Sad young woman with friend

This piece was written by Koty Neelis, a Thought Catalog contributor.

It wasn’t until the past few years that I realized how badly my struggle with anxiety was. Simple things like waiting to hear back from someone or anticipating how something could turn out would leave my stomach in knots and my heart and mind racing. Now that I understand what anxiety is and how to help alleviate it, I understand a little bit better when I’m experiencing it. I don’t pretend to know all the answers when it comes to anxiety or mental health. I also understand my experience isn’t universal. Yet, I hope these things can help anyone who loves someone else with anxiety and for the person with anxiety to realize they are not alone.

1. It’s not just all in their head, and they can’t just “get over” anxiety.

More than 40 million people have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but those numbers don’t represent the people who live with it every day and don’t tell their doctors. Anxiety is not something that can be cured with a simple, “Everything will be all right. There’s nothing to worry about.” The thing about anxiety is that nobody’s entirely sure where it comes from or what causes it. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, “Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don’t.”

2. Anxiety is an overwhelming experience.

Anxiety can leave a person feeling like their whole world is caving in. The first time I had a panic attack I was a teenager in a large shopping center with my mother. Suddenly, my mind was racing. I was sweating. The store suddenly felt small, and all of my senses were heightened. I felt like I was going to faint.

My mom couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t understand it at the time either. We were just standing in an aisle while she was shopping for something. What was the problem? When someone is experiencing anxiety or when they suddenly have a panic attack, they get into a hyper-sense state where suddenly everything becomes loud and bright to them. The environment suddenly becomes an overwhelming place.

3. Telling your loved one to “relax,” “calm down” or that something is “no big deal” doesn’t help.

Sometimes, it actually makes it worse. When someone tells you they’re worried or anxious about something, listen to what they’re saying. Let them explain why something has them all at sea. Hear them out, and try to understand from their point of view why they’re feeling the way they do.

It’s understandable that people want to provide solutions or express to their loved one that whatever is causing them anxiety is actually not a huge deal. It may not be, but in the moment when a person with anxiety is at the height of their emotion, telling them to relax only makes them feel like you’re brushing aside something that is real to them.

4. Not every person with anxiety is triggered by the same thing.

Often, anxiety has no obvious triggers at all. Something that’s fun or enjoyable for you could have the complete opposite effect on someone with anxiety. For example, one of my anxiety triggers is being in large crowds. This is a problem for me because I love going to concerts and hearing live music.

A couple weeks ago, I went to a music festival with a coworker and in the middle of trying to leave after Drake performed, we were body to body with 50,000 people, all trying to leave the festival. We couldn’t move, and we were in a stand still. Immediately, my mind started racing, thinking about how this was a dangerous situation to be in, about how many times I’ve heard of fatal incidences at music festivals where people were in this exact situation and about how all I wanted was to get out and away from everyone. This was all going through my head, whereas my coworker thought it was fun and awesome to be in the crowd with everyone.

Later, when I told one of my friends about it who has anxiety, she said, “Oh, interesting. Being around a lot of people doesn’t bother me. It’s when I’m faced with being in a one-on-one situation with someone, like if my friend randomly invites a new person to get drinks and leaves me alone with them. Then, there’s uncomfortable silence because I’m too awkward to make conversation. That’s what sends me into an instant panic until I have to excuse myself and go to the bathroom or escape the situation.”

Basically, what I’m saying is, not every anxious person’s experience is universal. We all experience anxiety differently, albeit in similar ways. Although someone can be self-aware of what factors seem to heighten their anxiety (drinking coffee, for example), there’s sometimes no particular things you can predict that will engage a panic attack. They can come completely out of nowhere.

5. Sometimes they just need to be alone.

There are times when your loved one might decline to hang out over the weekend or with your friends so that they can be alone to decompress and just be by themselves. Try to remember to not take this personal. Remember their anxiety isn’t a reflection on you or your relationship with them. People who deal with anxiety often just need more time to work things out in their head and think about everything going on in their life, especially if they’ve been particularly stressed lately.

6. They understand their fears can be irrational at times.

They know there are plenty of times when their anxiety makes absolutely no sense. Even if you both discuss the reality of the situation, their thought process is still thinking about the worse outcomes.

7. It can be difficult for them to let go of their fears.

Even if they’ve talked it all through and they rationally understand there’s nothing to be anxious about, it can still be incredibly hard for them to let go of the mindset that there isn’t something wrong.

8. If they open up to you about their anxiety, then consider it a huge sign of trust.

One of the hardest parts of dealing with anxiety is feeling like you can’t talk about it. The stigma that surrounds mental health is difficult to deal with because it makes those who have been diagnosed with a disorder feel like they’re weird and shouldn’t be open about their experience. If your loved one opens up to you about their anxiety, then it’s a sign they feel comfortable and open enough with you to be honest about a significant part of their life.

9. You won’t always be able to tell when they’re dealing with anxiety.

Just because someone is feeling extremely anxious doesn’t mean they’re going to be sitting there outwardly displaying signs of anxiety. Many times people with anxiety struggle in silence because they don’t want to make a big deal out of something or because, well, it can be embarrassing to admit. There have been times where I’ve been at a party and a friend has told me quietly they needed to leave because they were feeling anxious. If they wouldn’t have said anything, then I probably wouldn’t have guessed anything was wrong. Remember that even people who seem totally fine can be battling a war inside their mind.

