An unhappy woman sitting

When the Voice of Anxiety Is in Your Head

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Anxiety is depression’s evil twin. Where one can be found, the other lurks nearby. They work as a team, pairing up to make your path of healing follow longer, unpaved roads. Imagine you are sinking in sand. The depression is the sand holding you down. The anxiety is piling more on top of you to make sure you stay there. There is nothing to grab onto to pull you up, and no matter how hard you fight, you end up buried.

Anxiety is an emotion most people will feel at least once in their lives. For some, this anxiety is situational. When the trauma or loss has healed, the anxiety is either lessened or gone. For me and many other people, the same anxiety is not only heightened but prolonged. It does not always need a “situation” for it to occur.

Anxiety has its own unique voice in my head, which causes added stress and worry. It makes me overthink every moment of every day. It makes me question not only all the things I have done in the past but all the things I am doing now and plan to do in the future.

Anxiety causes me to doubt the simplest of decisions. It often prevents me from making any in the first place. It takes a normal situation like a resolved argument with a friend or family member and forces me to question if it is really resolved or not.

Something like a text not being answered in an “appropriate” time frame can blow my feelings disproportionately out of control. Imagine walking by a group of strangers who are laughing and your first instinct is not that someone must have said something funny. Instead, it is that they must be laughing at you. This is what anxiety can do.

The scale of anxiety ranges from a rapid heartbeat and tightness in your chest to a full blown, debilitating panic attack. I would like to say mine is somewhere in the middle; however, it is exacerbated by my borderline personality disorder (BPD), which slides me up the scale a bit. There is no chilling out, relaxing or even calming down. Telling me to do so is definitely an unwelcome idea.

Anxiety makes me think poorly of myself. It makes me think I am unwanted, unloved and reminds me constantly of the life I had “before” my illness. It makes me wonder if I am good enough to have friends and what they and everyone else thinks of me. It makes me afraid and nervous to attempt anything out of my comfort zone, with the dreaded fear of failure looming. It sometimes feels like the world is closing in on me, and there is nowhere for me to escape. It can be emotionally draining, frustrating and exhausting.

The stigma surrounding anxiety is not conducive to healing. Comments like, “Just cheer up,” “It’s all in your head,” or “Life’s too short to be sad and afraid,” all may be said with good intentions, but are the last things I want to hear. Do you not think if I, or anyone for that matter, could “just cheer up,” we would do so (as there is no enjoyment in anxiety)? There is no pleasure in keeping quiet in a conversation because I am afraid my words will be judged.

There is no fun in the fear felt when I am put in the spotlight or made the center of attention. The worst part about this relentless source of negativity and doubt is rationally you know it is lying. Yet, you just can’t quell the voice.

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My Double Life as Child Therapist and Mom to Anxious Kids

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Parenting can be hard when you know all the signs and symptoms of every childhood mental health disorder. Every behavioral hiccup can be over evaluated and scrutinized. Every developmental struggle can be cause for serious alarm.

My introduction to my own child’s issues came as I sat in a post-graduate class on infant and toddler mental health. I listened as the instructor rattled off signs and symptoms that should trigger a cause for concern. I looked around the room and asked, “Isn’t that normal? Don’t all toddlers do that?” Eventually I stopped asking questions and quietly took notes. I realized I was not just a student. I was a worried mom.

I quickly found myself on the opposite end of services. I entered the world of early intervention and in-home services. At times I felt judged. At times I felt demeaned. I vowed to never make any parents feel that way. I stopped services and decided to wing it myself – after all, I was supposed to be a professional.

My oldest child’s issues were predominantly sensory in nature. She had her anxieties, but it was her sensory struggles that controlled our life. Luckily with some patience and time, she learned how to adapt and grew out of her debilitating issues. She still buys clothes based on how soft they feel, but shoes are not being flung at me anymore, so I’ll take it.

It seemed just as my oldest grew out of some of her more debilitating issues, my middle and youngest children stepped in to take her place. Anxiety is rampant in my family genetics, and my kids did not win the genetic lottery.

New struggles popped up before I could catch my breath. One was afraid of the potty. The other was crying at night that there are bees in the bedroom. No, it doesn’t make sense, but neither does anxiety. We deal with what anxiety wants to dish out – stomach painssleepless nights, fear and avoidance.

I have practiced what I preach and preach what I practice. It has been eye opening. Sometimes I forget to take my own advice and make mistakes. My husband will ask, “What would you tell your clients?” “I wouldn’t tell them to do this!” I think. Sometimes when you are so close to a problem, you can’t see it.

