blurry background of people walking on a busy street

As a woman who copes with anxiety and depression, sometimes the world can seem a bit closed off from me. I find myself stewing in my own thoughts more often than not, and it quickly becomes easy to forget the world and its problems. Something happened to me last weekend, though, that made me remember I don’t exist in a bubble alone, but rather I am surrounded by real people — who have their own very real problems.

I watched someone else have an extremely difficult panic attack.

It was quite eerie actually. It felt like I was looking into a mirror, and I could actually feel the anguish and fear. But it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my panic attack. I’m not sure I ever really grasped the idea that other people felt the exact way that I feel until I saw this with my own eyes. Depression and self-preservation can distance you from others in that way, but I think there’s also something within all of us that can be distrusting of other people’s experiences. I often find myself questioning whether people who claim to understand actually understand. How could they? My anxiety is so personal, and words can almost never do it justice. But then I saw someone else have a panic attack. I saw this person clawing at their chest the way I do when I feel like I can’t breathe.

I saw them clenching their teeth tightly, exhaling a guttural groan, trying with all their might to will the air into their lungs, vaguely reminiscent of a woman in labor. I saw the rocking back and forth and the utter discomfort within their own skin. The many tears that fell from this person’s eyes were so familiar to me, and the panic behind those tears looked identical to the panic I’ve seen in my own eyes.

It was an intense moment. I felt a deep ability to help this person get through the worst of it, while at the exact same time I was barely clinging to calm, as panicked oblivion stewed within my own chest. I could feel the grips of my own panic attack taking over. My thoughts raced and began clamoring in my mind that we might need to take this person to a hospital. At what point during a panic attack do you go? How can I take her to the hospital while I’m mid-panic attack myself? Are there degrees of panic attacks?


Somewhere in those moments, I heard myself repeating my favorite breathing mantra: “In through your nose, out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth.” Eventually, both of us calmed down. Eventually, the tears stopped rolling down cheeks. Eventually, normal breathing was restored. Eventually, our eyes showed no signs of panic. It was a telling moment for me. To see someone experience exactly what I experience so often was humbling.

After I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I had to learn the art of being “selfish.” This selfishness is different than being cruel to others, or careless with others’ feelings. It’s self-preservation. And it is hard for me to think this way. I have to stop myself from overextending to others, especially when helping others is to my own detriment. It was difficult to learn this when my coping mechanism throughout my life was to focus on other people’s lives as a means to avoid focusing on my own. What I realized this weekend, though, is that even though selfishness may sometimes be a necessity for my own survival, it can be unnecessarily isolating. The idea of “being selfish” can cause an echo chamber of panic in me in that I now constantly wonder if I should help others. It’s hard for me to differentiate between what is reaching too far and what isn’t. What will overwhelm me later isn’t always so obvious initially, so I have to be very careful.

That moment of mutual panic gave me clarity that I was not truly understanding something up to this point. Seeing anxiety through the eyes of another reminded me that I’m not alone. I’m. Not. Alone. And helping them helped me, too. I could have walked away and not shared their panic. I could have walled myself off to prevent my own fears. I chose not to, and now I feel I truly understand what it means to not be alone. We are all just people. Everyone’s worst problem is their worst problem. So I believe we should all take a little time to notice other people and extend ourselves as much as we possibly can, because anxiety and depression do not discriminate.

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“Each decision is an opportunity to experience life in a new way; to learn and grow, to find out who you are and what you would like to do in this life. Each path is strewn with opportunities – despite the outcome.” — Susan Jeffers, “Feel the Fear” p. 114

The following was taken from a recent journal entry. This is what it is like to live with anxiety and panic attacks. It’s raw, real and pretty personal, but it gets to the heart of how fear can affect you and how difficult it can be to stand up to your fear. But it is possible to resist your fear. It is a fight worth every ounce of energy you’ve got. I hope this resonates with you and encourages you to continue your journey of recovery.

* * *

Fear. It has me.

It shrinks me, fences me in, poisons my mind and steals my confidence. It has me living a lesser life than I should.

Fear. It has me?

Fears about what other people think of me, of seeming stupid or fat or awkward or lonely, of making no valuable contribution, of being ignored, of reaching the end of my life with nothing but nice experiences and nice things, of intimacy, of vulnerability, of really talking, of being “known” and then being rejected, being “seen” and being disliked, of change, and things moving too fast, being left behind and being an outcast. And fear of fear. “Fear capitalizing on a captive audience.

Fear. It has me.

