surfboard in the sand on the beach at sunset

Anxiety is so much more than fear. Anxiety is overwhelming fear that can still happen when it seems like there’s nothing to be scared of. Anxiety is unpredictable. Even if I have fought anxiety in a situation in the past, if I’m in the same situation again, it doesn’t mean I will be able to deal with it the same way.

The best way I can explain how my anxiety can manifest is to imagine a beach. Imagine you’re sitting on the beach, having a lovely time. There is warm sand between your toes and you are happy. You have a surfboard full of coping mechanisms and strategies. You’ve been to this beach dozens of times before; it’s a safe space. Sometimes you go, and the tide is out, and you can sit and appreciate the space and the laughter and the memories you create. Sometimes you paddle, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the seas are a little rough, but that’s OK, you can cope with that. On the occasions you venture out a little further, you may hit a wave. Sometimes you see it coming. Other times it’s sudden. Imagine this wave is anxiety. It might knock you off your feet. It might wash over you, if you keep yourself grounded. And if you’re feeling brave, you might try to ride that wave. If you hit it just at the right time, you can ride with it, even if it builds and you don’t know how high it may go. Other times you may catch it right at the top, and when that happens, no matter how strong a surfer you are, how much you fight to keep yourself upright on that surfboard, once you’ve lost the flow of the wave, you might struggle to balance yourself, to stop yourself falling in and letting the waves pull you out to sea. And then you’re going to have to swim back to the shore of safety.

Imagine if you don’t make it back to the water’s edge, if you slip and fall and the waves take you, everything goes dark. No matter what is going on around you, all you can focus on is the fact you’re falling and you’re drowning and you can’t breathe and you can’t see. There’s water in your ears and everything is overwhelming. Imagine all the sounds around you are building up and getting louder and more distorted. You can hear people calling you, trying to help. But until you reach the surface again, nothing is clear, you can’t quite make out what people are saying, you can’t answer anyone. Until you’re above the water and gasp those first few breaths of air, it feels like you’re stuck, you’re drowning, and you’re never going to float again.

Next time you go back to the beach, you may be a bit unsure. It may take you a while to go back, and you might not want to venture into the water again. You may never go back. You may have been surfing before and been fine, you may not. You can give in and never go back to the beach again, or you can keep going back and make the most of the sand and the shells and the safety. But no matter how many times you go, every time will be different. The tide will be different. It may be further in, further out. Stronger or not strong enough.

That’s how anxiety feels to me. Just because we’ve dealt with a situation once, doesn’t mean we’ll be OK to do it again and have it never be a problem. Every time we approach it, it’s going to be different, and that’s OK. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling with something you’ve previously been OK with. You’ve fought it before, and you have the strength to do it again. And for those of you who can relate to this, I’m proud of you for every step toward the water you take.

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As an introvert with anxiety, going out to social gatherings can be a challenge. If it’s a low-key affair and predictable, then I can generally manage. If it’s with a small group of close friends, then I can convince myself it will be OK. When New Year’s invitations start to come, however, it’s enough to bring me to a cold sweat.

Here are five things that usually go through my mind as New Year’s Eve celebrations loom:

1. Limited down time.

Right now, I feel I’ve only just crawled out of the social nightmare that is December and Christmas. I survived in one piece (only just), but with a few days to recuperate, the thought of New Year’s Eve seems incredibly daunting.

2. The constant question, “What are you doing?”

There is not a night in the year when more people ask you this than New Year’s Eve. People don’t seem to understand why you’d prefer not to go out, and unfortunately, this has led to many lies told on my part. If you admit to doing nothing, then you quickly feel judged and shamed for it. Yes, I could just tell people I have anxiety, but that’s a topic for another day.

3. The pressure to have the best night.

Going out to New Year’s Eve events brings with it the pressure to have a good time (when secretly you just want to be home crafting and watching “New Girl.”) For someone who finds the simplest social encounters challenging, you feel defeated before you’ve even begun with the knowledge that it definitely won’t live up to such expectations. You also feel more pressure to keep your anxiety in check because you don’t want to put a damper on the evening for others. You can see the vicious circle begin.

