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When Your Brain Can’t Handle a 'Small' Change in Plans

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It was a great day until the dinner plans changed.

It was actually the best day I’d had in a while after an on-and-off week of darkness, and I remember feeling proud of myself for purposelessly spending time with my boyfriend without dissolving into a million pieces.

That was until the dinner plans changed.

I thought we were going out for dinner. When I got out of the shower, he was cooking dinner for both of us. A miscommunication. Not a big deal.

But this flipped a switch in me. Thoughts, first appearing one at a time, suddenly multiplied and crescendoed into an indistinguishable buzz. I had stepped backwards into a deflating body, and whatever was sucking the air out of me was taking my breathe with it. Not a specific worry but multiple worries had broken through the confines of linguistics, transforming into physical blows.

I’m embarrassed to tell you the rest.

I’m embarrassed to tell you the rest because when this happens it doesn’t feel like “me.” In my everyday life, I appear relatively easygoing. I hate drama and shrivel at any sign of conflict. I don’t consider myself a picky eater. I can hold it together in many situations that would be considered stressful.

But this — on this day — this is what broke me. This is sometimes how anxiety works. I had planned on something happening and now it wasn’t happening the way I thought it would. It was small, and it didn’t matter. But it was enough.

So after the dinner plans changed, the following string of embarrassing events occurred:

My boyfriend and I getting into a puny fight. (Me, calling him out for saying, “We didn’t have time to make dinner.” Him, clarifying. He meant we didn’t have time to go shopping since I infamously cannot complete a shopping trip in less than 30 minutes. Me, denying this, even though it is a 100 percent true); Me, crying, announcing I couldn’t go out with friends anymore; Me collapsing in his bed, unable to find a position that felt “right,” thoughts racing fast, chest tight; Him holding me.

But what’s always worse than the reaction is the corresponding pile-up of shame. Shame because my boyfriend was once again going to have to explain to my friends why I wasn’t out. Shame because my boyfriend was comforting me though another mini, pointless breakdown. Shame because I knew this wasn’t even an issue because I’m lucky to have dinner and someone to make it for me. It’s this shame that held the most weight as I curled up in my boyfriend’s bed, trying to find my breath.

If this sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. But the drama doesn’t make it feel less real.

I’m not sure why change is a trigger for me. This doesn’t happen around everyone or even all the time.

It’s when I’m in a safe place — when I’m with someone who loves me unconditionally. It’s like my brain can be its true self: inflexible and always in search of certainty. After bending and trying so hard to fit into my everyday life, and succeeding at it, my brain is tired, and it waits for any reason, a shift in the wind, to release the tension that’s been building up from passing in this uncertain and overwhelming world.

When I was crying that day, it really wasn’t about dinner. It was about how stressful it can be for me to pick out meals because I want to be certain I’m choosing the “right” thing. It was about always needing to know the plan because I’m constantly anxious about the anticipation of everything. It was because I had gotten some upsetting news from home that day, and although I had handled the phone call “surprisingly well,” in reality it was tucked away, waiting to be provoked.

I did end up getting myself together and going out that night with help from my incredible boyfriend, who knows how to support me without patronizing me. Because in these moments, I don’t need to be told I shouldn’t be reacting this way or that it doesn’t make sense to react this way. I know that. I know it so much. My rational mind starts beating myself up over it the moment the anxiety starts. 

What I need to be told is that it’s OK — that this one reaction doesn’t define who I am, suddenly make me a “drama queen” or void how well I was doing during a structureless day that would usually be hard for me.

Although a reaction — like having an anxiety attack when things change — seems dramatic and seems irrational, it doesn’t make you dramatic and irrational. And I think if we accepted this and released ourselves from the weight of shame, it might become a little easier to find our breath in these moments of panic. Because in an ever-changing world, if one thing is consistent, it’s that things will pass, and that we’ll be OK.

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When Anxiety Starts Making Decisions for You

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Many people see me as a confident and compassionate volunteer with a therapy dog who offers comfort and support to middle school students. What they and most people don’t know is that anxiety made me do it! After retiring, I needed to do something to fill my time and anxiety limited where and what I could do. Working with my service dog who is cross-trained as a therapy dog was a great option. It also helped that I could return to a school in which I had worked before, under a principal I knew and with some staff with whom I was familiar. My anxiety “made” the choice for me. This time it was a great one.

