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When You're Afraid to Take a Break to Deal With Your Mental Health

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It would be a little bit of an understatement to call me “over committed.” I actively participate in a wide range of activities that take up a lot of my daily life, such as rowing practices every morning, (supposedly) practicing the flute daily, and volunteering in various manners. This, along with keeping up with school, can get to be a lot.

I was diagnosed with both anxiety and depression half a year ago, but I can’t remember a time where I haven’t experienced my symptoms. I have pretty frequent low periods that can last as little as a few days to as much as a full month. In between those periods, going to school, sport practices, music rehearsals, and volunteering is manageable. In fact, these commitments tend to fuel me and push me to be the best I can be. But during my low periods, everything I’m normally able to do becomes a crushing weight that keeps me in bed and convinces me to push everyone around me away. This turns into a vicious cycle, where I am overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that occupies my daily life, then tear myself apart about not being able to keep up and feeling weak. A constant reel of “you’re just being lazy, you should be able to handle this, other people have it worse” plays in my mind, pushing me deeper into a low mood and further away from everything I love. I begin to dread waking up and going to rowing practice, I put off practicing the flute, my school work is haphazardly done, and volunteering feels more like a chore than a fun co-curricular.

For months my life was in a turmoil. All of my after-school activities used to be what I turned to for stress relief, but they began to be the things causing almost unbearable amounts of stress and anxiety. Missing practices, rehearsals, and volunteer sessions didn’t feel like an option to me. I didn’t want to let anyone down. I didn’t want to upset my coach, my teammates, my music teacher, my friends, the grade three classroom I volunteer with. I didn’t want to appear weak. I didn’t want to seem like I couldn’t handle all of my commitments because I didn’t want to be forced to quit anything. I ran myself ragged trying to keep up, when all of me just wanted to quit everything and disappear.

What I didn’t understand then (and what I often forget now) is that no one is going to blame me for taking time off for myself. The phrase “your mental health is what’s most important” still sounds fake, as I’m sure it sounds to a lot of people, but I have to keep repeating it to myself (with the help of the lovely people in my life) until it feels true. What I’m trying to learn is that resting during the worst part of a low period is just as important as taking time off during a physical illness. It’s OK to miss a rehearsal. It’s OK to skip an early morning workout. It’s OK to sleep in when the world is just too rough to face at five in the morning. The judgment and anger I was afraid to face from the people in my life is exactly the opposite. There is nothing but concern and care for my well-being from everyone around me. While I still often become easily overwhelmed with the amount of commitments I have dedicated myself to, one day I will have grown enough to realize I do what I do because I love it, and it shouldn’t be something I stress over or dread. Until then, I just need to know that cutting myself some slack is more than OK.

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Thinkstock photo by Eyecandy Images

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What Am I Without the Monster of Anxiety?

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What am I without anxiety? That’s a good question…

As I sit here and ponder that thought, I think of a life without my mental illness, a life where I am strong, inspired, empowering, kindhearted, honest and a wonderful mother.

Am I not all of those things now?

People’s kind words tell me I am. I thank them with a half hearted smile, thinking to myself if only they could see the weak and angry monster I see. If only they knew the fears that go along with waking up every day, how the simplest of tasks can become a terrifying nightmare.

I ask myself, “Why not show them my monster?”

The world can be cruel. Not everyone understands mental illness. I’m afraid of the cold whispers that would leave their lips. “She’s not all there, she’s sick, she could snap at any moment, she’s crazy, why haven’t they locked her up?” Such harsh words spit out of the mouths of those who don’t understand, so I decide to keep the monster in the home it created in my head.

“Could it really be that bad?” I hear them ask.

Imagine every moment of every day being fully indulged in fear… It’s dark outside late at night, and I see a black strange car with no lights on pull slowly up my street out my window. My monster takes over: “Must be a someone coming to harm you,” and an instant play-by-play of these horrible things happening go off in my head. My body runs cold while sweat spills from every pore, my hands shake ferociously, my heart pounds so hard I feel it in my toes, and I’m frozen, barely able to breath.

