A woman in a dark room looking out a window

Facing the World After Anxiety Kept Me Indoors

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In 11 days, I will be 24. In four and three-quarter hours, it will be midnight. The sun falling from view in a dozy 30. Five minutes and 52 seconds are left ticking by before my playlist switches tracks. There’s one cup of cold coffee on my bedside table.

Today was the first. It’s been 41 days of being inside, looking out. A spectator, not a participant. Somewhere in my 23 years and 354 days, I lost my admission pass, dropped my ticket stub. I twisted up the receipt until it was just a balled mass of black on white.

Somewhere in those years, I gently, and all-at-once, let go of my mind, and it’s strange. It’s strange how we are the puppeteers of our own thoughts, able to pull cords and tie knots in our own supplies of blood and air. How we have the ability to do everything and nothing, to live and breathe, to give up and let go.

It’s strange how your own mind can play tricks on you. How it can become a separate entity, detached and able to make you believe in the unnatural, the irrational, the inescapable.

It’s terrifying when you begin to realize how your mind can push you. To dread sleep for fear of not waking. Yet, it can dread being awake because every second is like the last, plagued with irrational fears conjured by your own Machiavellian creation.

Where food is poison. Sleep is impossible. Minutes seem infinite. Shaking is constant. You don’t want to cry. Yet, at the same time, all you want to do is cry. Your eyes are open, but the nightmare doesn’t stop.

Yet, today was the first. Forty-one days. Behind layers of glass and brick, letting my eyes live the life I want. Watching the raspy pull of branches billowing above the footsteps of neighbors. Trapped behind a window with envy for their life, their purpose, their simple ability to leave their home.

Yet, today was different. Today, the windows didn’t magnify the world. The glass didn’t encase me like a snow globe’s orb, rooting my body thickly in place in plastic and ceramic and dull glitter. This time, I wasn’t a motionless figure watching the outside dance in endless pirouettes, sixes and eights of tulle passing me by like the mist of affection in the arrivals lounge of an airport.

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It’s been 41 days of the ordinary seeming impossible. Of rooms feeling smaller. Tastes being clumsy and mismatched. Days where love feels claustrophobic. Support feels like failure. Where life feels like a trap. Forty-one days where someone else’s mundane was my Everest.

I experience anxiety. I don’t “suffer” from it. It’s dripped into my chromosomes, melted into my blood and built up in the pigment of my eyes. I accept it as part of me.

Today was the first time in 41 days I felt able to leave home on my own again, and it was strange. Like stepping onto ice, and learning how to swipe your feet. My shoes felt odd. My arms didn’t know how to swing. I didn’t know where to look, and the sun seemed brighter than it should. Yet, I was outside, and I was alone. Surviving. Breathing. Overcoming fear.

In 11 days, I will be 24, and I’m still learning. How to live inside the body I have grown. How to shake someone’s hand firmly enough. How not to cry in public and how to turn around on a busy pavement when you know you’re walking the wrong way. I’m learning how to live with the thoughts that manifest in my head when something gets to be too much.

If I have to accept that the next 11, 20 or 50 days are spent learning how to cope and start again, then I will. Our feelings are fluid. Our experiences eternal. Memories can be lost, but the muscle remains. I’m training myself to live in a world that is evolving faster than we can see.

Anxiety makes you believe the unbelievable. The impossible. The bang-your-head-against-the-wall silliness. Yet, to you, it can seem as real as anything, as routine as a heartbeat. If today I experienced my first steps again for a second time, then I’ll learn how to start again.

I’m not ready to give up before my new chapter has even had a chance to begin.

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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To the Christians Who Say ‘Worrying Is a Sin’

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“Worrying is a sin.”

Yes, I would agree to an extent. As a Christian, I also believe it is important to trust in God rather than spend your time worrying. The majority of Christians would say worrying is simply not trusting in God, which is sinning. We always need to trust God, even when it’s hard. Yet, talking about worry this way can actually be devastating to others.

As I said earlier, I, too, am a Christian, and I think it is important to trust in God. When I am anxious and tell my Christian friends about my anxieties, they tell me I just need to trust God. They tell me that this will solve my problems.

Here’s the thing you might not realize: My brain does not work the same way as yours. I have anxiety. My brain likes to tell me there’s always something to be afraid of. My brain tells me I am always in danger. My brain constantly tells me I am not important.

When I am told worrying is a sin, I feel like a bad Christian. This only worsens my anxiety. When I am going through the worst of storms, when depression causes me to feel hollow inside and anxiety makes me feel like I’m being burned alive, I don’t get told how much Christ loves me. I am told to “just stop,” and “Depend on God and it will get better.”

