What We Should Consider Before Criticizing Those Who Don't Attend Protests

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Anxiety affects my life in a lot of ways, many of which people wouldn’t expect. Everyday
situations like a new relationship, stress about work and money troubles can spiral quickly into a vortex of worry. But what about when the stress isn’t even from one event in your life, but from a mass event affecting many people around you?

At my alma mater, the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR) in the Eastern Cape, a spate of protesting has broken out, in line with the broader #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa asking for free and inclusive tertiary education. Much has been written on these protests, but for me, seeing them happen again brings up incredibly overwhelming anxiety.

Being part of a social movement, any movement anywhere in the world, is daunting as someone with a mental illness. Protests mean crowds, a lack of control and the threat of violence from police. This fear makes the anxiety I feel on a daily basis grow exponentially, while at the same time in my heart I support the cause whole-heartedly. This leads to a difficult see-saw in my head.

There is a lot of stigma around those who are within a group and then choose not to protest. Other students, in this movement’s case, are often quick to deride those who are not physically present as “armchair activists” or not good enough for the cause. However, what people often don’t realize is that to be part of that environment physically is incredibly draining mentally and emotionally. I feel on the edge of panic constantly when in a crowd, especially one charged by emotion.

My breathing becomes shallow, my chest tightens and I know I could have a panic attack at any moment. If you have an anxiety disorder with associated panic attacks, your brain panics when it registers your environment as an immediate threat and the part of your brain (your amygdala) that registers fear goes into hyperdrive. You become a small-range nuclear bomb of fear. If you have never experienced a panic attack, it feels like death has suddenly arrived. You cannot breathe, your body spasms and you are sure you may not make it. All of that happens within a few minutes, but in the eye of the storm it feels like years.

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Having a panic attack in public is incredibly traumatizing. It’s humiliating to lose control in front of people, never mind that at that moment your brain is registering the environment as something that could kill you. The atmosphere in a protest is very much hardwired to trigger this response because of the volatility of the situation and your fear about how it may unfold.

With many tragic world events constantly happening around us today and accessible through social media, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from this fear even when you are miles away only watching. The fear still lingers in your head and it makes it hard to be engaged because your very sanity becomes more fragile in the face of so much hurt, anger and pain.

The point I am trying to make here is that we must be gentle with those around us. You may not know why a person cannot be involved in something, a protest or any other event, because you don’t know what that event means to them. In their world, that situation may literally feel life-threatening and they have to take care of themselves or risk everything crashing down around them. Compassion and non-judgment is incredibly important. So take a moment and think to yourself whether you understand a person’s world before you think about judging them. Giving compassion is never out of place, and often may help someone feel safer when their mind is registering the world as anything but safe.

Image via Jordan Du Toit

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When Sharing Your Anxiety Story Gives You Anxiety

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I want to tell my story, but I’m scared. What if it’s not good enough? What if no one reads it? What if people make fun of me based on the emotions I’m sharing in my writing? These were a few of the many fears and thoughts racing through my mind when I decided I wanted to share my story.

I’ve found reading stories written by others to be helpful and relatable, and as a result, I wanted to share my story, too. I sought to write something others could relate to, but I was nervous. This was how I felt about many things in life: I wanted to do it, but I was fearful.

Living with anxiety is living with constant fear. Fear for the future. Fear of messing up. Fear of bad outcomes. Fear of pretty much anything bad that could possibly happen. Now, I like to think of myself as a glass-half-full kind of person, but for some reason I always find myself thinking of the worst possible outcomes for every situation. Not because I’m a negative person, but because of the nagging fear something was always going to go wrong.

Yesterday was the first time I was told I’m a glass-half-empty kind of person. I sat there for a second letting it sink in as she looked at me and asked, “Have you ever been told that before?” I told her I hadn’t. I always try to stay positive, but then I realized she was right. I was a glass-half-empty person because I was always expecting the worst out of every possible situation, even perfectly good ones. This was the same person who helped me uncover many hidden things about myself I had never thought about before.

In the past few weeks, I’ve started going to counseling. I learned more about myself than I ever knew there was to know. The more I learned, the more the way I felt made sense. I was still no closer to feeling better about these things. No matter what, I was still in constant fear I wouldn’t be good enough.

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However, she challenged me to fight the uphill fight. She challenged me to catch myself whenever I started to think too much. To stop it and replace the negative fears with good thoughts instead. She challenged me to change my, “What if it’s not good enough?” into “What if it’s great?”

