a woman walking up the stairs with a heavy ball shackled to her ankle.

When You Live Shackled to Anxiety

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Sometimes my brain feels like there is a 360 degree vice grip on my head, pushing and crushing it until it feels like there is no possible way to condense my skull any more without bursting the inside. In those moments, if I close my eyes, it’s almost as if I’m no longer in the confines of my physical body, but rather am surrounded by a whiteness, and all I can hear is my own primal scream. I am usually sweating profusely, my heart is racing and I feel severe discomfort in my own skin, as if I want to unzip my body and dart out to escape the thoughts. I can hardly process one thought, before another chases it out of the spotlight, a cruel cyclical pattern, like a frustrating yet scary merry-go-round. In the heat of panic, are flashes of rage. Pure, fiery hot rage. My brain is protesting the vicious paralyzing attack, while utterly helpless to stop it. My anxiety has reared it’s very ugly head.

Anything could cause this feeling. Major things. Minor things. Things in between. It could have been that my boyfriend yet again walked by the garbage bag and opted not to take it out. It could have been that I saw a video on Facebook that reminded me of the pain I felt when my Dad passed away. It could have been that I couldn’t find a bathing suit I felt comfortable in. It could be everyday things that most people process and move on from within a relatively short period of time, but for me dig into my brain and set up camp.  

It starts innocently, and I never suspect any one thing will cause this mental freezing. A simple little thought can be the seed to a full blown anxiety tree and I’m none-the-wiser until it’s already too late. It goes a little something like this:  

He didn’t take out the trash — again. I can’t believe him. How hard can it be to take out the trash? I never ask him to do literally anything around the house, with the exception of taking out the trash. And yet, day after day, he walks by the same trash bag waiting to go to the dumpster, and doesn’t take it out. He knows he should, but doesn’t. It’s starting to smell, and he still doesn’t. I guess I’ll just do it myself — again. Why do I even put up with this? My Dad took out the trash every single night for the family when he was alive. In fact, if we didn’t have milk, he’d run to the store at 11 p.m., just so that my mom could have her cup of hot chocolate before bed, without hesitating. He’d do that stuff because he loved us, even if it annoyed him to tears. He did it because that was his way of contributing. It was his way of matching the efforts my mom put into their marriage. He was a great husband and father. I want that for myself, too. I deserve that! I wish my Dad was still here to give me advice. I miss him. I wish he hadn’t died so suddenly. That was the most earth shattering thing that could have happened to my family. And the scariest thing is that it can happen at any moment, to anyone. Even if you just lost a loved one three weeks prior like my family did, that didn’t stop the world from taking my Dad less than a month later. It could be hourly. I should learn to appreciate the people I have in my life. Here I am angry as shit about my boyfriend not taking out the trash, when he could have gotten into a fatal car accident on the way to work today. I’d never forgive myself if something like that happened.

And so begins the merry-go-round of thought.

Somehow, I’ve devolved my boyfriend not taking the trash out, to thinking about how a loved one can die at any time, within a matter of seconds. Once I’m there, it’s virtually impossible to stop the flood of thoughts that race through my mind. The mental energy it takes just to keep up with how quickly ideas race through in my brain is immeasurable.  These are the moments I wish desperately to escape from. I can’t accomplish anything.  Work doesn’t get done, housework doesn’t get done; there are even times when I find it difficult to shower or feed myself. 

Anxiety is the reason I second guess everything. Anxiety is the reason for my progressively intensifying fear of losing a loved one. Anxiety is the reason I have little patience and a hot temper — I don’t have enough mental stamina for any other emotional hurdles. Anxiety is the reason why I’ve distanced myself from people. Anxiety is the reason why home is where I want to be almost 100 percent of the time. Anxiety is the reason why it may seem like I don’t enjoy myself. Anxiety is the reason why I fake some of my smiles. Anxiety has prevented me from fully enjoying my life. The sickest part of this illness, is that it even attacks itself. I feel anxious about my anxiety. I put my entire world under a microscope and feel anxious about all that I miss out on or have not done because of my anxiety. It’s a self-perpetuating prophecy. It’s cancer’s cancer. It’s like the flea of a flea. It’s a mental prison, and I’m shackled to it unwillingly.  

