man looking down

To the outside world and the majority of my social group, I’m a fairly outgoing person. I’m happy to chat to people in social situations. I can be funny and occasionally even charming, and I generally appear comfortable interacting with others. For the past five to six years, however, I’ve struggled with an increasing level of anxiety around things that most other people would look forward to. The idea of holidays or travel can set off minor panic attacks, and anything that breaks my usual routine can result in a day or more of feeling generally anxious.

Of course, like many people, I’ve become good at hiding it. Except for a couple of extremely close friends and my girlfriend, nobody would know I struggle with any kind of anxiety. Over the years, I’ve become adept at covering my symptoms with a mask and generally pretending they’re not there. Yet, recently I’ve been trying to take a different route. Rather than simply hiding or trying to ignore my anxiety, I’ve been attempting to adopt strategies that not only allow me to cope better, but allow me to control or reduce my symptoms as much as possible. I’d like to share the most effective of these strategies with you here.

1. Meditation and breathing

It seems any guide to anxiety will likely list meditation as a recommended exercise. In fact, it was a blog post on anxiety coping strategies where I first came across it. Yet, I have to say it can be really effective, particularly if you’re willing to adopt it as a regular (or ideally daily) exercise. Every day at 5.45 p.m., I spend at least 15 minutes meditating, and I’ve found guided meditation especially useful. There’s something about the concept of mindfulness and forcing the brain, both consciously and subconsciously, to focus on breathing rather than the usual stuff that clogs up your mind that is extremely relaxing.

A word of warning with meditation: It can take a little while before you really start to notice the benefits. In the short term, the lack of noticeable results may put you off. It’s by no means a quick fix, but if you’re willing to stick with it, then it can be really helpful in the long run. For those willing to give it a try (and I would suggest you do so for at least a month), I would highly recommend Headspace. They have a free trial so you don’t have to pay to try it, and they have a specific program for anxiety that I found really helpful.

In general, focusing on your breathing is a really useful technique for controlling the symptoms of anxiety, particularly if you find yourself having a panic attack. You can do this without practicing meditation, but as a large part of meditation involves focusing on the breathing, it’s a great way of getting you into this habit.

2. Counseling

Initially, I was resistant to the idea of seeing a psychiatrist, but after trying for a few years to cope on my own, I decided to go down this route as my symptoms were becoming frequent, less predictable and more severe. Of course, not everyone can afford to talk to someone, but there are options available even if you can’t pay for a private psychiatrist.

For me, it felt like going to see someone was me starting the process of taking back control. No longer was I willing to lead my life around the anxiety, letting it control what I could and couldn’t do. I felt like I was being proactive and taking responsibility for my condition and on some level that I was admitting it to myself. It’s a slow process, but since I’ve engaged in counseling aimed specifically at dealing with anxiety, I have begun to gain back some control over my life. Even when I do feel anxious, I feel better prepared to face it head on. There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of in talking to someone, and if that person is trained to help people cope with anxiety, then really you have nothing to lose.

3. Change the story you tell yourself

A little while ago I started reading about the stoics and their philosophy toward life, in particular their ability to understand that you cannot control external events. Instead, the only thing you can control is the way you react to events and your emotional response. While I was thinking about this, I came across an infographic about optical illusions, which is here if you want to have a look. In this piece, they talk about how our brains make assumptions about the world and how our perception of what’s happening is often different from reality. In essence, we don’t always see what’s real.

Think about this for a second. Our subjective perception does not always match reality, which to me that’s anxiety in a nutshell. Your brain is interpreting situations as being worthy of an adrenaline response when in reality no such response is needed. You are literally misinterpreting reality, and it’s this erroneous perception of danger or a cause for concern that is, in essence, the problem.

To me, this was something of a revelation. It led to a new found approach to my condition, one in which I would actively try to change my perception rather than simply accept it. We all tell ourselves stories every day about who we are and about how we react to things, but there is absolutely nothing to stop you from changing this story.

I used to think of myself as an anxious person, a person who tries to avoid parties or nights out and a person who can’t go anywhere overnight. One day, I decided to change this story. Instead, I now think of myself as someone who occasionally gets anxious but who is dealing with it. Someone who is getting better. You’d be amazed at the impact this subtle change in thinking can have.

If you’re interested in reading more about the stoic philosophy, our perception of reality and the stories we tell ourselves, I would greatly recommend reading “Happy” by Derren Brown. It can be heavy reading at times, but it’s well worth the effort.

