Sleepy woman in bed extending hand to alarm clock. Focus on clock

As my alarm buzzes for the seventh time, I finally open my eyes and force myself to climb down from my loft. I go through the motions of putting on my makeup and combing through my closet to find an outfit that makes me look decent without looking like I’m trying too hard. I quickly brush my teeth and run out the door with knots in my stomach.

It’s just a normal Monday, but it feels like I can’t catch my breath as I walk to class. My anxiety consumes my entire body as I think about the “what ifs:” getting called on when my hand isn’t raised, not being able to articulate my ideas accurately while answering a question, stuttering or involuntarily shaking to the point where it’s noticeable. I finally arrive to class and manage to make it through (along with the next two lectures) in one piece.

Yet, then I run to work cleaning tables at the dining center. It’s not a horrible job. It’s simple. Just wipe down all the tables and interact with my coworkers. Yet, every time I put on my short-sleeve work polo, I can’t help but feel completely exposed. I become hyper-aware of my old self-harm scars that cover my left arm. I try to remind myself that people won’t be paying attention to my arms. They’re just there to eat with their friends.

However, I internally cringe every time a customer says something to me. I just have to smile and make polite conversation, but it feels like I can’t move. Somehow, I always manage to make it through my shift without cracking, but when I get back to my dorm and try to focus on writing essays, I always end up thinking about how awkward I was throughout the day.

Even when I try to sleep, the thoughts about the past day won’t stop flowing through my brain. When those thoughts start to subtly subside, the anxiety for what lies ahead takes over. I spend hours over-analyzing every aspect of the “what ifs.” Finally, I fall asleep for a few hours, and I wake up to relive the same day with some variation over and over again.

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

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Establishing and maintaining friendships has never been easy for me. As a child, I was so painfully shy, I could only have one friend at a time. I would cherish and love that friend with every part of me, and I would fall apart when our friendship would fizzle out.

As I got older, I tried hard to hold onto my friendships by projecting a “perfect” image of myself. This meant hiding the parts of me that were considered off-putting or made people feel uncomfortable, the parts of me that were considered weak or shameful. This meant hiding the stomach aches, the embarrassing frequent feelings of urination, the lump in my throat that made me feel like I was going to throw up and the hours spent awake at night overthinking and catastrophizing the day’s events. This meant none of my friends knew about my anxiety.

I hid my anxiety because I didn’t want to scare my friends away. I didn’t want them to change their thoughts about me once they saw me for who I really was. I feared they would suddenly see me as someone who was too difficult to be friends with. I feared they would withdraw if they didn’t understand or know how to react. My biggest fear, however, was that they would invalidate my anxiety. That they would interpret it as my way of overreacting or being “too sensitive.”

When I went to college, I feared living with a roommate would make it harder for me to keep my anxiety a secret. Yet, I managed to hold myself together while around her. When I’d feel anxious, I’d leave the room to find a quiet spot to cry. When I’d wake up in the morning in a panic, I’d go for a run outside. When I’d need to talk through how I was feeling, I’d call my mom in the hallway. I was able to keep this up for more than a year.

A few days into my sophomore year, I decided to go to therapy on campus. While I knew there was no shame in seeking help, I still felt reluctant to tell anyone. I knew my decision was deeply personal and that I was not obligated to tell anyone about it. Yet, a part of me felt like I was lying to the people I loved if I didn’t. So, I decided to tell my roommate. The whole encounter lasted less than a few minutes and to my relief she was supportive. Granted, I was vague and spared her the details of my anxiety.

A few weeks later, she saw me have a full-blown anxiety attack. I couldn’t hide it anymore. I was ashamed and embarrassed for letting my guard down. The fear that she would stop being my friend or view me differently after seeing me in this state only perpetuated my anxiety in that moment. To my relief, she hugged me tight and told me to sit down. She got me water and told me to breathe. She sat with me until I was able to calm down. We didn’t talk much that night about what was going on with me, but her calming presence was enough.

The next day, I apologized profusely. I explained to her that I completely understood if she didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was so convinced after seeing me in my most vulnerable state, at the peak of my anxiety, that she would want nothing to do with me. In that moment, her response was everything I needed to hear.

