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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Watching the 2016 Election With Anxiety and Depression

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I click on the evening news as I normally do each day after work, and I am not shocked to see both Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s faces on TV. At this stage in the election, it’s an hourly occurrence. One campaign has said this, and the other has said that. The articles and news clips and coverage feel as though they may last forever. As a person who struggles with both anxiety and depression, this entire election has been daunting emotionally.

When my anxiety is in the driver’s seat, I’m highly terrified at the prospect of what could happen. Certainly, each candidate comes with his or her individual faults, as each of us human beings does, but the person who wins the election will fill the most powerful position in the world. This means each decision they make will not only affect the now, but also has the potential to shape the future. This means each fault must be dissected, evaluated and compared. What is interesting for me is this isn’t the part of the election that inflames my anxiety. I’ve always been confident in the person I plan to cast my vote for come November. My anxiety rears its ugly head when I think of all the people who have not taken time to be informed about the issues in America: issues that affect me and my life, and you and yours. I would invite anyone, for example, to view both candidates’ websites and compare them singularly on their mental health care plans. I believe that comparison speaks volumes alone.

On the other hand, when depression is in the driver’s seat, the apathy I feel for this election is almost physically deafening. The polarization of this country, the tension we all feel on a daily basis, the vitriol that is spewed on an hourly basis is enough to keep most anyone low emotionally. For the life of me, I cannot understand why or how the divide between us all became so vast and so ugly. When I see the coverage of the election and its true heinousness, I just want to cover myself with a blanket and resurface four years from now. My mind just stops. It stops caring. It almost feels like the divide is too much for any man or woman to conquer, and I just give up.

In these moments, I’m almost grateful for my anxiety, because it never lets my depression sink me low enough to truly stop caring forever. I can change the channel and try to pretend there isn’t a huge election that has the potential to be life-changing, but my anxiety is always stewing, ready to remind me how important it is. Whomever you feel is the best option to lead the United States of America as commander in chief is your prerogative. I will only endorse someone who cares about the things I care about. I will only endorse someone who puts forth the effort to come up with and share their ideas for mental health care reform and the de-stigmatization of mental health illnesses. One candidate specifically mentions all of these issues on their website; the other makes no mention of them whatsoever. I will only endorse a candidate who has spent a lifetime dedicated to issues that directly concern me, including mental health care and women’s rights. The other candidate is glaringly silent when it comes to the acknowledgment of mental health illnesses and disabilities, and is laughable in the contradictory nature of their views on women.

I’m not here to advocate one versus the other, nor would I expect this contribution to sway any votes. But if you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, disabilities, chronic and terminal illness, gender, sexuality, race, or religious discrimination, I implore you to investigate both websites and determine who speaks for you and your plight.

Though my depression is determined to muffle my enthusiasm for this election, my anxiety has played a critical role in my focus on the issues. Of course, I’d love to live a day without the tug of war between the mental hurdles that are anxiety and depression, but as it relates to this election, my experience in dealing with these issues has allowed me to care just enough, while not getting overwhelmed, and for that I am grateful. Vote.

Image via Thinkstock.

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How to Make Plans With a Friend Who Has Anxiety

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Chances are you know someone with anxiety. It could be your friend, family member, coworker, roommate or partner. Having anxiety certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be a good friend, but there are some things that friends and loved ones of anxious people need to understand. If you don’t have anxiety – or even if you do –this guide will help you build stronger relationships with the anxious people in your life. So, without further ado, here is your handy guide to making plans with a friend who as anxiety.

Step One: Actually Make Plans

Maybe your friend with anxiety is an introverted soul who prefers a quiet night in to a wild night out, or maybe it’s been a while since they reached out to you. Either way, you should still invite them to do something with you. Even though your idea of rollicking good time might be too overwhelming for us, people with anxiety still crave friendship and human interaction. If your friend with anxiety hasn’t reached out to you in a while, it probably has nothing to do with how much they like you; it’s just that anxiety can sometimes make you doubt whether even your best friends really want to talk to you.

Step Two: Come Up With Concrete Plans

Hearing “Let’s meet up around 6-ish and, I dunno, do something” is a nightmare for someone with anxiety. A lot of us feel very uncomfortable with uncertainty and absolutely loathe surprises. A better way to propose a plan to a friend with anxiety would be something like, “Let’s meet up at the Starbucks on Maple Street on Sunday at 2:00 P.M. We can get coffee and muffins and then walk around the park.”