The medication doesn’t work. It didn’t give me back my life. You may feel less panic, but your fences are still smaller. The medication creates an extra window so you can see your world and feel less trapped. You gain a new point of view, but you still have to reach for the doorknob.

Fear. It has me?

The only push back is to not give in. The fears come, but you don’t have to let them win the day. Do the scary thing, the “scares-the-hell-out-of-me” thing. Like talking and speaking up. It’s that, or you shrink.

“I suggest that you do something that widens that space for you. Call someone you were afraid to call, buy something for more than you ever paid in the past, ask for something you have been too afraid to ask for before. Take a risk a day – one small or bold stroke it will make you feel great once you have done it.”  Susan Jeffers, Feel the Fear” p. 43.


If you enjoyed this article, you will also enjoy Breathe into the Bag: Gender and the Anxiety Gap and 13 Ways that Anxiety is Your Superpower.I write articles about wellness, leadership, parenting and personal growth. My hope is to deliver the best content I can to inspire, to inform and to entertain. Sign up for my blog if you want to receive the latest and best of my writing. If you enjoyed this piece, please share it.

Keep it Real.


This piece was previously published on smswaby

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I remember those nights when I felt possessed. I remember that night when I was completely numb, and I couldn’t feel anything. All I wanted was to feel something, anything. I was sitting down staring blankly at the wall, and all I wanted was to be dead.

I remember that horrific mental breakdown. Tears streaming down my face. Blood running down my leg. Screaming at the top of my lungs. Negative thoughts pouring in. My anxiety kicking in on full gear.

I remember.

On those nights, I felt dead. I would just lie there and cry myself to sleep because life was just too out of hand.

I remember.

I let my anxiety and depression win on those nights. I felt empty. Why? How could I let that happen? I’ve been through enough trauma, and my anxiety is just creating more.

I will never forget those nights when I stayed up thinking about ways to die and how I couldn’t go on. I won’t forget how I acted and felt like a zombie because I felt so out of place and numb. Yet, those nights made me stronger.

I will never allow my mind to control me the way it did. I will not let my thoughts destroy and suffocate me anymore. I will not be that girl anymore, nor will I let anyone bring me to the ground. I freed myself from my old habits.

Even though I’m still learning ways to cope with my anxiety, the only thing that matters is that I’m OK. I don’t think a person could ever forget something like this. There are times when I wish I could not remember it, but I do.

To those nights when I cried myself to sleep, questioning my worth and harming myself, thank you for making me the person I am today. Because of those nights I am in full control and stronger.

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 or text “START” to 741-741.

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An old proverb states, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” While I think that is true, my personal version is more like, “The perfect is the enemy of the happy.”

You see, my anxiety is shot through with perfectionism. If I don’t make the perfect comment to a friend or a stranger, I will stress about it for hours. If the pants I’m wearing aren’t the perfect length, I’ll feel them flapping around my ankles all day. (Happily, sleeves can be rolled up in a perfectly casual way.) If I plan out my perfect day and something doesn’t get accomplished, then I have failed and I can feel the burden of an imperfect future press in on me.

Details like this, a spoken word, an outfit, a schedule, have the power to ruin my happiness.

And this is why for the past decade Christmas has been a day to dread rather than one to enjoy. Because Christmas needs to be perfect, and the perfect is the enemy of the happy.

I have great memories of Christmas from my childhood. Waking up and seeing those glistening presents under the tree, spending the day playing with my cousins, eating the feast my mother cooked for us. No other day of the year could compete with it. It really was the most wonderful time of the year.

Then, when I got married and moved into my own house, I noticed Christmas began feeling a little… flat. I couldn’t understand why. I still went to my mother’s house to be greeted by a beautiful stack of presents, I still visited with family, I still ate a delicious meal. What had gone wrong?

And then I became a mom. And suddenly Christmas was no fun at all. There were presents under the tree, and family, and good food. But I waded through it in misery, wanting to do nothing but go home and go to bed so it could all be over.

Now that I have a better handle on my anxiety and have had the chance to look at it more objectively I can see exactly what went wrong. It starts with this: in my mind, my mother does no wrong. She is the essence of perfect. When I was a kid, I was living in that perfect world. She bought and wrapped the presents, she invited the family over, she made the dinner. All I had to do was enjoy and be happy.