Then, I began to think, what if tell my story and everyone reads it? What if people praise me for it and compliment me on my work? What if I can help comfort those who are in constant fear and help them feel like they aren’t alone? What if I stop fearing and start doing? Telling my story here is a small step in the right direction, I still have a long way to go. I am going to continue to fight the uphill fight against my anxiety.

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The Kind of Anxiety That Makes Everyday Tasks Seem Like Life or Death

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Stability is like being tied down to the floor in a dank, cement room. At first, it may seem tight, but it is comfortable. So I often resign myself to complacency. I just live with it. You can be mindful, even when you’re tied to the ground. After all, if something isn’t hurting, then it might not require attention just yet. I kind of just let it ebb away in the background, unnoticed.

When I’m in this kind of psychological homeostasis, I can unclip the straps and move around the room. The room is still dark, and I’m technically imprisoned. Yet, the small amount of freedom is an illusory relief from what I know will come. I try not to think about it.

Then, the worries begin to gather like spider-webs in the corner of the room. They seem unnoticeable at first, blending into the grey, cement surface. They bother me because I like order and imperfections are irritating, but they can still be ignored. I make a conscious effort to press them to the back of my mind. I close my eyes. I open them again. Life moves through its daily cycles of everything under the sun, and I carry on swimmingly.

However, almost without any nuance, no warning, no stepping stone from calm to chaos, I notice a glaring scythe hanging from the center of the ceiling.  It is secured, and it is far away, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. It cannot slice my nose off, but it cannot be ignored.

The curved edge is sharp and even if I close my eyes, I can still feel its presence. I reach for the straps that bind me, but suddenly, they are stuck. I can’t undo them. I’m staying in this place. I writhe and I wriggle, but I cannot control this weapon that is moving rhythmically, back and forth, back and forth. I am scared. My complacent reality has gone from a safe haven to a death trap in a matter of moments, without warning.

That’s when I lose the ability to think straight. The knot in my stomach tightens. My palms are sweating. I start scratching my scalp, my arms, my fingernails. Sleep won’t happen. How can you sleep when you have a sharpened weapon waving above your face?

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My head feels like it is on a train that switches between full speed and rapid braking, starting and stopping the whole time, no time for recovery. I lurch forward in pain, but I have no option, except to keep staring at this weapon. All I can do is move through the experience. There is no way out when I’m tied to the ground.

It starts coming closer, closer, closer still. I want to vomit. The rhythm of the back and forth is pulsating in my ears, echoing and ripping through my skull. The whole experience has me in its grips, and for sure, I am going to die. It is the only thing I can focus on. My eyes are fixated, dilated. My whole body prepares for the inevitable. The scythe is less than a centimeter from my face. Swinging, back and forth, back and forth.

I am going to die.

I swallow. I wait. I sweat. I wriggle.

The sharpened edge is so close. I can feel the passing motion against my nose. I try to squeeze the back of my head as far back to the ground as I can, the pressure nearly crushing my skull. Nothing will save me. I am going to die. Unlike the Poe version of this story, there are no rats in the corner to chew through my straps and free me. It’s pointless now. It doesn’t bear thinking about. The scythe is closing in. I just hope it’s quick.

Just as I can nearly taste the sharp pendulum, it locks shut. It stops moving. It’s close. I can see it, but I will not die today after all. I have just fought off the physiological symptoms of death. I am still covered in sweat. My stomach is tied tighter than a nautical knot, and I am still paralyzed. Yet, I will live to see another day. I am relieved, but it’s exhausting to be back in these concrete gallows, day after day.

It may just be a task with multiple steps, a feeling or a fleeting doubt. For me, it is experiencing the physiology of life or death, just to get things done.

Learning to live with it means having the understanding that I cannot always control the swing of the pendulum, but at least, I know the scythe can’t kill me. I have to lean on that thought. Sometimes, the sense of security it brings is the only thing that keeps me moving forward.

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When Fellow Passengers Judged a Woman Who Had Flight Anxiety

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I took a girls trip with my mom over the weekend to Ft. Lauderdale, and we flew down and back. Our flight down was a breeze, but our flight back had my anxiety and panic disorder on high alert.

A small, packed to the brim plane with a screaming kid, no airflow and an hour delayed flight makes a stressful situation for anyone, especially if that someone deals with anxiety and panic. I noticed a woman on our flight who looked nervous. On our flight back home, I took notice of her again. She was the last one to get on the plane.

We sat on the plane for a solid 30 minutes before even backing out of our spot, with no airflow. It was taking everything inside of me not to freak out. Breathing and observing people are usually my methods for distraction because my biggest trigger is feeling like I can’t breathe fresh air.

