woman sitting in a field of tall grass

Today, I went for a walk at Mammoth Cave National Park. It was just a short trek around a small, marshy pond. After snapping a few pictures, I put my phone away and focused on taking in my surroundings. The scenery was beautiful.

I noticed a couple of spider webs suspended between trees and the sun shining through them. I listened to the laughter and chatter of my family walking behind me. I observed the different shapes and textures of the tree trunks. I watched a snapping turtle sneak a little closer to the edge of the pond, hoping for a cracker, a Cheerio or some other treat.

Journaling about the walk this evening, a realization struck me: The reason nature is so calming is that it grounds me in my surroundings. I have struggled with anxiety almost as long as I can remember. Some days are better than others. Over the last year or so, I have begun taking more control of my mental health.

One of the coping methods I have learned is called grounding. It involves looking around and identifying five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. This technique gets me out of my own head, so to speak, and it pulls me back into my surroundings. I am required to get in touch with my own senses and realize I’m still here. That reconnection with my senses, my surroundings and myself has sometimes been enough to stave off a panic attack.

Writing is another calming outlet for me. Naturally, when I was a child, my thoughts were less abstract and more concrete. My writings focused more on things I could see and touch. Specifically, I wrote a lot of poetry and prose about nature. As I got older, my writings began focusing more on my thoughts and emotions instead of observations. I began to journal about my worries, fears and what-ifs.

Now, that kind of journaling certainly has its place. When I am calm(er), it allows me to examine my thought processes and better understand the sources of my anxiety. However, when I am in a state of panic, focusing on the source only makes it appear larger. It sends me into a spiral.

I have discovered a way to help myself when I am in this state (or rather rediscovered) — the self-care I used as a child. I take myself, my journal and a cup of tea and I go to a quiet place outdoors. There, I sit quietly for 10 minutes and observe. I observe the trees, the weeds, the glow on the spider’s web, the ladybug persistently trying to climb a blade of grass and the hawk flying overhead.

Then, I write. I write what I see, hear, feel, smell and taste. I write what the wind in the trees sounds like, what the daffodils smell like and how the grass tickles my feet. I reconnect with where I am, and usually, I find peace. This method is not always enough to make the anxiety go away, but I can at least put it into perspective. The world is bigger than the panic I’m facing right now. I am more than the anxiety I feel right now. I am also a body, a whole person and a part of the world around me.

I recommend trying it. Make time whenever you can and as often as you can. Go to a quiet place in nature and observe what is around you. Use whatever form of creative expression is the most comfortable for you. Whether writing, talking or drawing, take notes on what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

Connect with your senses. Maybe it will do for you what it does for me: quiet the whirlwind of thoughts, reacquaint you with the beautiful things that exist in the world, or at least serve as a reminder that you are still here and things are going to be OK.

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I have a life preserver in the form of a little pink pill. I started taking it about four years ago when I began to understand the extent to which my illness was becoming a family affair. While I was willing to let myself drown in Lyme disease, anxiety and depression, I couldn’t bear to watch my husband and son go down with me.

And it worked. It worked like a charm. Within weeks, I found myself floating up to the surface of my illness and bobbing around like a red buoy on a sunny day. I was still in the water, but I could wave to my family toweling off on dry land. We could call to each other, tell jokes, sing songs and make plans for the future.

I don’t know how the pill works, but I do know when I’m taking it regularly I feel blessed, safe and at ease. I wake in the morning and think, “I love my life. I have everything I’ve ever wanted.”

When I miss a pill, I notice it immediately. Do you remember the Dementors who guard the wizard prison Azkaban in “Harry Potter”? They feed off human happiness. When you’re near a Dementor, your body goes cold and you feel like nothing in the world can ever be good again. That’s me without my life preserver.

At first, I worried the pills were distorting my reality. If I needed a pill to make me feel at ease, then could I trust that feeling? Was it real? With my doctor’s help, I tried going off the pills by reducing my dosage gradually over time, but it didn’t work. I noticed my family had stopped singing, had stopped waving happily to me from the shore and the water was getting rougher.

So, I take the pills. It’s not the only thing I do. I also practice yoga, meditate and nurture positive relationships with people I love. I count my blessings every day. I ride my bike. I call my mom.

