When the Fire of Your Anxiety Is Fueled by 'What-Ifs'

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So many times I have worked to help others understand my daily battle with anxiety. Yet, so many times, I feel as though I fail. Unless you “live” it, it is virtually impossible to understand it. Honestly, trying to explain and validate it, while not shamefully falling back into a pit of humiliation, is just plain exhausting.

I am a visual learner. I always have been. For me, trying to create a visual for others, a persona for this relentless, seven-letter thief, is the only way I can even imagine to bridge the gap between their world and mine.

I have used the rocking chair analogy. Imagine sitting in a wooden chair. Locked in. Seat belt fastened. Handcuffed. Bolted down. No room to wiggle. No way to stop it. No chance to take a breath. Rocking back and forth. Worry and peace. Back and forth. Fear and courage. Back and forth. Worry and trust. At the complete and utter mercy of this merciless thief.

I have painted the image of a monster and being enclosed in a glass box with this beast, day after day, while you watch the rest of the world carry on. Heart pounding through your chest. Sweat dripping from your upper lip. Gasping for breath. Feeling as though you can’t pull in enough oxygen to remain conscious and steady on your feet. You want to run for your life, but you are literally frozen in fear.

Yet, that still doesn’t seem to be enough. Once again, failing to bridge the gap between the “What are you so worried about?” world and “Why can’t you understand why this is bothering me?” world that coexist on a daily basis in my own life. While falling suddenly back deep “into the trenches” of my personal battlefield, feeling both defeated and completely frustrated, a new image came to mind. This time, a fire.

When you think of an outdoor fire, such as a bonfire, you imagine it in a variety of stages. In my experience, each of those phases is the perfect correlation to a bout/attack of anxiety. When a bonfire begins, it is generally expansive, hot, blinding and at times, uncomfortably hot. After a few minutes or perhaps a few hours, the fire begins to dim and becomes tolerable and calm once again. Eventually, as the night wears down, the blaze has transformed into a pile of crackling, glowing coals, and you feel content enough to step away, knowing it will eventually burn out.

Anxiety? It is absolutely no different for me:

Your thoughts pile up rapidly. Mind spinning. Whirling. Out of control. Suddenly, the intense bottling up of worries and emotions racing through your mind’s closed circuit track bursts into a full-blown anxiety attack. The littlest “sticks” (the what-ifs) only add fuel to the fire.

Your mind has exploded. You are uncomfortable. You want to step away, but you can’t. You try every measure possible to dim the heat and flares.

After some time, whether it be seconds, minutes, hours or even days, your mind begins to settle down. You flip through the rationality of your thoughts. You find yourself back in a more peaceful place, though limited. Knowing that literally anything could send you back into a tailspin, just like those twigs and sticks re-energize the strength of a bonfire.

You find yourself calm enough that you can once again gain a tiny bit of control over your mind. The coals are burning, but they are not inflamed. You trudge through your day-to-day life, cautiously, knowing at any given moment, the fire can intensify once again.

Quickly, you begin to realize just what an impact those steadfast and unrelenting “what-ifs” truly have on the intensity of your blaze, your anxiety. Just how much they are at the very core of fueling your anxiety’s flames.

What if no one talks to me at the party? What if the news story on the television this morning happens to me? Why wouldn’t it? What if I don’t get the job? What if I get in a car accident on the way to work today? Shouldn’t I just stay home?

What if my daughter gets sick? Really sick? What if I get sick? Really sick? Who will take care of my family? What if the plane’s engines stop working on our flight? What if someone tries to rob our house while we are away?

What if my friend doesn’t call me back? Is she upset with me? What if I fail the exam? What if my dog gets lost? What if everyone looks at me if I arrive late to the meeting? What will they think? What if no one cares?

With each thought, with each new “what if” and seemingly irrational belief, the blaze refuels once again, sending flames skyrocketing and our anxiety through the roof. We wait for the intensity to quiet down once again so we can enjoy the tranquility, even for just a brief time.

