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When Mental Illness Is Hereditary

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As a child I remember my mom constantly saying “my nerves are bad.” I didn’t know that “my nerves were bad,” along with the little pills she took — and her alcoholism — were personal attempts to alleviate the anxiety and depression she felt.

Back then it wasn’t talked about. Children were seen and not heard, and that was just how it was. It was very confusing as a child. I didn’t understand why my mom was not happy and why her “nerves were bad.”

I struggled with anxiety long before I even knew what anxiety was. I just felt different than everyone else. I did not know the feelings and thoughts I was experiencing were what my mom had also been experiencing. Anxiety takes on different forms and manifests in different ways, and mine didn’t look exactly like hers. She cried a lot and I didn’t. She seemed so sad and for the most part I loved life.

By the time I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, I was already trying to find ways to cope. I sought help in many forms; counseling, life skills classes, psychiatry, doctors and self-help books, as well as writing journals and talking about it. I was doing all the things I had not seen my mother do, in hopes I would be able to ” get over this” and one day be free from the anxiety I felt.

As the years went on practicing and engaging in these strategies, my attempt to cure my anxiety has been relatively successful. There have been times where my anxiety is a mere faint existence and I can function with ease, and other times it has been debilitating, along with everything in between.

I learned to live and sometimes thrive with anxiety.

I thought because I was a living example of a good role model, and a different mother to my children than my mother was to me, my children would not go through what I have.

Wrong!

My daughter was 15 years old when I ripped apart her room in desperation to find out why my full of zest for life, spirited child was now depressed and crying all the time. I found bottles of Gravol and cough syrup which I learned that day were her ways of trying to deal with anxiety and depression. We spent the next three hours in the emergency room. The same psychiatrist my mother and I have seen was now seeing my daughter. I left that night with my daughter being admitted.

How was this happening? This was not how her life was supposed to go. She wasn’t supposed to feel and experience the things my mother and I had. I had made our lives different.

Where did I go wrong?

I went wrong by believing I had some super power over mental illness. I went wrong by believing being a great mom would prevent my children from having a mental illness. I went wrong by thinking I could love my children enough that mental illness wouldn’t “get them.”

I never wanted my children to feel what anxiety feels like, and although I tried to keep them from the struggles I had with it, I know there were times they knew and they witnessed my mental illness.

This didn’t make my daughter have a mental illness, too. It is not my fault. Sometimes I still have to repeat that to myself to make myself believe it.

I have three children. She is the only one who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Although environmental factors can contribute to mental illness, genetics is something I understand to be a huge factor in our family along with the environment. I have since learned about the long history of mental illness on my mom’s side of the family.

We always want to know a reason. As if knowing the why and how will make it better somehow.

Whatever the reason my mom, myself and my daughter have been diagnosed with a mental illness, the fact remains, that this is an illness, and no one is to blame.

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My Son Has an Anxious Mother

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As I sit at the computer thinking of how to put into words to explain how my son has an anxious mother, my anxiety rises. I think of who will read this and what will they think of me. Will they skip to the end to see how it ends? Will they empathize me? Will they pity me? Or will they think I’m unfit to be a mother if I have so much anxiety? What will they think of me? I talk myself out of it and encourage myself to keep writing because it’s OK. Because hundreds if not thousands of mothers have anxiety. 

I’ve lived with anxiety (and depression) for over 22 years and have learned to cope with it the best I can. Sometimes it’s physically painful, and other times it just sits there like an annoying stain you can’t remove from your favorite shirt. I had my son two years ago, and I’d like to say it was the best time of my life, but it wasn’t. He was perfect in every way, but my anxiety had other plans, and so began round I-lost-count of dealing with consistent and persistent anxiety. 

