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When I Try to Remember a Time Before My Anxiety

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Life can be broken into segments. I used to separate my life into sections according to school: Preschool. Elementary school. Junior high. High school. Older people may see the segments of their life much differently. A divorcee, for example, may see their life like this: Pre-marriage. Marriage. Divorce. Post-divorce. The human brain tends to place things into groups, to sort things so that they might make more sense, to compartmentalize and condense.

I try to do the same with my anxiety. I try to remember my life before – before my anxious thoughts became too much to handle, before I had my first panic attack. Then I find myself wondering if a “before” even existed.

As a kid, I was always a little more nervous than everyone else. I remember being in grade school and worrying about things my friends didn’t even think about. My mind would run rampant with “what-ifs” about the silliest things: What if no one wants to be my partner in class? What if there’s a fire in the school and I have to leave all my things behind and I lose everything? I remember agonizing over “silly” things for as far back… well, as far back as I can remember. That was my “normal.”

It was in high school that I began to wonder if my “nervousness” wasn’t as “normal” as I had always thought. During my sophomore year, I signed up to take the ACT — earlier than everyone else in my grade. The night before the test, I woke up around 1 A.M., shaking and unable to catch my breath. My mind was racing with anxious thoughts, and it took me about an hour to calm down and finally go back to sleep. It was only one occasion of many, but I remember the paralyzing fear of that incident better than any other.

If I had to pick a single trigger for my anxiety – the straw that broke the camel’s back – it would have to be my first semester of college. I went away to a school I didn’t really want to attend; I had received nearly a full ride, and my family convinced me it was too good of an offer to turn down. I left behind my friends, my boyfriend, and my tight-knit family, only to arrive at a school I was less than excited about.

I was only five days into the semester when the panic attacks began. I would sit in class, my mind racing, my chest squeezing, and run back to my dorm as soon as class got out. I would lie in my bed for hours, trying to fight the gaping pit of dread in my chest. Eventually, I began to skip classes. Sometimes the anxiety got so suffocating, I convinced myself I was going to die. My constant state of anxiety eventually shifted into a black fog of depression. Instead of feeling like my whole body was abuzz with nervous energy, I suddenly felt nothing. I can’t say which was worse.

I got help, eventually. I went to the mental health clinic at school, got on medication, and talked to a therapist. She suggested I transfer to a school closer to home; it was such a relief. I thought maybe if I went home, things would get better.

They did, but not entirely. Upon returning home, my anxiety found new targets. Instead of focusing on being away at school, it honed in on my relationship with my boyfriend, or my aspirations for the future. It has remained with me to this day.

The anxiety comes in waves, but it is always there; sometimes, it’s just a tiny pit in my stomach, reminding me that something can always go wrong. Other times, it’s an endless cascade of racing thoughts, horrible anxious thoughts that take away my ability to breathe. I am getting better at dealing with it; I go to therapy, I take medication, and all of it seems to help. But it is always there.

Which leads me to wonder – was there ever a “before?” I don’t think so. I now believe my anxiety has always been a part of me. I see it as a volcano that sat dormant for 18 years, only trembling every now and then, until it finally erupted with devastating and unforgiving fury. Now, it burns slowly, sputtering violently here and there. But I can live with it.

If there was no “before,” I don’t think there will ever be an “after,” either. I think many people with anxiety will always deal with it to some extent. It might be hard to accept that. But I firmly believe that accepting your anxiety doesn’t mean you’re giving up; it doesn’t mean you’re letting it win.

I think if we accept anxiety as a part of who we are, we will be better able to deal with it. We will no longer ache for an “after” that will never come. And we will thrive.

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To My Daughter With Anxiety

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I wish you could see yourself the way I see you. The way your freckles frame your beautiful face. The way you shrug your shoulders when you are unsure of yourself. The way your smile and laughter brightens up a room. You are a perfect reflection of love and all that is good in this world.

You are pure magic. You are the light of my life. Ever since you were placed upon my chest after birth, you have managed to fill up a huge place in my heart. I became a mom when you were born. I wouldn’t want to be anything else, for you bring more meaning and love into my life than I have ever known.

You may not know this, and I am sorry if you cannot comprehend how much you mean to me. It is difficult to put into words how the stars came down from the sky when you were born. They brought you to me, my shining special girl. You are so amazing, and you have no idea of your worth. Never doubt your worth, never let anyone put you down or make you feel less than you are.

You have been struggling with anxiety on and off for a few years. I know it has been difficult for you, and I would do anything to take these feelings away. You are only 10 years old and should not have to face such misfortune at such a young age. You should be living happily, frivolously and free of such adversity.

You are having a hard time adjusting to middle school and all the changes you are facing. You are no longer a small elementary school student. You now carry a heavy load of honors classes and much more responsibility. Recess is a thing of the past, and playtime is replaced with commitments and worry.

Your old friends are just a blur in the busy hallways, and new faces crowd the overwhelming corridors of your new life. You are trying to adjust, but your anxiety is holding you back. It clouds your brain, it tries to hold you back from all you are meant to accomplish.

