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The Unglamorous Reality of My Anxiety Disorder

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An anxiety disorder is not beautiful, nor should it ever be glamorized, along with any other mental illness. Having an anxiety disorder is not something that makes you look “cute and quirky.” An anxiety disorder is not just being scared to call someone on the phone or ask for extra ketchup with your fries. It’s not just being nervous before a final exam or going on a roller coaster for the first time.

No, anxiety disorders are going days without sleep because you are terrified of what your dreams may entail but then having to deal with your own mind as you lay awake for hours. Anxiety disorders are feeling like the pain of your ribs crushing against each other are enough to cause a fire from how much they burn. Anxiety disorders are wanting to scream but not having the strength to let one out. Anxiety disorders are letting out enough tears that a whole new ocean could be created. Anxiety disorders are losing complete feeling in your hands and legs as they sting with numbness. There is nothing, let me say it again, nothing, enjoyable about my anxiety disorder. It is a cry for help, for an escape.

It is not something to respond with by saying, “everyone has bad days” or “it’s just a phase.” It deserves more than, “Why don’t you just try to be happy?” as if it is that easy, as if I haven’t been trying for the past two years. Disorders should not be something others want to claim, degrading others who actually deal with them daily. They should not be brushed off or overlooked but instead given proper attention, care, and treatment.

I decided while attempting to “fix” my own anxiety, I would also want to fix the way anxiety is looked at. We deserve more than, “try to look on the bright side.” We deserve a brighter world, one diligent in aiding those who struggle with mental illness.

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Thinkstock illustration by Zoonar RF

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When I'm Told to 'Get Over' My Anxiety

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It is fairly easy to scroll through social media these days and feel disenchanted and despondent with how people are talking to each other. Insults are being thrown like fast balls, insensitivities paraded proudly like trophies, and ignorance blinds us from progress. This is coming from both sides, not just one. In a recent post, I was suggesting we choose kindness over division, especially with our children. There can be so much anxiety in so many people for various reasons. I will admit, I’m anxious. I expressed this in that post, and a family member told me, “Oh, get over it.” This statement from my family member hurt more than anything else. It stung because, as most anyone who lives with anxiety likely knows, there is no “getting over it.”

Anxiety is not something that comes and goes. I wake up with it; I go to bed with it. It is a quiet murmur in my body, like a slow boil in a pot. It is always there; some moments it’s stronger than others. It makes my body hurt. My hands shake, my heart races, my chest tightens, my stomach ties in knots, my body temperature rises, it suppresses my breath, it clouds my thoughts, and it robs me of sleep. I have tools to help me, don’t get me wrong. But more often than not, the only thing that works is sitting in the discomfort and letting my body go through the process.

I cannot “get over it,” because it is never going away. As my husband can tell you, this is not easy to watch. There is no simple solution to watching a loved one physically coil in pain. There is a vulnerability of helplessness that my husband must go through. He also shouldn’t be expected to “get over” watching me when things are very bad. He has to walk through this with me.

Anxiety is not a mountain to climb, with the promise of the decline to be worth the incline. There is no incline with anxiety. It is a constant, unpredictable and arduous path one must carry with them through life.

Please stop telling me to “get over” my anxiety. Please understand, I’m getting through.

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When You Don’t Know the Reason for Your Anxiety

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It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m wide awake. An hour and a half ago, I bolted awake feeling anxious. There wasn’t even a specific thing weighing on my mind, just this broad, generalized sense of urgency, a feeling that things just weren’t right and I needed to wake up.

I know there will be no more sleep tonight because my mind is already racing, my thoughts bouncing around from one topic to the next. My leg bounces a mile a minute. I try to focus my thoughts, but my brain won’t stay on anything long enough to process it.

There are many times when my anxiety locks tightly to something and wont let go. The thoughts become repetitive and increasingly louder and more urgent. There is no way to focus on anything else. It beats down on me like a hailstorm, cold, wet and jarring. There is no ignoring it because its voice is booming, drowning out anything else going on.

There are other times, though, I cannot even pinpoint why I am anxious. The urgency is still there, though it is surrounded by a dull fog. I know something is eating at me because  I cannot focus on anything else. For the life of me, though, I cannot put my finger on it. Yet my anxiety is in full force just the same.