I joined two mommy-and-me classes where I met some great ladies and their children. That was two days a week. It was lovely. I thought it was great. We were getting out of the house, meeting people in the area and discovering other moms too were new to the area. We sang songs and laughed and learned. But my son wasn’t growing as other babies were. Or was he? The group leader at the Early Years Centre where the groups were held kept reminding me that he was fine and not to compare. Not compare? Me? Obviously she didn’t know me too well. I was anxious about anything and everything. During that time, my son was napping for 20 minutes at a time while other women’s babies were napping for two hours. Something is wrong with my son! My son had a flat head, but, as the physiotherapist told me, he was fine and it wasn’t a condition. He just had a flatter head (my husband too has a flatter head at the back). My son wasn’t crawling yet. What have I done? Younger babies were crawling; same-age babies were crawling. But not my son. I lived in constant fear that he wasn’t reaching his potential and that it was all my fault. I’m a terrible mother. I’m doing something wrong. I took many vitamins. I didn’t take enough vitamins. Why won’t this voice leave me alone?

Everyone kept reminding me, including my doctor, that he was fine. Not all babies crawl at 6 or 8 months. My son didn’t crawl until after his first birthday and didn’t walk on his own until he was 17 months. He just had a good time observing everything around him and wasn’t thinking “wow, my mom sure is anxious about me, I should probably get on my feet already.” Now add all that to the fact that I wear hearing aids. What if I can’t hear him? What if he falls and I don’t hear? What if he cried I can’t hear? The anxiety related to having a hearing disability really puts the icing and cherry on that cake. I have always been OK with having hearing aids (not really always, but I’ve managed) but having a child and worrying that I won’t hear him because of my disability is frightening. We use a video monitor, and it’s my best friend. But sometimes the power goes out and I forget to turn it on in his room and ah! I can’t see him! Is he OK? My husband reminds me that he can hear, and yes, the boy is just fine. Quiet equals sleeping, right? 

There were times I couldn’t calm my baby and was bitter at my husband for “doing it better than I could.” He wasn’t doing anything different than I was, except that he wasn’t anxious. My son fed off me like I feed off others. I was nervous, he was nervous. I was anxious, he was anxious. I couldn’t get it right. I battled with the thought that I am ruining our child. 

My son is now 2 years old, and my anxiety about him has never left. It’s always something else. He isn’t eating enough. He’s too short. His hair took too long to grow in. He isn’t eating dinner, again. At dinner time, I will leave the table and my son will eat his dinner with his dad because his anxious mother is finally out of the room. She isn’t hovering over him, forcing a spoon in his mouth, asking him if he’s hungry and ignoring his response of “No.” No wasn’t an option. He was lying. He has to be hungry. Why isn’t he eating as much as he did yesterday? 

My poor child. My anxiety is a battle for us, and it’s something I’m constantly trying to get a grip of. The time will come where I will need to sit him down and explain mommy’s anxiety and mental health issues, and I am not looking forward to that. How do I tell him? How do I explain that mommy isn’t superwoman, but an anxious mess? 

Wait a minute! Rewind that last sentence! 

Mommy is a superwoman, like all mothers who want only the best for the child and do everything for them to ensure they reach their potential. Mommy is someone who will love that boy more than anyone else in the world. We do our bests day in and day out, and we aren’t perfect. I’ll never be perfect, but I’ll never stop trying to be a role model for my son. I worry he will inherit my anxiety. I think about how to explain the feelings to him and how to teach him coping mechanisms, but then I reign it in… let’s cross that bridge when we get to it. My son is not an anxious boy; he is a busy boy. A healthy, curious, inquisitive, intelligent, typical 2-year-old boy who has maddening temper tantrums one second and is laughing the next. Deep breath, mama! You’re doing great! I often have to remind myself of that. He is fed, clothed, and has a roof over his head. He is happy. Why am I worried if he is happy? Because anxiety doesn’t give a shit. It is there, lurking over your shoulder like a creepy old lady at the slots waiting for your machine to cash so she can cash in. 

anxious mom holding her son

At the end of the day, I put my kid to bed and turn on the monitor so I can see him sleeping, and I’m content (for the time being). My son has an anxious mother, but I’ll be damned if I let that define the kind of mother I truly am. 

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The Anxiety of My First Fall Not Going Back to School

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Autumn is one of my favorite times of year. The weather, often rainy and windy, is my kind of weather. At the end of October comes Halloween, my absolute favorite holiday. Unfortunately, autumn is also a time when I seldom appreciate these things because of my anxiety disorder. For me, it takes an all-consuming, white-knuckled effort to keep it together during times of transition.