I often feel like the universe is playing a joke on me – making me earn the title of child therapist. Making me live what I teach.

Just like any parent, I have good days and I have bad days. I have days when I am struck with fear (the apple doesn’t fall far from the genetic tree)! I have nights where I toss and turn wondering if this latest issue is going to debilitate my child forever, if he will have issues as severe as the thousands of anxious kids I have seen in my practice. I quietly make mental notes in my head about how other kids’ struggles mirror his own. A scary checklist starts to pop up in my head. He does that too. Check. Check. Check.

Lately, I have been talking myself down. Partly because my kids are teaching me how strong and resilient they can be in those brave moments when they face their fears and don’t look back.

My son recently started first grade. I saw the usual signs revving up. A few days before school was about to begin he started to say, “My stomach hurts” all the time. I have taught him to recognize a worried stomach and so he was able to articulate his fears. “I think I am worried about school because my tummy is nervous.”

Knowing my child has already shown signs of OCD and debilitating anxiety, my mental dictator took advantage of my concerns and flashed scenarios of the hundreds of kids I have treated for anxiety.

He won’t be able to go to school. He will throw up and be sent home. He will cling to me and won’t be able to let go. He will get stomach aches every morning. He will start missing school. He will beg to stay home. He will miss so much school he’ll have to repeat 1st grade. He’ll want to be homeschooled.

This is not my paranoia (OK, maybe a little), but these are true stories being played out in my head. These are real life scenarios that have unfolded in my office hundreds of times before. Will he be one of those children? Will his anxiety get as bad as the other kids I see?

Sometimes I wish I did not have this inside view. Sometimes I wish I did not have the gift of knowing the significance of every small fear, phobia and ritual and what beast it can morph into.

This year (so far) my son has surprised me – again. Just like my daughter – my son’s anxiety did not get the best of him.

Yes, he clung to me the first day. But, then he acted like he didn’t know me as he self-consciously sat himself down. In the afternoon I held my breath as he got into the car. How bad was it going to be?

“I had a good day.” He said nonchalantly.

And then I exhale, for now.

We are still battling a slew of irrational fears and thoughts. I have become part mother, part philosopher as my anxious children ask me about their death, my death and all the many dangers that can bring us both there quicker.

Like I teach others, I am taking this whole parenting thing one day at a time. I am no longer going to entertain What if thoughts that want to dominate my mind. I am going to soak up my children as they are and not worry about what’s to come. At least for today.

Do you have anxious kids at home? What’s your story? Share in the comments. Do you know someone who can benefit from hearing this story? Share this article with them.

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When My Backpack Doubled as My Anxiety Survival Kit

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I remember to this day the comments I would get about my little backpack from teachers, parents and friends: “Why are you carrying so many things?” They would say this as I had a small backpack slung over my shoulder and each class textbook piled up like an extreme game of Jenga. I would joke about how I wanted to be a bodybuilder or I’d say because I was a pack rat. To this day, I still get called a pack rat.

I would carry a regular sized backpack and a smaller one. I’m sure you are curious now, right? What was in this backpack? Why did 11 through 14 years old me carry this little backpack everywhere? Simple, it was my survival kit. It had a lot of pencils, matches, a blanket, twine rope, like the kind on hay bales and erasers. I had even hidden a pocket knife in a small secret pocket.

I was so scared of leaving my house I would pack anything, everything. My mind would race with all sorts of thoughts. What if my school bus got stuck on ice? What if someone followed me on my short walk from the first school bus to my transfer bus? What if I fell into a sinkhole and need to climb my way out? What if…? To this day, I still have to fight those words.

This world is scary. For a kid growing up, feeling their own mother didn’t even love her and knowing the dark world of drugs and sex, the only thing that helped were my little sisters. Cici was my rock. She stayed strong. Yet, she was the bird who was doing everything and was like a worker bee. She was busy. Callista was my teddy bear. She is my baby. I don’t think I will ever have my own kids. Callista is mine, though. I have been the only mom she has known since she was 2 years old.

With my little lights, the world wasn’t as scary. Yet, I needed the survival kit. I needed it. I even had hidden a backpack with my most important items in my closet, just in case a robber broke into my house.

I had to look behind me every time I got up to leave class. I have cried a couple times because I forgot homework. I just didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t understand why when I got up I was dizzy. Why did I sweat even outside of gym during the winter? Why did I get chills like when I was sick with a fever? I didn’t know why I couldn’t leave the house without everything I could possibly need. Why could my little sister Cici get up in the morning at 6:00 a.m. and do makeup and hair? Yet, I would get up at 5:00 a.m. and still wouldn’t have everything I needed by 6:30 a.m. when the bus came.

