Girl sitting on a wooden bench, reading a book and drinking coffee, outdoors

I get there 15 minutes early. I’m too afraid to be late. I’d much rather never show up at all than walk in late. My classmates start to spill into the corridor outside the classroom and engage in their own conversations. I can’t speak. I stand there, like maybe in a strange way I’m involved with them. But I don’t actually have any friends. I open my mouth to say something, and no words come out. My mouth is dry, and my throat feels like it’s closing up. “You shouldn’t go in there.” It’s that persistent voice inside my head. It’s the voice that makes it impossible to fight the urge to turn and run away.

I sit down in my seat, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone. Not because I’m being rude, but because I’m afraid that by making eye contact they’ll somehow see all of the flaws I’ve been trying so hard to hide. If I look them in the eyes maybe they’ll notice that my breathing is uneven, and my heart is pounding so hard that I’m afraid the girl next to me can hear it. Maybe they’ll notice I’m trying my hardest not to cry or throw up or that I have a million thoughts racing through my head. Thoughts so incredibly loud that I can’t hear what my teacher is saying. I’m shaking, and I’m sweating and my hands and feet are numb. “Don’t let them see what’s going on.” She’s going to ask me a question, I know she is. And there it is. I don’t know the answer, and people are staring at me. I’m so stupid. Breathe. Just breathe.

We’re allowed to leave. I practically run out of the classroom and take a huge breath as I’ve escaped that prison. I survived. I’ll have to go back there tomorrow, but for now I’ve made it through. And I’ll continue to make it. One day at a time.

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A couple of months ago, I had to face the huge challenge of getting on Eurostar on my own to meet my family in Paris. Having not gone on any form of public transportation for more than a year, you can imagine the anxiety this caused.

I had been dreading it for weeks. I had a train for the weekend I could not miss. So traveling out with my family was not an option. I had broken down each step of the journey hundreds of times, but this was not helping. I even did an illustration to break down the journey and prove to myself how simple it would be.

The issue was not only getting onto a train, but also the extra stress of crowds of people, passport control, security and getting on the train. Everything.

Friends and family were so supportive, and I knew they were just at the other end of the phone. One friend even offered to get on the train with me, but I knew it was an important for my recovery to do it on my own.

The day came. I was so anxious about it that I arrived to the station more than two hours early, my sensory anxiety tool kit in hand. (This is something I carry with me to help ground me in high anxiety situations.)

I arrived to the unexpected news that I was too early to go through security. I would have to wait in the main station. As you can imagine, this only fueled my anxiety. I could feel my chest tightening, legs and arms shaking and heart beginning to race. I think the lady I spoke to could sense this and directed me to the ticket office where I could possibly get onto an earlier train, but she wasn’t sure.

I went to the ticket office and somehow ended up telling the lady at the desk I struggle with chronic anxiety. Within moments of saying that, she was whizzing me through passport control and security. She put me on the next train, which was leaving in 15 minutes. She saw me to my seat, and I even got an upgrade in the process!

I was so shocked by this reaction and kindness. When she left me on the train, I said, “Thank you so much. I just want to hug you right now,” and with that she did! Then, she said to me, “Don’t worry. Everything will be OK!”

This just shows that people do understand, and it is nothing to be ashamed of to ask for help. There are lots of people who do care. Never be ashamed to ask for help. You never know who you many find.

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One of the inconvenient things about living with anxiety is bursting into tears in public. On one particular afternoon, my car was in the shop and needed an expensive repair. Plus, I was in the middle of moving, so my anxiety was already high.

When the man at the service desk told me how much the repair would cost, the tears welled up uncontrollably. The stress of moving, money and everything was just too much in that moment. I excused myself out the side door and broke down. Overwhelmed with the feeling that everyone was going to see me and think I had lost it, I put my cell phone to my ear to pretend I was on the phone. That way, hopefully no one would bother me.

One person saw me and decided to approach anyway.

He was an older gentleman. I watched him approach with wide eyes, terrified of interacting with a stranger in my current state. Then, I saw he was holding out his hand to me. I blinked away tears and saw in it was a wrapped piece of chocolate.

“It’s going to be OK, honey,” he said. “We weren’t born with instructions for life stuffed in the crack of our asses.”

Suddenly, I found myself both laughing and crying. I took the candy from him and managed to choke out a, “Thank you,” before he walked away.

Since the chocolate was wrapped, I felt safe eating it. I ate it right then and there, letting it melt in my mouth while I processed what just happened. I had never been comforted by a stranger like that before.

Of course, I started to cry more, because I found the gesture touching. I was also laughing a little and moved by a stranger’s kindness. Chocolate and kind words may not have the power to take anxiety away, but they are gestures I will never forget.

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I’ve been diagnosed with anxiety for 20 years. That’s 20 Thanksgivings, 20 Christmases and more birthdays than I care to count. Including step-siblings, I am one of seven kids and five of us have our own kids. Like I said, more birthdays than I care to count. You would think that after two decades, family gatherings would get easier.