I’m jittery, uncomfortable, unable to focus. My chest is tight. I have trouble catching my breath. I try to calm myself with breathing exercises, but I cannot center myself. I have this strange burst of energy but no will to use it. My brain has grabbed that energy to fuel its racing. I’m wide awake. My thoughts, like my sentences, are choppy. Nothing quite seems to flow. I cannot focus. I cannot rest. I cannot get comfortable. My anxiety is jarring, like percussion being banged on haphazardly without any rhyme or reason. It is loud and bracing, impossible to ignore.

I feel itchy, shaky, edgy and uncomfortable. I am annoyed and agitated though I cannot even explain why. Some days, my anxiety wraps its head around a thought or concept and will not let go, holding it in a stranglehold, allowing me to focus on nothing else. It will often link itself to other things I am struggling with, making it even harder to cope.

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When my anxiety attaches to my depression, it becomes that parrot that repeats all the bad in my life on an endless loop. It asks me what else I could have expected and makes me question how much is ultimately my fault. It is unyielding, unwavering and unforgiving. It eats at me, making me feel inherently and hopelessly a mess. My depression feeds it a steady dose of fuel, so my racing thoughts never seem to slow or falter. My anxiety pushes for me to beat myself up for everything, whether it was my fault or not.

When my anxiety combines with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am bombarded by a steady barrage of emotions that threaten to push me into a bad place. One of the most common themes my anxiety clings to that triggers my PTSD is safety. Once my anxiety has grabbed onto that fear, my brain reminds me repeatedly that I am not safe, not safe, not safe, I can no longer concentrate on anything else. Though I try to reassure myself that everything is OK, doors are locked, everyone is safe, it is to no avail. My brain won’t listen to reason. It becomes a battle to fight off an anxiety attack or worse, to be yanked back to those times when I truly was not safe.

One of the most frustrating parts about struggling with anxiety is that nobody truly seems to understand or sympathize. People suggest I just breathe, not realizing it feels like there is a weight on my chest and I can barely catch my own breath. I’m told I should just try to calm down and try to focus. I would love to do that, but I feel like I have no control over my mind at this point. I swear I’ve yelled at my mind a million times, “Stop! Enough!” but it never listens. It has gone on a 100-mile-an-hour joyride along a dangerously winding cliffside road, and I’m just along for the ride.

The worst, though, is when I am asked what exactly I am anxious about or when someone tries to use logic and reason to convince me there is nothing to stress about. Often, I honestly don’t have an answer about why I am feeling this way. I don’t understand it myself. As I try to explain it, my hand shakes and my mind just cannot form the words. I know I’m anxious, I’m restless, that something is definitely wrong, even if I cannot always put a finger on exactly what it is. I know they mean well, want to understand what I’m feeling and try to talk me down, calm me down. But how can I explain my anxiety to anyone else when I don’t even fully understand it myself?

Follow this journey on Unlovable.

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5 Things I Want My Friends to Know About My Anxiety

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1. Just because I’m not acting “anxious” doesn’t mean I’m not feeling anxious.

There’s this stereotype that if you have an anxiety disorder you’re always panicking and talking fast or crying — some of which can be true, but more often than not it isn’t. Anxiety doesn’t always look like a panic attack. I can be listening to you tell me a story but desperately trying to calm my mind down at the same time. This leads me to tend to not pay attention and forget a lot of what you say. No, it’s not because I don’t care what you’re saying! My mind is racing, and I’m trying to settle it so I can pay attention to you!

2. I’m not intentionally being flaky. Please don’t give me a hard time about it.

Some days I feel great and I’ll make plans with you and hope with everything in me I can follow through , but sometimes I just can’t. Some days I won’t make concrete plans because I know my anxiety could act up. I know this frustrates you, and it frustrates me too. Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety becomes too much. Maybe I didn’t sleep the night before because my mind was racing, so my anxiety is acting up. I’m not flaky. Please don’t make me feel guilty about it. Trust me I do this to myself enough.