4. The expectation that you should stay out until midnight.

The only thing that normally gets me to social outings is the thought that I can leave when I’ve had enough or when things go pear-shaped. On New Year’s Eve, everyone expects you to stay out until midnight. If you don’t, then you can expect 101 questions and comments about your choice. I don’t often wish I had young children at home, but when I see new mothers sneak off at 10 p.m., I can’t help but feel jealous!

5. To be with or not to be with, that is the question.

New Year’s Eve brings with it tough decisions. For me, it’s not just deciding if I go out or not. The hardest part is making the decision to be with or without my partner. Of course, I want to be with him, but I’d never expect him to stay home with me. So the choice becomes whether to go out and struggle through my anxiety to be with him or stay in the comfort of my home alone. Of course, there is no right answer. I know whichever I choose, there will be an element of regret regarding my decision.

As I write this, I am aware of the generalizations I make. I know not everyone goes out. I know not everyone stays out until midnight. I know not everyone enjoys the celebrations. It’s just when it comes to New Year’s Eve, with the publicity, the hype and the flurry of people’s excitement, it’s easy to forget the reality. I think sometimes all you need to know is other people are right there in the same boat as you.

This year, I’ve been lucky enough to make friends with someone who feels similarly anxious about social gatherings. I’m looking forward to spending the evening with her. In my 30-odd years, this is the first time I’ve felt excited about my plans and felt OK about doing something different than most people. After all, starting the year on the right foot is what it’s all about, and my right foot just happens to be crafting with a friend who understands.

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As if the challenges you have to face living with and trying to battle mental illness (in my case, recurring severe anxiety and depression) aren’t enough, there’s also the feeling of shame that goes with it. That’s my experience anyway, and I would guess that of most others who are living with any type of ongoing or recurring mental health condition.

During my latest/ongoing episode of depression and anxiety, I have on many occasion likened the shame I experience to how I assume one must feel when they have committed a serious crime.

The big difference is, I haven’t done anything wrong.

I experience this feeling of shame and embarrassment on a daily basis, often many times during a day. At the moment, I routinely find myself in situations where it is impossible to avoid the subject — you bump into someone (it can happen anywhere – school drop off/pick up, football, supermarket to name but a few), and they ask why I’m not working, when will I be going back to work, why my wife had to go back to full-time instead of part-time given we still have young children. Most of the time, I find it extremely difficult being honest, despite many years of experience of this retched illness. And when I do tell people, I very often only tell them part of the story. And even then, after the conversation has ended, I get paranoid about whether I have said too much, what will they think of me, etc. I completely overanalyze most conversations for that very reason. And that puts you off getting into conversations.

I long for the day I can be completely honest about who I am, and remove myself from these shackles. In the past I’ve been able to get by without having to be too open about my condition, being honest on a need to know basis only! But the latest episode has had such a major impact on the lives of myself and my family, it’s almost impossible not to be honest with people.

Even small talk with a completely innocent and friendly individual can be awkward. Cashiers in the shops often ask things like, “So, you’ve got a day off work today?” Such a simple everyday situation shouldn’t be difficult. I usually find myself just going along with it and say “Yeah,” to avoid that topic going any further. And then I try to change the subject. So even the most seemingly straightforward of encounters can be uncomfortable. I assume many others will relate to this.

And then there are the questions from family members — I would like to stress in my situation these are well-meaning family members who themselves are at a loss as to what to do and what to say to their friends. Questions along the lines of, “What should we tell xyz if they ask how you’re getting on at work?” “Is xyz allowed to know you’re not well?” And as someone who has chronic migraines, a frequent and at times convenient cover used by myself and my family – “Shall we just say that you’ve been having a bad spell with your migraines?” Having also experienced first hand the stigma surrounding migraines, using that as a more acceptable line to tell people says it all really. There are also the comments such as, “We don’t know who we’re supposed to say what to!” — going back to my earlier comment about crime. That is how comments and questions such as those make you feel, like you’ve done something wrong that shouldn’t really be spoken about, and if so only to a very select few.