I used to keep my life preserver secret. I swam around with it hidden beneath the surface of the water. I let others assume I was staying afloat all by myself. I let them believe it was the yoga and meditation that made me such a good swimmer.

Then, I noticed other swimmers with life preservers. Some, like me, had them hidden beneath the surface. Other, brave, souls held them up for anyone to see. I drew courage from their courage, strength from their strength. I decided to let my life preserver be seen too.

I’ll always credit yoga with being a huge part of my healing from Lyme disease, anxiety and depression. Through yoga I’ve learned, and continue to learn, how to listen to my body, honor my intuition and ask for help when needed. I used to think that needing antidepressant medication meant that my yoga practice wasn’t strong enough. Now, I believe without yoga I never would have had the self-knowledge and humility to ask for and accept this kind of help.

To my students who are challenged by anxiety and depression, know that I am too. To my students who think it’s yoga that keeps me buoyant, know that it is yoga, inasmuch as yoga allows me to approach my life with compassion and honesty. Let’s chip away at this stigma surrounding mental health issues. Let’s do it together.

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This post originally appeared on Erin Bidlake.

Dear friend,

Let’s be honest here. I struggle. You know this. I struggle most every day. I won’t deny that. I also won’t deny that on most of the truly dark days, it’s blatantly apparent. I can’t hide it as much as I’d like to. Yet, I need to provide some clarity about those moments when I’m beaten down and barely standing.

Yes, I struggle, but I am still capable and successful. I am still here. I am still achieving. I am still purposed. I am still believing. Somewhere in there, I am still hopeful, despite the overwhelming hopelessness.

Do not patronize me. Just express your love for me. I need reminders on those days.

Here are a few things I need you to understand a bit better on the darkest days:

1. I am not “crazy.”

Irrational thoughts may plague my brain, but I am extremely rational. This is why I struggle most. There is a continual effort on my part of taking the irrational thoughts and replacing them with the rational. Constantly. I must take captive every thought I have. It is exhausting. Do not call me “crazy.” I hate that term.

2. I never fake symptoms or bad days for attention.

Ever. If anything, I fake that I am not experiencing symptoms. I smile the widest and laugh the loudest on the roughest days. I don’t want to seek attention. On the contrary, I’d rather not have an audience for an anxiety attack or emotional meltdown. Attention-seeking has never been my intention, and it never will be. So, please know I trust you. I trust you with the pain, shame and guilt I sometimes experience.

3. I am independent, but I still need people.

Everyone does. I need you. I need love. Thankfully, I am able to accomplish my day to day tasks, like going to work, school, church, doing laundry or eating. However, when I can’t see the light or find hope, presence is crucial for me. Having another breathing person who expresses even an ounce of love and care for me makes such a difference. There is a comfort and a safety I embody that I cannot begin to describe.

4. I am not weak.

Not in the slightest. Rather, I am powerful and incredibly strong. To admit my shortcomings, I must push through so many obstacles. This takes humility. I have to lay down my pride. Asking for help feels weak, but it requires tremendous amounts of strength. Do not look down on me (or anyone else for that matter) for being transparent and honest. I love you, and I trust you. Please respect, value and protect my vulnerability.

5. There are times when you don’t have to say a word.

Don’t worry about what to say to me. I don’t always need a lecture or an uplifting, encouraging speech. Sometimes, it’s comforting to be reminded that quiet isn’t always violent. (Go listen to Twenty-One Pilot’s “Car Radio” for this beautiful reference.) Just being there is enough. It has been enough. Be there with me. Be there for me. You don’t have to be my counselor, psychologist, pastor, psychiatrist or my mom. Just be you. Be. I love who you are, and I love that you love me. I love that you care and that you are willing. You stand by me even in the ugly or scary times. You are here. That is enough. My expectations are realistic, and my love is unconditional. I’m eternally thankful.

Just know even when I am not OK, I am always trying to be. I will get better. I will be better. I will help myself. I will help others. I may struggle, but I am not a loser. I am an overcomer. Thank you for being a fan of mine. Thank you for being on my team. You are a blessing.

With love,

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Humans crave being understood.

Especially humans with anxiety.

