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There is little that provokes as much discomfort as lingering anxiety or a sudden panic attack. The cliche television portrayal of panic attacks shows pretty girls crying and hyperventilating (although somehow remaining absolutely stunning), taking deep breaths, and overcoming it within minutes, if not seconds. If you have ever had a panic attack or helped someone through one, you know this is far from accurate.

The signs and symptoms of panic attacks vary from person to person. No list of signs/symptoms is exclusive or finite. With this, there is no guaranteed, set-in-stone way of helping someone with a panic attack. Ah yes, this is the moment you feel like throwing a toaster at me, and for that I apologize.

Anxiety is a shapeshifter that manifests in so many ways, which makes it impossible to predict what will help. Due to this, my first recommendation if you’re struggling with panic attacks is to get professional help. However, I would like to share with you some of the self-reminders that have helped me and others get through panic attacks.

1. You are not dying.

2. You can breathe.

3. Anxiety/panic is not comfortable, but it is not extremely harmful.

4. You have survived this before, and you will survive this again.

5. This is not the end of the world.

6. It will pass.

7. Do not Google your symptoms.

8. You are not “losing it.”

9. This is temporary.

10. Your thoughts are not always your friend.

If you’re aware someone struggles with panic attacks, talk to them. Individuals know their own symptoms best and can tell you the signs they’re having a panic attack and how to help with one. Some people prefer fresh air and silence, whereas others may just want to pace and talk through it to you.

Be considerate of what an individual needs. Be patient while the panic passes. Remember to look after yourself first always.

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I always set my alarm clock for 30 minutes before I have to get out of bed. Why? Most people think it’s because I have a hard time waking up, but really, the hardest part comes after I am fully awake. The hard part is when my heart is racing as soon as I think about placing my feet on the floor. It’s the twist that turns my stomach once I worry about if I’ll have enough time to get to work. It is the uneasy feeling knowing I must drive through the same intersection I got into a car accident at earlier this year. It is the worry in knowing that even seeing another car approaching could send me into a panic attack.

Yet, I get up and brush my teeth anyway. I shower anyway. I get dressed, put my makeup on and fix my hair anyway. Life isn’t supposed to be so hard. Life isn’t supposed to be so filled with worry, but it is. I’m trying the best I can to live it anyway.

I’m doing something a little different than I used to though. You see, I used to try to cover this part of me. I used to hide the anxiety-filled section of my heart and hope it didn’t find its way into the world where it could get hurt. Over the course of a year and multiple panic attacks at the grocery store, I’ve found the strength to talk about my mental illness.

Some days are easier than others. I have accepted life will not always have days filled with easy decisions and wonderful outcomes. There are days I want to be alone so desperately. Once I am, I cry because I’m so lonely and convince myself I am unloved. There are nights when I will get out of bed anywhere between one to six times to check and make sure I locked the doors of my house. There are mornings where I sing so loudly (and terribly) in my car, as the person stuck in traffic beside me stares, because it’s the only thing that will keep me from hyperventilating and crying.

We try too hard to cover the symptoms, but even with all of the therapy, breathing techniques and medication, this thing is still a part of us. This is not something that will go away if we try hard to think positively. This will not go away if we sleep more. (Chances are, even if we go to bed early, we still won’t fall asleep before 2 a.m.)

To the average person, I might seem “fine” or maybe a little frazzled on a bad day. Some people may not even think there is anything wrong with me because there isn’t. It’s time we stop treating mental illness like the elephant in the room. It’s time we stop being ashamed of something we can’t control. It’s time to start being proud of every beautiful, anxiety-filled cell in your body.

Your brain tells you to give up every day, but you get up and live anyway. So even though your days might be more difficult than someone without a mental illness, it doesn’t make you less of a person. A mental illness does not make you inferior to someone who doesn’t have a mental illness, but it might make you more brave. Keep fighting.

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I think, on some level, I have always experienced minor anxiety. However, due to a bout of unfortunate circumstances, I ended up with clinical depression and a severe anxiety disorder. Anxiety, on any level, is not an easy cross to bear. I’m sure you’ve all experienced it on a minor level, too.