I had to deal with those conversations regularly when I was at my lowest point in April. When getting through each day is a huge struggle and a major achievement in itself, the absolute last thing you need is to be faced with making decisions about who is allowed to know what about your condition.

Having been forced to leave more than one job in my chosen (now ex-) career because of mental health issues, I constantly live with the fear and the shame of bumping into former colleagues. Again, I feel as if I have done something wrong. I left because I have anxiety and depression, not because I had my hand in the till embezzling money. But shame doesn’t seem to differentiate.

I still feel awkward bumping into people I worked with almost 15 years ago. What do they think of me, I still wonder. Do they think I’m crazy? In reality I’m sure they don’t give it any thought whatsoever — they have their own lives and issues to deal with. In an attempt to help, my wife often says to me: “What makes you think you’re so important that these people are giving you any further thought?” And that is so true. But it doesn’t seem to make it any easier. I frequently avoid social occasions or find myself crossing the road to avoid such encounters.


Even now, when starting this new blog, I feel unable to be honest and attach my name to this blog, for fear of my posts being seen by someone who knows me. And of people I know then talking about me.

In the 20-plus years since I first became aware of having mental health issues, it is a subject which is definitely more widely spoken about. And it is more acceptable to admit to struggling than it was back then. But despite the progress, anyone who has experienced mental health problems will I’m sure agree it does remain very much a taboo subject. And none more so than in the workplace.

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If there’s anything I’m learning increasingly in my battle with anxiety, then it’s that self-care is as important as breathing in this day-to-day journey.

Self-care is simply doing the necessary things to help us deal more bravely and beautifully with the frustrations of an anxious, panic-ridden soul. Self-care is vital because anxiety doesn’t care what is or isn’t going on in our daily routines, as it attempts to wreck the details of our lives with its falsehoods and hassles.

Anxiety doesn’t care if we’ve had a rough day and desperately need to get sound sleep. Its only goal is to keep our minds wide awake while our souls are too exhausted to fight the empty details keeping us restless.

Anxiety doesn’t care if we long to travel and have amazing experiences all over the world. Its objective is to convince us to allow fear to snuff out opportunities our faith was born to enjoy.

Anxiety doesn’t care that our spouse/partner is trying their best to show us love and understanding in a situation they’re truly trying to understand. It’s only motive is to drive us completely away from anyone dedicated to love us more than we comprehend.

Anxiety doesn’t care that most of the worries lodged in our head will never actually occur in the details of our lives. It’s only focus is to get us to focus on all that can go wrong despite what’s indeed good in our lives.

Anxiety doesn’t care that we really want to enjoy family gatherings, reunions with friends or the occasional co-worker get together. It’s only joy is to rob us of the joy of partaking in good social interaction, which can often be a source of strength and support through our uncomfortableness.

Anxiety doesn’t care that we’re sick and tired of the debilitating thoughts, confused nerves and complete restlessness that comes with its attacks. It’s only goal is to keep us from our personal goals if we allow its countless lies to win.

While there are many things I’ve learned to do for my own personal self-care, these are a few on the top of my list in the fight.

1. Exercise.

From running, to hiking, to yoga, staying active is what continues to keep me pushing forward even when I feel like my push is completely gone. Consistent exercise clears the air in our head of so much while often reminding us there’s a bigger world than the one we’re battling in our mind and soul. Start where you are and get out of the house. Get out of the office. Get out of the gym, and take a hike!

2. Nutrition and hydration.

Our everyday functioning and overall mood can be hugely affected by what we eat and what we drink. Our body and its multiple systems will never adapt to dehydration, and as “comforting” as a glass of wine or cold beer may feel, alcohol doesn’t hydrate the body. Studies upon studies show dehydration raises the stress levels in our mind and body. On the other hand, a solid diet of what our body needs gives our body the strength and support it needs, along with good hydration.

