two friends hugging while getting coffee

Dear my friend,

As you may or may not know, I deal with mental illness. It is as integral and innately a part of me as the color of my eyes, my distaste for mathematics and my love for breakfast burritos. In the moments when we smile and laugh and adventure happily, you may forget I am sick. That I am different than you. However, for each of those moments there will be moments when I sob in your arms or on the phone to you about something you’ve heard a hundred times, and you will be acutely aware that I’m struggling. While there isn’t a textbook or a checklist to being my friend or loving me when it’s rough, here are eight things I want you to know.

1. This isn’t a choice.

There may be moments when I am not as visibly sick or where the symptoms aren’t there, but there will be many moments –while you’re on a date, when we’re in class or at 3 a.m. — when it’ll rear it’s ugly head. And it isn’t my choice when or how it hits.

2. It makes me doubt myself.

A good dose of self-doubt can be healthy, but I have more than that. There are days when I doubt I’ll make it out of bed without a disaster. There are days when I fear failing everything. There are times when I think everyone hates me. Anxiety cripples my confidence, depression cripples my perspective. It isn’t logical or rational, but it’s real to me.

3. I smile through the pain.

There are many days when I’ll sit in class or a meeting or on your couch listening to you when my heart is breaking, my head is spinning and my sanity is slipping. Sometimes smiling feels like the only option, but just because I’m smiling doesn’t mean I don’t hurt.

4. I care, about everything, possibly too much.

There will be moments in our friendship when I annoy the crap out of you. When I will do the dreaded double (or gasp, a triple) text. There will be moments when I sob over something you find trivial. There will be moments when I feel too much and I won’t know exactly why. I care and caring is a wonderful gift — but it isn’t always easy (on me or you).

5. I need you to check in on me.

No matter how much I say I am OK or how much I push you away, I need you and want you in my life. Text me to say hi. Text to ask how I’m doing. Call to catch up. Accept my answers with love and don’t hold it against me if I don’t respond.

6. Know that if I reschedule I still love you.

My life is messy outside of my illness, know that as a base fact. Beyond that, know that when I make plans I have the best of intentions and do really want to hang out with you. However, some days I need to sleep another hour (cause I was up counting sheep all night), going out in public would be too much for me or I need to have a mental health day.

7. Be open and honest with me.

I know I can be a hard person to be friends with. The thing I ask for most is honesty. I would rather have the harsh reality than a lack of information (because that makes my head go to the worst place and back a few times). If my over-sharing is burdensome, let me know. If you think I need to work on something, holla at me. If you want space, just ask. If you need something for me, tell me.

8. I love you more than you know.

I may not always express it or thank you enough, but I’m so thankful for your impact in my life. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you for problem solving with me. Thank you for feeding me. Thank you for holding me as I cry. Thank you for being here. Thank you for loving me. I love you!

Your anxious (and at times overwhelming) but grateful friend

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Imagine being a blue tang fish (like Dory from “Finding Dory”). You are just swimming around in your underwater palace. You enter the banquet hall and see there are a lot of strangers there. You didn’t know about the party.

As you greet the guests, you feel like they are all staring. You know they are not staring, but it still feels like it. You continue to act like nothing is wrong. Then, it hits you like a ton of bricks. Your insecurities show up.

Suddenly, you can’t breathe underwater like you always have. You start trying to breathe, but it just isn’t working. Your throat burns. No one really notices because you are being silent. You try to control yourself, but nothing is working.

This is what it’s like to have anxiety. It can happen over the smallest things, like when you are eating in public or just by walking. Anxiety is not cute. It is not funny. It is a real problem. No one should want anxiety.

Anxiety can cause people to do weird things, like always check their phone to make sure no one called or refuse to talk on the phone because they are scared. They may make excuses when invited places so they don’t have to see people. Just the thought of being in a public place or an upcoming event can cause a panic attack.

Anxiety should not be overlooked. If you have a friend who struggles with it, then let them know you are there for them. Sometimes, just hearing, “You will be OK. I am here for you,” can calm someone so much.

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This is for anyone who cares for a child who can be anxious and stressed under certain situations. I have compiled a list of “calm-down” strategies to help bring a child back to a calmer, more relaxed state of mind. Many of these strategies have been helpful and have shown positive results. Please, keep in mind every child is unique and what may work for one child, may not work for another. Also, a certain strategy that works for a child one day, may not work for that same child the next day.