Maybe you experience something like confronting your crush. Your heart was on fire, waiting for his response. Perhaps, you experience anxiety while preparing for an exam you aren’t sure you can pass or maybe when you went for your driver’s license. You knew you could drive well, but the moment someone said “test,” your palms started sweating.

Anxiety plagues all of us at one point. For most people, it is fleeting and in minor doses. However for those like me, anxiety is neither fleeting nor minor. For those who don’t know much about anxiety, here are five ways anxiety is worse than you think.

1. Basic tasks are harder to complete.

For me, sometimes leaving the house is a struggle. For some reason, I’ve come to fear the grocery store. I don’t know why, but I find it hard, if not impossible. Instead, I have my groceries delivered. (Yay for the 21st century and first world problems!)

The only connection I can make to grocery shopping (in regards to my fear) is that once an ex-friend verbally attacked me while I was shopping. Despite no longer living in the same town as those people, it wasn’t the first time I was attacked while out in a public area. Perhaps I’ve developed a conditioned response to the grocery store. Regardless, seemingly simple, everyday tasks can be so much harder to perform than you may think.

Imagine the most anxiety-ridden moment you’ve ever faced. The clenching in your stomach as you fear the unknown. The increased heart rate that makes you feel as though your last breath is being stolen from your body. The overwhelming desire to be sick, to faint or both. That’s just the beginning of how it feels to complete some of the most basic everyday tasks when you have a severe anxiety disorder. Imagine feeling like that and worse every single day.

2. You want to be with friends while simultaneously wanting to be alone.

I can’t tell you how many times I want to go out with friends and be left alone at the same time — at the exact same time. I want my friends to come to my house because in my mind my house is “safe.” Yet, at the same time, I hate it because I can’t fudge some excuse about wanting to leave early when everything becomes too much. I get it. It’s confusing. Imagine how confusing it is for the people who actually feel this way and can’t understand why.

3. You wonder and fear if people don’t like you.

One of the biggest fears I have is that my anxiety will have a negative impact on my friendships. Like I said in “5 Ways Being Chronically Ill Is Worse Than You Think,” I’ve already lost people I assumed were good friends. Some of whom I loved dearly. As a result, I’m often scared to speak out.

What if I’m judged the way I was before? Will people view me differently? Will they judge me when they discover I struggle to go the store, let alone do anything else? Will I lose even more friends? I’ve had some amazing people stand by me. Some of the people who abandoned me surprised me just as much as those who stayed. Regardless, it makes you question everything and everyone. If you’re the person on the receiving end, try not to take it to heart. It’s the anxiety speaking, not necessarily the person.

4. Anxiety brings along panic attacks.

Panic attacks are very real and very serious. It’s important to remember panic attacks are different for everyone. Sometimes, I sit and cry, and I struggle to breathe so much I literally vomit. Sometimes, I stop talking. I make no sounds, no noises. I go blank. I can barely hear if someone is talking to me. I don’t respond. I go completely numb. Panic attacks are different for everyone and can strike at any time, for any reason.

5. People judge what they don’t understand.

People will judge you. Even the sincerest and most meaningful people will judge you at different times. Even if they’re incredibly supportive and try their hardest not to, people will judge you. It’s a harsh fact, but people tend to judge what they don’t understand.

This includes people who have anxiety or have had anxiety (more the latter than the former). When people overcome something as serious as an anxiety disorder, they sometimes have a desire to want to help by telling others how to overcome their anxiety (which, of course, is respectable and kind). Sometimes, however, during this process, they forget how hard it was themselves. They forget everyone is different.

The reason behind a person’s anxiety is different for everyone. Some people have reasons. Some people have triggers. Some people don’t. It’s important to understand even when you don’t actually understand, that overcoming anxiety isn’t easy. The process is different for everyone. For some, medication and/or therapy works. Others swear by a change in diet and exercise. For a few, nothing really seems to work. They have to take everything day by day.

If you’ve overcome your anxiety disorder, I’m incredibly happy for you. I’m also open to suggestions in regards to what helped you, but you also need to be open to the fact that what worked for a few doesn’t mean work for everyone. More importantly, if you don’t struggle with anxiety, try not to judge what you don’t understand.

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1. Telling me to “stop worrying” doesn’t help.