But I have no doubt that you will overcome this difficult challenge and accomplish great things. Anxiety is tough, but you are not ashamed to admit you are struggling, you are not afraid to ask for help from the school counselor and from your after-school psychologist. You are the bravest girl I know, and I couldn’t be prouder of you.

You are putting yourself out there, you are climbing mountains and you are breaking down the walls that are holding  you back. You keep fighting every single day, and you never give up. Though you leave the house in tears often, you come back better, stronger and more powerful than you have ever been. This will build your character, this will expand your ability to feel empathy for others.

I am in awe of our strength, your courage and your willingness to help others though you are struggling yourself.

You are the kind of person I admire. You are the kind of person I still aspire to be like.

Though you are still so young, you have such wisdom packed into your little soul, and enough love in you to change lives.

I know you will learn how to cope with your anxiety and live a wonderful, fulfilling life.

Never be ashamed of asking for help when you require it. Those who do are the most courageous people in the world.

I am so proud of you and always will be. From the moment I first saw you, you were my stars, you were my heaven on Earth, you were mine.

My sweet darling daughter, never forget you can face whatever life throws your way. Always keep trying, always be yourself, always stay kind.

I cannot be prouder of you, and I will always be in your corner.

Forever walking by your side. With each passing moonlight mile.

My sweet daughter, how I love you…

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How Learning the Art of Throat Singing Benefited My Mental Health

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About two years ago I was surfing Facebook and ran across a video of a Mongolian man performing on a mountain top.

His singing technique is used by people in Central Asia, particularly in Mongolia and Tuva. It is called Khoomei. A more common name for it is “throat singing.” An advanced throat singer can simultaneously sing two to four notes and/or musical sounds at one time. To put it simply, throat singers are Central Asian beat-boxers. And they are awesome ones at that!

As you may be aware, lots of creative people are diagnosed with anxiety and depression. I am one of them, and I love music, history and art. So, new and different things spark my fancy and turn my anxiety into healthy, happy energy. Well, after throat singing caught my interest, I become outright infatuated with it.

After a few months of listening to this type of music, I followed a few tutorials on YouTube in attempts to learn it. Learning this music style allows me to depart from the anxiety that has hindered my musical progress for many years. Being a high-strung perfectionist with a learning disability, there is a tendency to criticize myself for not doing things correctly. It is difficult to memorize fast songs and complex music scores. Plus, not being able to follow instructions very well is frustrating for all involved in the music group. So, I can’t keep up. Then I mess up. Then I give up. All of this negativity triggers anxiety attacks and ruins something that was meant to be fun.

And after a few frustrating attempts to learn throat singing I decided it was too difficult and no fun at all. But, rather than give up, I decided to change my learning style. It had to be more informal, relaxed and childlike. Take toddlers for example. They sit on the floor and play with toys that capture their interest and they are full of joy. They also make funny sound effects when they play. And most admirably, they are not self conscious. There is no way the toddler can perfect any of this. There is no reason to. They are learning in the most natural way: by having fun!

Practicing this learning technique has been of great benefit to my mental health. As we get older we are taught to do things right and to be conscious of our behavior. Taken to the extreme, we can lose are joy of learning and damage our self esteem. Knowing this, it is good to learn something fun that is impossible to perfect, like throat singing. Below are some links to resources about throat singing.

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When My Anxiety Is Like a Storm

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As I was finishing my workout today, I noticed a storm rolling in. I could see the lightning striking frequently only a few miles away, and I went outside to watch it for a bit. It made me forget why I was so worried and why I came to the gym in the first place. The gym had always been my sanctuary — a place to forget and let go of everything. But today, it wasn’t working. Today, I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t rid my mind of the plaguing doubts and fears. But for some reason, this storm did it. The rolling of the thunder calmed me, made me forget of my anxieties of the day.

There was peace within the powerful forces from the storm. There was peace within the raging winds and pouring rain. There was peace in the couplings of lightning and thunder. It was a peace I couldn’t explain as I watched after-work commuters race home, hoping to beat the incoming storm. I shook my head at their impatience and their lack of appreciation for the sheer beauty God created. I wondered what they were rushing for, who they had waiting on them, and why they were so eager to dismiss this
beautiful thing that had consumed me.

I couldn’t comprehend their rush, but I was suddenly overwhelmed again with the day’s pressures, problems, and anxieties. It made my heart pound harder and my throat get tighter. So I turned my
attention back to the storm and embraced it. I let it take over. I felt the thunder in my chest and the lightning in my veins. I let the storm empower me and calm me all at once.

And that’s when it hit me. My anxiety is like a storm. Sometimes you can see it coming from a mile away, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere. Sometimes it’s just a light rain, and other times it’s raging winds and hail. It can happen all day or strike only in the dark of night. My anxiety is like a storm.

Sometimes you embrace the storm; sometimes the storm embraces you.

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Why Shopping With Anxiety Is Like Playing Pac-Man

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Shopping with anxiety is like playing a game of Pac-Man. You’re trying to catch all of the dots before the ghosts get you!

Get Ready!

You prepare yourself for the shopping trip way before it’s time to actually go, even if it’s just to Walmart or Target. You’ve already ordered what can be ordered online, so you don’t have to go to the store at all but have come to the realization there are a few things you need to get so you get mentally prepared.

