had the process one takes to make friends changed since I was 10? Had I changed too much to make new friends? When do I explain these mental illnesses I have that eat away at my brain? Do I use it as an icebreaker? Hi, I’m Danielle and I have been struggling with anxiety and depression for more than a year. My favorite color is purple. That doesn’t exactly seem to welcome people in.

Despite the nerves, I entered college with my head held high and carried as much fake confidence as I could muster. I managed to survive. At the start of the second week, I was already having mental breakdowns. I crossed lines I didn’t know existed in friendships I had just made and I was yearning to return to my purple walled bedroom with my favorite stuffed animals and my parents just a floor below me. Maybe the process of making friends hadn’t changed, but I was sure I had.

In sixth grade, I was assigned a partner to study the moon landing with and she quickly became my best friend. Now, I have to leave my dorm room and make friends on my own. The idea of stepping foot down the hallway toward an open door caused my stomach to drop. I don’t know how to make friends. I don’t know the difference between the things I can say to my friends back home and the things I can say to my new friends here. If someone is talking bad about another, then do I share the information with the one who is being hurt? Do I explain things to people the same way I would want them to be explained to me if I were in their position, or do I let them figure everything out on their own? I knew the minute I said one thing wrong, any friendship I had worked so hard to form would be over.

It’s not fair. It’s not fair I don’t know how to handle things. It’s not fair my anxiety means I can’t think properly when I’m under pressure. It’s not fair my depression means I feel like I need to please everyone and do the right thing for every party. Often times, what I think is the right thing for every party isn’t right and I end up on the hurt end, screaming, crying and throwing my shoes against the cement walls of my jail cell like dorm. It’s not fair I have to explain this all like it’s an excuse for my mistakes. It’s not an excuse. It’s just a part of who I am. It’s not fair. It’s not fair. It’s not fair.

Making new friends when you live with a mental illness can be hard. Anxiety sits in one corner of your mind and tells you no one will like you. Yet, depression is yelling from the other corner that everyone needs to like you. Meanwhile, logic is running around frantically trying to keep the other two locked up in their cages, all while trying to assure you everything is fine and you will survive. You try to listen to logic, but she can’t keep anxiety and depression locked away, and their shouts are often the loudest.

The minute you screw up, anxiety starts mumbling I told you so’s. Depression is crying because she should’ve known everything would go wrong. Meanwhile, logic is flipping switches and pressing buttons to go back in time and figure out where it all went wrong, but she can’t find anything. She can’t find where you made your mistake because, sometimes, even logic fails.

So, the new week starts and you’re faced with a choice. You can either let anxiety and depression win the battle, you can let sadness take over or you can hold your head up high because a bump in the first week is now in the past. When you hit a pothole, you’re not going to turn back around just to hit it again. It’s gone and now you’re faced with more open road. You might hit some more potholes or speed bumps again, and that’s OK.

With time though, maybe that first pothole will be filled and things will feel good again, but you can’t pull over and wait for it to happen. You have to move on and trust the construction workers will work where and when it’s needed. All you can do is fill up your gas tank and buckle anxiety and depression up because they’re tagging along on this journey too. And sure, they might fight to share the front seat with your new friends. Eventually, you’re going to find the right people who know how to push your mental illnesses to the back seat. And that’s when you’ll know you’ve won.

Image via Thinkstock.

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When Anxiety Makes it Difficult to Answer 'How Are You?'

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“How are you?” can be a loaded question for someone with anxiety. Sometimes, when asked, I want to say “surviving,” because it’s true. Other days the one thing I need to accomplish is making it to the end of the day in one piece (or at least not too many pieces). Sometimes I’m OK, and sometimes I’m great! Every time I want to respond with “great,” I struggle though.

It’s no secret to my close family and friends that I have anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not even a secret to my co-workers because of the panic attacks I’ve had at work and the time I’ve had to take off work to try to get my anxiety under control. I know that many — in fact, probably most — of these people are rooting for me and recognize I have a legitimate mental health issue that I live with on a daily basis. These are people who genuinely want to know how I am.

