crowds on the streets

Turning on the television, devastating news is common. Listening to the radio, voices echo the same sentiment. Hoping for a reprieve or positive news for your day, you login to your social media of choice. Post upon post upon post, you see horrors. The dark side of today’s connected life is we are unable to avoid the onslaught of images and posts in our newsfeed. Whether it is violence, a health crisis or terrorism, we live in an uncertain time. It is emotionally draining for a relatively healthy person. However, for those afflicted with mental illness, especially anxiety, reading the news or opening Facebook is a land mine waiting to happen. It can be debilitating as we absorb that hopeless, precarious emotion into ourselves. Personally, there are days I cannot leave my house due to the state of the world. We live in a 24/7 news cycle which leaves us so very vulnerable to succumbing to our anxiety disorders. I am a mother and anything about children, no matter their age or gender, and I cannot even finish the headline. Short of living on a deserted island without communication from the outside world, I have developed strategies for managing my anxiety when I am so uncertain.

Ask Questions: When you encounter an issue that deeply affects you and in turn your anxiety, ask questions. Is it an imminent danger? Is it triggering me in some manner? Is it born of anxiety or anger or fear? By taking a moment to determine the root cause of why I am reacting, it allows me to move on to my next step.

Action: Sometimes I react due to the simple horrific nature of the news. I am angry that actions so terrible occur. Perhaps I am disgusted. My root cause may be a personal connection I feel, such as a mother/woman/daughter, etc. Actions allow us to channel our anxiety. Let’s say my anxiety stems from reacting to a victim of domestic violence. I can volunteer at local shelters, donate needed items, call my local government to encourage legislation for victims. If I ask myself, “what can I do?” and there is a way, however small, to help, it has truly helped my panic attacks because I am making a difference.

Take a Break: Turn off your phone. Log out of Facebook. Turn off the TV. Clean the kitchen. Close your eyes, think of what is calming and do it. Distracting your mind allows us to recharge. Anxiety is physically draining. The pain from it is very real. Soaking in a warm bath can help alleviate it as well as encourage relaxation.

Minimize: If it is feasible, minimize or eliminate the source of the anxiety. This means many different things for many different people. Personally, I have to log out of social media, avoid reading the news and minimize any exposures to triggers. Turning on great music, exercising and expressing that panic into physical energy is a great release.

Go to Bed: I used to think I was a super human superhero with dark circles under my eyes as my own personal cape to prove I could do it all. All I did was become a strained, exhausted shell of myself. Sleep is physically necessary to live and there’s no trophy for burning the candle at both ends. Make sleep an important priority.

Be Safe, but Be Sane: Wear your seatbelt, take vitamins, wear sunscreen and be vigilant to protect yourself to maximize your life. I have less anxiety and fewer panic attacks if I am prepared. It’s one less thing to worry about. Yet, as that adage goes, “accept the things you cannot change.” Have emergency kits in your car and your home. Go to the doctor for your annual wellness exams. Drive the speed limit. Make sure your kids are healthy and safe. However, I had to accept the ambiguity of life.

There are still days when my fear wins and I cannot leave my home. There are days where my medicine is working, it’s a beautiful morning and I go for a run. I struggle everyday with anxiety and what works for me may not work for you. All I can say with any certainty in this world is you’re not alone.

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The pressure was an all too familiar feeling, like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I’d recently started taking my antidepressants again and was aware they weren’t magic; it’d take time. I tried regulating my breathing and quickly downloaded some apps made to distract from panic attacks. I walked around outside to take in some fresh air when I felt my thoughts starting to swirl. The world was flying past me, and I felt like I was trudging through mud.

I glanced at the clock. I needed to meet my family for brunch. I knew canceling to stay in bed would only make me feel guilty and intensify the anxiety bubbling inside of me. During the drive I tried to think of excuses for my less-than-enthusiastic personality, but when I got there I simply stated, “My anxiety is really bad today.”

Over Christmas I told my family I had found a new therapist and was working with my primary care physician to restart my antidepressants. They were aware I struggle with depression and anxiety but never really asked questions. Until I broke the ice and showed them what me fighting my anxiety looks like.

I liked to think I was fighting the mental health stigma by writing the occasional blog post with a casual mention and “liking” uplifting photos on Instagram. When it came to my own friends and family, however, I’d clam up, falling prey to imaginary scenarios in which they would treat me as “crazy” or “unstable.” Instead I’d sit quietly, drowning in thoughts and fighting back tears or hiding in my room until I felt in control enough to not break down in front of anyone.

“What do you get anxious about?” my mom asked me after we’d been seated at a table.

I tried my best to explain how my thoughts quickly spiraled out of control and that while I’m taking my medication it is easier to recognize the irrationality behind them but I still get physical symptoms. Usually these spirals are triggered when I haven’t been keeping my normal routine, like over the holidays.

They nodded along. My dad acknowledged that he often feels that way too and probably has undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive behaviors and anxiety. We talked about our personal triggers.

Throughout the conversation I felt the tension in my chest relax, if only ever so slightly. It was like the weight of constantly pretending to be OK was lifted. I knew they knew I wasn’t making this up. My invisible illness became more valid because they often felt the same symptoms. I felt proud of myself for seeking out treatment.