I do not choose to worry — the worries follow me. I actively try not to worry and to think about good things, but sometimes, I can’t control it. I have to ride it out.

2. Talking about my feelings is not “stupid,” and going to therapy is not a waste of time.

I am a verbal processor. This means for me, talking about problems out loud and having someone listen is the best way to work through them. Going to therapy is actually a brave decision because I am making a proactive step to help myself even though I know I will get criticism for it, and even though that criticism is a huge source of anxiety in itself.

3. Sometimes the simplest things are the most anxiety-provoking.

For me, the trigger usually involves another person’s opinion, or the feeling that I disappointed another person or myself. You do not have to understand my triggers to acknowledge that they legitimately affect me. And I fight to overcome them.

4. Every day can be a battle.

I want to have a good day, but sometimes the bad feelings chase me. Until you walk my journey, don’t criticize my steps.

5. My mental health concerns are just as real as someone else’s physical health concerns.

A bad anxiety day can be debilitating. A panic attack can be extremely painful. I cannot “will myself” not to have anxiety. However, just like with any health concern, I can take steps to take care of myself, and that is a choice I make every day.

6. Anxiety is not “all in my head.”

Yes, it is a mental illness, but the brain is as much a physical part of the body as any other organ. Furthermore, anxiety affects other parts of my body as well. My body stays revved like the engine of a car that is not moving (Hahn, Payne, and Lucas, 2012). This causes muscle tension, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, dilated pupils, and chronic fatigue. Sometimes, I am not in control of my body. Sometimes, I cannot relax. Sometimes I can relax, but it takes time and effort. Please be understanding of that.

7. Don’t take my anxiety personally.

If I don’t talk, show up to a social event or return a smile, it is not because I don’t like you. I just don’t have the energy. This tiredness is not because I am lazy or weak. My body is operating on overdrive much of the time, so the same tasks use twice as much energy, and my time alone is necessary for me to refuel.

8. If I have an anxiety attack, it is no one’s “fault.”

It is just my body’s reaction to certain triggers. I can usually think my way out of the attack and physically calm myself. But sometimes, I can’t, and I just have to allow myself to ride it out. Either way, please just give me the space to learn how to handle it, and avoid placing blame.

9. Criticism is not what a person needs when he is feeling anxious.

I may be strong enough to handle your criticism right now without letting it overwhelm me, but another person may not be. I may be strong enough to handle it right now, but another time, I may not be. Your words may really help, or they may really hurt, so please, choose wisely.

10. I am a person just like anyone else.

I have my strengths, and I have my struggles. My particular brand of struggle does not make me “less than” you in any way. I am not a scary person. I am not an anxious person. I am just a person figuring out where I belong in this world and how to work with the particular struggles I’ve been faced with. I’ll be understanding of yours; please be understanding of mine. Just like any other person, I need compassion, kindness, friendship, occasional hugs, and a few good laughs.

Citations: Hahn, D.B., Payne, W.A., & Lucas, E.B. Focus on Health (11 th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012.

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To my significant other:

The most important thing about my anxiety is I haven’t gotten used to it yet. Until I took a screening recently and realized the way I stress about things isn’t normal, I attributed my feelings to just being tired or overworked. After all, I’m a college student working, taking classes and participating in extracurriculars. Like most of my classmates, I have a lot to be stressed out about!

When I see my friends going through the same things, I’m not sure what’s irregular and what is just par for the college course. So it’s still hard for me to determine what is just me having a bad day, what really is too much to ask of me and what just feels like it is bad because of my anxiety.

For this reason, I am hesitant to say, “I won’t do ______ because of my anxiety” or “This feels _______ because of my anxiety.” I don’t want to feel helpless. I don’t want to blame things I struggle with on this different mindset I also struggle with. It could be easy because when you say the word “anxiety” or “mental illness” people tend to back off quickly. They feel worse pressuring you to do something when they know you have an actual impediment, rather than when they think you’re just being lazy or stubborn.