For the past 23 years of my life (with the exception of the first three or so), autumn has represented transition back to some sort of student existence. Before my pubescent years and the first major appearances of my anxiety, I can remember a part of me looking forward to my return to school, to see my friends and resume all the joys of recess and coloring pencils. Around 11 or 12 this attitude changed greatly, and autumn was the time of my first major period of anxiety and subsequent depression. I was so anxious that I couldn’t return to school for eighth grade until May of that year, and only after a major intervention and a lot of work just to set foot in a classroom again.

But I did it. I returned to school, graduated, and successfully completed five years of high school followed by four years of college. And yet every autumn brought a harder and harder transition back to the stresses of school, so much so that during college I began spending weeks at the beginning of the semester feeling completely unlike myself, plagued by constant dull nausea and crying at the drop of a pin.

So here we are, once again. The temperatures are a little cooler, the leaves are just beginning to change. And here I am. Over my 12-year relationship with anxiety, I have learned that any sort of transition, not only from summer break to fall semester, shakes me to the core. Change makes me question if continuing to live with an anxiety disorder is even worth it, dashing my confidence on the rocks, clouding my vision with unrealistic doubts and predictions. And now for the bombshell: this will be the first autumn I am not going back to some sort of student life.

Yes folks, I am facing a mother of a transition. Despite my best efforts over the summer, I remain unemployed. So I begin asking myself big questions, the ones hanging over my head like some anxiety-powered neon sign. 

Should I move to better my chances at finding a job in my field? Silly idea, I’ve never lived on my own and would undoubtedly break down within the first two days of relocating

If I stay and somehow manage to get a job will I be able to cope with that transition, even if it’s a “positive” one? I’ve been unemployed for almost six months. What if I can’t deal, and I back out, ruining my reputation and what’s left of my mangled confidence? What will I do then? What will I do? What will I do? 

I don’t know. 

I want to believe that everything will work out eventually and that I can continue learning to manage my anxiety more effectively. I want to believe I will find moments of peace once again, and that I am capable of success. I want to believe I will kick some proverbial ass and blaze a trail, light a fire. I want those things more than anything, but I just don’t know. 

So, on the advice of so many others (including my mom), I attempt to take it one day at a time. For someone with an anxiety disorder this is no easy task. I allow myself to cry, a lot. I challenge the thoughts that say I’m not allowed to do things I enjoy, to have a good time, and to laugh while I try to figure out my next move. I also remind myself that devoting all my time to worrying about the future won’t actually make the future better. I won’t have some epiphany or pivotal career moment if I worry hard enough. And I guess that’s the point. We can never be sure of the future, so I’ll try not to give all of my present to anxiety. 

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

Image via Thinkstock.

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How 'Stranger Things' Can Help Explain Anxiety

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My boyfriend and I were exchanging dreams Sunday morning.

Mine was embarrassing, and thankfully irrelevant, so I won’t share — but he has always had vivid dreams, and I thought this one gave some insight into the anxiety both he and I experience.

He said he had a dream that like in “Stranger Things” — a show we’re in the middle of watching — he was stuck in a parallel dimension, just like Will. It looked liked our world, but it was scary. Everything was a little off. And it reminded him of how he feels when he’s “stuck” in anxiety.

This deeply resonated with me. On a regular basis, I feel myself getting sucked into this world by anxious and distorted thoughts that are sometimes hard to escape.

It starts with one doubt, one lingering question. And although I sometimes can pull myself out of it before the gate closes, other times I’m not fast enough, and I’m stuck there for a while.

What’s important to know about the “Upside Down,” the other dimension, is that it could pass for the “real world.” It looks real, it feels real, although subtle clues tell you otherwise. The lighting is different. There seems to be falling snow. Negative thoughts trump what you know to be true.

When I asked my boyfriend to expand on his dream, he said, “Everything was the way it was in reality, except I could find my way on autopilot, and although I was moving the same, life still seemed unrecognizable. It was like trying to find the portal to get out on the other side, but the more I panicked the harder it was to go through the ‘portal.’”