I also know there are doubters. There are people who don’t understand anxiety is a real condition. There are people who assume I cry because I don’t get my way or my feelings are hurt and I want attention. There are people who think I wanted to start my summer break early and that’s why I took time off at the end of the school year. There are people who think my anxiety is fake.

When these people ask me how I am doing, I don’t want to answer “great,” even if I am having a great day. I don’t want them to question the validity of my anxiety. If I have anxiety, am I supposed to have it all day, every day? Am I supposed to always be fighting off a panic attack, barely remaining in control? There is a part of me that feels like I should be; otherwise, is my diagnosis real, or am I just looking for attention?

When this happens, I have to remind myself that my diagnosis is real. I am not faking or looking for attention, nor am I a 30-year-old woman who simply needs to grow up and act her age. I am not choosing to act this way. I do not want to cry or have a panic attack in public (or in private). I am doing everything I can to not have anxiety.

I have spent most of my life with anxiety and most of my adult life, once I realized that’s what I had, trying to overcome it. I have accomplished a lot. I went to a college where I knew no one and made good friends. I have two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree. When I was 27, I moved to a new city where I knew very few people and built a life for myself there. When I was 28, I got a full-time teaching job. I was able to do all these things despite my anxiety, not because I don’t really have anxiety.

I feel like people often confuse the two. “How did you do [whatever it is I did] if you have such bad anxiety?” I can hear the skepticism in their voices, sometimes I doubt it myself. I’ve accomplished the things I have because I fought, because I am stronger than I give myself credit. My anxiety has peaks and valleys, and I’ve had it long enough that I know when to ask for help. I’ve accomplished these things despite my panic attacks, racing thoughts and self-doubt. I did all of this because I am determined to have a successful, happy and meaningful life.

It has taken me a long time to realize that I am allowed to have good (and great) days. I don’t have to struggle every second of every day. I am allowed to be happy, and that does not mean I am faking. Being happy does not mean my anxiety isn’t real. I do not have to let my anxiety dictate every minute of my life and define me for it to be real.

I recently had a panic attack and was devastated with myself because I had worked so hard to get my anxiety under control. I thought I was fine, I thought I was over anxiety. As I sat in tears that day trying to catch my breath, my boyfriend said something to me I have been trying to remind myself of ever since, “Kim, this does not define you. Yes, you have anxiety and panic attacks, but you are so much more than that.” Next time someone asks how I’m doing and I feel like I don’t have the right to say I’m doing great, I will try to remember those wise words.

So, to the world (and to myself) – yes, I have anxiety. But I also have great days, and that does not make my anxiety any less valid or real. It simply means anxiety does not win every day. And that is something to celebrate.

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The Unrecognizable Faces of Anxiety

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You look at me, and you’d never know.

From the outside, I look like your typical, mid-30s mom.

My girls’ lunches are packed and refrigerated the night before.

Outfits hung in preparation.

Breakfast bowls out on the counter.

Almost always late to one function or another.

Trying to tie a renegade shoelace.

Or wipe away a flood of unforeseen tears.

From the outside, I look like your typical mid-30s woman.

Sporting athletic shoes, an oversized bag and the latest-trending jewelry.

Enjoying a glass of wine on occasion.

Working overtime to balance family and career.

Always putting on a “happy face”.

Outside of these four walls.

You see, that’s just it.

From the outside, I appear “normal.”

Like I have it all together.

Like I can laugh my way through anything.

Like a great and supportive friend.

Like a deeply devoted mother.

Like a hardworking wife.

My smile is my best accessory.

As well as my favorite mask.

To protect myself from potential hurt.

Judgment.

Criticism.

Because, if you took a look at me from the inside, I would look completely opposite.

A “mess” of sorts.

Mind whirling.

Heart pounding.

Floating from one worry to another.

Without a breath in between.

I don’t have panic attacks.

Yet, my heart races through my chest.

I don’t act outwardly.

Because I am too busy keeping it all in.

I don’t have trouble concentrating on something.

But my mind never stops running.

And that’s exactly it.