10. You might not understand the ways they practice self-care.

Self-care is one of the most important things when going through a stressful time, and it’s the little things that can make them feel better. Maybe it’s doing a deep clean of the apartment or a closet, organizing books in a bookshelf by genre versus alphabetical. You might think it’s odd that the best way your loved one feels better is by cleaning the dishes, but many times these kind of activities are a form of meditation and help soothe the anxiety.

11. It’s important for you to remember to practice your own self-care as well.

Just because the person you love deals with anxiety doesn’t mean you have to walk on eggshells around them. They understand it can be a lot to deal with sometimes, and they’re grateful to have someone who cares about them. They don’t expect you to forgive all of their flaws or mistakes, which is where patience and understanding are truly appreciated.

12. Don’t feel like it’s up to you to solve all of their problems.

You and the love you give are not the solution to your loved one’s anxiety, but it can certainly aid as a balm. They don’t expect you to solve something in their brain that they don’t even understand themselves, and it’s important to remember this so you don’t feel burdened. Being someone that is simply there for them and listens to what they’re going through can often be all they need to feel understood and cared for.

13. They need strong and stable relationships to truly thrive.

Relationships that are back and forth and fail to offer any real support, stability or longevity can make them feel unable to really connect with someone. They need their partner or loved one to keep them grounded and make them feel safe.

14. They might never be like anyone else, and that’s OK!

Just because someone lives with anxiety doesn’t mean their anxiety defines them, and it isn’t something that has to be seen as this great, overwhelming presence that dominates your connection with them. Be there for them. Listen to their fears, their concerns and their thoughts. Seek understanding and communicate. This person might not be like anyone else in your life but isn’t that one of the most beautiful things about loving them?

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For me, being a mother and having anxiety, I have faced all sorts of days. When my anxiety strikes, it’s like I have left this world. I feel helpless, alone, scarred and disconnected from things around me. I used to curl up in a blanket and let the anxiety take its toll on me until I felt it was safe to move. However, now being a mom, I am not able to hide when my anxiety strikes.

I have to overcome it and do the best at being a mom as I can. It can be hard to take care of a little one while taking care of yourself and your anxiety. I am learning how to manage my anxiety while still being a mother. While it’s not walk in the park, I am doing it and here is how.

I came to the realization one afternoon while listening to my 18-month-old boy cry because mommy wouldn’t let him stand on the kitchen chair. I was afraid he would fall. My anxiety kicked in, and I was taken into my mind where the “what ifs” spiraled out of control. What if the last thing my kid sees is me giving him trouble?

After sitting there crying alongside him, I thought, “Why am I doing this to myself?” I was so afraid of death itself, I had lost the ability to parent my child and look out for his well-being, all because of the anxiety inside me.

I decided things needed to change that day. I needed to live my life being the best mom I can be for my son. It has been an uphill battle every day. I can no longer dwell on my anxiety. Even if I am in the middle of an attack and my son needs a cup refill, bum change or to for me simply help him build with his blocks, I have to be there every step of the way.

There are a few things I remind myself every day. I thought I might share them in hopes of helping another mother/parent living with anxiety.

1. It’s OK to feel this way.

Sometimes, you need to let yourself feel the anxiety. This is OK as long as you remember it’s just a feeling and it will past. For me, sometimes, despite my best efforts, the anxiety is strong. It’s a bad day and that is OK.

2. You need to take care of yourself in order take care of your child.

Remembering to eat and to rest can feel impossible some days. For me, the fear of falling ill and leaving my son behind always helps me to remember I need to stay as healthy as I can and keep going to be there for my child. Some days, it feels like a heavy weight, but I see that little smile and it makes it easier.

3. It’s OK to have a bad day.

No one is perfect, and not every day can go a smoothly as planned. Acceptance is key. There are still days I have an attack, and I can’t let it go. I carry it with me all day, but I know it’s just one day. Tomorrow, I can try again and make it better. Everything is one day at a time with anxiety.

4. Be patient with yourself and others.

I know for me if a day filled with anxiety hits, I tend to get a bit on edge and easily aggravated. I used to shout a lot. Then, I realized there are better ways to express your emotions when on edge. Now, I remind myself of this daily. Be careful with the words you use, and staying calm helps me stay in control. I need to be in control while disciplining my child. I don’t want him to fear the monster the anxiety-induced rage has turned his sweet mommy into. I just want him to know what he did was wrong, and I love him no matter what.

5. Think about all the positives.

Day to day, there are ups and downs in life. Remembering to live in the positive side can be hard. It can be helpful to think about the happiness of the day before you go to sleep. It really helps me ease my mind of all the things that went wrong. I, then, can look forward to the happiness the next day will bring.

6. Enjoy every moment.

Life is full of the unexpected. I try hard every day to make it a great day. Sometimes, the anxiety weighs me down, but my son has watched me struggle with the bad days. He knows sometimes mommy needs a hug or snuggles to help me remember what I live for.

These simple reminders help me along the way when my anxiety becomes unbearable. Being a mom or dad with anxiety can be tough, to say the least. All I can do is wake up every day, ready to give it my all!

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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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