Heart racing. Quick breath. You panic because unlike our safe world, a monster lives in this one. The monster with no face. The very real danger that makes you want to hide within this parallel dimension. And the farther your worry drags you into the dimension, the harder it is to keep your eyes off the monster.

It’s hard to communicate with others when you’re stuck in the “Upside Down.” You blink your lights, sending codes to loved ones with letters written on the wall, but no matter how hard you try, they can’t understand you. It’s not their fault; they don’t know what it’s like there. And only the bravest and most patient, like Will’s mom, never give up.

There are some casualties. Not everyone has a chance to get out. Some are not afforded a rescue team and a hiding place.

That’s why it’s important to have an Eleven. Someone who knows where you are and can visit you there. Even if they can’t rescue you themselves, they can listen. They can let you know you are heard, and that you’ll be all right.

What’s important to know about the “Upside Down” place is that no one lives there. Eventually someone rescues you, or with the proper coping skills, you learn to rescue yourself. And the more you practice, the easier it is to leave. Your visits become less frequent. The monster seems less menacing.

I’m still working to make my trips there shorter. I’m trying to catch myself before I fall into the web of negative thoughts and doubts that make up this other world. In the mean time, I’m lucky to have an Eleven, who knows what it’s like there. And when he senses the electromagnetic field is strengthening, he sees where I’m going, and lets me know everything will be all right.

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This Is What It’s Like to Live With Chronic Anxiety

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This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

Every time my husband leaves the house, I worry he is going to die. (He obviously leaves, quite often, without me saying a word about it. He’s not, like, my prisoner. Yet, this is how my brain works.)

That is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

I imagine him getting into a car accident. The engine of his plane exploding . Would he be able to call me in his final moments? Would our goodbye be tearful or frantic? What would we say? Will he be hit by some texting teen as he crosses the street on the way to the market because I wanted sprinkles for my ice cream. F*ck, I’m so selfish! I wanted sprinkles, and now he’s dead!

I resist the urge to call him and ask him to come home. Breathe. Everyone goes to the supermarket.

Yes, but he could die.

I also have various apocalyptic safe plans in place. If sh*t goes down, then call me. I am excellent in crises ranging from hamster death to back pain to zombie invasion.

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

As awareness of mental health has expanded, it’s also been co-opted. It’s become a fad. This is both positive and negative. It’s positive because awareness means there are more resources. It’s negative because people are over-using terms that actually mean something serious.

No, needing to match your socks isn’t OCD. This is a serious disorder. Everyone has anxiety over tests and job interviews. This is not a panic attack. No, you’re not suicidal over Brangelina. Shut up.

I wish my mental health were trendy, something to cure with daily yoga and a life coach, an elimination of dairy and/or gluten, walking out my door with an empowered step as I remember my daily affirmation, taped to my mirror: “You can choose to not be anxious.” Can you please tell that to my neurons? Because they said f*ck you.

When I’m feeling positive, I think people are trying to help. When I’m feeling cynical, maybe they’re self-righteous a**holes trying to help themselves and sell stuff by offering solutions to other people’s problems, whether they be of the mental, physical, emotional or financial nature , things that aren’t going on in their minds, bodies, hearts and lives.

“I heard lemons cure cancer.”

“Yoga cured my insomnia.”

“I cut out X and Z happened.”

I get it. Sometimes, I appreciate it. More than likely, I’ve tried it.  Haven’t we all, those of us with “a problem?” Wouldn’t you? If there were something that was an active menace to your everyday work, relationships, mind and, possibly, your life? Wouldn’t you drink the juice, eat the superfood berries, sleep with the special pillow, not eat the thing and exercise like the ancient whoevers did?

Of course, you would. Of course, I did. Some of it has even helped, a little, but I’ve been this way since I was 4. Maybe since before then, but that’s as early as I can remember feeling an overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread.

I shouldn’t be here. This is wrong. This is dangerous, somehow. The feeling of your body not being big enough, or small enough, to contain you. You start to shrink in. You can feel your nerves start to recede away from the muscles and bones. Your heart speeds up until it’s the only thing that can fit inside your body: not your thoughts, not your tools, not your coping strategies.