The smallest of things can feed my monster in another situation. I’m cooking dinner for my family and I hear them chatting quietly. The television is on for background noise. I am caught up in the moment of the happiness my home holds at the moment, and so the soup boils over on the red hot burner, creating a smoke and steam rising from the stove. “Smell that? Something’s burning, no one else smells it, you must be having a stroke,” my monster tells me. My head spins. I float out of my body, my hands tingle, my heart races. My son! “What will happen to my son if I hit this cold kitchen floor?” I ask myself in a panic while feeling I have no control over the answer. The world stops for a moment. My monster lets me feel every bit of its painful attack before I hear my son call my name and I’m brought back to reality — just long enough to await its next strike.

I know the stories my monster tells me are blown out of proportion. They’re always stronger than reality. Despite my best efforts to listen to the logic, the monster finds a way to seep through the cracks. Every day I wake up and wait for the innocence of my daily tasks to be taken over by that cruel monster.

“Why don’t you just tell it to leave?” you ask.

I want to. So badly. Every day I wake up and tell myself today is the day I slay the monster once and for all. I silence the monster’s worrisome voice and as a twisted punishment for doing so it sends me into a cool sweat, shaking hands, heart racing, tingling running through my overheating body. I am exhausted and mentally drained. Lack of sleep, nightmares and the constant skipping of meals from being nauseated by the attacks the monster brought on the night before. My mind is strained and fuzzy from fighting this horrific monster alone in my head. My body aches, my eyes are heavy, my hair is left greasy from last night’s pool of sweat. I am worn thin, barely a person some days. I want so badly for it to leave. I tell myself every day that I will overcome this hideous monster. I have faith and love, and that is what I need to fuel my strength in the quest to cage the monster my anxiety has become.

How am I going to mange the fear and the questions?

Well, you see, I was once told, “You are still you no matter your mental state. All of the tiny pieces you’re made of will still be in tact once the anxiety is under control.” It is still me who loves to watch my son play with his toys, who loves the giggles he lets seep out as he  talks to his dinosaurs. My heart sings when he sings me his sweet little songs made up of bits of the songs I enjoy singing him on a daily basis. It is still me who loves to go for long walks with my friends and laugh about each other’s stories. Those smiles we share are lit from the happiness in my heart. It is still me who loves to sit at home on cold winter nights in my fuzzy pajamas watching girly movies with my mom, cracking jokes about our own encounters similar to those in the movie. It is still me who loves the late night snuggles with my husband while we indulge in each other’s simplicity. Those are the moments I strive for the happy laughs instead of the fake ones, the proud tears instead of the ones cause by sadness, the funny stories instead of the fearful ones.

Every day I remind myself I am in this moment right now. I have to live my days moments at a time. My anxiety is not the only part of me. It took me a long time to believe that. It was not easy. I still have days where I’m battling the monster for my mind. I give it my all every day because I am that strong, inspiring and kindhearted person! I am that wonderful mother. I know that when I look at my son, see the smile on his face and the amazement in his eyes. Anxiety can be a terribly horrifying monster and others may not understand what I go through every day. But I have hope. I need to keep inspiring people around me and doing the things I love.

What am I without my anxiety?

I am me and proud to be.

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To Those Who Are Anxious Right Now, This Is Your Permission Slip to Unplug

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Many people are feeling the sting from the announcement that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. Half of America is celebrating while the other half is worried about the future of the world’s superpower and the lives that will be directly affected when he takes office in January.

Most of the world is watching indisbelief because of legitimate fears for the future of America and its people (notably Hispanic, black, muslim, LGBTQ+, women and immigrants). We are glued to the screen, soaking up much of what we did while watching what appeared to start as a proverbial joke among Republicans. Trump aggressively played the media for free advertising and won at America’s self-made reality show – a spinoff to “The Bachelor” called, “The President”.

Those of us who feel hurt in our hearts for our American friends and family must take time to stop engaging in this year’s political circus. It is seemingly unfathomable to get this 180 degree turn of American politics out of your mind, especially when you understand the negative impact that could come of this presidency, with evidence based strictly on his divisive rhetoric.

But you must. Even if only for a bit, you must unplug from the chaos.

Humans cannot survive without anxiety because it keeps us safe and is a part of our survival instinct. Only in the last couple hundred years have we created the technology needed to keep our fridges cold, lights on and intruders out of our homes. Westernized society has been evolving for centuries in hopes of maintaining a structure of peace and equilibrium needed to survive together as a species. Most of us go to the grocery store for our food instead of hunting wild animals with spears, which means the threats that trigger panic are no longer physical to our being. Instead, the panic button can be activated by perceived or future threats to our safety — and it’s hard to shut them off because we keep our minds stimulated by inputting more information from polls or opinions from friends.