Those of us who live with anxiety?

We cannot be squeezed into a one-size-fits-all mold.

We are too many.

We are unrecognized.

We are more “commonplace” than you’d ever imagine.

We are right next door, and you’d never even know it.

We are your neighbor.

Your daughter’s teacher.

Your son’s baseball coach.

Your youth minister.

Your babysitter.

Your 20-something coworker.

Your patient.

Your team’s star athlete.

Your school’s valedictorian.

Your mother.

Your best man.

Your very best friend.

We are many.

We are unrecognized.

Because this thief?

He doesn’t discriminate.

He will steal happiness and peace from anyone and everyone.

Without so much as a blink of the eye.

We don’t look the same.

We don’t respond to our anxiety the same.

We don’t live our life the same.

Because we are not the same.

And we cannot be put into a “box.”

We are anywhere. And everywhere.

Ready to shake the stigma associated with our mental illness, once and for all.

Image via Thinkstock.

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What Happened When I Started Writing About My Mental Illnesses

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I know for some, reading about my struggles with anxiety and depression may have seemed to come out of nowhere. I did a pretty decent job of hiding my condition for many years. I wanted to seem like I had everything figured out, and the truth is, a lot of the time I’ve managed to maintain a good life balance. Only my closest friends and family knew the moments when I’ve fallen apart, searched desperately for stable ground, and at times, feared life.

I’ve done my best to obtain the help I needed to bounce back when I have bouts of depression or anxiety. However, after having my daughter I found my anxiety became heightened, probably due to a great many factors: The overwhelming responsibility of caring for a little, defenseless life, who I love more than anything else in the whole world. The pressure to keep my home in order and comfortable for my husband, who works so hard for our family. The fact that I had trouble facing the death of one of my parents mid-pregnancy.

Such intense life changes can magnify one’s struggles, as it did for me. When my first article about my struggle with anxiety went live, I can’t accurately express how touched I was by the overwhelming support I received from my friends. Some even stepped forward, feeling comfortable enough to admit to their own struggles, many of whom I never would have guessed fight the same battle. This made me realize how important it is to not hide one’s experiences and troubles. To do so, can make one feel as though you are facing them all alone.

There are others out there who feel the same and who’ve experienced the same things, yet are unable to talk about them. I must admit I was a little afraid when I submitted my first piece about anxiety, fearing people would call me “crazy,” question my stability as a mother and my ability to be a good wife. It’s natural to believe people will not understand, and so liberating to discover that low and behold, there are many who do. Instead of calling me sick, they called me brave and that meant the world to me.

To admit to one’s flaws is a scary experience and to share them with the world is no less than terrifying. You aren’t simply telling a story. You are exposing a delicate piece of yourself, lifting the curtain for all to see and inviting in both criticism as well as praise.

Even more so, we are exposing a part of our family to the world, and this is a big responsibility. I feared embarrassing my mother, my brother and especially my husband by sharing my story. I didn’t want people to look at my husband and pity him for having a wife who struggles with a mental illness because my illness isn’t who I am as a whole.

Being the incredible guy he is, my husband proudly shared my story and declared how brave he believed his wife to be. This touched me more than I can put into words. Knowing he had my back, that he felt pride instead of embarrassment for what I’d written and put it out there in the world was an incredible moment. This is the very embodiment of what real love is.

It is endless support, understanding, empathy and partnership that make the strongest, most beautiful of relationships. The fact that he sees me and loves me despite my struggles, my low moments that come and go, makes me realize how lucky I am. I am determined to never do anything to let it go.

The support of my friends and family gave me the strength to continue writing about my longtime fight with depression and anxiety. They have only let me see more clearly that there is nothing to be ashamed of.  It is not only liberating to finally admit to the feelings I’ve had and the painful moments I’ve faced, but it is also a relief finding no matter how much it may feel like it, I am not alone. Knowing that sharing my stories may help others find a voice as well is the most rewarding. The more we all try to share, understand and relate to one another, the more we can face our difficulties as an army. There is no need to face every battle alone.

Image via Thinkstock.

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