Yes, God heals. Yes, God redeems. Yes, God restores. Yes, it is not good to worry about the trivial things. Yes, it is good to depend on God. However, do not assume everyone’s worries are like that.

Some people, like me, have no choice. Some people want more than anything to have their anxiety and depression to just be whisked away. God also brought therapists and counselors to this earth to help me and to help those who can’t just pray their worries away.

If I am being honest, then there have been several times when I have not gone to church or have skipped out on church events because of this exactly. I don’t like to go to church. Why? Because church makes me feel like I’m being a bad person. I don’t need to add more blame to myself when I already blame myself for every single problem in the world.

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So, rather than accuse someone of not being a faithful follower of Christ, listen to their story. Ask them how you can help. Pray for them, and be patient. Help them through their storm in life.

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The Revelation I Had After Starting Medication for Anxiety

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At the age of 38, I started to stutter. I was homeschooling my young son at the time, and every day saw us seeking out opportunities to socialize, venturing from the safety of our home to the outside world. One day, my words stopped coming. I could see them in my head, but they refused to travel the short distance from my brain to my tongue. And when that happened, I did something I swore I would never do: I decided to try medication.

Admitting you have a problem is one thing, but asking for help is another animal entirely. And medication? Even the thought of it made me feel like a failure — like maybe I just hadn’t put enough effort into the fight.

Then I remembered anxiety had been with me from the very beginning and had stuck around throughout the years. He was a mouthy, noxious devil hitching a ride on my weary shoulder. Years of therapy, meditation and deep breathing had done little to throw him off my scent and I was out of ideas.

I told my doctor everything and he agreed because nothing else had helped — it was time to take the next step. “Don’t think of medication as a crutch,” he said, “think of it as giving your brain the chance to breathe a little easier.”

After filling the prescription, I went home to my journal and wrote down how my body felt pre-pill. The list included depression symptoms like “irrational irritability,” “feeling tired all the time” and “no motivation,” along with anxiety symptoms like a hypersensitive fight-or-flight response, the occasional panic attack and anxiety-induced stuttering. The last of which liked to rear its head exclusively in social situation — the times I needed my words the most.

Reading over the list was a kick-in-the-teeth reminder of why I had made the difficult decision to try medication. But while the list helped ease my feelings of failure, swallowing that first small, salmon-colored pill still took every bit of willpower I could muster.

I did it anyway, shaking but determined and the next morning I woke up feeling … fine. OK, even. I was myself, only a little more settled, a little more at ease. Once I found the just-right level of medication, the volume knob of the anxiety slowly wound down, dimming the usual static into tolerable white noise. Through it all, I stayed just me.

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This was the biggest revelation for me. I thought the medication would turn me into a dazed and disconnected version of the woman I used to be, but it didn’t. It just made it easier for me to talk to people. To get out into the world. To think things through in a logical way with less panic and less catastrophizing.

It shouldn’t work that way, should it? Anxiety is decidedly illogical. It doesn’t consider; it doesn’t examine. It is the moment, amplified — a million unnamable and irrational fears converging in the space of a skipping heartbeat and quickening breath.

But on medication, I became aware of the skewed logic of my anxiety. I was able to see through the lies the devil on my shoulder liked to spout off in an anxious moment — that everyone hated me, that I looked ridiculous, that I sounded incompetent –and focus on the big picture: what I was trying to accomplish and the best way to get there.

The medication doesn’t erase my anxiety; it still occasionally knocks me overboard. But I am able — finally! — to see through the storm and swim my way toward shore, where the words come easier and life, in all its beautiful chaos, awaits.

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My Self-Care Manifesto

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Steve Austin's Self-Care Manifesto
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I am worthy of love.

I am not my diagnosis.

I will not wall myself in.

Shame no longer gets a vote in my life.

I will not ignore my symptoms.

I am alive. I will not forget how important that is.

I will look at the now and not the next of a situation.

I will trust in a God who is constant, not anxious.

I will find my reason for getting out of bed each morning.

I will find what I love and do that with all my heart.

I will respect my limits, take deep breaths, and not cause my anxiety to increase.

I will fight through distractions, busyness, and bullshit.

I will focus only on things that make me better.

I can’t change it; I can live through it.

The opinions of others will no longer control or define me.

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6 Reflections on How I’ve Learned to Cope With Anxiety

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I realize now this is something I’ve seldom written about, at least in a public sphere. Perhaps this is because it’s deeply personal and feels so difficult to explain. I think one of my main apprehensions (in regards to sharing about this and also seeking help) is the fear I will be misunderstood.