Other times, when my anxiety gets the upper hand and limits my choices, I feel the outcome is not as good. There are times when I’m invited to go places with my coworkers or friends. The thought of navigating traffic, a new venue, choosing from a menu, dealing with crowds and handling money is too overwhelming. My anxiety kicks in. I fumble through excuses in my head: I need to feed the dogs, my husband is expecting me, I forgot my debit card, I have a headache or I am not hungry. I never share the truth: I am saying no because I am anxious and scared.

Anxiety made me do it!

Family gatherings are so nerve-wracking. If family gathers at my home, I petrified we have not cleaned everything perfectly. (Oh, that pesky dog hair!) I worry about having wonderful decorations. I am concerned whether I have prepared a good meal to satisfy everyone and whether I look presentable and am able to make everyone comfortable and happy! If we choose to visit family, I worry about keeping names and relationships straight, making conversation and wondering how soon we can leave because I am genuinely uncomfortable making small talk for hours. I try to opt out as often as possible. Again, anxiety made me do it!

Going shopping or running errands away from our home produces major anxiety. I have difficulty driving away from the house and worry about accidents. I am uncomfortable in the store and cannot concentrate on the purchases I should make even if I have a list. Sometimes I will just abandon the basket and come home with nothing. Anxiety made me do it!

Anxiety is my silent, constant copilot that makes many of my decisions. Someday I hope to be the sole pilot. But right now much of the time, “Anxiety made me do it!”

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When Anxiety and Depression Accompany You in the Office

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Rising in the morning, I feel like I’m “birthed” into a cold, harsh world. My anxiety and depression make me feel like I’ve been unplugged from the Matrix. My blankets are my cocoon and my bed is my nest. Although the voices in my head tell me of my challenges and flaws, the bed and blankets give me a break from facing them. In these morning moments, it’s hard to put a finger on what finally gets me out of bed. I think it’s the obligations I feel toward my children and my friends at work.

It was almost a year ago that I took a medical leave for anxiety and depression. My co-workers and my supervisor, by and large, have been extremely supportive and respectful of my privacy. I sometimes feel reluctant on elaborating or conveying experiences because you never know where stigma will come from.

My wife and my mother-in-law are the day-to-day support network at home, in particular with childcare and family/household matters. Yet, my anxiety and depression take a toll on them, too. So I try not to speak frankly about my emotions and symptoms with them.

The morning routine of getting the kids ready for school and out the door (in particular our 6-year-old twins), can be anxiety-filled for all of us. However, I try not to show it. I internalize or hide my anxiety if the kids are moving slow and if it looks like we’ll be late for school. I’m afraid that a full-blown anxiety attack will ensue if I let the anxiety get the best of me.

I usually drop the twins off at school on my way into work. I try to treasure the time I have with them while they are still young, especially since I have a 13-year-old boy who’s growing up way too fast.

I work in an “open office environment,” where there are no cubicle walls. I usually say hi to at least my “pod/table mates,” and others around me. However, I secretly really miss the structure I had at a partial hospitalization almost a year ago. At the partial hospitalization, we would start the day in a group setting with a morning “check-in.” Each of us would share how we were doing, how we were feeling and what our goals were for the day. I found this morning check-in reassuring and much more authentic than the ritualistic, “How are you’s,” in an office setting.

When I power up my computer at the office in the morning, I take one quick look at my work email, and I realize I’m not quite ready to take on the day. In a strange, ironic way, I go grab a coffee from the office kitchen to help settle my nerves. I have a long-lasting hope that coffee is my anxiety’s placebo. At least it makes a small dent in depression’s drowsiness. I grab a water too as a way to tell myself that I’m sort of being healthy.

I’ve heard of the phrase, “Time is a construct.” Yet, with my anxiety, that phrase takes on a life of its own. When it’s 11 a.m. it feels like 3 p.m. Then 3 p.m. feels like 7 p.m. Later, 7 p.m. can feel like 11 p.m. I look around at coworkers, gaze out my office window and I wonder if others ever feel the same way.