With unfathomable thoughts surrounding the radical instability that may be the future of the world, it’s hard not to feel compelled to productively contribute to the conversation, but by tuning into every element of this election we are forgetting about our immediate surroundings. These projected, and very real threats, do not physically manifest in this very moment. While reading this right now, you may be sitting somewhere with your laptop or waiting in the line at the grocery store with your phone trying to stay updated about various perspectives regarding election outcomes. This is because when we feel engaged we feel like we’re contributing when all it’s doing is keeping us away from the reality of our surroundings.

Log out of your social media accounts. Close your eyes. Breathe. You’re allowed to escape into yourself by tuning out the influx of information that keeps our anxiety fueled. It doesn’t mean you don’t care about those affected — it means you’re taking time for your mind to recharge, which can only be done by unplugging. Even if only for one hour or five minutes at a time throughout the day, shut off the news and social media and do something else. You deserve a conscious break from the alarm in your mind that is telling you to be afraid in this very moment. You are safe right now, which is what you have power over when you allow yourself to. For those negatively affected, it’s easier said than done.

Original post officially appeared on The Huffington Post.

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Like Mother, Like Son: When Anxiety Is Inherited

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When my son was born, I worried about his future. Like every parent, I worried about if he was eating enough, if he was sleeping enough, if I should let him cry it out or rock him to sleep.

Of course, since I had anxiety, I worried about a good deal more. Things like where he would go to kindergarten in five years and what he would do if someday I would have to live in a nursing home and he didn’t have a sibling to help him deal with that. You know, totally things you need to worry about when your child is six weeks old.

Ironically, the one thing I never thought to worry about was if he would have anxiety like me.

Well, he’s got it. I tried not to jump to conclusions when he was 3 and started having a hard time falling asleep or when he turned 4 and suddenly he didn’t want to leave my side anymore to go to kid’s church. I was pretty sure all kids went through those things at some point.

Then, around the age of 6, he stopped wanting to go places he normally enjoyed and started wanting to stay home all the time. Next, nightmares became so common he hated going to sleep. About six months ago, he started overreacting to even small setbacks and mistakes. Finally, at the start of this school year, he developed an intense fear of scissors, and I couldn’t ignore my concerns anymore. We went to see his pediatrician, and she confirmed he had a problem with anxiety.

The astounding thing to me is how similar his problems are to mine. I know exactly how he feels when he says he’d rather stay home than go to a friend’s birthday party. He had a meltdown a few months ago over that exact issue. All I could do was think back to when I had one that was really similar when I was 15. I wanted to go, but I didn’t. My fear-induced indecision made me miserable, and I could see that misery written all over his face.

As of lately (in fact, I had to stop working on this to go talk to him about this), he has been having some of my long-standing worries about death. They come at the same time too, right as he’s trying to fall asleep. Does anyone else have overwhelming fears right before bed? If you’re out there, then I understand your pain, and so does my son.

Last night, he had another indecision meltdown. I was busy with an online class while his daddy was putting him to bed. He wanted to come say goodnight to me, but his daddy, not knowing what he was up to, told him I was busy. My son got upset. Seeing how much it meant to him, my husband told him it was OK, that he could go say goodnight.

However, it was too late. The idea that it was wrong already entered his brain, and no matter what my husband said, he couldn’t convince him that it was OK. So he cried for a while until his daddy managed to distract him with a bedtime story.

When I was done with my class, my husband told me what had happened. I peeked into his room, but he was already asleep. As I stood there watching him, it hit me just how much he would struggle with this his entire life. I cried a little. Then, as it was that time of the night, I cried a lot.

Yet I’m 34, not 6, and along the way I’ve learned some coping mechanisms. I’ve learned to call my brain out on its BS. Instead of wallowing in misery over what my child had inherited from me, I asked myself what I could be thankful for about the situation. To my surprise, I came up with a pretty good list.

First and foremost, we have a bond because of this. No one understands his thinking like I do, and someday, he’ll be able to reciprocate that and understand me like no one else has before. We talk about our thoughts and feelings all the time, hopefully laying a foundation for a trusting relationship that will last for the rest of our lives.

Second, I can be his advocate in a way that no one ever advocated for me. My mother never even knew I had anxiety problems until after I had battled back a serious bout of postpartum anxiety. I can’t blame her. I didn’t even realize I had a problem until then because I had always had anxiety. I didn’t know life could be any different. Yet, I can speak up for my son and seek help for him while he is still young.