3. Please don’t disregard me when I try to reach out.

Reaching out for me is more difficult than you think. Simply saying, “I’ve been in bed all day” or “I just want to feel normal again!” doesn’t mean I’m trying to throw my whole disorder at you. It doesn’t mean I want advice. Sometimes I just want you to say, “I know, it’s OK.” Please don’t just ignore it until I change the subject. That can cause a downward spiral of thoughts about me being “selfish” or “talking about my anxiety too much.” Sometimes I just need reassurance that someone knows I’m struggling and will talk about it with me.

4. Don’t push yourself on me.

I know it can be hard to feel me pushing you away. It’s hard for me too. But please don’t force yourself upon me. Don’t make me feel bad for not wanting to hang out with you. If I hang out with other friends it might just be because I’m more comfortable around them when my anxiety strikes. It’s not you. It’s the anxiety.

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5. Anxiety takes a lot out of me.

Constantly being in a high state of anxiety can be mentally and physically exhausting. I might not want to talk at the end of the day because I’ve been constantly trying to push thoughts out of my head and calm myself down. Having to constantly remind yourself to use “breathing techniques” and that “everything will be OK” is so time consuming. It really doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else. It might seem like I had an “easy” day if I only had one class, but it’s so much harder than that.

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When Anxiety Makes You Feel Like a Prisoner at School or Work

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Work or school can be a tough place to deal with anxiety. Even though I liked school and have had the fortune of enjoying almost every job I’ve had since college, there are times – many times – anxiety makes me feel captive, chaining me to my desk as I resort to white-knuckling it through the rest of the day.

Eight hours is a long time, unless you’re on vacation. If the day could be broken up into smaller pieces so you could say “I’ve made it halfway through the day” or “only one hour to go,” it might seem more manageable.

At a previous job, I listened to a radio program during lunch – 92.9 dave FM’s “Radio Free Lunch” (now a sports talk station). Everyday there was a theme – songs about summer, songs about superheroes for the latest comic book movie release, songs with the cheesiest lyrics for National Grilled Cheese Day – you get the idea. I looked forward to it every day. I enjoyed the anticipation of what songs they’d play to fit the theme and it meant my work day was halfway through.

Maybe there is a favorite podcast you can listen to during lunch, or even for 10 minutes as you take a quick walk through the hallways.

At another job, there was an automated email I received everyday at 3 p.m. The email was simply a status about a system I managed, no big deal. But pretty soon, I was looking forward to that email. It signaled I had only one more hour of work. I’d see the email and buckle back down for one more hour. Because I could make it through one hour.

These are simple, silly things. But sometimes it’s those things that get you through. Try to think of natural “breaks” in your day at school or work, and use those as milestones to tell yourself “you’ve made it this far!”

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What It Feels Like to Have 'Imposter Syndrome'

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I’ve been reading a lot lately about “high-functioning” depression and anxiety. I possess both. Most of the time I am able to be a high achiever and people who don’t know me well don’t realize how much I struggle to keep on the straight and narrow. One aspect of this I have seen over and over in my reading, and was recently made aware of within my own counseling sessions is imposter syndrome, or feeling like a fraud.

Trapped in seemingly successful achievement but shrouded in self-doubt, it is almost impossible for us to accept any success. In school, if I made a 98% in a class I kicked myself because why wasn’t it a 100%? At work, if ever I am called into a meeting with the supervisor I am filled with dread that I will be fired or chastised for something… often I don’t have any idea what it may be for, but I expect myself to fail and fail big. It gets to where I am working in a job, a career I love but am terrified to actually go to work for fear of screwing up, or more precisely, for fear of being pointed out by my boss that I am a total failure.

I spend so much time trying to prepare myself for these punches that I never notice if I am getting a raise or if I am proud of my own work. It is never-ending expectation of failure. I feel like an imposter. I have imposter syndrome.

When people tell you not to forget about those of us who succeed but are incredibly depressed or have insurmountable anxiety, they are explaining that while to you we may be succeeding, to us we are complete failures. And no one ever validates our feelings or recognizes we are feeling that way at all. We are constantly disappointing ourselves, but we hide behind a calm veneer. We feel we should be doing so much better. We go home to stare at the empty walls of our minds where all our achievements are supposed to hang, but we’ve torn them all to shreds.

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We beg you to see us! We beg you to tell us, “You may not believe it, but you’re doing a great job! And if you need me to, I will continue to remind you of that for as long as you need.”

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