However, here’s your list of refreshing ideas and ways to help make the day a little easier and shift a child to a happier place. Don’t forget to share this post if you know someone who could benefit from the information listed below! Easing a child’s body and mind into a more comfortable state is a great way to make a positive difference in the life of our children.

1. Create a quiet “calm down area” for your child to decompress and relax in.

You can take a play tent and stuff it with blankets, comforters, pillows and stuffed animals. Allow your child to dive in there and snuggle. The deep pressure is relaxing and soothing for children.

2. Go to a quiet place.

Simply removing your child from a busy area with lots of auditory and visual sensory stimuli can help relax your child. Children can become overstimulated when they are in the midst of lots of sensory information (loud noises, lots of visual activity and movement.) Leaving the “busy-ness” momentarily can help.

3. Listen to music.

You can give your child headphones (not earbuds) and allow him/her to listen to a relaxation CD with soothing sounds on it or any kind of music that is calming and relaxing to listen to. If you’re able to, then you can even go outside and listen to nature sounds. Listen for the birds, insects, frogs and the “swoosh” of the wind.

4. Keep a photo album of family and loved ones nearby.

This will be a handy tool to look through as a calming strategy.

5. Practice deep breathing.

Deep breathing is a skill that needs to be taught and must be practiced. One way to do this is to have a child lay down and place a small stuffed animal on their belly and see how the animal rises and falls with each breath. For children who have difficulty following verbal directions, deep breathing can be initiated in other ways. You can have your child blow a pinwheel to watch it spin, blow bubbles or have a “race” to see who can blow a cotton ball or pom-pom off a table first.

6. Engage in any type of physical exercise.

This stimulates the release of those feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. If it’s summer, then go to the playground, go swimming, ride a bike or jump on a trampoline. If it’s winter, then play in or shovel snow!

7. Provide deep pressure input.

Have your child lay down on their stomach on a soft surface on the floor and roll a large exercise ball over his/her body. The idea is to press down with the ball, using firm, even pressure. This will gently compress your child and give organizing deep pressure sensory input to the body. Just be careful to listen to your child for when he/she has had enough and to not press down too hard (and never roll the ball over a child’s head.)

8. Drink water and make sure your child is always hydrated.

Brain tissue is 85 percent water! When your body is dehydrated, it doesn’t function properly, and it can cause muscles to tense up, affect hormone balance and exacerbate anxiety symptoms. If your child doesn’t like drinking water, then you can change the drinking experience to make it more “fun.” Let your child drink water through a silly straw or put it in a “fancy” cup with a little drink umbrella and colored ice cubes in it (ice cubes made out of juice). You can put a lemon wedge, a slice of orange or a little juice in it the water to give it some flavor. Still struggling? Feed your child water-rich foods such as watermelon. Homemade juice popsicles or smoothies can keep your child hydrated.

9. Oral work can provide calming and organizing sensory input!

Have your child drink through something that provides a little bit of resistance, such as a water bottle with a bite-valve. (Camelbak makes a great kids’ water-bottle with a bite valve straw.) Other options are drinking thick liquids through a straw (such as a smoothie) or snacking on crunchy/chewy foods such as crunchy cereal, pretzels, raw veggies or all-natural fruit leather.

10. Wrap your child in a blanket.

Wrapping snugly in a blanket or even in a tube of stretchy fabric mimics the feelings of security of being swaddled as an infant. It can provide quick relief from anxiety and stress.

11. Draw a picture.

Children are able to express themselves through art in times of high emotion to help relieve some stress and get to the root of their feelings. If your child is not on the level of being able to communicate their feelings through drawings, then provide him/her with some drawing utensils such as crayons, markers or finger-paint. Even just simple scribbling and making marks on the paper can be incredibly therapeutic.

12. Hum a song.

Humming is more calming than singing because of the vibrations produced.

13. Go out in nature.

Playing outdoors and spending time outside in the sun and fresh air is one of the most relaxing and grounding things a person can do. It’s like a “reset button” for our bodies and minds. Have your child walk barefoot in the grass, breathe in the fresh air and feel the sun. Get away from the wifi, TV screens, cell phones, electronics and schedule relaxing activities outdoors. We need to take the time to get close to nature after being disconnected from it for most of the day.