On one hand, there are certain aspects or explanations of anxiety that seem to be true across the board. Talk to anyone who has dealt with anxiety, and you will likely hear mention of repetitive, unwelcome and often haunting thought patterns along with a combination of both physical and mental/emotional symptoms. Frequently, a common notion of feeling “out of control” and unable to convince yourself out of your feelings/thoughts exists, even if you are able to recognize them as irrational.

However, on the other hand, the way each individual experiences and interprets their personal anxiety is unlikely to match up with another’s. Triggers are different. I think this is because of the influence of unique life experiences and circumstances that shape the way anxiety plays out.

In the psychological field, there are different categories of anxiety (general anxiety, phobias, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder), but these are certainly not black and white. Descriptions are not always fitting for personal experiences, which may cause people with anxiety to feel alienated and unsure where to turn for help. Likewise, coping mechanisms or tools are not universally applicable or beneficial. What works precisely for one person may not always work for someone else.

For these reasons and many more, dealing with anxiety can be enormously frustrating and seemingly hopeless. It can also feel like a lonely battle, as if no one else out there could possibly understand or relate (even if this is not really true). In my own experience, it has been a long journey of finding ways of thinking or acting that truly do help. Most of these methods have emerged from extended trials, resulting in some hard-won truths.

I have decided now to attempt to clearly write these out (primarily for myself) because I know how hard it can be to remember these simple tips in the midst of anxiety. Yet, I hope at least some of what I write can be helpful to someone else.

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1. First of all, learn how to identify anxious thoughts.

This may seem extraordinarily simple, but trust me. It can be surprisingly difficult to distinguish between what is justifiable or reasonable and what is not once certain thoughts get rolling in your head. It sounds silly, but oftentimes, I don’t realize I have been thinking something I know deep down is irrational until it has gone too far. I have found the best way to recognize these kinds of thoughts is not to try to analyze their legitimacy in the moment. This tends to take me down a winding path that only makes the situation worse. Instead, I have learned to identify these unhealthy thoughts by the effects they have on me. I’m not sure quite how to articulate it, but I know I have this intuitive sense that something is off (marked by a sort of panicky, distressing, fatalistic nature).

2. Once identified, do something about it.

We give power to our anxious thoughts when we allow ourselves to dwell on them. For a long time, I used to believe I couldn’t help myself from thinking about whatever was causing my anxiety. Now, I think that although it is not easy, it is in fact possible to do just this through a persistent re-training of our minds. When I step back and realize the nature of the thoughts I am hosting, I can then tell myself, “This is not real and I do not have to dwell on it.” By cutting off these sorts of thoughts as soon as their characteristics come to light, I am more easily able to just let them pass by. Giving too much attention to them plays into the all-too-common trap of actually becoming anxious about anxiety itself, a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. We must work to avoid the cyclical pattern of thinking that says, “Oh no, I am having this anxious thought I can’t stop. Now, all of the anxiety I have struggled through before is going to come back and there is nothing I can do about it.” This doesn’t have to be true.

3. Look back on the past.

This has actually been one of the most helpful tools I have picked up and something I was only able to learn with time. One value of being (perhaps too) introspective is I have begun to realize how my anxiety works. For me personally, the topics or “triggers” that send me spiraling into anxiety seem to come in waves. Here’s what I mean: For some period of time (typically a few weeks or maybe many months), a certain trigger or fear serves as the main cause of my anxiety. Sometimes they are connected in some way, but usually the specific prompt seems random and unexplainable. Often without my explicit realization, new triggers arise and fill the mental structure already established previously, thus replacing one dominant anxiety-inducer with another. Somehow, it seems as if my mind can really only handle one at a time, although they all follow the same sort of thought patterns. Remembering this when I am dealing with a particular trigger helps me to get out of my head for long enough to recognize what is really happening, especially when what I suggested previously doesn’t seem to be working. My line of reasoning typically goes like this, “Oh, what I am experiencing right now is just like that other thing then. Now I can see that the other thing wasn’t real and I didn’t need to worry about it after all. Therefore, what is going on now is of the same nature and I don’t have to give it power over me.”

4. Remember, “grace for the place.”

This is a concept a friend introduced me to a few years ago, and I have returned to it often since. Sometimes, my experience with anxiety takes on the form of seeing someone else’s struggle and placing myself in their position. Then, I fall into the thought pattern of, “What if that happens to me? How would I handle it?” Consequently, I end up worrying excessively about an imagined reality, which takes away from my ability to deal with issues (or enjoy blessings) in real time. The idea of “grace for the place” rests on the assertion that there is a grace given to someone actually experiencing a tough situation that is not present when fearfully projecting a “what if” type of scenario. This grace may take the form of guidance, comfort or clarity that can only be found in context. Almost always, our imagined projections of the future born of worry are worse than what would happen if our fears actually came true. There have been at least a few times when something I once spent so much energy worrying about later happened and wasn’t at all like I anxiously anticipated. The lesson here is to focus on what is given to us in the present rather than residing in a “what if” world that is not reality.