She told me, “Lauren, don’t be sorry. You can trust me. I don’t see you any differently at all, and you’re allowed as many bad days/weeks as you need. I care about you and just want to help however I can.”

This was so meaningful to me because she reminded me that my anxiety was not something I had to apologize for. My anxiety was not a weakness or something that had to be hidden in shame. It was not something I made up for attention. It was real and perfectly normal.

It was also not something that would affect the way my friends saw me. Who I was before my friends formally knew I had anxiety and after was the exact same person. This small part of me could not possibly change my compassion, kindness, patience, sense of humor or any of the other amazing traits my friends loved about me.

She also reminded me that I could be vulnerable in front of her. I didn’t have to cry in the stairwell or call my mom in the hallway. She gave me permission not to hide anymore. I could be honest with her in a safe and supportive space. For that, I am forever grateful.

She didn’t admit to always knowing the right thing to say or to always knowing how to help in the way I needed it, but I don’t expect that from her. I know anxiety can be a hard thing to understand for someone who has never experienced it. I know it’s impossible to always know the right thing to say. I know it can be hard to listen to the same irrational fears you don’t understand over and over again.

I don’t need a “perfect” friend. All I need is a friend who supports me in the best way they know how and who loves me for all parts of me, anxiety and all.

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Freshman year of high school, my anxiety hit me pretty hard. This was the time I was actually diagnosed, but I knew years before I was different.

I never realized how much could actually change in one year. In this year, I lost many people I thought were friends. Some days, I looked in the mirror, and I couldn’t even find myself. Pushing people away seemed to be the only thing I was good at.

When my parents decided to put me in therapy, it was their last resort. I wasn’t going to school, and all I remember doing was sleeping. That was the only time when I couldn’t feel. This sleep wasn’t because I was physically tired but because I was mentally done. The hardest thing you will ever have to do is fight with your own mind.

From the the moment I started therapy, they offered medicine. I thought taking medicine would make me weak. I wanted to be able to fix myself without their help. At this time, I thought I was alone. I was always reminded that others were facing the same battles. Yet, when you’re this far down, you think they’re lying. It was hard to put faith in others when I couldn’t even put faith in myself.

From the help of my therapist and my support system, I learned ways to cope. These mostly included breathing exercises. I knew what my triggers were so I knew exactly when I would have a panic attack. When I did start to panic, I would start my breathing and think of a happy place. I was able to distract my mind through music, dance and art. I was able to express my feelings, and I became more open to what I was going through. I was no longer afraid of being what I used to think was “different.”

I’m now in my third year of college, and recently, my anxiety attacks have gotten bad again. I knew they were getting out of control when I could barely make it through a workday or class. I even was getting them while doing the things I loved, like hanging with my friends or family. They became more severe. I didn’t know why they were happening. These attacks were so hard to make it through. Most days, I had more than one attack.

I waited until they got so bad that I couldn’t go to work. I didn’t go to school. Most days, I didn’t even leave my bed. I just didn’t want to go on any longer. I decided to go back to a therapist, and this time, I wanted medicine.

When I received the prescription, it took me three weeks to even try them. It took this long because I was scared. I didn’t want to have to rely on these pills to make me “normal.” I feared becoming addicted to them.

I’m sharing this story because I know others may fear trying medicine. For me, they are helping. I try not to take them much. I only take them when I cannot control my anxiety.

For anyone who feels like a failure like I did, here’s the reality: People take medication every day. Some people have to take certain pills to keep them alive. If you needed to take a medicine to stay alive, wouldn’t you? Well why not try taking medicine that will help you feel more alive? Don’t be ashamed for taking something that will help you.

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Walking into the high school with my 18-year-old son (on our way to watch my 16-year-old son perform), he stopped suddenly and squished my cheek. (Squishing cheeks is his most frequent sensory stim. He tells me my cheeks are soft. I believe him because, well, he’s a cheek expert!)

“I think I figured out why I love werewolves so much.”

“Um… OK.”