14. Imagine a safe place.

Imagination is a powerful tool. Have your child imagine a safe place they can go to.

15. Ask for a hug.

Teach your child that it’s OK to ask for a hug when he/she needs to be comforted. Sometimes, a firm hug and verbally acknowledging their feelings can be extremely comforting.

16. Count slowly.

This can be combined with breathing techniques to make it even more effective.

17. Whisper a “story” about a happy, positive memory your child has.

This can be something fun your child did recently or a favorite place your child really loves. Reciting something familiar and comforting in story form is a good anxiety reducing technique because it brings them to a “happy place” immediately. Whispering it helps them to focus on something other than their negative emotions in the moment.

18. Squeeze a stress ball or use a mini massager.

Your child can ask you to massage his/her back or neck with this.

19. Place a drop of lavender essential oil on a cotton ball and let your child inhale.

For a more fun and kid-friendly approach, you can make lavender scented play-dough in a purple color. Check Pinterest for a recipe.

20. Use items with calming, visual information.

A kaleidoscope, liquid visual timer, fish tank, watching the clouds and a lava lamp all can be soothing to watch.

This post originally appeared on Sensory TheraPLAY Box. If you’re interested in getting a Sensory Thereplay Subscription, find out more here.

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20 Calming Strategies to Help Children Manage Anxiety and Stress

What is a thought?

Thoughts flit harmlessly in and out of our minds, don’t they? thousands of different thoughts a day, some we pay attention to, some we like and enjoy, some we don’t. But what about those thoughts that frighten us? That cause our bodies to react with fear and worry, sometimes panic? What if you are one of those people who can’t let go of the thoughts that terrify you and instead prod them, probe them anxiously until they grow in power and become all you can think about?

I am one of those people. I have always been a “worrier,” someone who has dwelled on bad events, worried incessantly about something I might have said or done wrong, worried my parents might die, that the world could end. As a child the list was endless. However it wasn’t until my late teens that I began to really feel the impact of anxious thoughts, my monsters.

My thoughts usually begin with “what if…” Those two dreaded words, usually accompanied by a flash of an uncomfortable image in my mind, are enough to send me into a spiral of panic. Thought after thought races into my brain, images flash uncontrollably in front of my eyes despite how much I want them to stop, to get off the helter-skelter, to walk in the opposite direction of the thoughts and fears that are plaguing me. The more I try to resist, bracing myself and my body, knowing they are inevitably coming, the more powerless I am to stop them.

Of course, my body doesn’t escape from the thoughts either; my heart thuds painfully, my stomach churns with a gut-wrenching nausea that so often accompanies me and my monsters, my head pounds and my chest feels tight and uncomfortable. I would, in those terrible moments, do anything to escape my own body and mind. The injustice of the experiences I go through every day and am too ashamed to admit to takes the shine off almost everything I do.

Depression likes to bully me when it can: “You’re so weak! Nobody else feels like you do.” “You didn’t leave the house today because you were afraid… what a coward.”
“You spoil everything, you and your stupid thoughts… everyone is going to get sick of you. You’re so boring.”

Sometimes it feels as if I am standing at the top of a black abyss, feeling a magnetic pull towards the bottom of the pit. I have an uncontrollable urge to dive into the “what if” thoughts and try and solve them all, reassure myself these are worries I can control and prevent from occurring. If I could just solve them, answer the unanswerable questions, then I’d be OK and they wouldn’t come anymore. I’d be free from the constraints of my thoughts.

I know it is the wrong thing to do, that by diving to the bottom of the pit I risk eventually being consumed by my fears, but it feels so right, so comforting and the urge is so strong.

The monsters in my mind like to play with what I hold most dear, toy with my deepest, darkest fears until I am so afraid that the thoughts are in fact true and not monsters at all, that I can no longer think straight. I begin to avoid anything I think will make the monsters shout louder. I try desperately to reassure myself the thoughts are not true. They’re not… are they? They could be, couldn’t they? How can I prove they’re not true, that my fears are not going to happen? And so the monsters continue to grow, and their shouts get a little louder. At times, my life revolves around my monsters. I won’t do something or go somewhere in case they start their incessant shouting again – I would do anything to avoid the thoughts and the feelings that come with them.