5. Recognize that anxiety is not all bad.

To some extent, anxiety can actually be a healthy thing. It can push us to take extra precautions in potentially dangerous or threatening situations. It is good to remember that being afraid is a natural human impulse that does have some helpful purposes. Thinking about this has encouraged me to look at the other side of the coin in regards to my own anxiety and try to see some of its benefits. Although I would much prefer to do without it, my anxiety does allow me to see the world from a different perspective and feel a deep sense of empathy about certain issues I would not otherwise consider. It can be a beneficial exercise for anyone dealing with anxiety to find at least one thing about it they can be grateful for. Understandably, chronic anxiety can easily become something dreadful that we hate about ourselves. It is easy to get angry and have a “woe is me” attitude about this, but that only makes things worse. Thus, I have found it helpful to try to cling to at least one positive effect or purposeful result of the anxiety I experience.

6. Lastly, be patient with yourself.

None of what I wrote is particularly easy to put into practice. If it were, then I wouldn’t still be struggling with this after so many years. It may sound as if I wrote these tips like I don’t have too much trouble applying them, but in reality, I am very much in the middle (and sometimes the beginning) of implementing them in my daily life. At times, the hard work of tackling anxiety can feel like taking “one step forward, two steps back.” I think I need to realize there has been progress, proven simply by having all of these things to write out. There is hope. Although my anxiety may not ever completely disappear, I believe it undoubtedly can, and will, continue to get better with time.

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What I Really Want From Friends When I'm Feeling Anxious

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There are times in my life when my head connects one dot to the next dot, which is way over a billion of other dots, other scenarios — scenarios that seem to be more likely to happen than the one my head has already settled on.

I’ve argued and felt discouraged by speaking about my anxiety to key people in my life, such as people I’ve called “best friends” or plainly family.

I don’t expect these people to understand now. I don’t expect them to understand this in the future (or I hope they don’t ever have to struggle with this at all). I don’t expect them to understand why my head overthinks simple situations or things that have yet to happen. I don’t expect them to understand the internal debate I have sometimes on how to greet strangers before I come in direct contact with them, such as greeting a cashier while paying or asking for help and not seeming pathetic or awkward, which can sometimes leave me pondering or working myself up for minutes at a time. (It sometimes takes hours to call someone for a simple check-up on my violin.) I don’t expect them to understand how my head simply goes from A to Z in a matter of seconds, passing by each and every letter at the speed of light, plus adding other letters unknown to the English alphabet into the mix. I don’t expect them to understand how I panic or stress out to the point where I have a panic attack, where I feel consumed and suffocated by every little thing, where I’m crying and having trouble breathing.

I cannot just be “normal” or do what you may view as simple “normally.”

You may not be capable of understanding this, and I accept that. It’s time for you to also accept that you cannot understand, whether it’s my anxiety, stress or even my moments of grief from a loss of mine.

No human is perfect.

I am definitely not perfect.

I don’t have everything together, even though physically it might seem that way outside of closed doors.

And sometimes, I struggle to let myself know it’s OK and that my future is going to be OK.

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It’s OK not to be OK.

I have to read self-help books in order to keep the peace in my head, to remember where I am in this life is OK — even if in hindsight it’s frustrating.

For example, I have to remember what Jamie Tworkowski wrote in his book “If You Feel Too Much” every time I feel like I’m working myself up to a panic attack:

“This life — it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win. It’s [OK] to slow down. You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by. This life is not about status or opinion or appearance. You don’t have to fake it.”

What I do want from you — maybe — is to give me time and ease up on subjects involving the future — my future. I know it may worry you. It worries me impossibly, because I’ve probably already thought of it in every single way imaginable, because it is my life. This happens every day; it sneaks up on me every waking moment in the back of my head, only to attack me in the late hours of the night.

I don’t want to hear your judgment of why can’t I be “normal.” I just want support. I want to hear, “It’s OK. I’m here. I don’t understand, but I want you to know it’s going to be fine.”

It’s that simple. Nothing more, nothing less.

And maybe — just maybe — that’s really all I need. Just a simple resting place for this unknown answer of when or how, and instead just being OK. Knowing I’m not alone.

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