Yoga mat

When I attended my first yoga class, I was expecting to leave feeling relaxed and especially “stretchy.” While I did leave with a new spring in my step, I also left with a lesson that would come to benefit me for years to come.

In came in the middle of a sun salutation. I’m following along, trying to slow my brain, control any flatulence and be the good, diligent student in class: “Not everyone will be able to [insert weird way to contort your body here], but that’s OK. Just meet your body where you are right now. It’s OK to modify. It’s not a weakness, it’s just acknowledging you aren’t there yet. That’s why yoga is called a practice.”

This comment was likely said millions of times over the instructor’s career, however it was news to me. News that would stay with me for years to come and would give yoga millions of brownie points in my book. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

This seemingly simple advice applies to so much more in life than just yoga. Mental illnesses can be all-consuming and it can be frustrating to not be able to do what we need to. Get out of bed. Get dressed. Brush teeth. Clean room. Go to work. Calm down. These minute tasks can feel like finding a needle in an ocean when you’re going through a panic attack or in the depths of depression. And when easy tasks like those listed above feel hard to do, it can be ridiculously frustrating and just add more stress.

Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

Maybe getting out of bed sounds like the worst thing ever. Perhaps just looking out the window while lying in bed is a good first step. Meet yourself where you are now.

Maybe getting dressed takes a lot of effort. How about getting out of bed first? That’s a step in the right direction. Meet yourself where you are now.

Clean room. Ha! Cleaning, yeah, right. Have you had a glass of water? Water is so good for you and might just motivate you more. Meet yourself where you are now.

I first realized the benefit and impact of these statement one dark February day. It was perfectly light out, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Staring at a wall sounded more interesting than looking at the cute puppy pictures my friend had sent me to try to cheer me up. On this particular February day, I was reminded of one self-care option: journaling. I wrote in a journal a lot as a depressed kid, but as a depressed adult I found the notion overwhelming. You really want me to write in complete sentences when I can’t even figure out what color the sky is right now?

I gave it a shot. And after just one sentence, I was already stressed. But then, I realized something profound. My brain was running a million miles a minute even though it wasn’t functioning (the joys of depression and anxiety simultaneously, am I right?) and full sentences weren’t working. But words. Words I could do. I started writing words. Big, small, fat, plain, decorated, sideways. Words all over the page. Words that weren’t sentences and weren’t fully formed thoughts, but were words that came to the forefront of my mind. What I found was writing these words helped them calm down in my head. And as my thoughts swirled less, my brain calmed down. And as my brain calmed, my mood lifted. I felt relief in journaling the way that worked for me. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

Yoga is a practice. Life is a practice, too. Practice isn’t just for musical instruments and sports teams. Practice is all around us. When we meet ourselves where we are in the present, we can easily set a goal for ourselves.

I can’t journal right now, but I can write words. Maybe as I practice writing words, I’ll be able to work up to writing sentences. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

I’m too stressed to color inside the lines of my new coloring book, but coloring outside the lines feels better right now. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

Self-care is hard. Not all self-care ideas will work for all people. And not all ideas will be right in the moment. But don’t be afraid to meet yourself where you are now. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Modify, modify, modify. It’s not a weakness, it’s doing what you’re able to in the moment. And that’s OK. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

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I’ll be 31 weeks pregnant on Thursday. It’s been the greatest of blessings. I couldn’t be more thankful and excited. But today, I’m feeling slightly on edge and anxious.

When I found out I was pregnant, I went off of all of my anxiety meds. I knew if things got bad there were medications safe for pregnancy I could try, but I wanted to give it a go “cold turkey.” This isn’t for everyone and I must say I had the blessing and supervision of my doctor when making this decision. I had very frank and open conversations with my doctor so when we started trying to get pregnant, I could safely wean myself off of the meds.

I’m almost to the end of my pregnancy journey and most days have been just fine, but I still have days when the anxiety gets bad. I start overthinking things. I feel nervous, for really no reason in particular. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t really want to talk to anyone.

I’m thankful over the years I’ve become pretty self-aware of when I’m experiencing anxiety or depression. It wasn’t always this way. There was a long period of time where I had no idea what was happening to me. I just didn’t feel like me. Now, I know what to look for when I start feeling like this. I know the signs and I know the methods of self-care I need to practice.

I go home and take a hot bath. I talk to my husband so he knows I’m not feeling myself and doesn’t take it personally when I’m acting differently. If I feel the need, I talk to a therapist or counselor. I make sure I get some good sleep and wake up the next day to reassess.

I’m really excited about becoming a mom but I’m also (more than) slightly terrified. This is my first child and I have no idea what I’m doing. I know I’m capable and will learn, but I feel like there’s so much I should know.