The plane began rumbling with whispers when I heard, “Someone is having a panic attack,” and my heart dropped. I knew judgment was coming. I could feel the eyes rolling around me. I began listening to the women in front of me:

“Well now they have to make sure it isn’t terrorist related.”

“She is so self-centered.”

“Send her a bill.”

“I wonder how many planes that delayed.”

I could feel the lump in my throat because I felt bad for the girl. I can relate. I have been there many times. I had to bite my tongue to not lash out at the women in front of me. I knew if I lashed out, then I would have a panic attack myself and delay the plane even further.

Long story short, the lady got off the plane. I’m sure she had flight anxiety. (This was also an observation by the ladies in front of me, who said she should have never gotten on the plane knowing she had anxiety.) If we, as people with mental health issues, let our elements run our lives, then we would just sit in our homes in fear. And what then? Would we be called lazy?

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I am still learning how to control my emotions when it comes to my anxiety. So I hate that I wasn’t able to muster up an educated response to the ladies in front of me. My only hope is they went home and out of their own curiosity researched panic attacks and learned something from the situation.

There are snakes all in this world. Ones that will put you down, tear you apart and judge you for your mental illness. The only thing we can hope for is through their own uneducated judgements, they will find clarity and understanding.

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When Anxiety Is That Annoying Person You Can't Get Rid Of

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I need you to think of someone who annoys you the most. Come on, you know who I’m talking about – someone with a presence that just irritates you and gives you high blood pressure. When you’re around them, you simultaneously roll your eyes and let out a sigh of annoyance.

They’re that person you Just. Can’t. Even. With.

Got your person?

OK, good.

Now, imagine this individual following you around wherever you go.

To begin your day, you find them lying in your bed next to you after you were abruptly awoken by the alarm. They immediately start talking to you: “Hey! What’s up? Hello! Hi! Get up!!!!! You have a lot to do today and can’t be late!!!”

As you get ready, they stress you out about the upcoming day’s events as you lather, rinse and repeat. They also double check that you aren’t getting shampoo in your eyes because you know, that could probably cause an eye infection. They make you second guess your outfit choice because you’re going to see so and so today and so and so will think you are weird for wearing that shirt with those pants. So you change. And they warn you that if you wear those shoes you might get blisters. But if you wear those other shoes and it rains they will become ruined even though they are sprayed with weather protectant. They tell you that your hair looks bad, that it always looks bad and that someone is going to judge you because your eyeliner line is accidentally a little too thick. They make you panic numerous times that you are going to forget to take your medicine even though you have a reminder set on your phone. “Remember that one time when you accidentally didn’t take your medicine and were a complete wreck the whole next day?  Yeah. Make sure you take it so you are able to function and communicate tomorrow.”

They remind you to check and make sure that you have everything before you leave. Because important papers and your wallet definitely grew legs and escaped from your bag in the middle of the night, right?  They rush out of the door following closely behind you screaming: “You’re going to be late!”

They sit in the passenger seat of your car and point out everything that could possibly go wrong while driving: “You are going to get into a car accident and die today.”

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Once you arrive at your destination, you breath a sigh of relief that you made it safely. You start walking away from what you believe to be your locked car, but turn around and check just to make sure. When realizing that yes, you did indeed lock your car and yes, you did indeed put your keys in the bag that is on your shoulder, you are finally able to begin walking: “Make sure you don’t get hit by any cars while crossing the street.”

Throughout the rest of the day, this person continues to annoy and make you panic about even more things. They just have to sit next to you no matter what. They spin around you in circles and creep into your thoughts: “What if, what if, what if?”

They remind you of all the mistakes that you have made: “Don’t mess up this time! Everyone is watching you! Why aren’t you perfect?!” 

They inform you of the most insignificant things: “Geez, watch out! You were in their way and now they think you’re rude.”

They tag along to all the social functions you attend: “What if they actually don’t like you and are just being nice? They think you are weird. You should just leave. But don’t be awkward about it.”

They force you to believe the people you love are in danger: “What if your family and/or friends are getting killed right now? You are probably going to get a call that someone has died.”

Once your day is over and you are finally able to go to bed, you realize you can’t. Because somebody will not leave you alone. They keep you up, making you worry about everything you did wrong that day, everything you could have done or said differently and everything that is going to happen tomorrow. And to top off these regrets and fears, they warn you about what could happen during the night: “What if you or a family member gets kidnapped or dies while sleeping? What if tonight was the last time you will see everyone?”