My thoughts sentence me to days of what seems like “irrational worry.” Many people in my life are not able to understand why I think like this, or why I allow anxiety to grip my mind, as if it were my choice. I’ve been told a variety of cliché pieces of advice, the majority of which are along these lines, “take the broken record out of your head,” “just don’t worry about those things,” “you’re borrowing trouble,” or “think positively.” I’m so aware these people are only trying to help, but I can’t help but feel bitter in those moments of receiving unsolicited advice. I acknowledge they’re telling me what works well for them, but if it were so easy to do those things for me, I would have done them already. It’s almost insulting when I hear advice like this, because it is a painful reminder that mental illness is gravely misunderstood, even in 2016.  

Anxiety is an invisible illness, but an illness none-the-less. The inability to see many of the effects of this illness makes it difficult for those who don’t suffer from it, to respect it as an illness. I was recently discussing anxiety with a friend, and they said, “I feel like you use your anxiety to get out of doing things.” I was floored. That casual sentence perfectly embodies the general public’s understanding of mental illnesses. Because my anxiety is confined to my brain and heart rate, it is somehow reduced to a scapegoat.  

I replied, “Anxiety hinders me, even if you can’t see it, and I’m not using it for anything. I don’t want to have anxiety, and it’s certainly not an excuse.”

I feel defeated when I need to explain this to people. Sure, I may appear to be an average person who has a good life, and good health, but many people neglect to acknowledge mental health is equally as important as physical health. If someone suffers from a mental illness, they are not weaker, they are not less than, they are not crazy. They have a mental illness. Period. Even typing that sentence made me cringe, because society’s view of mental illness has such a negative stigma, it is ingrained even within myself, a person who admittedly suffers from anxiety. I, and others like me, should feel no shame in our diagnoses. 

To those reading this piece right now, I won’t lie and tell you I’ve found an escape route out of this mental prison. Even if I had, everyone’s journey is personal and unique, so my solution would have no footing in your reality. I’ve been seeing a doctor for two years, and still feel like I’ve barely put a chink into the concrete walls imprisoning me. I will say I have hope that there will be freedom one day. I’m not sure what will do it, but I have to believe there is more to life than spending time thinking terrible thoughts. I see joy on other people’s faces and know I’ve been there before and will be there again. All I can do now is learn what works for me (baths — lots of baths), and what doesn’t. I may seem like I’m moving at a glacial speed throughout life, while everyone around me looks like an Olympic sprinter, but that’s OK with me. I know I am doing my very best given the circumstances, and that is all anyone can ask of me.

For now, it makes me feel good to share my experience with others, and educate those who are open to understanding mental illness. Hopefully one day there will be no negative stigma attached to mental illnesses.  One day, you will be able to talk about seeing your therapist or psychiatrist, without the whispers of judgment. There is nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to health, whether it be physical, mental or both. Everyone is different, with different stories and different challenges. As soon as we can learn to respect each person for their individuality, the world will be a far better place in which to live.

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If You Could Imagine What Anxiety Is Like

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Editor’s note: The following description of anxiety may be triggering for those who live with anxiety disorders.

Living with anxiety is not for the faint of heart.

It means continually living your existence “on-edge.” In limbo. From worry to worry. Fear to fear. Panic to panic. Guard constantly up. Terrified to let anyone in. Petrified to open yourself to new and uncomfortable experiences and situations. Always in waiting for the next “what-if” to come to fruition.

Everyone experiences anxiety to a certain extent. But the difference? Most people can make it through their day, brushing off those little triggers. Asking themselves, “What’s the use in worrying about this anyway?” Moving freely throughout their schedule, with an overall sense of calm and peace. Although hiccups and speed bumps may arise, generally, they don’t turn into the mountains that form in the mind of those struggling at the mercy of this seven-letter ogre.

Those of us with anxiety? Our entire existence is about preparing ourselves for, pushing ourselves through and then, subsequently analyzing, those same “what-if,” hiccups, speed bumps and mountains. For those who can embrace a more carefree lifestyle, it may be hard, or even impossible, to understand what it’s like for someone with anxiety. Even when living under the same roof, seeing it day by day.