I let my family see that I wasn’t OK, and we all became a little more OK because of it.

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Thinkstock photo by Anita Charlton

The Anxiety & Depression Association of America describes anxiety as people who, “experience excessive anxiety and worry, often expecting the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.”

But what they didn’t tell me was that along with excessive worry and constant fight-or-flight responses, would come a large number of other problems. Here are five ways I didn’t know my anxiety would affect me.

1. I doubt nearly every relationship I have.

From friendships, to romantic relationships, to family members, to co-workers, whether I’ve known a person for a week or a decade, I will doubt my relationship with them.

“What if they are just pretending? Do they only spend time with me because they pity me? How do I know they’ll stay with me? Is my anxiety too much for them?”

Unfortunately, I’ve lost or damaged several relationship because of my anxiety. I don’t intend to do this, but my brain goes off on a vicious cycle and anyone can turn into someone who I could be offending.

2. Schoolwork is five times harder.

I used to have 4.0 GPA. It has dropped since anxiety hit. With every single word I write, my anxiety finds a way for it to be wrong. If I don’t immediately know the answer to something, I am instantly flooded by the feeling that I am an inadequate human. Is this true? Absolutely not! This is work I know I am able to do, but my anxiety tells me I will never be right, no matter how hard I try.

3. I’m constantly exhausted.

I take naps nearly every day now. Anxiety wears a person out. It takes all my energy.  I didn’t realize having intense emotions takes a toll on your energy.

4. I doubt my faith.

I am afraid to believe. I’m terrified of judgment. My anxiety has made me believe I don’t deserve forgiveness or salvation. I live in fear and worry.

5. My house is a mess.

I feel like I have no time on my hands. Dirty dishes and messy countertops can be found in my kitchen. My bathroom is a disorganized disaster, and piles of dirty clothes are everywhere.

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Thinkstock photo by Kichigin

I love to travel. I also struggle with an anxiety disorder that gets worse when I am traveling.

Traveling with anxiety can be absolutely exhausting, but I haven’t let it stop my love of seeing new places. It just requires that I go through extra steps others may not go through in order to have a relaxing time.

Pre-Travel Checklist

After I’ve purchased my plane or bus ticket, or have begun to coordinate with my friends about where we are going, I am already mentally going through my things and trying to figure out what is appropriate to take for this vacation. I keep an actual checklist with me – one of those Knock Knock brand pads that I once purchased on a whim – to keep track of and make sure that I have everything that I intend to bring. This also means constantly checking the weather conditions to make sure I don’t pack the wrong kind of clothing.

When I am ready to pack – anywhere from a week beforehand to the night before – the process goes something like this:

First, I will highlight the items on the checklist I will be bringing. I know I won’t need everything that’s on the list, and I make sure to fill out the sections for travel destination and weather. Next, I will gather all of the items I intend to bring and neatly fold or roll up the articles of clothing to place in my luggage. When I fly I try not to carry more than a carry-on bag and a personal item so I can avoid baggage fees (and also reduce my chances of over packing).

Seems like a normal process, right? Well, after I’ve done all of that and my luggage is packed, I have the need to take everything out and run through my checklist at least one or two more times in order to make sure that I am 100 percent confident I’ve packed everything I need for the trip.

Even then I am still not confident and a flurry of thoughts come crashing down on me: What if I forget my passport? What if I don’t have enough money with me? What if I lose my luggage? What if the weather does a complete 180 and I have packed for the wrong weather? Should I pack for a surprise formal event just in case?

Getting to the Airport/Bus/Train Station/Meeting up With Friends

The journey to the airport, train or bus station is often a nightmare in and of itself. I constantly worry  I’m going to miss my mode of transportation and I will be stuck. The last time I flew on a plane, I was going to Colorado (where I will be going again soon) and I arrived at the airport nearly three hours before my plane was due to leave because I was afraid security was going to take forever. In reality, it only took 20 minutes to get through security, if that.

I was traveling with my then-partner and I remember feeling so shaky and uneasy while we had to check our luggage and later trying to find a place to sit at our gate. I also remember feeling dread come over me that our plane was going to be overbooked and we were going to get bumped to a later flight. On our return trip, this actually happened but we didn’t get bumped thankfully.

The Importance of Traveling With Friends

As much as I would love to be able to travel alone more frequently, I find the best way to help quell my travel anxiety is to travel with a friend, relative or partner who I trust can calm me down and help ground me when I start to panic. The ones who know the unspoken signs of an anxiety attack about to happen and know exactly what to do in that kind of situation. I have been lucky in that whenever I’ve done major travel, it has always been with someone I trust to be there and help the situation rather than make things worse.

My anxiety may worsen when I travel, but I haven’t stopped moving yet.