I get days, weeks even, where I am stronger. I ignore the monsters, labelling them for what they really are – anxious, intrusive thoughts that make my body react in unpleasant ways. I don’t avoid things or places; I don’t jump into the deep pit in an attempt to “solve” the problems and uncertainties. I realize the monsters can’t make me do or say anything I don’t want to – they’re just background noise. Feelings and thoughts can’t hurt me. I’m happier then; the monsters are quieter and I find I have more energy, I sleep better, I do the things I love… even depression’s snide comments lessen. I can see beauty in the things around me, I can laugh from my belly and feel deep love and contentment with my boyfriend.

That’s when I’m cocky – I get complacent. The thoughts are never far from my consciousness, just waiting for me to tentatively probe them, to dive in once more. I fail to resist the magnetic pull just once – then they’re back – my monsters. And the cycle begins again.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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It latches itself into you by wrapping a clawed tentacle around your ankle, placing its talons on your arm, or sinking its barbs into your back and digging in.

Once it has claimed and marked its territory, it sits there quietly, biding its time and waiting for the perfect moment to pounce.

Meanwhile, it whispers to you.

Lies, nightmares, deep-seeded secrets, insecurities, horrors of your past… It feeds into you every night and day.

And it waits.

Waits for the sweet smell of fear, uncertainty, stress, self -doubt, or self-loathing.

And then it strikes!

It digs its claws deeper into your back, sinks its fangs deep into your neck and begins to feed. It gnaws at you, making everything going through your brain bigger, worse, and a thousand times more painful.

As you struggle through your fear, anger, doubt, uncertainty and stress, its poison continues to work its way through you. Before you know it, you’re blinded by terror. The whispers have turned into screeches.

Your heart races, you gasp for breath, you start to cry, feeling like there’s no way out, this is it, I’m going to die…

The more afraid you are, the more it feeds, gulping delicious fear and panic, gorging itself on your terror. It holds you in its grasp as you writhe and squirm, lost to the demons in your head, oblivious to your surroundings. It grows larger and larger as your panic and fear grows, ballooning up, threatening to explode…

Then, a voice cuts through the noise, the fear, the panic, the screeches, reminding you to breath.

A pair of arms surrounds you, holding you close and safe.

As you listen to the voice, as you lean on the arms, as your breathing returns to normal and your terror fades, you feel the fangs disengage. You feel it removing itself from the back of your neck and letting up its grip just a bit.

You know it won’t leave you alone forever.

But, while it’s gone, while the fangs are out and the whisperings are at a minimum, for now, you can relax in those arms, breathe normally, open your eyes, and smile.

Follow this journey on The Inner Demons.

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Many people would describe me as someone who never stops smiling, always makes people laugh, has the ability to instantly light up the room and just seems to effortlessly go through life.

They have no idea I have practiced that smile for so long that I do not even need to think about faking it. That the reason I make people laugh is not just to be funny but because I do not want people to feel the same thing I feel. That I light up the room because I fake happiness so nobody will constantly ask me what is wrong. That nothing I do is effortless.

No one knows I live with a monster in my head.

But I know.

It starts with a sense of panic. The panic means the monster is slowly working its way up into my chest. Once it is there, the monster grips my chest so tight that it feels like I am suffocating as the air is squeezed out of my lungs. This feeling gets stronger and stronger until I feel like I am drowning.

I scream. Scream for help.

But no one ever hears me.

This happens every day. Sometimes the monster is provoked, but other times the monster springs out of nowhere. Either way, there is no stopping it.

The monster is invisible so it may not seem real but…

It. Is. Real.

It is not something made up, it is not a cry for attention and it is not an excuse to avoid responsibilities to make life more convenient.

My anxiety is real.

It’s hard to make other people realize how real anxiety is.

Many people say, “Well there’s nothing to worry about…” or “Just stop worrying about it and you’ll be fine…” or “Why would you even worry about something like that? It’s so insignificant.”

I know.

I know some of the things that trigger my anxiety are minuscule and can sound ridiculous.

I know that, but I can’t help it.

I cannot stress this enough: I cannot explain why I am anxious 0r why this or that makes me anxious.

Sometimes it is for no reason. Sometimes there is no reason for my anxiety.

Now, I do not expect people who do not have anxiety to understand, but please be patient with me and do not look at me like I am “crazy.” I already feel like I am crazy and I have little patience with myself half the time.

On behalf of myself and many others with anxiety: Please realize my monster is not imaginary. It is real.

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