Step Three: Be Patient

Even if you have your exact date and time all worked out, there still may be some uncertainties. Your friend might worry about what they should bring or wear or what parking will be like. Be patient with your friend and do your best to answer their questions.

Step Four: Confirm Your Plans With Your Friend Beforehand

This is just a nice courtesy in general, but it will reassure your friend with anxiety that they don’t have the wrong date or time.

Step Five: Try to Be Understanding if Your Friend Needs to Change or Reschedule

It’s fair to expect an apology and an explanation if your friend needs to back out at the last minute, and it’s fair to be frustrated and even angry if your friend is always cancelling plans on you. One of the unpleasant realities of living with anxiety is that occasionally we can’t follow through on plans that we’ve made because we’re having a bad anxiety day and really just don’t feel up to it. Trust us when we say that we feel worse about it than you do.

Step Six: Do Not Change any Aspect of the Plan Without Giving Your Friend a Heads up First 

I really cannot stress how important this is. It’s totally fine to change the plan, but please do not surprise your friend with any changes.  Even if you’re just running a bit late and think you might be there at 7:20 instead of 7:00, text your friend and let them know.

Step Seven: Have a Great Time 

Just because we have anxiety doesn’t mean we aren’t witty, charming, generous, great listeners, or lots of fun!

Step Eight: Follow up Afterwards and Let Them Know You Had a Good Time

Your friend probably enjoyed hanging out with you, but they may be wondering if you did too. It’s nice to let them know that you had fun hanging out with them and appreciate their friendship.

Remember, your friend with anxiety might need to do things a little differently, but that doesn’t make them any less awesome or any less deserving of your friendship.

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Telling Me I’m 'OK’ Doesn’t Change My Anxiety

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Recently, on our way to work, I told my boyfriend my therapist asked how I was dealing with the possibility of his death. I hadn’t intended to broach that subject with him. It’s morbid and pessimistic. He, however, brings it up regularly. I’m the optimist. He’s the pessimist.

My boyfriend needs a kidney transplant. At first, the timeline for his transplant seemed like it would be in a year or two. That timeline soon became six months, and now it needs to happen as soon as possible. It’s a lot to try to comprehend and prepare for.

He asked why my therapist had brought up that topic and if she was concerned about him. I laughed and emphasized she’s concerned about me. She’s concerned about how I will handle it and about how I’ll deal with it on top of everything else that’s going on in my life at the moment.

She wants me to be prepared for the possibility. She also knows I’m worried I’ll get to the point that I somewhat jokingly call “losing it.” This is the point where I know that everything has become too much, and I need to ask for more help in the form of inpatient programs or other interventions. Those are the things I am trying so, so hard to avoid.

Anxiety is a thief and a liar. More precisely, panic disorder with agoraphobia, is a thief and a liar.

My boyfriend looked at me and said reassuringly, “You’re fine. You’re doing OK. You haven’t lost it.”

I paused, then said, “No, actually, I am not OK.” He said it again, confirming what he thought to be true.

I replied, “No, I’m not, and your saying that I am isn’t helping. Saying I’m OK doesn’t actually make me OK. It doesn’t make it better.”

He looked at me, puzzled, and said, “But you seem OK. You seem fine. You’re… you.”

That’s what I do. I can compartmentalize with the best of them. I can be outwardly OK while my inner monologue is a mix of primal screams and a repeating chorus of how not enough I think I am. Some days, I am certain I’m going to be found out, that someone is going to notice my not so put-together side is showing.

Someone is going to tell me I am, in fact, not capable of handling this or anything. Someone is going to tell me I possess a character flaw that guarantees I will lose it at any moment. I am equally worried someone will judge me for not being “not OK enough,” for not falling apart as much or as quickly as I should be.

I can even fail at having enough anxiety. Seriously, anxiety? The door is that way.

So, when you ask me if I’m OK, I might say I am. For that moment and for that interaction, I am. It’s not a lie, but it’s not the entire truth. If you ask me if I’m OK, and I say that I’m not, know I trust you enough to know that about me. Know I trust you enough to understand while I might not be OK, I’m OK-ish. Know I trust you enough to not judge me for my “not OK-ness.”

Know I trust you to not judge my problems as “not real problems” or to not tell me that “things could be worse.” (Did I ask for your opinion, judgment police?) Know I don’t need your pity, but I do need you to know I’m doing the best I can every single day. Know I’m doing my best even when my best is watching 10 episodes of “Veronica Mars” in a row because that’s all I can handle.

And that? That is absolutely enough. That is definitely OK.

Image via Thinkstock.

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