I still have to set my clothes out ahead of time when I am gonna have a busy day. My pencil case purse thing is filled still. I don’t carry the little backpack anymore. Instead, I take a tiny green and white pill. My anxiety is bearable. I can try and relax. Yet, I still get the fast heart rate, dizziness and chills. My body still throws me into fight-or-flight mode when a car horn goes off. I am learning how to deal with this. It is gonna probably take my whole life.

I will never forget that little backpack. Yet, I don’t need it. I can live without it. Just between you and I readers, I still have the survival kit in my closet. Someday, I hope I won’t even have that. I hope I can enjoy fireworks the way my family does. I want to have fun without worrying so much about the latest disaster. I want to be mindful of my life and stay grounded. With the memory of that little backpack. I will remember to keep trying my best to live life to the fullest with anxiety, not fighting against it.

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How a $1 Bracelet Helps Me Manage My Anxiety

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It’s small. It’s colorful. It’s twisty like a telephone cord. It only cost $1, and it has helped me on more occasions than I can count. I never take it off. Ever. It’s a child’s bracelet I found in a discount store, perhaps intended for dress-ups and play time. It has helped me so much that I went back and bought four more (which I’m glad I did because one has broken already).

So why has it helped me so much? Let me explain.

I have anxiety that can become quite intense at times, particularly around social situations and loud, crowded areas. When I find myself in situations that triggers my anxiety, I have a habit of scratching the skin on my hands to the point where they bleed. Often I do this unconsciously and don’t notice until it becomes painful. I really wanted to try and break this habit, and having this bracelet has become an important part of the solution.

Now when I feel my anxiety building, instead of scratching, I slide the bracelet down into my hand and use it as a fidget toy. I use my thumb to spin it round and round my middle three fingers. I wrap and unwrap its twists around one of my fingers over and over. I repeatedly tap it against my palm. Sometimes I even rub it against my lips, feeling the smoothness slide over, giving me a calming effect.

I have found the bracelet to be invaluable in helping me self-manage my anxiety. It gives me something else to do with my hands besides scratching. Has it completely stopped me scratching myself? No. Sometimes I forget about it. Sometimes anxiety hits too fast and too hard for me to even remember what I’m doing, let alone use the bracelet. But it has reduced it dramatically. As I never know when my next anxiety attack is going to hit, the ability to have this bracelet with me at all times is helpful because I know it will always be there when I need it.

Editor’s note: This is based on one person’s experiences and should not be taken as medical advice. Consult a doctor or medical professional for any questions or concerns you have.

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3 Questions I Ask Myself When My Anxiety Starts to Affect My Relationships

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Anxiety can often feel like a third person in your relationships. The anxiety can create distance based on irrationalism, fear and insecurity. Even the most loving, attentive, patient partner can suddenly feel unsafe and unreliable. A kiss can feel inauthentic; a kind word rings out like a lie. And if you don’t have the skills to combat it, it can lead you toward self-destructive behaviors that can tear away at even the most stable relationships.

I struggle with this. A lot. So I created a series of questions for myself to make sure I don’t open the floodgates to irrational and entirely unneeded relational strife:

1. What evidence/experience supports these thoughts?

“He doesn’t love me anymore.” “She’s mad at me.” “I am a terrible person.” “This is going to be bad.” These kinds of thoughts are not only toxic, they are powerful. They can trigger a series of behaviors that support their irrationality so what was once merely a fear becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes I need to physically respond to these thoughts and create pros and cons lists that either support a positive conclusion or work to negate irrational thinking.

2. What part of my cycle am I in? Are there other physical triggers?

I have significantly increased depression and anxiety symptoms during my menstrual cycle and fertility period. This is called premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and it affects a small percentage of women. Occasionally, the symptoms are debilitating for me. But some months, they are significantly reduced. So I have to track my cycle and keep tabs on my emotional and physical state during these times.

3. What can I do to release these emotions?

Whether you run or paint or cook or write or sing… it is so important to develop a go-to you can find release in. Personally, I work out and I write. This creates a safe space to fully dump all those fear-based, hard-to-deal-with emotions.

Now, I am not suggesting you avoid authentic communication with your friends, family or partner. Keep communicating. Keep building mutual understanding. Keep telling someone what you are feeling. But don’t make them responsible for your emotional well-being. You need to be responsible for it. They’re there to love and support you. But you have to develop ways to cope and sort through things on your own as well.

I hope this helps you, too. Remember that you are loved. And you are stronger than you realize.