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When My Experience With Anxiety Changes Day to Day

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I’ve been asked so many times, by therapists, parents, friends, and others to explain my anxiety as well as other mental illnesses so they can better understand what I’m going through. I always get frustrated and irritated, stumbling over words that never seem to fit. The problem for me is that my anxiety, as well as my other mental illnesses, are not static. The feelings and presentations of the illnesses seem to change. Not just change in response to different seasons of life, but even just day to day.

My experience of anxiety is fluid, changing and morphing based off an unknown variety of factors both in and out of my control. Describing something so mercurial and inconstant as my anxiety seems so difficult and pointless that I often just refuse entirely. Refusing isn’t helpful and only perpetuates the habit of silence surrounding my experience I am trying so desperately to break.

Tonight it feels like ants crawling over my entire body. Little light, crawling sensations making me check every inch of my body because I am convinced there has to be something there. I feel itchy and tingly, and I can’t sit still. Sitting seems like an insurmountable task. I can’t stop itching the back of my neck. I feel increasingly desperate for a shower to scrub this feeling off me.

I search desperately to find a position in which my arms can sit and feel comfortable. Arms crossed right over left — nope. Left over right? Nope. Left hand over stomach at approximately 90 degrees, right arm diagonally down towards my hip – no, try again. I go through the same 15 or so different variations to similar success. I repeat the process for what feels like hours.

Tonight my brain isn’t moving at the speed of light; well, not constantly. Hyperactivity in terms of thought creation and processing isn’t always the case with my anxiety. Tonight it’s a cycle of five or so minutes that feel like 10 million thoughts a minute, and then at least one minute of just… blankness. I’ll be in the middle of trying desperately to function and complete a task. I stop mid-sentence, unsure of where it was going. I forget the word for satellite or roundabout or fork; my own name looks wrong scrawled on the sticky note in front of me. Then it’s back to scrambling through endless incomplete thoughts and tangents — too quick to finish or process any individual one thing.

I am shaky, and I am sure something is wrong with my heartbeat. I’ve had at least four ECGs a year because of check-ups or weird reactions to medications. I’ve had an “outlier” ECG that said I had an irregular heartbeat. Further tests found nothing, so it was dismissed. But tonight? Right now that’s doctors dismissing it when I could really have it. I’ve had three hip surgeries and been diagnosed with FAI (femoral acetabular impingement), five total labral tears and chronic pain — but that was after four years of doctors and specialists telling me I was fine and telling me to stop lying for attention. So what if this is something, too? What if they just didn’t do the right tests or don’t know all the symptoms for a disease?

It’s escalated to a full panic attack.

I’m in my closet, crying, hyperventilating, choking on air as I’m desperate to breathe — convinced my heart keeps stopping.

Tomorrow the anxiety may look different, but it will still be with me.

I may always have anxiety, but that doesn’t mean it will always control me.

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What My 'Good Days' With Anxiety and Depression Look Like

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A good day is when I wake up with self-defeating thoughts, 
and I make my coffee anyway.

A good day is when my brain feels like mush,
 but I do my best anyway.

A good day is when my best doesn’t look like much,
 but I’m proud of myself anyway.

A good day is when instead of being brave, I hide,
 and I forgive myself anyway.

A good day is when my mind is a battlefield,
 and I march onward anyway.

A good day is when I feel disgusting,
 but I maintain my self-care anyway.

A good day is when I feel like a big ball of fear,
 but I go to the event anyway.

A good day is when I’m afraid of what they’ll think,
 but I answer honestly anyway.

A good day is when I feel like a sorry loner,
 but I reach out to a friend anyway.

A good day is when I want to curl in a ball on the couch,
 but I make myself go for a walk anyway.

A good day is when other people make me shrink in fear,
 but I get the errands done anyway.

A good day is when my heart is pounding for no reason,
 but I remember to breathe anyway.

A good day is when I imagine near-death scenarios,
 but I believe they’ll come home anyway.

A good day is when I think I’m a terrible person,
 but I choose to be kind to myself anyway.