I have some compulsive, ritualistic things I do when I start to feel anxiety at work or at home. I check my personal email accounts, Facebook and Twitter. Sometimes, anxiety is the reason I get up and walk around the office or at home. Whether it’s at my work desk or in a comfortable chair at home, I find myself habitually rubbing my feet together as a nervous and anxious habit. I highly doubt anyone else notices.

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To My Husband Who Faces My Anxiety and Depression With Me

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To my husband and best friend,

You were like something out of a movie. A reward for me, an incurable romantic who never stopped believing in love.

Introduced through our dear ones, we met on Skype, got engaged six weeks later without ever meeting in person and married two months after that. For someone who takes ages to decide which milk carton to buy in our weekly groceries, decades to pick what movie we will watch on the weekend and lightyears to decide where we should live or what car we should buy, you sure did not waste any time in deciding you wanted me to be your wife. You decided the first time you saw me on that fuzzy Skype screen, you later confessed.

You were always so logical, seeing things in black and white, weighing the evidence. You were so calm and rational. You had no idea, like most people, what anxiety and depression was. I tried to tell you. I sent you articles, news and medical reports, but it wasn’t until we actually started living together that you realized the horrors and engulfing darkness of these two all-consuming diseases. You took your time realizing that the periods of inexplicable sadness or terrifying panic attacks were not the result of any of your own mistakes or shortcomings or mine. It was just the way it was.

Then, my love, your courage, patience and love shone through so bright it bought sunshine to my world. When I was home alone, you always followed to the code. “Five out of 10” meant I was not happy but OK. “One” meant I was doing badly but nothing a hug and extra attention would not cure. “Three” meant you had to leave work or anything else important you were doing and come help me immediately. “Ten” usually entailed you spending long hours with me at the A&E only to be returned later with a sobbing me when the doctor refused to help us or acted grossly insensitively and made my already unbearable condition worse. You always, always followed the code.

Sometimes, the codes weren’t necessary. One look at me and you could read me like tea leaves arranged into alphabets. You always knew what to do, the small things or the big things that would help. Sometimes, when I over did stuff, fooling the world into thinking I was OK, I saw tears in your eyes, which you tried to hide. I later learned you, and only you, heard the pain in my voice or saw it in my eyes.

On one occasion when the negative thoughts, as usual, churned a never-ending loop in my head and I recalled a 100 hundred bad memories per millisecond, I told you how I had always felt different. I told you how I had earlier felt this was OK as it is the strange ones who go on to win Nobel prizes or bag huge accomplishments. Yet, now I felt like I would not even do that. I was feeling like I will always just be different, not even in a different-but-at-least-hugely-accomplished-sort of way. When I said all that, you didn’t waste a second in taking me into your arms and saying, “Hey baby doll. There is nothing wrong with you. You were created in God’s light, and you are God’s light.”

You weren’t humoring me because you really were proud of me. You saw my obvious battles and my wins, and you saw my hidden battles and my wins with those. Sometimes, you understood the world got too overwhelming for me because of depression and anxiety. In those times, you brought out a comfortable blanket and hid in it with me for a while.

Sometimes, you made a “safe” spot for me in the house, an “island” where the sharks could not swim up to me. Sometimes, when I was fine, you let me hop around, be happy and just be myself. Sometimes, when I needed space, you got that too.

Yet, when it was not safe for me to be alone, you carried me somewhere in your arms and propped me down where you could keep watch. You kissed the tears away so gently. You did all of this literally. You made me feel so understood, so special and so completely normal.

I guess I could feel guilty like most people with depression and anxiety probably feel on a regular basis, like a “burden.” I guess I could feel like I owe you a lot of thank you’s. I guess, on the days I feel inadequate, I could tell myself I do not deserve you, but then, that’s love. Knowing I don’t have to feel, think or do any of those things.

You already know I am grateful. You already think you love me that much because I, somehow in many ways, am deserving of your love. You have already understood depression and anxiety, and you have defeated the challenges with me.

I am better today because you are my hero. You were like something out of a movie. Today, you are my hero in real life. I know because I survive every day, I am yours.

Yours,
Anxiety Girl

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5 Simple Reminders for People With Anxiety

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1. You are not alone.