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How to Redefine Masculinity as a Man Living With Anxiety

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First things first, I can not stress enough this article is absolutely not meant to belittle or minimize the struggle women with anxiety issues face. This is just going to be a look at how men can be affected in a unique way. We’re all facing this together, no matter your sex, race, religion or any other factor, and I would never belittle anyone’s experiences. Everyone going through this ordeal has my respect and full support. Everyone.

That said, I’d like to give some background on who I am, and why I wrote this.

My name is Brian. I’m 35 now, and, when I can, I work as an artist in various media. I had a very early introduction to anxiety issues when my mother had what was called at the time a “nervous breakdown” when I was about 10 years old. “Mental illness” was not the household word it is today, and there was a lot of stigma attached. Needless to say, it was a trying time for my whole family. Fortunately, my mother has made a pretty complete recovery, and has served as a guide and invaluable source of support for me in my own struggles. I’d be negligent if I didn’t also acknowledge the huge role my devoted and loving father played, both in her recovery, and in my own struggles. When many men would have skimped on the “for better or worse” vow, he doubled down, and gave my siblings and I a wonderful, beautiful living example of true love and devotion. In this way, I am extremely blessed.

My own struggles with anxiety began in my late teens, intensified into my early 20s and continues to this day. For me, it comes in massive waves that last weeks, months, even years at a time. There have been periods of up to about two years at a time when it has been essentially in remission, and there have been times when I couldn’t leave my house (even though the attacks continue there, too). Needless to say, I’ve put in my time in the saddle. I like to think I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, but this disease is wily as a fox, so it’s never wise to get too cocky.

Our society puts a lot of expectations on men. We’re supposed to be tough, good providers, confident, decisive and rational. We’re supposed to be the rock in the relationship. The steady hand on the tiller. Fearless in the face of danger, and ready and able to protect at the drop of a hat.

I was feeling particularly down one day, and couldn’t quite put a finger on why it was. After some reflection and meditation, I figured it out. A young lady had shown some interest in me, and ran for the hills when I told her I live with anxiety and that I’m not currently working.

The realization I came to was that all of that non-sense about “what makes a man” had gotten into my head, and I was left feeling inadequate and emasculated. The fact that I’m working on getting myself healthy instead of punching a punch clock is something I am perfectly OK with. Hell, for me, it’s pretty much normal. I can live fairly lean, and be reasonably happy, on not a whole lot. I have a house. I have food. I have an old rusty truck that gets me around. I have my faithful mutt and enough support. I can be happy with that. She couldn’t. She bought into the consumer-driven idea of “manhood.”

After I realized that, I decided to look at the self-perceived emasculation that has given me so much anguish and depression in the past. I wanted to get a better picture of what people think makes a “man.” So, I conducted a very informal and completely unscientific poll of real people I actually know, asking them, “What makes someone ‘manly’?” Some of the answers were surprising, some less so.

First, the not-as-good news:

#1. Confidence: It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that when your body is on hyper fight-or-flight mode, your confidence can get shaken. If anyone has figured out how to be confident during an anxiety or panic attack, let me know how you do it. I would think it’s pretty much an impossibility, simply due to the hormones and chemicals your body is pumping out at levels even actual life-or-death experiences can’t evoke.

It’s OK, though. This is not the time to worry about appearing confident. To do so would really only make things much worse. What you can do, however, is be confident in your ability to handle it. For me, even though I’m going through the hell that is an anxiety attack, there’s part of me that knows what it is, knows I’ve been through them before, and knows I will be OK. Ninety-nine percent of me may be freaking out, but there’s always that one percent there to remind me I know what’s going on, and I know I’ll be alright.

I still need to treat myself gently, and I still need to work my way back to “normal” slowly, but I also know I will be OK. That may not look like confidence to the casual on-looker, but in my opinion, it’s the definition of true confidence. There aren’t many things in life that will rattle your cage like an anxiety attack, so if you can deal with having those, you’re certified tough.

#2. Dependability: Yeah, this can be a tough one. Panic and anxiety attacks usually don’t schedule themselves ahead of time, and have a way of coming at inconvenient times. My suggestion is to use honesty. Instead of saying you can’t make your appointment because your car has a flat tire, just tell them you are having a panic attack. Some people will be very empathetic and understanding, some won’t. You don’t get to control their reaction, sadly, but to those who really matter, your honesty and trust makes you dependable in an even deeper, more meaningful way. With those less sympathetic, don’t take it personally. That’s their issue, not yours, no matter what they may say.

