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

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.”

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

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.

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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Why I’m Glad My Co-Workers Witnessed My Panic Attack

Last week my anxiety nightmare came true: I had a panic attack in front of my co-workers.

I experienced my first massive panic attack when I was 27, driving home from my father’s burial. I was convinced I was having a heart attack, but I didn’t tell anyone because my father had just died from one. I felt embarrassed and dramatic, so I decided to keep it hidden to avoid drawing attention to myself. My grief opened a padlocked door that’s now permanently propped open, and I never know when the next panic attack will strike.

The story I keep telling myself is that I’m not someone who has panic attacks at work. I’m simply not allowed. At home? Sure. At airports, on airplanes, in other public places while surrounded by strangers? Yes. But somehow I’ve managed to keep this part of my anxiety hidden from my professional world. Why keep it hidden? Shame. I play the role of a high-functioning “anxiety survivor,” which means I might sit in my car for 20 minutes before I walk into the office, but at least I’m not brining my anxiety with me. My anxiety will just have to wait for me until I get back to my car for my lunch break or when I leave work.

I felt having panic attacks at the office — which for me means hyperventilating, uncontrollable sobbing and a general certainty that I will, in fact, die within minutes — meant I’ll never gain or keep the trust of my co-workers. I’ll never get promoted. My direct reports won’t respect me. The men in my office will think I’ve come completely unhinged, and I’ll be the “hormonal, crying lady who can’t handle the pressures of agency life.” The women will think so, too. And if my clients know that once panic hits any new email or phone call starts the cycle all over again, they’ll pull their business. Or they’ll ask to have me replaced. This is the story I tell myself.

But fiction has been replaced with fact, and I no longer have to wonder how my co-workers will react. Because now I know.

My panic attack started at 9:13 a.m. I know this because I documented the start time on a Post-it note at my desk. It had been a few years since my last attack, but I remembered the worst of it usually lasted only 10 to 15 minutes. I was allowing myself until 9:30 to break down, because I needed to hop on a conference call. I shut my office door and turned on some music, thinking I could outsmart the adrenaline that was about to betray my professional image and turn me into a sobbing mess. My anxiety refused to adhere to my 15-minute timeline, and my panic attack lasted for two hours, off and on.

If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can only imagine what it might look like to witness an adult hyperventilating and crying because they read an email that caused them stress. Or because someone asked them a question they didn’t know the answer to. Or because they were sitting silently, minding their own business, and their brain decided to play a game of “Everything is horrible and we’re all going to die!” If you’re part of the club that has experienced this nightmare, you know it can feel like your body is under attack, held hostage by some outside force that’s manning the controls. The force has locked you in a room and has made the walls close in on you so fast you’re sure you’ll be crushed. With one hand, the force is choking you, making it impossible to breath. Then it spins you around until you’re dizzy, nauseous and can’t see straight. And in the biggest jerk move of all, it’s filled the room with chopped onions so you can never stop crying.

My panic attacks were spaced out in five to 10 minute intervals. I’d finally catch my breath, walk down the hall to grab a drink of water, and then burst into tears at the sight of the first concerned colleague who glanced my way. On this particular day, we were in crisis mode, and it wasn’t an option to leave and work from home. (At least, again, that’s the story I told myself.)

In the middle of an agency crisis, I was deep in my own emotional/physical one. And a dozen colleagues had front-row seats to watch my breakdown.

I shut my office door and once again sobbed, this time out of embarrassment and shame. I’m a 36-year-old account supervisor at an agency, and now my career is finished. (When I tell myself stories, I lean way, way toward the dramatic.)

But something incredible happened. A male colleague who’s been with my company for 20 years entered my office, shut the door and asked if he could say a prayer for me. He told me about his own anxiety struggles. Another colleague brought me Kleenex and water, and she started telling me about her anxiety battles. Then my wonderful direct report stopped by to let me know she’d handled the work crisis — and to tell me how grateful she was to work for a company where people care about each other.

One by one, co-workers came out of the woodwork to share their struggles and stories. They weren’t whispering “Look at her,” they were opening up and saying, “Me, too.”

These co-workers were my lifeline, because we were able to speak in shorthand. All I had to say was, “I’m in the middle of a panic attack,” and they rallied around me because they’ve been there.

But there are still so many who don’t have a frame of reference for what it means to experience these kinds of attacks, and this week I can see they’re treating me with kid gloves. I’m fairly certain they feel embarrassed for me. I absolutely know they love me and are concerned for me. They want to help me manage my stress, lighten my workload and come to my rescue. And I love them so much for that, so I need to help them understand I don’t need special treatment. I need to be understood. Even though I’m deeply embarrassed, I’m glad they witnessed my panic attack — if only so I can help start a conversation about anxiety. Battling anxiety while in a professional setting does not mean that you are unhinged, un-hirable, unreliable, or un-promotable. It just means you’re one of the 40 million people battling the most common mental illness in America.