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Stockphoto via Pexels

I’m 16 years old. My parents are going on a trip for their anniversary and I’m going to be home alone. I see their bags at the door. They’re putting on their shoes and talking to me, making jokes about throwing parties while they’re gone and reminding me where they left the emergency money. I’m smiling and trying to concentrate on how happy I am for them and how nice it will be to have the house to myself for a week. I am putting on a show. I am trying like hell to hold back the tears and push aside the “what ifs.” But as hard as I try, those thoughts force their way to the front of my mind. They always do. I start wonder why I even try fighting them as they take over my mind, grabbing control of every thought. I’m lost in them.

It always starts with a, “what if…?” What if my parents never even make it to the airport? A terrible thought in and of itself, but it’s not enough for anxiety. It’s not satisfied with one sickening thought. It is just the seed it uses to sprout terror. It is just the beginning. Before I know it, a scene is playing out in my mind. My own personal horror movie. I watch as my parents, my role models and my friends, slam their car into another one. I can see them, air bags deployed and windows smashed, bleeding and unconscious. My dad, laying his head on the steering wheel and my mom, slumped against her seat belt. I can see the flames. They feel so real I swear I can smell the smoke. My dad wakes up. He knows he has to get out. He has to save my mom. He’s shaking her arm, yelling her name, trying to reach her seat belt to set her free. She doesn’t move. The flames are getting closer, getting hotter, but he can’t leave her. My dad, big and strong, begins to cry. He can’t live without her. So he grabs her hand, closes his eyes and waits. I’m trapped in this moment. I’m watching, but I can’t help. I can’t cry, I can’t run, I can’t even move.

I’m back in the house, standing by the door waiting to say goodbye. It feels like I was stuck in my head for hours, but anxiety is surprisingly good at time management. It can put me through hours of hell in mere seconds. It’s so quick, no one else would ever suspect the terror my mind just put me through. But the smell of smoke lingers and the feeling of heartbreak will last for hours. I can’t fight it anymore and a few tears start to roll down my cheeks as I’m hugging my parents goodbye. Somewhere deep inside, I know this won’t be the last time. I know they will be OK and they will be home next Saturday. But those thoughts are too far right now. They’re too quiet to release the hold my anxiety has. So I say goodbye and try to keep the tears to a minimum, hoping my parents will not see, but knowing they can. They’ll never understand. They’ll think I’m paranoid or selfish and just don’t want them to go. I wish that were true.

Someone who has never experienced anxiety, who has never been attacked by their own mind, may not be able to understand how real it is. They can’t understand the power these thoughts have. They don’t see how they infiltrate your mind and affect your body. To them, they’re just thoughts. It’s not their fault they can’t understand. No matter how much we explain, they never truly will. And to be honest, I am so glad they can’t. Dealing with this alone is extremely hard, but it would be so much harder watching someone I love go through the same thing.

To those of you who don’t understand what anxiety feels like, know it’s OK. If there’s someone in your life who is struggling with it, remember you can be there for them without fully grasping what they are feeling. Understand these thoughts are extremely real to them. Remind them they’re safe without belittling their fears. Stay close, even if they don’t want to be touched. And most importantly, know they are grateful for you, even if they can’t express it.

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Today, I’m in charge. Today, everything makes sense. Today, there is clarity.

I know this deserves celebration because not every day is like this for me. Daily, I battle this fiery electricity that vibrates inside me. Swirling, spinning, spiraling out of control. Most days I feel as if my life is a highway and I’m swerving back and forth across the line just trying to get my tires to grip the road, to grip reality. Or as if I had built my life out of a stack of Legos and something came in and smashed them to the ground. I keep picking up every piece, looking at it, and not recognizing it — trying to figure out how the pieces fit back together. Most days I’ll feel the weight of my anxiety hit me with all of its force and drag me to the ground trying to run off with my peace of mind, but not today.

Today, I battle unwanted negative thoughts relentlessly. Today, I’m my own superhero. Today, I’m unstoppable.

I feel a sense of unease grip my shoulder – trying to whisper to me doom, but instead of turning to it and letting its darkness embrace me, I fight back. I hit it with my left. I’m the boss. I’m in charge. Swing with my right. I run this life. I make my decisions. And finally, I hit it with an uppercut. I am strong.

As my anxiety takes the blow, it sinks back, slowly releasing its grip from my shoulder. It thinks, “What do you mean I’m not in charge? What do you mean I can’t pick away at you today? Why can’t I make you feel uncomfortable in your own head?” It looks at me once more – I’m breathing heavily. I’ve fought hard, but I’m victorious. I’ve battled darkness, and it scurries off. I’m the hero I needed today.

In our daily chaos, who we truly are gets a little hazy – it’s not clear. We forget. We forget our capabilities. We forget our own strength. We forget that mental illness doesn’t make us weak, even though sometimes we feel like it does. We forget we can be in charge of our day. We forget that anxiety doesn’t have to rule us – we rule us.

So on days like today where I have battled my anxiety head on, how do I celebrate? I remind myself who I am, who I can be and what I’m capable of. I live the day full-heartedly and joyfully. Enjoying my surroundings and being grateful for the many blessings I have. I may not get the opportunity to feel like this every day, but do not think for a second I will ever stop fighting for myself.

Today, I’m in charge. Today, everything makes sense. Today, there is clarity.
And there will be a Tomorrow.

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Thinkstock photo by Transfuchsian

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