You have to decide if what you are wearing is appropriate to wear in the store but not too flashy as to draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Once you have your list of things you want to get (which will be very few to avoid unnecessary time in the store), you do a mental check in your head to see if there’s anything you may be forgetting. You look at the time to make sure it’s not a “peak” shopping period, so the possibility of running into someone you know is minimal.

OK, so you have your clothes, money, shopping list (paper or phone because either can be used as a barrier or excuse not to talk to someone). Now we can drive to the store, listening to whatever theme song of the day to pump you up or calm you down to get in and out of the store at record time.

Starting the Game

So, you have arrived at the store and are now racing to get all of the dots before the “ghosts” see you. Your feet might as well be roller skates because you’re walking so fast. Even if you see someone in the parking lot, they’ll see how fast you’re walking so they should know you don’t have time for chitchat. You quickly grab a shopping cart, even if you won’t need it because it can be used as a barrier later.

You walk into the store and scan from right to left to make sure you don’t see anyone you know, and if you do, you’ll go in the opposite direction. And if you make eye contact, you’ll look at your list or look around as if you’re in another world and keeping walking away from them. Whew! They didn’t see you!

You slow down to catch your breath because your heart is beating a mile a minute, but you can’t stop walking because someone might accidentally bump into you and then you may have to talk to them! So, you pick back up the pace to continue on, ever watching for anybody that may pop up, racing through the store to pick up everything on your list as if your life depended on it.

You Spot a Ghost

You see someone you know. Ahhhhhh! Inside your head you are screaming and your palms are starting to sweat and you are quickly running possibilities through your mind on what the best course of action is because they cannot see you. The person is far off from you so you have time to run. You duck into another aisle and pretend to look at something and watch from the corner of your eye to make sure they have passed. Whew! You see them pass and you go another way to continue shopping just in case they forget something and may turn around and see you.

Almost Finished

You’ve done all of your shopping and are headed to check out. You avoid those “death traps” if at all possible — you know, the registers that have people there. You quickly scan the self check-out line to make sure there aren’t too many people over there and that there is no one you know.

When the coast is clear, you dash in and ring everything up as quickly as you can without looking up because someone may see you and you’ll have to talk. If you don’t have cash to pay, you’ll have to use your card, so you make sure your total amount due comes under $50 — anything over will require a signature and that’s more time in the store. 

If by chance you go over, you’ll quickly scribble something on the signature line so you can get out. You’ve already bagged up the items and have them loaded in the cart by the time the receipt comes out. You grab it out of the machine as quickly as you can and walk quickly, almost running as if someone was chasing you, out of the store to your vehicle, which you purposely parked as closely to the door as possible for a quick getaway.

Whew! Mission accomplished!

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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What a Full Tank of Gas Means to Me and My Son With Anxiety

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I filled up the gas tank of my car this morning, and the electronic display kindly informed me that I had “210 miles to empty.”

When I first filled the gas tank of the car a couple of years ago, I glanced at the display and read the word “empty” as “enjoy.” I thought to myself, “Oh, how nice, the car is basically telling me to have a good day.” Then I glanced at the display again and realized my error — empty, not enjoy.

To this day, every single time I fill up the tank, I think about that little error and laugh at myself. Today when I filled up the gas tank, I thought about the shift in perspective just one little word can bring about.

Empty versus enjoy.

“210 miles to empty” means how far I can drive or how many days I can make the tank of gas last. The full tank will slowly trickle toward empty as I drive the kids to day camp, therapy appointments, ninjutsu classes, aerial classes and coding classes.

It will also take me to and from work and to a variety of errands. My son’s anxiety levels are usually pretty high when we are in the car, so while we are using up the gas in the tank this week, I’ll also probably be diffusing his anxiety levels.

The car is also where my daughter has been hitting me with her most burning tween questions, so I will likely find myself having to answer a question I’m not necessarily prepared to be hearing. As the week progresses, the gas tank will slowly become empty as we live the day-to-day of our lives.

“210 miles to enjoy” means making memories when the miles are shared with my kids and savoring the rare moments of solitude when the miles are solo. The tank is full at the beginning of the last week of summer break. It’s a week where my kids get a final chance to pack in fun and friends without the added responsibilities of school and homework.

That tank of gas will take my son to a coding class we recently discovered and that he adores. It will also take my daughter to and from the aerial studio where she finds absolute joy. As the gas gauge gets lower, I will travel to and from a job I love and find a few minutes each day of rare time alone.

The car will get us safely to my son’s therapy appointments, so he can continue to figure out how to exist in a world that he often finds overwhelming. It will also provide a safe haven for my daughter to ask her most burning questions when we are the only occupants of the vehicle. There’s something about the combination of not having to look me in the eyes but still having me to herself that works for her little brain and heart right now. As the week progresses, that tank of gas will give us opportunities to enjoy the day-to-day of our lives.

And by the time the gas tank needs to be filled again, we’ll probably be well into the final long weekend of summer, enjoying time with family and friends.

So, 210 miles to empty or 210 miles to enjoy?

I’m going to choose enjoy.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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