A good day is when I’m ashamed of myself,
 but I write about my feelings anyway.

A good day is when my thoughts terrify me,
 but I remember my thoughts are separate from me anyway.

A good day is when I’m different from everyone else,
 but I choose to love myself anyway.

A good day is when reality is ugly,
 but I choose to accept it anyway.

A good day is when I stay home sick,
 and I work on a project anyway.

A good day is when I feel weak and confused,
 but I find something healthy to do anyway.

A good day is when there’s a change of plans,
 and I go with the flow anyway.

A good day is when I know I could have done better,
 but I accept myself anyway.

A good day is when I think I’ve failed before I’ve even begun,
 and I decide to start anyway.

Inspired by Mother Teresa’s poem “Do It Anyway.”

Follow this journey on The Wishing Well.

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What People With Anxiety Want Others to Know During the Holidays

Things people with anxiety want others to know during the holidays.

Read the full version of 22 Things People With Anxiety Want Others to Know During the Holidays.

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To My Roommate Who's Witnessing My Anxiety Attack

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I know this probably wasn’t what you were hoping to come home to today. I know you may not want to see me this way. And trust me, I don’t want to be this way.

I notice your expressions of shock and concern. I see that you want to do something, that you want to help, but maybe you don’t know what to do. You might think it’s best if you just leave me alone, but I actually need you more than ever right now. So here’s what you can do:

Let me know I am safe. There is a profound disconnect occurring between my brain and body right now. I feel as though there is a very real, very imminent threat to my safety that is not grounded in reality. All logic has gone by the wayside, and my thoughts are racing at a million miles an hour. Let me know the contrary is true, that I am safe and OK. Help bring me back to reality before my thoughts consume me.

Hold me. I’m not saying this because I am desperate for your affection, I say this because it works. Studies have actually shown sustained physical contact can help slow biological rhythms. So if I’m panicking, hold me. Don’t let go until I come back to reality.

Just talk. I am desperate for anything to distract me from all the noise in my head. I may not be able to hold a conversation with you, but please keep talking. Tell me about your day, or find a funny story to chat about. It helps more than you might think.

Ask me if I’ve taken my medicine. Chances are I neglected to think about the benzodiazepines I have for emergency situations like this. Ask me if I’ve taken my meds, and if not, where to locate them. It also may be a good idea to grab a paper bag in case I hyperventilate before they have a chance to work.

Just be as understanding as you can. I know it can be hard to wrap your mind around this. I know you may not understand why this is happening or why I am this way. I don’t understand why I am this way. I know it can be easy to jump to conclusions, and I don’t blame you for that. Just, if you can, try to be empathetic.

Know that this will pass. And let me know that, too. This is only temporary, and everything will be OK.

Thank you for being here.

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Anxiety and the Fear of the Future

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“What is anxiety?”

When I hear those words, I panic… it’s what I do. Then I think (that’s also what I do). I respond, “Well, it’s having no desire to go to sleep because then I’ll have to wake up and face tomorrow. It’s thinking too much about things.” Once that conversation is over, I remember things I should have said. I think of things more in depth and go back to them or have that conversation again like a broken record, but anxiety, to me, is the fear of the future. When you have a fear of the future, you think about everything that could happen even if it’s impossible. Fearing the future is saying “just in case” a million times a day.

I also have a fear of the past and deal with depression. I fear past events, anxious that my past problems or days or anything from the past could shape me or set a reputation for me.

Fearing the past and fearing the future are difficult when you’re stuck in the present day. Top that all off with high school — the “greatest” days of my life. The endless visits to the counselors to tell them again and again I don’t need them to pull me out of class. Teachers knowing I’m depressed or anxious and feeling bad for me because I’m crying and don’t know why. Classmates staring because I look like a kiss up.

I think I will forever fear the future, and that’s OK. Fearing the future is anxiety. So, next time someone asks me, “What is anxiety?” I can continue to try and explain it until they pretend to understand, or I can simply tell them, “well, it’s my fear of the future.”

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