To me, these three techniques have been by far the most helpful (and trust me, I’ve tried a lot of different methods). Ultimately, it’s all about finding what works for you and sticking with it. Personally, what’s had the greatest impact for me is simply refusing to accept this was “just the way it is.” I accepted my condition and made a commitment to get better, regardless of how long that might take. I’m by no means anxiety-free, but these days I find that I’m better able to control my symptoms and I’m definitely less prone to panic attacks.

Do let me know how you get on if you decide to adopt any of these techniques. If they prove helpful to just one person, then it was worth writing this post. I have a few other techniques I’d be happy to discuss.

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The hardest part of my day every day is getting up in the morning. Saturday isn’t so bad depending on the week because I might not have to get up except to walk my dogs. But weekday mornings are terrible. I typically wake up two and a half to three hours before I have to leave for work every morning.

On a regular weekday morning, I start my day with a battle in my head. My depression tells me not to get out of bed at all because it’s not really worth the energy it takes to get out of bed. Then my anxiety chimes in and begins to argue. My depression often has a laid-back kind of voice, while my anxiety talks fast. Those of you who know me can probably tell when my anxiety is high because my outer voice begins to sound like the anxiety voice I hear inside my head. It rushes and is sometimes hard to understand. I know I am talking about my anxiety and my depression as if they are people living inside my head, but that is truly how I feel sometimes. The movie “Inside Out” depicts how I imagine the inside of my brain to be. It feels like I am run by several different people who live inside my head. Depression and anxiety happen to be two of those people.

My anxiety argues with my depression. In the mornings it tells me I have to get out of bed because if I don’t I will be late for work, and my boss will get mad. In reality, I know I have another 30 to 45 minutes until I actually have to get out of bed before late would even be a minor possibility, because I leave time for this argument. There are few days where I wake up and this argument does not take place. It is a back-and-forth argument that takes way too long. Eventually my bladder kicks in and I get out of bed to use the bathroom. Then I return to my room to get ready for work.

My depression tells me to climb back into bed because I have plenty of time. My anxiety says I spent too much time in the bathroom and I’m already behind schedule. They argue some more, and I pace around my apartment. I walk to the closet. I stand and stare at my bed. I walk to the living room where my clean laundry usually is because it’s folded nicely in the basket, but it still has not made it to the closet to be put away. I don’t look in the basket or the closet for clothes to wear for the day until the second or third time I walk to them.

My anxiety then kicks in again as I try to find something to wear. Jobs that require uniforms are much better for me because I know what I have to wear and I don’t have to make decisions. Part of me knows that no one at work is really judging what I wear as long as I am in work-appropriate clothing. My anxiety believes otherwise. My anxiety wants to be popular and look “perfect” everyday. I had the day off today, and I wore sweatpants all day. I had to drive a friend to work this morning, and my depression told me not to bother showering, so I wore a scarf on my head all day to hide my hair. When another friend FaceTimed me, I couldn’t answer because my anxiety told me my scarf-wrapped hair looked horrible and my friend was going to judge me for it. I know this particular friend would never do that, but I still couldn’t bring myself to answer. This is my battle of having depression and anxiety.

I’m usually ready for work 40 to 45 minutes before I need to leave for work. All I need to do in that time is eat breakfast. It takes me a while to decide what to have for breakfast. Some mornings I’m hungry, other mornings I’m not hungry at all. But I always make myself eat breakfast. Then, more often than not, I crawl into bed with my breakfast and eat while watching Netflix. Twenty minutes before work begins, an alarm goes off on my phone so I can force myself back out of bed, put my shoes on, get my work bag and head off to work. Some days it takes me five to 10 minutes to get myself out of bed again because the same old argument happens. Luckily I live eight minutes from work, so again I have time for the argument.

Once I am at work, I’m typically OK. Getting there in the morning is truly a struggle every single day. Approximately two to three days a month, I wake up having a fantastic day. On those days, I jump out of bed, find clothes easily and walk around with a smile on my face. On those days, I do dishes before breakfast. I clean my kitchen. I play with my puppy. I get stuff done. I wish those days came more often. I wish I had that much energy every day. I wish I could be more productive on a regular basis, but at least I’m able to make it to work. If I didn’t have anxiety about paying my bills and making ends meet, I probably would still be lying in bed.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s taken me a long time to realize I’m not alone. I want you all to know you’re not alone either. There are people out there feeling the same way you do. We will all make it through this. Most days I’m completely exhausted because I get up so much earlier than I have to, but it works for me. I hope you find what works for you, too. I hope you find a way to manage your mental health. Keep fighting. Keep going. Things do get better.

Follow this journey on Essentially Hopefilled.

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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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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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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.”

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