First, I would like to reiterate, the degree and intensity to which we respond to our anxiety is vastly different. For me? I don’t have outright, full-blown, “can’t catch my breath” panic attacks.

You will know I am in the midst of an anxiety attack because I will completely shut down. My heart will race. My mind will spin out of control. I might feel like I need to find some fresh air or a glass of water. Tears may come to my eyes. My mood will most definitely shift. This could last from seconds to hours. Sometimes, you would look at me and never know I am in the middle of utter turmoil both in my mind and throughout my body.

So, how do I explain this to someone from the outside-looking-in? What it’s like to live with the disruption and unrest of daily anxiety?

Imagine. Standing in the middle of a glass box. There’s no opening except for one hole at the very top. It’s exactly big enough for you to squeeze through in an emergency situation.

To get to that hole? A rope, dangling just inches above your highest vertical leap. If you really tried, with all your summoned might, then it could possibly find its way into your slipping grasp.

Now, imagine. An insanely hideous beast (absolutely indescribable) crawls into your box. Sheer panic ensues. You are stuck. You want to run for your life, but you are literally frozen in fear.

Heart pounding through your chest. Sweat dripping from your upper lip. Gasping for breath. Feeling as though you can’t pull in enough oxygen to remain conscious. Like sucking in air through a coffee stirrer straw.

Your throat is closing. Your face feels completely numb. Your mind literally spinning out of control. His overpowering nature begins pushing you here and there, taking over any extra room you had inside your box like a completely relentless bully.

Rope dangling. Just out of reach. It’s hot and sticky breath fills the glass enclosure from floor to ceiling leaving you in a state of utter terror. Alone. Gasping for air through a tiny tube. Walls closing in around you. Vision becoming blurred and spotty. Literally living a nightmare.

Now, you gain enough awareness that you look through your glass sides. You see everyone else out and about. They were able to grab their ropes. No straws in sight. Walking freely. Wondering what in the world you are so upset about. Because they can’t see the cause of your anxiety.

Suddenly the shame pours in. You don’t want anyone to know about this secret beast. You have tried so hard to keep him hidden. You wish with all your heart to flee.

From this monster. From this humiliation. From every single feeling rushing through your body. Yet, you. are. completely. frozen. You can’t move. You can’t catch your breath. Your heart is thumping. You feel faint. You feel lightheaded. You feel like this is it.

Your tears can’t fall fast enough. Your mind can’t catch a break on its closed circuit track of sheer panic. Then, somehow, some way, you realize, you pulled through. Seconds, minutes, hours later. Sometimes, you really aren’t sure how. Maybe it was alone. Maybe it was with a helping hand. Maybe with a familiar voice.

The feelings of “relief”? This break you are experiencing? You realize it’s all only temporary. You try to inhale as much fresh air as possible. You look up at your rope and realize it never moved. You look out of your glass walls, and realize you are still inside. You are too afraid to be happy, to be calm, to let go of those worries and to celebrate anything. Because you know it’s never over.

The monster? He’s no longer in sight. But you? You know he is still very much there. Around every corner. In every crack. In every crevice. Waiting for every potentially joyful moment to make his unexpected appearance, yet again.

And so you begin preparing, once more, for his next visit.

Image via Thinkstock.

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What Does the Fear of Imperfection Do to Someone With Anxiety and Depression?

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Why did I grow up thinking I had to be perfect and do perfect things?

Where did this thought process come from in a 9-year-old child writing creative stories? Wanting to be the best in class, place first in competitions and win awards. Those were the first signs of my anxiety. As a kid, all you’re supposed to worry about is what you’re doing over the summer or if you have extra time at recess. I was worrying about an honors assignment for my teacher and how every answer to every question had to be phrased correctly and written well. I was worrying that if I failed any part of that homework assignment, my teacher would hate me and I would be a disgrace. Sadly this mindset followed me into my late teenage life, and I still feel the need for perfection, but this time it’s a personal goal. I don’t care anymore what others think, but I do care about what I think about myself.

Am I doing something to my own standards? Do I need to try harder? 