This might be one of the most common things people hear, but let me tell you. There are times I still feel like I’m the only one who is going through this. Anxiety disorder and panic disorder have such a wide spectrum. It is possible you might not ever come across someone who has the same type of anxiety you do, but you will find someone who can understand what it’s like to feel anxious that goes beyond just a simple, “I’m nervous.”

I have severe travel anxiety, and I still haven’t met anyone who has that type of anxiety or gets panic attacks similar to mine. On the other hand though, I have met people who have had panic attacks so they understand the feeling of needing to get out of the situation and back to a place of comfort. No matter how uncommon you may think your anxiety is, you are not alone. I’m here for you. We are all here for you.

2. Your anxiety does not define you.

Person first. I never say I’m an anxious person. I always say, “I’m Alison, and I have anxiety.” Anxiety is only a small part of you. Could it interfere majorly with one’s life? Of course, but it’s still only a small part. Before our anxiety, we are mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, friends, artists and teachers. We are lovable, friendly, introverted, extroverted, silly, serious, sensitive and empathetic. You are so much more than the anxiety.

3. Don’t ever be ashamed or embarrassed.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to never feel guilty about canceling plans or leaving a situation that became uncomfortable. You can’t control when a panic attack comes, and it’s hard to control anxiety. You’re not purposely making a situation uncomfortable for yourself. Why feel ashamed and embarrassed? People are usually understanding when someone gets physical ill. They should be just as understanding if your symptoms are due a mental illness. Your well-being is important, and your family and friends should understand that.

4. You are good enough.

Had a panic attack today? Still good enough. Couldn’t stick to your plans the other day? Still good enough. Left a dinner with friends early because your anxiety started creeping up? Still good enough. Skipped a class today because you were feeling really anxious? Still good enough. Don’t ever let anyone tell you or make you feel like you aren’t good enough because you are.

If someone doesn’t want to be your friend or have any romantic relationship with you, then it’s their loss. They are losing out on a sensitive person who is keen to their surroundings, appreciates the little things and who can notice even the tiniest of differences. They are missing out on someone who would never judge anyone for what they are going through because we know what it’s like to feel misunderstood.

5. Be kind to yourself.

At the end of the day, the only person who will always be there for you 100 percent of the time is yourself. So treat yourself well. Give your body and mind the care it deserves for it has never given up on you even during the toughest of times. Nourish your body in a positive and healthy way. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

Had a bad day? It’s OK! Give yourself credit for making it through that day and reward yourself with a nice bath or dancing in your pajamas while singing into a pretend microphone (a personal fav). Cook your favorite meal. Treat yourself to that new shirt or movie. Be there for yourself. You’ll be happy you did. I promise.

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When Anxiety Nearly Stole My Identity

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I have a history of anxiety and have struggled daily. I want to use my voice to help others and break the stigma attached to mental health. I am speaking out for myself but also for other people.

I never thought I’d be in a position where I would be obsessively whispering the phrase to myself, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” Surely that is a line taken out of a teen crime drama or a melodramatic soap opera? I thought it sounded ridiculous too, but nothing described what I felt more accurately. Slowly but surely, anxiety was spreading to different areas of my life without even a trace of noise, predictability or warning.

In hindsight, the onset was early. It started with things that could be easily misconstrued as timidity or embarrassment. My first public speaking task was in high school, and I vividly remember the palpitations, the sweating and the feeling of being judged before anyone had even opened their mouth to give feedback.

I joined a youth theater group in hopes that acting would help me adjust and make it go away. It helped for awhile, and I began to love it but only because I was in character. I was someone else. If I was myself, then I was screwed. I started treating a lot of things as an act. I was proud of myself because I found a temporary solution to (little did I know) an ever-growing problem.

The problem started to manifest itself in more (unnoticeable) ways. It is only now that I realize because it has interrupted my life for quite some time. My family starting picking up on my irrational fears, such us the overwhelming horror that came with making a phone call, the devilish tear-provoking times I had to stand up in assembly to receive an award or the shameful act of getting on public transport, fearing I would ask for the wrong ticket or get on the wrong bus.

Being in my teens when this all started meant a lot of it could be blamed on “hormones.” I told myself it was normal. My parents, doctors, nurses, teachers and friends all presumed so, too. However, I wasn’t really sharing the extent of it with them. I was absolutely terrified. I started missing out on huge opportunities because I couldn’t even get over the first obstacle. Things that “normal” teenagers would enjoy such as going to clubs, playing team sports and non-school uniform days were my worst fears and took every ounce of courage I had.