But when I grew up, some of that responsibility shifted my way. I was responsible. It was up to me to make things perfect. Because Christmas has to be perfect. After all, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

For those first few years, the anxiety was minor. Had I bought the right gift? Maybe I should have gotten my dad a new book instead of a golf shirt? Did anyone really enjoy the salad I brought for dinner? I noticed an awful lot of it still on people’s plates at the end of the meal. I thought I looked good in my red sweater this morning, but now, no, it definitely is too tight to wear with these pants.

I don’t even know if I can go into my thoughts once I was the mom who needed to make the perfect day: the perfect presents, the most glorious tree, the well-worded Christmas cards, the homemade treats for family and friends, and on Christmas day, the non-stop wonderland of family, present opening, and food. I would burn my candle at both ends and in the middle, pushing myself to the point of nervous collapse by the end of it all. I couldn’t enjoy anything because I was in charge of making not just the day but the entire month magical for my child and nothing, nothing ended up as perfect as I wanted it to be.

But this year, Christmas is going to be a happy day.

For one, I am on medication this year, and it blunts the perfectionism a little. For example, I realized after I had left the house today that my pants really were too short for the shoes I had changed into. I managed to only be bothered by it three or four times while I was gone.

Two, I have discovered the benefits of “thought-watching.” Thought-watching is kind of like meditation, only you aren’t trying to still your mind, you’re trying to watch your mind from a place of detachment. How it was taught to me is to picture a room with two doors. It doesn’t matter what the room looks like, you can decorate it any way you want to. Then you sit in a quiet place and every thought that comes into your mind you imagine the actual words or a picture of it entering the room. You don’t evaluate it, you don’t judge it, you just watch it. When it feels ready or gets replaced with something else, the thought leaves through the other door.

Doing this simple exercise for just a few minutes each day has helped me gain insight into my own thoughts. It helps me identify the irrational and the impossible thoughts that pop into my mind, the ones that told me I was supposed to be happier than I was or the day didn’t resemble a Martha Stewart magazine as much as I had hoped. Those can’t sneak in like assassins anymore. Sure, they can still be damaging, but at least I can confront them head-on now rather than getting shot in the back by one.

And three, I have a new mantra, “Perfect is a lie.” I made this startling realization just before last Christmas. And I have to admit, last December was a little bit better than the previous years. I’ve been working on believing it more and more since then. Whenever my thought-watching catches that disapproving voice telling me something isn’t perfect, I shoot right back at it. “Perfect is a lie.”

So I say to hell with perfect this year. This year, nothing will be perfect. I will officially be anti-perfect. And hopefully, I may just end up happy this holiday season.

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If I were honest, I never expected myself to struggle with my own appetite. Sure, I had my favorite snacks, and would occasionally eat them just before dinner, knowing they’d spoil my appetite. But that didn’t seem like a problem to me — after all, didn’t everyone do that from time to time?

All that changed, though, with the diagnosis of an anxiety disorder. It was already sufficiently perplexing to find myself caught in such struggles, and it felt like a huge step forward to seek professional help despite the attached stigma. After having to overcome these personal emotional barriers in order to get better, I was taken aback by the side effects of the medications I was prescribed. While I was told there might be a myriad of side effects, such as drowsiness or insomnia, I was unprepared for the impacts of the medicines on my appetite.

Granted, I was hesitant to take my medications because of the anticipated drowsiness, which turned out to be intense. Yet, what caught me off guard was how it stole my appetite. I recall how I described the experience to the people who didn’t understand — it felt as though my guts were a towel, where someone squeezed all the water out of it and wrung it tight, before pulling it taut. While I was told a little food would make things better, the irony was, it hurt so badly, food was the last thing on my mind. This only perpetuated the cycle, until the initial side effects wore off a week later.

Later, I was placed on a different type of medication. This had the opposite effect — while the first stole my appetite, this multiplied it several times.

It started subtly at first — I found myself buying candy, chocolate or chips. It wasn’t something I often did, so I had no qualms doing so. I convinced myself it was an “occasional indulgence.” I began to notice an uncharacteristic increase in the amount of snack foods at home, while realizing I couldn’t help myself — wasn’t I naturally responding to what my body told me it desired? Over time, these manifested in additional weight gain, and I was frustrated as my thighs seemed to burst out of my shorts. Thus, I found myself buying clothes a size larger than usual for a period of time.


Three months, several extra kilograms and a new highest weight later, I mentioned this to my psychiatrist. Thankfully, she was open to changing the medications after hearing about the impacts it had on me.