My younger sister and four step-sisters live in different states. My brother lives close by my mom and I. During Christmastime, my sister flies down to Florida with her husband and their three daughters. The day she comes in me, my brother, his wife and all our kids go to my mom’s house for a big family dinner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love seeing all my nieces and nephew, as well as my siblings. Yet, with my anxiety, it gets overwhelming fast.

When my anxiety kicks into high gear, I get uncomfortable with a lot of people being around. When I was younger, it was pretty tolerable. However, as our families have grown throughout the last 11 years, so has my discomfort. The noise of seven kids and eight adults (including myself), all the constant movement. And, of course, all the different conversations going on. It’s a lot!

The last couple of years, I have been able to semi-cope. This year though, I am slowly weaning myself off my psych meds. This includes my anxiety medication (under my doctor’s supervision). So the large family gathering is going to be a bit more difficult. Please, remember that during the holidays especially, anxiety runs high.

Here are a few tips to help your friends and family who deal with anxiety cope:

1. Offer them a quiet place to go when you notice them getting anxious.

A bedroom, the back patio (weather permitting) or even the laundry room with a chair will suffice! Sometimes, a quiet spot helps you gather your thoughts and compose yourself.

2. Don’t automatically assume they’re being “rude” or “antisocial” if you see them put in headphones.

A lot of people I know who struggle with anxiety consider music to be calming. When my anxiety is high, I usually tell my husband I need my “therapy,” and out comes my headphones.

3. Don’t harass or tease them if they aren’t joining in on the 50 conversations going on.

Sometimes, it’s just a bit much to handle.

I’m not saying to change the way you do holidays to accommodate your friends and family with anxiety. However, keep these tips in mind to help avoid a potential anxiety attack. I’m sure they will thank you.

Writer’s Note: Do not stop taking your medication unless either your doctor says to or unless you are under doctor supervision.

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For me, part of having an anxiety disorder was learning it doesn’t define me, that it is only a tiny part of me. Granted, there are times when it feels like it engulfs me, but on the radar of life, it can be but a tiny blip. It might take a while to get there, but in the meantime, life must go on. And part of that life includes friends. I have friends both online (thanks to social media and group texting apps) and in real life. The easy part: You can tell your online friends all the things, because they live in your phone or computer. The hard part: They live on your phone or in your computer. What can be missing are those hugs when you need them most, that knock at the door to open it to see one of your best friends on the other side armed with chocolates and DVDs.

In my life, I have found a good mix. But I’ll be honest, it’s been hard. Because anxiety is a part of me, I tend to gravitate towards my online friends — telling them everything, reading their reassuring texts over and over again, listening to their voices on the phone when I call them when I’m a blubbering mess, finding it amazing that they can actually understand my words. And then there are my “in real life” friends, those to whom I am hesitant to reveal my anxiety, because it’s not exactly party or playground chatter. I feel it is something that has a time and a place, and while it isn’t something I’m ashamed of, it is something I would like my close friends to know about me.

It’s interesting how friendships can be made once you leave the nest of a controlled environment and you are forced to navigate finding friends, much like how you might go about finding a significant other. It amazes me how you may be going about your business, doing things that make you happy, and all of a sudden, someone who was once a surface acquaintance weaves into your life and becomes one of your best friends. How, after a class at the gym, suddenly the time seems right to reveal your anxiety, and you take her class because it helps alleviate it, if even for just an hour. And how having her just know can feel like a huge weight off your shoulders.

And then, it’s amazing how your friendship grows and your anxiety becomes nonexistent, until it flares up — and before you know it, you’re discussing it over dinner and while washing dishes together. She doesn’t pry or prod, she simply listens. She doesn’t try to understand, she simply listens. She doesn’t relate it to something else, she simply listens. And because she listens, she sees where you need her to fit into your life puzzle. She sees you need an hour to take her class at the gym, and she’s grateful to have you. And without asking, she makes herself at home in your home. She helps you prepare dinner and clean up and gets your daughter ready for bed. She reads her bedtime stories. And as you overhear them reading, you stifle back tears as you realize you have finally found a friend in this adult world who “gets” you and all of your mixed up puzzle pieces. And for that you are forever thankful.

I hope each and every one of you can find that kind of a friend in your life. Not only do I feel as though it has made the anxiety a smaller piece of me, but it also makes my heart more open to accepting the smaller piece of anxiety. Friendships are so important, and for me, as someone with anxiety, finding just the right friend is like striking pure gold.

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“Hey, what’s up?”

Sometimes, these words can be all I need to hear to make my day. Other times, my heart will start pumping as if something has gone terribly wrong, as if the end of the world is approaching

This is part of my daily battle with anxiety

As someone who’s always struggled with “high-functioning” anxiety, I have learned to cope over time. Taking a second to breathe can sometimes be all I need to get through a tough day. Other times, I need to run away and hide so I don’t have to deal with anything that will make me shake with fear.