I’m being vigilant in monitoring my anxiety and taking each day one at a time. If you’re out there and you’re going through the same thing, I hope you know you’re not alone. This is a huge life change. Huge life changes are often accompanied by anxiety. If you have a history of battling this monster, it’s even more important for you to be aware of the symptoms when they present themselves and learn to take care of yourself.

Talk to your doctor or therapist. Talk to your partner or best friend. Watch your favorite movie and take a warm bath.

As for me, I’m going home to order some Indian food, enjoy a soak in the tub and snuggle with my pups.

Tomorrow is another day and one I hope will be free from the anxiety I’m battling today.

Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience. Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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I love winter. It’s easily my favorite season. However, it can also be challenging for several reasons – the shorter days, the colder temperatures, the holidays, etc. For me, though, I think the toughest part of this time of year is having to drive in bad weather. It’s frustrating and unavoidable. I need to go places nearly every day, and if I’m not driving, I’m a passenger in someone else’s car. Being able to look back and appreciate what I’ve been through on the road, though, is definitely a positive. Each scary drive is an opportunity to learn about myself. Each time I reflect, it reminds me I’m still here.

Roughly 13 years ago, I wound up stuck in a standstill traffic jam on a highway in the dead of night, right before Christmas, in rural Kentucky. In four hours of literally being parked on the interstate, 10 inches of snow and 2 inches of ice came down on my car. When the jack-knifed semi that caused the jam was finally cleared away, driving into a white void sleep-deprived and unfamiliar with the area was awful. It would have been bad for anyone, but as someone with an anxiety disorder, it was terrifying. Fortunately, I didn’t get stranded or in an accident, but my mind did – over, and over, and over. I remember my hands, neck, and shoulders aching for days after that ordeal. I can still feel it.

Last month, we had our first deep freeze in Denver. The temperatures fell below zero, and the snow started falling much earlier than anticipated. I found myself alone in my car, again at night, trying to maneuver my way home on roads that hadn’t yet been plowed. I drove clutching the steering wheel while watching cars around me slide out of control in slow motion. I couldn’t see the lines on the highway. Everything was eerily quiet, and the lights glowed in that magical way they do when snow falls. Again, I found myself pointedly attempting to breathe beyond my chest, stretching my fingers and pushing my shoulders away from my ears. I remember how the snow and ice began to freeze on my windshield, praying the section I could still peek through wouldn’t become obstructed. I made it home safely, but I wasn’t able to fall asleep for hours because despite my body being utterly exhausted from all the adrenaline, my mind was still stuck on what could have happened. Once again, even though it didn’t, it could have.

The following night, I had to be on the road again (I know), but this time, I opted to carpool with others. There were five of us in the vehicle; I wasn’t driving. I’d actually told one of my friends I was nervous about the excursion beforehand, and he asked me how he could help, but at the time, I didn’t know. I just told him I might need to talk, or need a hug, or be reminded to breathe. When we were all climbing into the SUV at the end of the night to return home, the anxiety hit me like a bolt of lightning as I was crawling into the backseat. My mind was telling me I needed to speak up, tell my friend I needed him to sit next to me, but my anxiety told me it would be too embarrassing. Sadly, I listened to the anxiety.

While the roads were better on this particular night (compared to the night before), they still weren’t great. There were lit up signs over the highway, warning drivers that roads were icy and to go slowly. Every time we passed under one of those signs, I felt more panicky. Every time a giant pickup truck flew by, my heart raced just a little faster. By the time we reached the halfway point, I had fully succumbed to a panic attack. I cried silently, I dug my fingernails into my palms. I tapped my toes, alternating between my left and right feet, trying to focus on the rhythm. I tried with every ounce of energy in me to remain unnoticed. I was the prey, and the drive had become my predator.

It was then the girl sitting next to me leaned over and took my hand. I wish I could say it took all the fear out of my body, but it didn’t. However, it did let me know I wasn’t alone. It pushed my shame back and reminded me my illness was not an overreaction. I wasn’t making a plea for attention. She knew, and she helped.

When we finally got back to the parking lot where we’d all met, I practically fell out of the vehicle once it stopped. All of my sounds escaped from my mouth. I started sobbing. My breathing quickly became hitched. The apologies started spewing forth. And everyone in the car came together in that moment and took care of me. I was loved and calmed by people – most of whom barely knew me. They waited for me to come down enough so I could actually get in my own car and drive home, and eventually I did. And yes, again, I made it home safely.

I don’t know if these feelings manifested after that first drive back in Kentucky over a decade ago or if it really matters. What is important, though, is I continue to learn that admitting my fears isn’t shameful. Letting people know I have anxiety is a brave act. Asking for help is always OK.

And through all this, I still love the winter, especially during the day, especially when I’m not in the car.

Drive safely!

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Photo by Kat Atwell: Standley Lake in Arvada, Colorado

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

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