I got to the point that life was so full of fear and unbearably terrifying that I’d rather not be living it. I had hit depression, hard.

My anxiety became all-consuming, affecting nearly every part of my world. These are the areas of my life that were impacted by my anxiety:

1. Anxiety affected my self-esteem.

I eventually broke out of my deep depression by changing up my image. In all honesty, I think I helped myself accidentally. I wanted to be noticed by boys and be one of the “popular” girls. When I reached 10th grade, I started dressing up more and tried boosting my confidence. It helped for awhile; I got attention from my four-year-long crush and things were picking up! It still felt like one massive act though because as soon as I got home and locked myself away, it all kicked in again. I remember distinctively covering up mirrors around the house because I had picked up the compulsive habit of looking in it every minute. I’m not even exaggerating. It was hard because my anxiety was telling me people thought I was vain. In reality, it was just my insecurity and me not feeling good enough.

2. My family relationships were affected greatly.

I was an irritable and angry person. I only now realize this was the anxiety. Irritability is something that is very much uncovered during an anxiety attack. I never really meant to lash out, it just all got too much at times. I remember my parents or sister often saying, “Sometimes, I think you really hate me.” I didn’t. Of course, I didn’t. I tried so hard to stop myself, but it often got to be too much.

3. My anxiety affected my senses.

A person with anxiety is generally more sensitive to light, sound and their general surroundings. They automatically try and filter factors to control the situation. Meal times were the worst. The sound of people eating, chewing, talking, the bright lights, often my sister’s baby crying, the dog barking, the radio on, the sound of cutlery on plates and steam rising off of the hot food. Everything was times 10. Suddenly, my tone changed. I fell into an angry, resentful, tense state, which resulted in me often being a horrible person. I wish to this day that I could change it.

4. My sleep patterns changed.

I’d either not sleep much at all due to excessive racing thoughts, or I’d tire myself out in the day so much I would sleep for 17 hours. I didn’t really want to eat. My anxiety gave me a nervous stomach that made me feel nauseous a lot. I had aches and pains in my muscles and joints. I was just so tense and wound up.

5. My memory and thought patterns were altered by anxiety.

Even my focus and memory eventually became fragmented. I couldn’t find anything I enjoyed doing for a long period of time. Nothing was fun anymore. Even if it was, I didn’t have the focus to stick to it. I loved reading, but I couldn’t even read one page at the time. I wanted to sit and watch a film, but I couldn’t follow the plot nor could I sit still for that long because I was so restless and agitated.

6. People’s perceptions of me changed.

My identity was warped by anxiety in front of everyone’s eyes. I was tired, angry, jealous, irritable, insecure, lonely, misunderstood, restless, desperate, anxious and scared. I just wanted to live normally. I wanted to wake up and not be scared of little things. I wanted to not expect the worst out of my day. I wanted to go out and live my dreams without convincing myself I’d fail.

7. Anxiety impacted my ability to have a relationship.

Six months ago, I got into a relationship with a person who I would call my first real love. We are still together now. Anxiety had never affected my relationships before probably because they weren’t serious or it was still “high school.” Maybe this guy is just more special. I have never been a jealous person nor have I been a control freak. It was now evident that Jess, as I knew myself before, had gone. I was scared of pretty girls that could want him. I was scared he would want them. I was scared of good looking guys that he might even want. The thoughts in my head were haunting and I could barely recognize myself anymore.

 

Acceptance was the first step to moving forward and recovering. I am not “crazy.” I just have anxiety. I’m not mad. I just have anxiety. Sometimes, it’s difficult and I have to keep reminding myself. These scary thoughts are beyond my control. I am still struggling. It is a daily battle, but it’s slowly getting better.

Yes, I still have panic attacks. I still can’t focus on things well. I do overthink and jump to conclusions. However, I am trying different methods and supplements. Maybe someday I’ll be able to live freely without the torment of these terrifying and exhausting thoughts. I say, “Anxiety nearly stole my identity,” because I won’t let it win. It’s not over yet.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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