You can feel your eyes start to slightly bug. Your tongue feels too big for your mouth. Your breath is coming faster and faster. Do I run? Do I freeze? I need to get out, now.

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

This is supposed to happen in situations where we are in imminent danger. Historically, when we were being chased by bears. It’s not supposed to happen when we’re at the shopping mall, considering whether black gloves are more practical than brown for the winter. Or when we’re having a lovely family dinner and Uncle Ted brings up the presidential race. Fight or flight is not an appropriate reaction to these scenarios.

When a child experiences trauma, their brains are trained to think they will experience it again. For us lucky ones, we’re set on a path of frayed nerve endings and literal missed connections. We’re in constant fight or flight mode: set on the balls of our feet, poised for the next shoe to drop, our senses always primed, trying to anticipate it, to prepare, to protect.

That’s why I can’t f*cking sleep at night. That’s why I constantly imagine my husband’s death. That’s why I’ve imagined everyone I loved’s death.

Because death is my trauma, and my brain is still trying to protect itself. It’s evolutionary, dear Watson. My brain is actually a miracle of adaptability.

My miracle isn’t cured by calming teas and fortune cookie wisdom , although we wish it were. (Trust me, I’m on the inside track, and no one pays me to stay anxious.) It’s a combination of biological, psychological and cultural or philosophical factors. To grossly oversimplify it: Nature is the slingshot we’re given, psychology is the rock, life (culture/philosophy) is how hard , if at all ,  the band gets pulled back and our psyches ejected.

There is research pointing to an inter-generational component. Can my anxiety be traced to anxiety throughout my family? It certainly exists. Is there a genetic component? Or do we simply pass on coping strategies and pain patterns (unhealthy ways of dealing with stress that no one ever learned how to break)?

I don’t know. All I know is it is a deep hurt, a complex pain that cannot be easily soothed with platitudes and plywood. It is too complicated to be soothed by acupuncture, mantras, anxiety medication, sex, alcohol, drugs, yoga, sleeping pills, avoidance, writing, reading, walking in nature, learning a new hobby, cutting out caffeine, going vegan, seeing a therapist, antidepressants, surfing, breathing in and out with that little Facebook meme or just living in the moment. All of which, are things I’ve tried, with varying degrees of success.

I wish it were different. I wish it were easy, a lot of the time. Most of the time, in fact. Don’t you?

This is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety.

This brain,  this evolutionary wonder of adaptation , holds me back a lot. I have a lot of fear, apart from the obvious fears about death, of course. I fear being a burden. This thing that I have, that I deal with every day, isn’t a f*cking picnic. It’s not even a f*cking picnic in a fresh nuclear war zone. So why would I bring people along for the ride?

I fear sharing my experiences. I want to help others, like me, who struggle, but how much is too much? Will people hold it against me? Future employers? Present friends?

“We don’t want her . She could freak out at any moment.”

I fear not sharing. I don’t want to be so alone in this thing anymore. Can we talk about it, without it consuming us? Can it be a part of what we are and not everything? I don’t want it to be everything, but it is a part.

I fear being seen, in entirety. This thing, this miracle, this nuclear picnic, it can be ugly. A naked, shriveled and twisted thing. It has made me ugly, at times. It has made me small and scared, when I dream of being big and brave. I fear feeling like this forever because, as my friend Leigh Shulman says, “When we talk about mental health what we’re really saying is, ‘I f*cking hate the way I feel.’”

I fear.

And this is what it’s like to live with chronic anxiety: I fear.

Image via Thinkstock.

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10 Tips for Surviving College With an Anxiety Disorder

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Being 18 is naturally an anxious time of your life. You graduate high school and have “adult” responsibilities. If you are like me, you moved away from home and into a dorm room. 

Everyone keeps telling me these are to be the best years of my life — independence from my parents, being legally allowed to drink, and meeting the friends (and partner) I will have for a lifetime. But if you are like me and have an array of anxiety disorders, the transition into college is more difficult than anyone can ever imagine.