But I’m not ready to do that yet. So please, be patient with me. I want to prove to myself anxiety doesn’t stop me, even if it does slow me down a little. I want you to help prove that, too. It won’t always be easy. Sometimes, you’ll still have to order food for me, cover me while I walk to the bathroom or be a bubble of space in a large crowd. You’ll have to go into the store, talk at the drive-thru and answer the door. You’ll have to wait until I think the way you mimic my voice is cute, instead of making me self-conscious. You’ll have to answer my “dumb” questions and are you sure’s 20 times a day (although I will take eye-rolling as an acceptable answer). You will have to reassure me a lot. When I need any of these things and you provide them, afterward you’ll have to act like it never happened.

If I forget to take my medication, then I might cry all day or be irritable. If I adjust the dosage, then I might want to sleep all the time or I might be sick to my stomach for days. When I experience side effects, I have to make the choice between feeling like I’m not in control of my body or stopping medication and feeling like I’m not in control of my life. I have to decide if I want to preserve my energy and my sanity or be “organic” and have a clear, but constantly buzzing, mind. That is more difficult than any nausea or occasional insomnia.

When I yell at you, fall asleep when I promised to call or I’m too drained to talk when I come over, try to understand. When I get sick, don’t think it’s not real. If I’m emotional and logic fails to apply, then don’t brush it off. However, if I do minimize my feelings and tell you it’s just the anxiety, trust me. I do know myself. I’m still learning what’s normal and what isn’t, but if I’m crying over the Cheerio I dropped on the floor, we can safely say you don’t need to comfort me.

It can be a pain, but the greatest thing about managing my anxiety is even though symptoms or side effects take up much of my time, I feel much more capable in the time I have left. I can get all my homework done, make all the appointments, clean the house and more before I nap. I can go out with my friends and be present in that moment because I’m not tired or worried about little things that could happen, and I can spend time with you.

So if I’m choosing to do that, if I choose to spend my good moments on you and to come to you in the bad ones, know I really like you. Know I trust you. Know I’m so grateful for every way you support me and every day you make the best parts of life shine through this difficult, all-encompassing cloud called anxiety. Sometimes, I may not feel like I can do it alone. Sometimes, I may wish I could, but I will always be glad I don’t have to. Thank you.

Being misunderstood is exhausting, frustrating and sad. When I say misunderstood, I mean not only by others, but by yourself, too. As if it is not hard enough to try to explain to other people why you act the way you do, trying to figure it out within yourself is the real struggle. You feel like you are climbing a mountain with roller skates on your feet. You realize every step must be purposeful and strategic. No matter how careful you are, you fall back down to the bottom. Each time it is more painful, more heart breaking and more discouraging. You know it shouldn’t be this hard, but it is.

So, there you sit at the bottom of the mountain, looking, feeling ridiculous and wondering why all these people around you are able to scale the mountain. Not necessarily with complete ease, but they are getting there. You then look down at your feet and see the roller skates. You realize you have a hindrance, but try as you might, you cannot remove them.

The frustration of realizing no one else has this specific hindrance makes you feel like you shouldn’t have it either. The worst part is, people keep passing you by, telling you, “Just remove the skates.” They say it like it is easy. My response? “Well yes, of course that is the answer, but don’t you think I would have removed them already if I was able to do so?”

This is how it feels to have anxiety and not be able to explain it to others. For me, I cannot tell you why I am happy one moment and angry the next. I cannot tell you why I seem fine today, but tomorrow I feel like my world is crumbling. It’s like I wake up Sunday ready to face the day and conquer giants, and maybe I do!

Come Monday, the high I should have from successfully completing a day and conquering obstacles is like a far-away memory. Monday I feel like I am a failure. I have nothing to offer my friends and family because I see and feel the weight of my current situation. I remember my fear and I have no plan for tomorrow. I feel defeated.

So how can I explain it? This thing, this monster that consumes my identity? I cannot. I am still trying to figure it out myself. What I can do is love you. What doesn’t change is the love and compassion I feel for the people who are closest to me. This does not stop the dreams I have of one day being free from this bondage and successful in my life.

I am asking you to do something difficult, something I am not always sure I can do. I am asking you to be patient with me. Love me. Do not tell me to take the skates off, to stop worrying or to relax. Tell me you understand I am going through a hard time, even if you don’t understand the reason. Hold me. Give me a hug that says I am scaling this mountain with you, and I will catch you when you fall.

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