You are finally able to fall asleep, only to be awoken by them in the middle of the night out of sheer panic because of a nightmare you had. After realizing it was just a dream, you try and fall back asleep.

And then you wake up the next morning and do it all over again.

This “person” I am describing is my anxiety.

No, there is not actually a person who follows me around like this. Instead, I have an anxiety disorder that follows me around everywhere. And most days, it makes my head want to explode.

The war that rages inside my mind every day seems like it will never end. But I have hopes that someday it will come close to doing so.

Taking medication for my anxiety is one of the best things I have ever done. Although I can’t expect medicine to cure my thoughts, I am amazed by the ways it has helped me.  I’m now able to live without crying or having panic attacks every day. And that is a beautiful thing.

Finally, to those of you who were so kind to share with me you know what it’s like to have anxiety, too, I want to publicly thank you. You know exactly who you are. Knowing that I am not the only one fighting this battle is so comforting. Let’s continue to empower each other and give this struggle a voice.

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A Letter to the Anxious Voice That Lives Inside My Head

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Dear Anxiety,

Dear cruel, persistent and unforgiving anxiety,

I think it’s time we have this out, don’t you? Of course you don’t. That would mean moving forward, and we both know that is the direction you’d do everything in your power to stop me heading towards.

Sometimes I wonder what I did to deserve you, you who’s determined to make me embarrass myself when not being able to perform the simplest tasks without feeling watched and judged. I wonder why I cannot possess the confidence my closest friends do. In all honesty, anxiety, I feel cursed. I hear you constantly murmuring in my ear that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty or thin enough. I hear you sniggering at things I think are accomplishments, accomplishments I do not wish to share with you but much like everything else going on, you’re a part of it. You’re a part of me, an ugly, hateful and terrible part, and I resent you.

I resent you for the fact I cannot order my own food in a restaurant without a shaky voice, I cannot order food in a restaurant for the fear of the waiter thinking I’m fat. I resent you for the fact I can’t eat in front of my peers without just wanting to throw it all back up and apologize for being so weird. I resent you for taking over my thoughts and not allowing me to enjoy a simple moment without overthinking it. I resent you for manipulating my actions, making me say no to things I’d enjoy if I could just face them. I resent you for never allowing me to feel comfortable with anybody. You’re always there.. like a third person undermining me every step of the way. I resent you for building walls not only inside my head but around my heart, walls that even the best guy cannot truly break past. 

Even when I think you are gone, when I shove you away… you return so unexpectedly, leaning over my shoulder and reminding me of the past, exploiting my worries and my weaknesses at every turn but managing to convince me you’re only trying to protect me from harm. Convincing me its safer to retreat to my corner and not participate in activities, convincing me not to participate in life. You shredded my confidence, my ability to strive for the best because what would have been the point? You reminded me I wouldn’t be good enough anyway. Not even being able to tell a teacher I’m struggling for fear of them mimicking your words and telling me how I’m clearly not clever enough. You make even thinking about exams lead to panic, you make revising one of the most difficult things in the world.

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You destroy relationships. With my friends, with my family, with him. You somehow manage to make me question how real my friendships are. Do they secretly hate me? Are they sitting making fun of me as soon as I look away? Do they laugh or call me weird behind my back? Your answer to those questions is always yes. Perhaps you’re right. You convinced me I wasn’t good enough for him, that he was looking for any good excuse to leave. You convinced me he was only with me because he felt bad for me. I prayed you were wrong, but you managed to completely destroy my trust anyway. You put back up my walls without consulting me, telling me only after that it was for my own good, that it was the only way to protect myself because he was only going to leave anyway.

Every single day you have me thinking about every glance, every action. You make my mind race over how I stand, sit, smile, laugh and even the way I talk. It’s a constant nightmare of feeling humiliated over things other people aren’t even noticing. Every day you make me wish I could delve into invisibility, hiding from everyone. I resent you, anxiety, for the second I let my mind settle… you pounce on it. You hit me like an unexpected wave. You’ve stolen so many incredible moments, you have never let me relax. You still remind me of decisions I made or things I said  in 2012.

Up until very recently I believed I had no control over you. I let you destroy my relationships. I let you take away the best parts of me. No more.

Anxiety, I know you better now. I know your patterns. I recognize the flash of panic in my core, the sudden need to cover my hands with my sleeves, the urge to hide. But anxiety, you are a part of me. Worst part or not, you are a part of me. I’m just done letting you be the dominant part. I am choosing to forgive you… and within that, I guess I am choosing to forgive myself.

Yours sincerely,

The girl you no longer define

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