Third, we talk about our anxiety a lot: with each other, with other members of our family and with his therapist. All of that talk makes me more aware of my own internal processes. It also helps to normalize what is often stigmatized. Lord willing, he won’t have to feel the embarrassment I sometimes do over what goes on in my head.

Finally, his anxious thoughts aren’t the only thoughts he gets from me. He is an intelligent, creative and empathetic little boy. The deepest comfort for me was reflecting on how much I love my life, anxiety and all. I find so much joy in life, and hopefully, he will too.

I may not be able to take away his anxiety, but I can be there to help him with it. In the end, that’s enough for me. Even if it is right before my bedtime, and my brain is lying to me and telling me it’s not. Shut up brain. My son and I can handle this.

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To the Anxiety That Tried to Control My Thoughts About Myself

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Dear Anxiety,

It is not often that we personally address something which we cannot physically see, but I can feel you. I have been able to, for as long as I can remember. You’re part of me, and I dislike you as much as the lumps, bumps and flaws I’ve beaten myself up over for the longest time, which I can see. The lumps, bumps and flaws which aren’t even half as bad as you’ve had me believe.

I was even convinced at one point in my life I was too ugly to leave the house. I would spend my days in doors, hidden away from the world. I wasn’t too ugly, but I was too anxious.

I have periods where your toxic thoughts take over my mind, fill my soul with negative feelings and take away every bit of self-belief I have strived to gain. I have no photos of me holding my three children as babies, not one single photo. No visual memories of days out or birthdays with their proud mum, until this year. I did not want to look at myself, as I could not deal with the repulse I would feel. I hate you for that.

You’ve stolen hours, days, weeks and months from me, even a large part of my childhood where I struggled to make friends. The school days where I sat in my chair with my head down avoiding any kind of eye contact with the teacher during reading, filled with dread and fear that I would be asked to read aloud to the class.

My heart pounding. My head spinning. Sitting knowing the answers to questions, but not daring to raise my hand for the fear, the absolute humiliation of being wrong.

University wasn’t easy either. Believing I wasn’t smart enough to be on the course and I was heading for a fail from day one. Luckily, every single assignment I got back, proved you wrong. I graduated with a top marks, which I worked so hard to get, and I worked around being a single parent. I was good enough, and my confidence hit an all time high. I thought I’d beat you.

I hadn’t. You’ve been the most prominent part of my life for the last three or four years in particular. Where I have battled with you literally every, single day. You’ve made me tear myself up inside, to the point where when asked what it is I don’t like about myself, I had a list. I hated everything from the color of my hair to my overly bitten fingernails. You had messed with and taken over my mind to the extent that when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see what everyone else saw. I only saw a horrific, distorted image.

You made me want to hide away. So I did. I isolated myself. I couldn’t deal with the world of thinking people are pointing and laughing at me. Thinking that everything that came out of my mouth was just plain, insignificant rubbish. I was convinced I’m unlikable and undeserving of friendships, which I find incredibly hard to make and maintain.

Eventually, I went for help. It’s from that help I was given the ammunition to fight you. I was put in a position where I had to identify and talk about my positive qualities and given the tools to challenge negative thoughts. I was given enough self-belief to realize I can be anything I want to be and began to pursue my dream.

I’m fully aware of you now. I can feel how you flood my thoughts and infest my mood with dark paralysis and despair. You are literally a demon.

I’m now at a place where I’ve become completely mindful. I’m finally in tune with my body and emotions. I can feel you creeping up on me.

As recent as three weeks ago, you had me convinced, yet again, that I’m a failure. You drained me for days. All the tears, the effort of pretending I’m fine when around other people whilst forcing a smile. The listening to my husbands words of positivity but choosing to ignore them, makes me exhausted, and him frustrated. Yet, I knew it would pass, and I just had to ride it out. You’ve gone now, and yet again, I’ve gained more strength. I’m winning.

So thank you anxiety, for giving me the courage to chase my dreams. I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for you. I wouldn’t be working my way towards a diploma in journalism, and I wouldn’t be taking care of myself and working out so much to release the natural endorphins, which help to keep your evil thoughts at bay.

I’m taking back my life, anxiety. So next time you try to worm your way in, don’t worry. I’ve got this.