Often other people don’t understand why we behave the way we do.

They may not understand our abrupt need to flee the room. Our tears and shallow breathing. Our unlikely and outrageous fears.

They may not understand why we might need to psych ourselves up to do something seemingly simple like make a phone call or leave the house.

Or why we spend a whole day analyzing a single comment or gesture.

Or why we redo things that were fine the first time because they need to be “perfect.”

They might be surprised by our “sudden” outbursts or breakdowns, completely unaware that our calm demeanor is almost always masking a state of internal panic.

They may be confused when comments like “you’re overreacting” or “you’re lucky compared to most people in the world,” make us more upset than we already are.

Often, they don’t see we’re aware of the illogical nature of our anxiety. That we know we’re being irrational, but don’t know how to make ourselves think or act differently.

So what would life be like if everyone understood anxiety?

Life would be easier if people just understood. We would find ourselves in fewer awkward positions and uncomfortable situations. We would have fewer arguments. Our stress would decrease. There would be less frustration from all sides. We wouldn’t have to struggle to explain a condition that we ourselves don’t fully understand.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to make others instantly understand or accept us. Some people will never understand or sympathize with our anxiety.

And that’s OK.

Not everyone has to understand. Not everyone has to know why we act and think and feel the way we do. They don’t need to like us or believe us. Not everyone even needs to know that we have anxiety.

But it is important to have a support system.

We should have people in our lives who are familiar with anxiety and its manifestations. It’s comforting to occasionally hear: “I get it,” or “you’re not crazy.” It’s vital to know you’re not alone.

That being said, we don’t need everyone in our life to be able to relate to our illness. I used to think this was a requirement for closeness. It makes things easier, but relationships are messy. People are imperfect. We connect with each other on many different levels. It’s nice to think our family and friends and romantic partners will all become anxiety experts, but it’s just not always a reality. Chances are, the closest people in your life will make some adjustments around your anxiety, but they still may never get it. The good news is that’s not really necessary. They don’t need to understand us completely in order to give us their love and support. In fact, there’s something beautiful in them loving and accepting us without needing to understand.

Often, when we’re asking for understanding, we’re actually asking for permission. We’re asking for affirmation. We’re asking for approval.

We want to know that we’re OK. We want to be sure it’s not our fault.

We crave this affirmation, but the truth is that we don’t really need it. In the end, it’s irrelevant whether or not someone can see our anxiety and properly diagnose and dissect it.

There doesn’t always need to be an explanation. It doesn’t make our experience any less valid. You don’t need to justify it to anyone. We know it’s real.

Our success and happiness isn’t dependent on other people understanding our anxiety. Only on us understanding it.

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I’ve missed out on my son’s first years. I’ve been here pretty much every day as it goes, but I’ve not been here, if you comprehend? Before my son spoke, there were many quiet moments. I would sing and read to him, but speaking, engaging my own thoughts and verbalizing them was sometimes impossible. How could I, when I had no thoughts? I was empty.

On nights when he wouldn’t stop screaming, sometimes we would just lie together, our chests heaving as we cried in tandem. A trip to the shops invariably ended in tears. I don’t know what the definition of a nervous breakdown is, but I broke down so often I can’t recall the half of them. It started during pregnancy. Many times since then, pushing my son’s buggy, I have been overcome with anxiety. It’s an overwhelming sense that takes over your body and soul, a shortening of breath as you feel your life spiraling out of control, unable to regain the reins.

Fighting to keep that cloud over your head from creeping down until it’s smothering you is hard work. The extreme stress I experienced from my relationship going into meltdown and the subsequent loneliness, hopelessness and anxiety, made me want to take my own life. It was a “none” life. So it was nothing to take.

The exhaustion of rising again and again was too much. Other times, when I knew the guilt wouldn’t allow me to take such action, I would dream of someone knocking me over and putting me in a coma. This way my life could be put on hold, giving me time to catch up with myself. Other times, the desire to cut myself and release the build-up of pressure inside my exhausted shell would be nearly overwhelming.