Living with anxiety results in a routine built around avoiding triggers. The smallest change can induce an anxiety attack. When you have an anxiety disorder, you memorize your triggers, where they appear, and how to avoid them. Going to college means most of you know about your triggers is now irrelevant. You may develop new triggers in new places with no warning.

After successfully completing my first month of college, I have put together 10 tips on surviving college with an anxiety disorder.

1. Keep your dorm room clean.

I know this is a little obvious, but it’s important. Try your best not to overpack. The less cluttered your room is, the more relaxed you may feel. I tend to pack everything because of the fear of not having something when I need it. A method that worked for me is packing everything my anxiety told me I would need. Then after moving into my dorm I was able to send different odds and ends back home that I knew I wouldn’t need.

2. Know your roommate ahead of time

Many colleges now allow you to choose your own roommate. For my college I took a survey, and they suggested roommates I was compatible with. I talked to several girls before deciding to meet one I thought I would get along with. Knowing your roommate ahead of time gives you one less thing to be anxious about when moving in.

3. Don’t be afraid to use the campus’ resources.

Most colleges, if not all, have academic, religious, physical, and mental health resources that are free to their students. Within the first week of school, go to the counseling center and talk with someone about your anxiety disorder. Even if you not in an active state of anxiety, it is important to inform them of the possibility of relapse occurring. Talk to them. They are there to help.

4. Talk with your therapist and psychiatrist before you leave.

This is one of the most important tips I can give you. Discuss with your therapist a way to communicate while you are away at college, like phone sessions or emailing. Your therapist will give you ideas on how to cope with new situations and talk to the counselors on campus about your condition. If you are taking medication to control your anxiety, be sure to come up with a plan to get that medication while away at school. It is important to determine if there is a pharmacy on or near campus and how many refills you will need before you can have an appointment with your psychiatrist again. Don’t end up at college stuck without your medication.

5. Don’t be afraid to open up to others.

This has been by far the hardest one for me. In high school, no one but my best friend knew about my anxiety disorder. I decided that starting in college, I wanted to be more open about my anxiety. I started by telling my roommate, and after a few weeks the time felt right to tell some friends I’d made.

If you’re comfortable, inform them about your condition. Many people don’t understand what an anxiety condition is or how to deal with it. Be an advocate for yourself to end the stigma on mental health

6. Get to know the campus before classes start.

I had been to my school several times between the campus tours, Accepted Students Day, and orientation. I moved in four days before class started, and after the Welcome Week activities, I got to really know the ins and outs of my school. As I said before, college means having to learn all the new triggers to your anxiety. I walked the route I would take every day of the week to class, found where the nearest bathrooms were and “safe places” where I could calm myself down in the event of an attack.

7. Take morning classes.

I know this is the last thing many people want to do, but do it. If you wake up hours before a class starts, it gives you time to overthink everything that could go wrong on the way to or in class. Wake up, and go right to class. When class is over, do the work you were assigned as soon as possible. Living with anxiety, I know what it is like to have anxiety-induced procrastination that turns into it being a week past the due date and not being able to even think about it although you know it needs to be done. Try to avoid this by taking morning classes and getting all assignments done before evening activities begin.

8. Sleep.

Anxiety is tiring. Your brain is in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Get a good night’s rest. Take a nap. Do what you need to do to keep yourself healthy. Be sure to let your roommate know that you often need more sleep then the average person. It is OK.

9. Get involved.

I have never had social anxiety, but I am sure this is most difficult for those who do. I encourage you to try to expand your comfort zone. Anxiety loves the comfort zone, but no one loves anxiety. Find some friends to go with you to clubs and activities. Let them know the situation. Remember that it is OK if you need a mental break. Instead of leaving an activity if you are becoming anxious, try stepping out of the room and coming back once your thoughts have calmed down, no matter how long it may take. You will find that the time becomes shorter each time until you are able to attend the entire activity anxiety-free.

10. Don’t let anxiety control you.

I know this is a cliché. Anxiety is an uncontrollable force that comes with no warning. Don’t let it win. Anxiety is not your life, just a very difficult part of your life. Learn how you cope, know your campus’ resources, and know it is possible to be a successful college student while living with an anxiety disorder.

Image via Thinkstock.

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