Simple tasks like going to a party with my friends can literally drive me into a state of worry that would probably scare most people. I can shake, cry and panic before I leave my house, but as soon as I leave and face the fear of going, I find myself asking why I got into such a state before I left. Sometimes, all I need is a bit of confidence and I can quench my fear, other times I need more support. In ideal situations I don’t panic, but unfortunately this can be far from my reality.

Halloween, funnily enough, is the time of year I feel most comfortable; my mask of being “a normal girl” is finally acceptable to everyone else who is dressing up as something for fun. I often feel like I don’t need a costume as I feel like I’m constantly pretending to be something else, hideing a huge part of who I am. My inner thoughts and my exterior actions often portray two completely different emotional states, a trait that is commonly seen in those who deal with “high-functioning” anxiety.

The strangest thing is, most people don’t know I struggle with this. From the outside, I seem friendly and at times, I can be quite a humorous young woman. I appear organized, I’m always on time and I try to be on top of my workload. I feel I am a person someone one may call a “perfectionist.” I rarely open up and keep my anxiety at bay, but when it pounces, an alter ego, who quite frankly scares me, can appear. Some of my best friends haven’t the slightest notion what I’m going through, I feel my family don’t really understand. “Don’t worry,” they say. “It’ll all be fine.”

“Don’t worry” is, in my opinion, one of the worst phases for someone with anxiety to hear. We don’t worry in a way other people do; it’s not something we’re able to control. If I could change one thing about myself, it would be having the ability to control my mind going off on tangents on the simplest of things.

Is my hair OK? Do I look OK? Oh God, they’re talking about me; no wonder nobody likes me. No wonder everybody leaves me. Oh God, they’re looking at you, definitely talking about you. Your grades aren’t good; why don’t you work harder? Why did I even bother coming today, no one would notice if I didn’t come.

All of these thoughts aren’t baed in truth. They may sound petty or like I’m attention-seeking, but in my case, this is the last thing they are. I just don’t like asking for help. I am not comfortable with the concept of somebody else having to look out for me, but sometimes this is all I need. I am too scared of judgment, too afraid of being left alone, too afraid of losing that support system before I confide in the first place.

In the times when I lose control, it can last months. I could be fine one minute, but end up in tears the next. When I get this low, there is one phrase that can help me get back on my feet.

Three words. Eight letters.

I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not about to go all Chuck Bass on you.

“Are you OK?”

This simple phrase has honestly saved me at times. That feeling that someone is looking out for you can make a day in despair turn into that day of relief you’ve been waiting for. Sometimes all one needs is a prompt to let everything out. Letting someone know how you’re feeling can literally be a life changer. From my own experiences with loved ones and friends, I have learned a lot about my anxiety and as much as I hate talking about it, it really is the best thing you can do. No one will know exactly how you’re feeling unless you open up, even if it seems like the scariest thing you could possibly ever do.

In turn, if you noticed you haven’t heard from a close friend or family member in a while, please check in with them. Asking the simplest things can really allow a person with anxiety (or any mental health battle) to feel like they’re appreciated and cared about. Having support is so important for those with anxiety, the smallest of gestures can really be a game changer, no matter how minuscule it may seem.

To those who struggle, know you’re not alone. You may feel other people may not understand, that it’s not that serious as other conditions, or that no one will notice, that you’re better off keeping everything in. Trust me: I’ve learned the hard way that avoiding your emotions is the easy way out of this one. The sooner you deal with your thoughts and begin to think more rationally, the sooner you will be able to live a somewhat “normal” life. I still get those moments of irrational fear, but after I talk about it, I can control it for the most part. If I need to let it out, I let it out in an appropriate manner. By writing, talking, meditation or therapy, whatever works for you, keep doing it. Beginning this journey, no matter how long it takes, will be the best thing you will ever do. I promise.

If there is one thing in this world you can be truly selfish about, it’s your mental health. Treat yourself when you need to, go outside and get some fresh air, don’t limit what you can be because your mind is telling you otherwise. That thought in the back of your mind might still be there, but try your best to block them out. I know how hard it is and my words may just seem like another person who doesn’t understand, but changing my thought pattern is one of the biggest accomplishments I have ever achieved. The hardest part is actually taking that leap into the unknown and trusting yourself for the first time. Once you begin, with patience and time it’ll all get easier. Even doing the simplest things like answering your phone to unknown numbers, or just even going for a walk instead of watching another episode on Netflix can make your head settle a little bit. It won’t be easy, but you’ll get there eventually. The process can be difficult, but the outcome is worth the wait.

Be brave kids, the fight won’t go on forever; the sooner you face the battle, the sooner it’ll end. At the end of every dreary storm, there’s a rainbow full of color waiting for you.

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