#3. The Provider: If you mean strictly in terms on money, yeah, anxiety can be hell on your checkbook. Sadly, this is a widely expected cultural norm. It shouldn’t be, but it is the reality we have to face. If your anxiety is so severe you’ve practically become a shut-in, the simple fact is your income is going to suffer. I’ve found the best I can do is the best I can do, and I have to be OK with that. I work when I’m able, and that’s the best I can do for now.  Gold diggers can just keep moving on (which is fine by me).

The good news is that not all women take only your paycheck into consideration when evaluating your Provider status, and some of the factors they bring in might surprise you. There will be more on that later, but things that cost $0, like being supportive, being respectful, listening, kindness, etc., can make up for a lot.

#4. The Protector: This one is actually one of anxiety issues rare silver linings, at least in my experience. I should mention that one of my favorite hobbies is Krav Maga (a martial art that makes MMA fights look like kids with giant inflatable boxing gloves on by comparison). I go to classes whenever my finances and anxiety allow. It’s a very odd thing for someone with social anxiety to really enjoy, at least on the surface, but I find it relieves the anxiety better than any other single thing I do.

That said, I’ve been through hundreds of full-blown panic attacks. I have more practice keeping a level head under massive adrenaline than any 10 “normal” people, and so do you. This is huge advantage, and you can maximize it by picking up some basic skills for emergency situations like knowing some basic first-aid and some martial arts.

Most men only experience a flight-or-flight type response a handful of times in an entire life. They are stuck like deer in headlights. You, on the other hand, you’ve ridden that bull so often you’re on a first name basis with it, and you know how to ride it.

In Krav Maga class, we do some drills that are specifically designed to simulate a panicked or disoriented situation. For most people, simply having the instructor flick the lights on and off is enough. For me, these drills are easy as pie. The slight increase in adrenaline is barely a drop in the bucket.

Bottom line, if you’re living with anxiety issues, you’re already a warrior. You know how to get back up when you’re down, even when you’re not sure you want to. That is a rare skill, and one you can use to your advantage.

Like I said, learn what to do in any likely emergencies, and you’re just a hero in waiting. What’s the worst that can happen? You panic? You’ve done that before, and you know how to handle it.

#5. The Productive Member of Society: This one can be tricky, depending on severity of your symptoms. However, there’s always something you can do to leave the world better than you found it.

Try picking a random Facebook friend every day, and paying them a sincere compliment with no expectation of it being returned. Just a compliment. Is it saving whales? No. But you’ll make one friend’s day a little better. It’s not nothing…

Try writing articles in the hopes someone relates to an issue you’ve faced. You can change a life without putting on your pants.

Point being, “productive member of society” is not a reference to economic production. It means you’re adding something to society, and that can come in many forms. Any of which will also help with your confidence. Men tend to “do.” It’s in our nature. Just because you may not be able to do as much as you normally could, doesn’t mean you can’t do what you can and be perfectly proud of that.

Now for the good news. Most of the women polled didn’t even mention the things listed above. Most of what was listed wasn’t what you’d necessarily think of when you hear the word “man.”

At #1 is respect. I think Tina Turner has that topic covered.

The others are, in my opinion, just being a decent human. Honestly, loyalty, kindness, attentive listening (sorry guys, they can tell when you’re faking paying attention better than you can tell they’re faking an orgasm), communication, open minded, nurturing/sensitive side, creativity, sense of humor and lastly, commitment (although I think they meant in the sense not involving marriage, I can’t promise that).

The more frequent response I got back regarding this is really very simple, but goes against all “man” instinct. That was simply this: listen and empathize. I know as a man, the knee-jerk response when you hear someone you care for is not happy is to fix it. Do not do that. Listen to what they say, use some imagination or your own past experience, and vocally sympathize with her. Sometimes “I understand” is all you need to do or say.

In short, make an effort to treat people around you better than you have to. It builds relationships, it eases the anxiety, creates a stronger support network for when you do need it, makes you happier and makes the world a better place.

If making the world a better place doesn’t make you a “man,” nothing will. Not even that six-figure job, fancy car and enormous TV. However, if you recover from the anxiety, and end up with all the “stuff” society tells us we should crave, you’ll keep the inner confidence of knowing you do your best to make the world a better place. That confidence will outshine any fancy new car, and it will show.

So, guys, take it easy on yourselves. Anxiety makes you no less manly, and if you use the opportunity, can be the catalyst that makes you into an even better man than your ever were before. Anxiety and panic issues are tough enough on their own. We don’t need to add guilt and shame over things we can’’t control to the mix, too. So be gentle, do the best you can and sleep happy at night knowing you did what you could. Courage in the face of adversity is a much better measure of a man than a bank account, anyway.

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