We started walking again, heading with the crowd toward the ticket sale line, and he explained. “As soon as we started walking toward the school I could feel my anxiety rise; my body felt nervous and fuzzy. Then when we walked in I felt a shift, a change, and I even noticed my body move like in the movies when people change forms, become the wolf. My anxiety has always been like that. I feel it coming, and then I feel myself change no matter how hard I try not to. I can’t control it.”

I stared at him for a minute. As he explained his theory, I watched his body move subtly like werewolves in movies. It was fascinating — insightful, enlightening and useful.

“Wow, that makes so much sense! Do you feel the anxiety now?”

“Oh, yes. Always at this school.” He turned at looked straight into my eyes. “Always at this school.”

By now we had made it to the front of the line. I purchased our tickets, exchanged a few excited words about the upcoming show with the mom volunteer, and then we headed into the theater.

“Well, I’ll tell your brother how much his show meant to you. That you were willing to risk staying in your werewolf form for him. But if you need to leave at any point just tell me. For now, you can control the anxiety — or ‘the wolf’ — by choosing your environment.”

“Thanks, Mom.”

He looked relaxed. He held my hand.

We enjoyed the show.

Follow this journey on Tsara’s blog.

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Sometimes it’s so easy to stick your head in the sand, to pretend like everything is just fine, to smile at the world. People ask how you’re doing, but do they truly care for an answer or is it simply being polite or an automatic question? I’m not sure. But I do know it’s so much easier to just smile, nod, stick your fingers in your ears and sing loudly to quiet the voices in your head. Sometimes it works. Usually it doesn’t.

I’ve gotten so good at pretending these past two years. With distance it’s so much easier. It’s easy to move on from them asking about you to asking about them and what they’re doing and feeling and experiencing. Because if you talk about the other person, what’s there to say about yourself? Not much, which is the point. It’s exactly what you want and exactly what you do not want. You want them to notice you’re not OK, you want them to see that something’s wrong, but you don’t want to raise your hand and talk about it first.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? You want to be noticed but do everything to not be noticed. You’re ashamed — of the fear, the panic, the anxiety creeping through your entire body. It makes you lose control of your body. It’s like torture. More and more you notice how things scare you.

It starts with being unable to step into the train. Next you can’t go into the crowded library, and before you know it you hole up inside your bed and read book after book. Because books are safe, they take you outside of your own head and put you into a completely different world — one of wonders. Something bright you keep reaching for but your hands can never seem to grasp it. It could be about history, a time when things were different, or about supernatural beings, or a teenage girl struggling with herself and who she is. It could be absolutely anything but yourself and your own problems because if you have to face those…

What will happen? Will your “world” crumble? Will you lose what little control you have left? But is it really control if what you show the world is a mask of fake smiles? Are you truly so afraid of facing the truth that you’d rather live in books or sleep through all of it? Because the bed is safe. No one can reach you there. No one can hurt you. But the problem is, it’s not the outside world that’s hurting you. They’re not even trying to. It’s your own mind attacking you, almost like it’s trying to break what little self-control you have left. And once you let it, that’s when the “normal” anxiety you’re used to turns into full blown out-of-control panic attacks.

That’s when the scary turns into horror, the silent tears turn into almost unbearable sobs, breathing seems impossible and it feels like you might die. It feels like minutes turn into hours at a time. And those minutes turn into long, stretched-out seconds. You’ve lost all control. You can’t think straight; you can’t feel your body except the ragged breathing ripping apart your chest. Sometimes people say, “Just breath, it’ll be fine.” And you would want to give them just a tiny fraction of what you’re going through because if they could feel it… they would never tell you to just breath. They would never look at you as if you’re overreacting or worse… as if it’s all just in your head.

People who haven’t been through it don’t understand, and part of me is so happy they don’t get it. Why? Because it means they’ve never felt so helpless, so ashamed of having these problems, so incredibly small that you feel like a little girl instead of a grownup woman. But it also means they don’t understand that if you manage to make a big step or even a small step, you’re worn out for days afterwards. You’re both emotionally and psychically exhausted.

I’m happy they don’t understand, yet part of me wishes they would be able to understand. It’s both a burden and a relief but never in equal measures. It always depends on what kind of day I’m having.

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

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Jacqui Moore

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