Even then, tapering off the medicine was not so easy. As the medicine-induced weight gain began to slip off me when I tapered off, I was initially pleased and even amused at how effortless this all seemed. Yet, several months later after withdrawing from the medicine, I found myself at a new low weight, almost without reason. Truth be told, it was equally scary, so I found myself desperate to stem the weight loss. Thankfully, that stopped several weeks later.

Having encountered these things; I found myself approaching the issue of weight and body image through different lenses. Once, I used to take it as a compliment whenever someone mentioned I had lost some weight. Now, I wonder how substantial the difference must have been for the loss to be noticeable on first glance.

I am thankful these days are over, and I have since settled well with a medication that does not seem to influence my appetite or weight. Yet, knowing the potential that things might change someday, here are my takeaways from this experience:

I found myself more aware of the impact appearance or weight-related comments have on an individual. Even as weight loss may be perceived as a compliment to most, it may be misinterpreted by others. Hence, I have learned, and would encourage others, to reserve appearance-related comments from a place of concern, not curiosity. Though I might not have been ready to open up about the truth, I would have loved if people enquired after my well-being, rather than making assumptions that the weight fluctuations were attributed to a particular cause, such as stress at work.

This has taught me in a personal way that not everyone whose weight frequently fluctuates has an unhealthy lifestyle, or an eating disorder. These days, society is beginning to realize eating disorders don’t have a particular “look.” The flipside of the same coin would be that not every individual whose weight fluctuates has an eating disorder.

Though the experience was unpleasant, I am thankful to have learned important things about myself through it — and I hope this gives others a glimpse into the physical impacts one might struggle with as part and parcel of a mental health condition. It’s not just “in my head!”

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I wake with a start and jerk upright. Eyes wide, searching around my room frantically. I crane my head around the edges of my bed. Searching. But for what? A sigh of relief and shame as I realize I only woke up due to my anxiety disorder. A ray of sunlight pokes through the window and spreads across my chest. It desperately tries to reach me. My depression, however, refuses to let the light in. Refuses to let the light shine through. I’m essentially a deep, dark pit.

It gets very discouraging and grim on my worst days. You could tell me world hunger was solved and I would smile, nod curtly and return to the hurricane swirling and raging in my head.

It doesn’t matter. Everyone will die eventually. You and everyone you love. And after exhausting those thoughts, my brain will totally switch gears on me. Did you really lock the door this morning when you left your house? I don’t think so, my dark passenger says to me with the crooked smile I can imagine is on its face. So, how can I destroy your happiness today? Oh, I know! I will torment you by making you think everyone you care about is suffering because of you.

I am at work and it hits me. I can feel the storm begin to surge in my head. I do not think you fixed that problem correctly. I mean come on. Do you really think that is how it is done? Why did you even choose this profession? How did you even drive to work today on your own? Why the hell did you even get out of bed this morning?

I get out of my chair at this point. My head is pounding. My heart is racing. I feel myself losing all control of my emotions, my thoughts, my self… I walk into the bathroom, wave and smile at a coworker and ask them how they are. Then I dart into the bathroom and shut the door and lock it behind me. I look at myself in the mirror in disgust.


Is it nausea? I feel sick. All the while this storm rages in my mind, holding me hostage. It pokes me in my locked cage with thoughts of doubt, self-loathing, shame, guilt, despair and the feeling of being completely and utterly terrified.

On my better days, it goes a little something like this: Alright. Let’s see what’s on my list of things to use against you. Guilt and shame were used yesterday, I’ll put a pin by those two since they are so effective. How about a panic attack?

It starts almost instantly. I can feel it coming.

Wait!” I tell myself. “You will be absolutely fine! You have a wife, family, and friends who love you and care about you so very much! You are not defined by your illness, silly! You and only you can define who you are! I guarantee whatever happened today will pass like every other storm and you’ll rise above this. You. Can. Beat. This.”

Bam. I can feel my heartbeats slow. I can feel the hurricane begin to cease inside my head. My neck and shoulders are killing because of the stress, but I did it. I survived.

If there is anything I have learned from depression and anxiety, it’s that you have to celebrate the battles won. If you don’t you will never begin making progress on dealing with the illness you have.

At the end of the day, my illness does not define me. My anxiety, my panic attacks and my depression consuming my mind like a vast black hole do not define me.

No. No. I define myself.

I get to decide what choices I make. Even when I can’t realize it on my bad days, I always have a choice. I am choosing hope. I am choosing faith. I am choosing love. I am choosing to never give up and let this illness win. I am choosing not to be completely consumed and destroyed by my deep, dark pit.

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