These questions buzz through my head 24/7. This is the anxiety that follows me around like a shadow, that makes me feel like I’m never doing my best and that I’m not trying as hard as I could. It’s something that is not easy to get rid of, especially when it’s in your head. Many people in life have expressed that perfection is important, and society pushes perfection on everyone all the time. But what does the fear of imperfection do to someone with depression or anxiety? It makes you feel like you’re not good enough. It makes you feel like you chose to be a failure, that you are a failure. Something as unreachable as perfection should not be influencing us like it has. We change our bodies, our personalities and our uniqueness just to reach the goal of perfection, an undefinable quality that no one has encountered in the history of mankind.

But why do we do this? We continue to push ourselves until we’re at our breaking point. People become worried about every detail of their life because they’re too afraid of what they’re not doing right, and forget to notice what they are doing right already. This endless cycle throws us around in a constant state of questioning if we could be better.

I don’t want to feel like I’m not good enough. I’m sick and tired of being told I need to change to make things better. I am not changing who I am to satisfy the unreachable status of perfection. We are not perfect in the eyes of society, none of us are. But we are different.

We are all unique, and that is the undefinable quality that makes us who we are. Not perfection.

I’m not perfect. I’m just me.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Inside the Anxious Mind of Someone Who Doesn't Receive a Text Back

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It all starts with those two blue ticks…

I seem to possess the unique gift of knowing just when to check my phone for those two blue ticks… because they always seem to appear seconds after I check to see if my message has been sent and received…

Received. Read…

Sadly for me, I definitely don’t possess the unique gift of being able to put the phone away after reading those two words. Somehow I find myself staring at the screen for minutes, until the typing…” word appears and I receive a message back.

Did I send a horrible text?

Does this person not like me anymore?

Am I being too needy?

Somehow the basic answers (like: they are just too busy to immediately respond) never seem to reach my mind. No, no, no. My mind is occupied with anxious thoughts that make me question everything I’ve ever sent them, the last time I spoke to them face-to-face and every word in my most recent text message.

Argh. Why didn’t I use an extra emoji? They are gonna think I mean it in a completely different way now…

During this inner-monologue, I’m still staring at my phone. Wondering why I didn’t think this text through some more (which might be the most irrational thought of all.. because I overthink everything, definitely texts!). Wondering why I don’t just delete the conversation. Wondering why I make such a big deal at all.

You see, I know I didn’t send an awful text. I know I did nothing wrong. And I know they’ll respond as soon as they can.

One day, maybe, I’ll be able to text without hesitation and doubts. Until then I’ll have to allow myself some time to blankly stare at those two blue ticks… I’ll distract myself with chocolate and (bad) reality shows, and if any of my friends, family might ever read this: please… please. Don’t leave me hanging too long!

Image via Thinkstock.

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Anxiety After 9/11

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When you study Shakespearean theater, you learn that tragedy usually occurs following a storm. On the night of Sept. 10, in an attempt to attend a lecture at the 92 Street Y, my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I were caught in a storm of epic proportions. As we took shelter in a nearby pizza place, I joked “This storm is almost Shakespearean.” He just rolled his eyes and when it let up, we continued on our way.

That storm was a prelude to our lives changing is so many ways.

The next morning, a crystal clear, near perfect day gave way to a new reality. As he was working and I was in the subway, the two towers of the World Trade Center were struck. He fled his office and ran as the buildings collapsed covering him in white dust. I had to escaped the NYC subway through the tunnels as my train was half-way between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. It would be nearly eight hours before I even knew he was alive. No phone. No money. No working ATM service. With no way to communicate with anyone, I roamed the streets of Brooklyn until a cab driver was able to bring me to my mother’ place of work.

Days later and still unable to return to work due to lack of transportation in the city, my mother left for a trip to Europe. As I sat at table eating a bowl of cereal, I realized I was unable to breathe. I thought I had eaten too much or was having a sugar rush. I became dizzy, had tunnel-vision and severe chest pains. I didn’t know what was wrong and as the minutes past, it became progressively worse. My sister drove me to the hospital and I was diagnosed with pleuritic chest pains. I was prescribed painkillers and sent home. Several days later, it happened again. The dizziness was unbearable and I was gasping for air. I had to leave the subway and return to the hospital.