This post originally appeared on Diary of a Cake Loving Fitness Junkie.

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The Biggest Thing I've Learned So Far After Weaning Off My Anti-Anxiety Medication

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 Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. Please talk to a doctor before starting or stopping mediation. 

It has been about a month since I made the conscious, sober, uninfluenced, clear-headed decision to start easing off of my meds, and tonight I sit here wondering why.

So, I realized I better write about this. I better capture this in everything that it is so I can continue growing this conversation. So I can continue reminding people why it’s important, and reassure people that it’s OK to feel and share raw emotions. That we can learn so much from them, and grow so much as individuals. We can learn from each other, support each other and be inspired by each other to keep going, and I don’t want to stop being a part of that.

The biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that patience is a virtue.

I made my decision based on a few factors. One, is that although I’ve been on this medication for about four years, and it has certainly helped, I feel it may have plateaued for me. Two, I am in the best place I’ve ever been in in my life. I’m more confident, more happy and more inspired than ever, and I’m in a healthy relationship with a woman I love. I have a job I’m excited about, and wonderful friends and family to share life with. Three, it’s not yet the dead of depressing winter. Four, I just felt…ready. My instinct told me it was time to try leaving the nest.

However, it also reminded me to do it slowly.

After talking to my doctor, I eased into taking three-fourths of a pill for about two weeks, and then half a pill for about three weeks. Now, I am on one-forth a pill and have been for about two weeks. I think I have about another two weeks to go. Easy does it, that’s for sure! I can’t stress enough, you should never go cold turkey on your medication, especially without first talking about it with your doctor. In my case, my doctor told me late last year that when I felt ready, I could try easing off, but to do it gradually. The idea was always that I wouldn’t be on this medication forever, just for awhile. I had one brief episode two years ago where I quit cold turkey, got depressed, tried switching to a new SSRI immediately and then had vertigo and suicidal tendencies for a few weeks.

So this time, patience is my greatest virtue. And so far… it’s basically worked!

I’ve had the odd, blue day, and when stress hits me it hits me harder. I have turned both my apartment, my girlfriends’ apartment and my desk at work into the place where to-do lists go to die. I have to constantly rearrange things to feel the sense of control I need. And today, I heard familiar inner voices making me feel less than, making me feel small, making me feel confused.

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Luckily, I have 10 plus years of living with mental illness under my belt, and a “tool box” full of techniques I have learned through experience and counseling to help me work through the tricky moments. I also have a wonderful support network, and they keep me strong and grounded.

The other thing I have learned rather quickly is that vulnerability is allowed, and it is in fact more of a strength than the weakness it is often perceived as. My vulnerabilities when it comes to my mental illness are (surprisingly) not so much to do with the stigma of having mental illness; I’ve made my peace with that, and am obviously happy to be quite open about it. My vulnerabilities are that I second guess everything I say or do, and then I lose any sense of confidence I have worked so hard to find. Mental illness strips me of that. It makes me feel lonely, unacknowledged and unwanted even in a room full of the kindest people. It makes me feel less than, and it makes me question if anything I put my efforts towards is worth it. 

As I go off my meds, slowly but surely, some of this vulnerability and insecurity has been resurfacing. It’s scary, it’s frustrating and it’s confusing. But enough of me is still in control that I can acknowledge this is not weakness. I can see that it’s teaching me a lesson about what it means to be strong. It’s teaching me about worthiness, and about finding my voice again. It’s teaching me that I am not the only one scared shitless in this world, and I think we all need to talk about that more. Cause we’re all awesome, we’re all vulnerable about something and we can all learn and grow from that. 

Tomorrow is a new day, friends, and I will feel refreshed and ready to take it on in the morning. Tonight, I acknowledge that it was a hard day, and I acknowledge everything I felt so deeply, and every scary thought I had.

I also acknowledge this is temporary. It’s a transition back to the light, and back to myself. Although I never left, and I’m not leaving now either.  

It’s just a shadow dance in limbo, reminding me of how far I have come if anything.

But it’s a long dance, and I still have much to learn from it. This time, I have candlelight to face the shadows. I am prepared, I am willing to face it and I more confident in myself that I can. I think my beautiful mind is coming back to itself, even if it took an odd, dark detour in this transition. So it keeps telling me to push forward and continue this journey — to see what I’m really capable of this time.

Only time will tell! I’m thankful I have so much of it.

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