3. Meditation.

Even though discussing religion can now be far more uncomfortable than voicing the current number on our bathroom scale, I don’t consider it strange in sharing my beliefs, as I’d never jeer nor judge anyone who doesn’t agree with the truths I center my life around. Prayer and meditation has been the most powerful tool to helping me freely break open instead of fully breaking down. It’s such a refresher to my soul and a huge reminder of how vital it is for us to purposefully turn it all off from time to time to remain “on” in life.

Let’s stay consistent with our self-care, because anxiety doesn’t care.

Editor’s note: This story is based on a individual’s experience and shouldn’t be taken as medical advice. 

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I have a love-hate relationship with the holidays. Sure, now that I have a child of my own there is more to love, but it’s a complicated relationship to say the least. The smells, sounds and sights are a gift to the senses for many. To me, however, these simple truths of the holidays are enough to cause my already daily anxiety to mount into a massive mountain of internal chaos. While the magic of the holidays makes me undeniably happy, the fulfillment makes me exhausted mentally. I told you. It’s complicated!

The holidays are usually filled with many family gatherings, office parties or other commitments where people are usually involved. Many of my friends and family relish at the opportunity to spend time in a large group, having a meal together, reminiscing about old times and sharing their goals for the upcoming year. Just typing those activities out on my keyboard is causing me to have pains in my chest.

It is not socially acceptable to want to exclude yourself around the holidays. I mean calling someone a “scrooge” or a “Grinch” isn’t a compliment. Is it? While I am never one to conform to society’s standards and ideals, I do (deep down) want to spend time with my family and friends around the holidays. I’ve been able to master the holidays, but to some, my behaviors and tricks for coping might come off as rude and inconsiderate. When the guest list tops six to eight people, I tend to shut down, even if it’s only family.

Here are the three things I want you to know about the holidays and my behavior:

1. Don’t take it personally if I don’t eat or drink.

Chances are, even if I supplied some of the food, I won’t eat much. This even goes for my mom’s famous pork roast. It has nothing to do with being embarrassed about eating in public (that was my high school phase) or that I don’t like your cooking. Trust me, I am always hungry. So it’s not that either. It is because my anxiety is causing my stomach to put on an acrobatic display, and I couldn’t handle making it worse. That would surely send me and my anxiety through the roof! Can you imagine if you got sick at a holiday party? That would make anyone anxious. No thank you!

2. I won’t stay in one place for long.

Whether it is at the dinner table or on the couch in the living room, I won’t stay in one place for long. Being stuck in a single spot for a long period of time is not my idea of fun, no matter the surroundings. I tend to feel antsy and overwhelmed. Switching spots lowers this feeling. It’s kinda like the saying, “Fight or flight.” Well, I am always in “flight” searching for the next safe spot to take a rest. I am not trying to be rude or not enjoy your company. The act of moving actually calms me down. Most times, you can catch me clearing the table (even at guest’s homes), doing the dishes, changing seats, taking a trip to the bathroom (for the 10th time in one hour) or pretending to take a call outside. These are all coping mechanisms I’ve learned throughout the years.

3. I might not talk much or talk too much.

If I have little to contribute to the conversation, then I am not trying to come off as if I don’t care. I so wish I could talk for hours about everything and nothing. Sometimes, you can’t get me to shut up. Chances are when I do talk, I use a loud voice, dramatic hand gestures and my tone is filled with exclamations and emotion. Those are the times when I might not make much sense.

I have hard time deciphering my thoughts and sharing them in an intelligible conversation. Rather than being anxious about the possibility of saying something silly, I choose to not engage in small talk. This is why at large gatherings, especially around people I am not acclimated with, I tend to keep my chaotic thoughts to myself.

According to a study from “Entrepreneur” magazine, stress is heightened during the holiday season, even for those who don’t usually struggle. This means for the 40 million people who are living with an anxiety disorder, the holidays bring the bonus gift of more anxiety. Usually I love presents, but this one I could live without. If I act in a socially inappropriate way, then please remember my mind is like a walking traffic jam, trying to navigate the signals that this festive season throws at me.

Happy Holidays!

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