Battling panic attacks does not mean you are overreacting to life’s everyday stressors. It means your body has perceived a threat, launched you into fight-or-flight mode, and is doing everything it can to flee the danger it senses. Are these triggers “irrational”? Perhaps, to an outside observer. Are the perceived threats real to the person experiencing the attack? Absolutely. Do I wish I could have made it to the safety of my car before emotionally breaking down? Um, yes. Of course, I do. Crying in front of my co-workers was mortifying. Am I going to feel embarrassment or shame? Last week, my answer was, “Um, yes. Of course, I am.” But that’s the sneaky thing about shame. It wants us to hide our anxiety, depression and fear, putting on a façade when we walk out the front door — making us think we’re only worthy if we bottle everything up and never let anyone see us struggle. Today, I’m wearing my anxiety like a badge of honor. I’m raising my hand and asking for help. I’m trying to model for my colleagues that they don’t have to fear for their jobs if their brains and bodies some days get the best of them. And I’m trying to use this as an opportunity to continue fighting the stigma around anxiety and depression, showing others just how strong we are that every day we get out of bed, armor up and show up for the fight.

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To People With Anxiety Who Think They Can’t Date

My best friends have done it. My mom has done it. Even 13 year olds have done it. So why can’t I do it? Why can’t I go on a first date?

The answer is pretty simple. My anxiety stops me. When I was younger I thought I would be in an awesome relationship by 24. I never dreamed I would still not have gone on a first date.

The idea of going on a date terrifies me to the point that if I think about it, my anxiety gets of control. I can’t breathe, my head starts to spin, my heart races and I start to sweat like I’m running a marathon. Most people get butterflies in their stomach before a promising date. I don’t get butterflies; I get a stampede of elephants.

I think my fear of dating has come from my fear of the unknown and fear of failure. What if I go on a date and he likes me? What if he doesn’t? What if I have a panic attack or start to cry? I know it seems like a pretty irrational fear, but I can’t tell that to my mind when I’m anxious.

The closest I’ve come to a date was when I asked a guy to get coffee with me. I then freaked out about it, and when the time came to go, I hid from him in a bathroom. Yes, you heard that right. I had a panic attack in a bathroom at the church we were suppose to meet at and then proceeded to avoid him by running out the back door along the side of the building. When I worked up the courage to finally go to coffee with him, I made sure to take my anti-anxiety pills. The date actually ended up being a lot better than I thought it would be.

If you’re like me and your dating life stinks because of your anxiety, know that you aren’t alone. It’s a problem many people have but few are willing to talk about. I’ve read tons and tons of books on anxiety disorders, but I found that only one talked about the realities of dating with anxiety.

Getting anxious before a date is something that even people without anxiety disorders deal with. Try to remember that next time you’re going on a date. You can get through this and so will I. It’s OK if it takes baby steps at first. Remember you are putting yourself out there and trying something new – even if it feels painful at the time.

Who cares if the date ends up being horrible or you end up not liking the person? The fact that you went on the date in the first place is the real accomplishment. If you like them and they like you and you get an awesome relationship out of it, good for you! If not, then please know that you’re a real champ for even going on the date. Next time I go on a date, I will try to remember this.

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When I Realized These Physical Sensations Were My Version of Panic Attacks

For so many years I had no idea what they were. It has only been in the last two weeks that I have made the connection of the physical sensations I’ve experienced and how they coincided with anxious times in my life. Everything I ever remember hearing or reading about panic attacks mention shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest tightness/pain and hyperventilation. I have never had any of these symptoms, so when I have had extremely anxious experiences, I thought they were not actual panic attacks. I would try to explain them away.

Recently, I was blown away when I realized that my trembling, sweating, nausea, hot/cold flashes, lightheadedness and dizziness were my version of a full-on panic attack. Thinking back, I can remember times in my life when these symptoms would come on inexplicably — most memorably when coat shopping at Macy’s when I was 23 and getting ready to travel north. I vividly recall sitting down with my back against the counter and thinking the room was spinning and I couldn’t decide if I was going to pass out or die of heat. The sensations were intense, and my mom was with me and very concerned. It passed in a matter of minutes, and I was able to return to my shopping, albeit a little more tired and disoriented.

This has happened before taking tests, giving presentations, going to parties or conferences, on the first days of school (both as a student and teacher), on airplanes, in crowds, at extreme heights (I should stop here as the list could go on and on)… and I never, ever associated them with my anxiety.

Just as I have written about depression in the past and how my outward symptoms were not “typical” (although I am reading more and more about “high-functioning” and hidden depression, which I resemble incredibly), I shouldn’t be all that surprised that yet again my anxiety is different, too. My friends and family can attest that their is little to nothing that is “normal” or “typical” about me. My younger daughter proclaims on a regular basis, “Normal is boring.” However, I think I might like to try it sometime. I do think I will have to radically accept that’s not going to happen and move forward with a new awareness.

Now that I know, I hope I can (remember and actually) do the following the next time I have a panic attack:

  • Give myself permission to acknowledge rather than question what is happening in my body.
  • Accept that something triggered my panic and not blame myself for bringing on the symptoms.
  • Wait and stay in the situation (for a little) to take the time to consider different options.
  • Breathe deeply, ask myself what are the odds of what I am fearing actually happening… And remember that I am fearing a future possibility and should try to reengage in the present.
  • And when it ends, I will be grateful that it has ended rather than critical of myself for having anxiety.

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