It took nearly two years before a doctor suggested that what I had experienced were panic attacks. She handed me a baggie of sample medication with no instructions. I never took them. I was weary of something that was handed to me with no explanation, no follow-up and two years with of misdiagnosis. After a trip to the book store, I read everything I could on how to get through a panic attacks and thankfully it worked. What I didn’t realize was that while my panic attacks were gone, so much other stuff was still there. I had stopped flying. I didn’t drive. I didn’t take the subway. I had a fear of everything around me. I avoided the unknown including everything I wasn’t 100 percent in control over. After being emotionally paralyzed for so long, we decided to leave NYC for a simpler life in Florida.

Throughout the years, my uncontrollable anxiety gave way to obsessive compulsive disorder and eventually depression. It took nearly 15 years to have all of it under control.

This year, my husband and I attended the funeral of a close friend in NYC. I flew back. I took the subway around New York. Then, I suggested we do the unthinkable. We went to lower Manhattan, got in an elevator to the 102nd floor of One World Trade Center. We looked out at NYC together. In a place that led to years of fear, anxiety and depression, I smiled down on the world finally free.

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40 Quotes That Help Me When I'm Feeling Anxious

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I love inspirational quotes. They are especially useful if I’m feeling down, stuck, anxious or unmotivated.

Inspirational quotes have also help guide me through the darkest days of my depression and the peaks and troughs of my anxiety, like a guiding light, holding my hand until I came out the other side.

Here are some of my favorites (40 to be precise):

1. “Life is not a dress rehearsal. Every day, you should have at least one exquisite moment.
” — Sally Karioth

2. “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.” — Carl Jung

3. “If we learn to open our hearts, anyone… can be our teacher.” — Pema Chodron

4. “In the end, just three things matter: How well we have lived. How well we have loved. How well we have learned to let go.” — Jack Kornfield

5. “You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway.” — Steve Maraboli

6. “If you’re going through hell keep going.” — Winston Churchill

7. “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” — Henry Miller

8. “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was ending, he turned into a butterfly.” –Proverb

9. “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” — Mother Teresa

10. “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” — Lao Tzu

11. “Everything you have ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear.” — George Addair

12. “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” — Thich Nhat Hanh

13. “At the end of the day, tell yourself gently: ‘I love you. You did the best you could today, and even if you didn’t accomplish all you had planned, I love you anyway.’” — Anonymous

14. “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” — Walt Disney

15. “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop

16. “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

17. “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” — Confucius

18. “Don’t settle: Don’t finish crappy books. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant. If you’re not on the right path, get off it.”  — Chris Brogan

19. “There is no chance, no destiny, no fate, that can hinder or control the firm resolve of a determined soul.” — Ella Wheeler Wilcox

20. “By being yourself, you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before.” — Edwin Elliot

21. “If you can dream it, you can do it.” — Walt Disney

22. “I tell you the past is a bucket of ashes, so live not in your yesterdays, not just for tomorrow, but in the here and now. Keep moving and forget the post mortems; and remember, no one can get the jump on the future.” — Carl Sandburg

23. “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.” — William James

24. “Limitations live only in our minds. But if we use our imaginations, our possibilities become limitless.” — Jamie Paolinetti

25. “Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly and most underrated agent of human change.” — Bob Kerrey

26. “Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.” — Buddha

27. “Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside of you that is greater than any obstacle.” — Christian D Larson

28. “You have a treasure within you that is infinitely greater than anything the world can offer.” — Eckhart Tolle

29. “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.” — Maya Angelou

30. “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Henry S. Haskins

31. “Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us directly on the path to the most wonderful things that will ever happen to us.” — Nicole Reed

32. “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James

33. “Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.” — A.A. Milne

34. “Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.” — Wayne W. Dyer

35. “There must be quite a few things that a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” — Sylvia Plath

36. “Don’t be pushed by your problems. Be led by your dreams.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

37. “For fast acting relief, try slowing down.” — Lily Tomlin

‎‎38. “If you don’t like something, change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” — Mary Engelbreit

39. “A pleasure a day keeps stress away.” — Ethel Roskies

40. “Every moment is a fresh beginning.” — T.S. Eliot

Image via Thinkstock.

This post originally appeared on Reflections From a Redhead.

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