Now, as my son is older, I have to compartmentalize my pain and anguish. When, late at night I become distraught, I can cry loudly, rock myself back and forth until the tears stop and the fuzzing ear ringing silence descends upon me. When I have reached that point, where I have nothing left inside of me, no more screams of anger or anguish, no more tears of self-pity, I become numb. I am speechless and thoughtless in every sense. It’s a protection mechanism. Each of us has a level of pain beyond which we cannot sustain ourselves. When we surpass it, our mind shuts down.

Things are getting better now. It’s hard to be silent in the wake of a bumbling, chaotic toddler. There are still days when the strength I need is gone though. Mornings when he pulls and pushes at me to get out of bed. On such days, we often find a compromise. I lie on the sofa as he clambers over me. There are no words. Somehow my presence comforts him and he knows I can manage no more. I lie there, deadening silence within me and around me. I’m so fragile and the only person who seems to realize is my son.

Looking back, sometimes it feels like I can’t remember his early days. What did he do all day? What was the crawling stage like? I remember so little of it. I hardly have any photographic evidence. It wasn’t just about not having someone around to take photos (though as a single mom that was an issue). It was about not having anyone to share them with and not wanting to immortalize these moments, which while they contained bursts of happiness, were also filled with sadness and despair.

Even now, it’s rare that I will revisit those photos, the few I have, for fear that the sadness lingering around the frame, might seep out and take center stage again. Maybe it is this feeling of having missed out on so much in my son’s first years, which means I miss him so dearly when we are apart.

It hurts I don’t remember all the moments because it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I used to dance around the room while my son giggled in delight. I kissed and cuddled him numerous times a day, vowing he would always know the physical presence of love. Despite all he has witnessed, somehow my son seems to be turning out pretty damn fine, but that doesn’t stop me feeling guilty and worrying about the long-term effects.

Sometimes, I think things are improving. I’m an instinctively optimistic person when I’ve had a good couple of days, and the hope and happiness tricks me into believing it’s here to stay. Then, something happens. It doesn’t have to be much, a disagreement or an unkind word. It’s like a right hook socks me across the face, and I stumble backward.

I don’t fall. Being a parent doesn’t allow you that luxury, especially when there’s no one else to pick up the pieces. Yet, my journey toward a better state of mind flounders. Who was I to think I could do this? Who am I to think I can have happiness? Invariably such crashes occur at night when there is no one around to reach out to. Ultimately, perhaps this is why they happen. I have no one to reach out to and no strength left to reach.

The morning after a crash, I wake up feeling unnerved. It feels like something awful has happened, but I can’t quite remember the details. Then, I realize I’m still here. It’s fine, and not fine, all in one. On those mornings, it’s like I have taken a battering on a boat stranded in a stormy sea. Somehow though, I have clung on and weathered it. The sun is rising, and so shall I, until the next crash.

This post originally appeared on Ella Mental Mama.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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Dear Anxiety,

You’re wrong. You are wrong when you tell me I am not valued. You are wrong on the days when I wake up and can’t think about anything but what could go wrong if I get out of bed. You are at your worst when you make me play with my fingers in an attempt to cope with a panic attack. When you are at your worst, you are the most wrong.

You’re wrong when you tell me I am not able to comprehend what is easily comprehensible to the rest of the world. You are wrong when you tell me my form of intelligence is not valued. You are wrong when you tell me nobody will want to wake up with me in the morning. You are wrong when the lump in my throat hurts so bad I have to place my arms around it while you mock me, while you tell me this is what I deserve and this is what I have gotten myself into.

You are wrong when you make me compare myself to my friends, wondering if everyone would like me more if I looked more like them. You are wrong when you tell me I won’t receive a college acceptance letter. You are wrong when you tell me I am second best.

You are wrong when you tell me what you tell me isn’t wrong, that it’s a truth I’m unwilling to accept. You are wrong when you tell me I don’t belong in my family. You are wrong when you tell me I could leave, and it wouldn’t make a difference. Most importantly, you are always wrong when you tell me I’m not exactly where I’m supposed to be because I am. I work every day, for 24 hours, fighting every thought you’re constantly streaming into my head. And that is never going to end.

You’re wrong because you’re not supposed to be here, but you are. Today, instead of believing you and letting you inside, I am pushing you out. You are wrong. You always have been, and you always will be. Today, I win.

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