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Editor’s note: Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

One morning a few weeks back, I got out of bed to use the bathroom as the sun was coming up. My wife was just getting out of bed as well to see the kids off to school. My brain was a little fuzzy on the short walk across the bedroom, but I chalked it up to the small fan I keep on the window sill every night. The white noise and the gentle breeze help me sleep but the sometimes colder air can leave me feeling groggy in the morning if the window is open too much. Maybe it was that. Or it may have been the drink I had about an hour before bed. Or the late-night snack that seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I walked back to bed with every intention of dozing off for another hour or so, but the fogginess of my brain started to transform and really take hold. I felt like I was being pulled from reality, like I was slowly walking backward in a dream. Of course, I knew I was awake, but I felt disconnected and distant. It was as if an invisible barrier stood between me and everything else that was real. Anything other than the growing chaos in my head was little more than background noise. I nervously told my wife I was feeling quite anxious.

Anxiety is nothing new for me. It’s something I’ve dealt with throughout most of my 51 year of life. It’s a genetic gift from my father to me and — with much fatherly guilt — from me to my own kids. Sometimes the damned condition seems to be contagious — even my adopted daughter struggles with anxiety. I can vividly recall panic attacks and generalized anxiety as far back as my memory allows, though back in the early 70s it was simply called “being shy” or “introverted.” I quickly learned complaints of a stomach ache to the school nurse were a prompt ticket home for the day.

In my adolescence and early adulthood, anxiety was often coupled with the dark and dreadful partner, depression. The combination was often debilitating. The trial and error process of finding effective medication can be extremely frustrating. But with therapy, medication, spirituality and an insatiable appetite for knowledge on the subject, I learned many of the effective coping skills that can sometimes help us tame the beast just enough so it becomes a somewhat bearable nuisance. And I’ve been lucky. It’s been this way for the better part of the last 13 or so years. I wear my anxiety on my sleeve like a badge of honor. I talk freely about it with others so people might realize it doesn’t have to be a dark secret.

Something happened one morning a few weeks ago that was very unexpected. The beast was back in my head and I’d forgotten how to cope with it. By trying to control it, I’d given it power and control. I took half of a low dose of medication and paced around the bedroom for a few minutes. With sweaty, shaking hands, I diligently made the bed. I carefully folded laundry. Still bordering on panic, I took a full dose of medication. I was confused by this unwelcome return but I kept myself distracted with physical activity for a while and my mind eventually began to slow down. I was shaken, but I was able to ease into action and I made it through the day without too much further difficulty.

Now, a big concern for anxious people lies in the area of self-control. For me, control over my emotions and my physical wellness often ranks higher than my basic need for food and water and even sexual desire. Sadly, I’m not exaggerating even a little. And I don’t simply let small failures fade away because for me, no failure is ever small. I can turn the mole hill into a mountain just as aptly as I can convince myself a simple tension headache is most certainly a rare and advanced brain tumor. And so it began. The seed in my mind had been replanted.

On the following morning, I woke up feeling mostly OK. But within a few minutes, doubt snuck into the back of my mind. It started with cold, clammy hands and cold feet, followed by tension in my belly and a heart beating in my chest with a little too much beat. And then came the forgotten but familiar scary thoughts, progressively getting louder and faster and more invasive in my brain. The morning turned out to be a beastly repeat of the day before.

Each day since has pretty much been marked by a similar routine. I struggle through the early morning hours trying to keep my mind occupied in activity and the anxiety typically fades into background noise by sometime around noon. I wish a mindful tranquility would come more easily but my wife certainly appreciates the folded laundry, the made beds and the clean bathrooms. Although it’s not pleasant, the morning episodes truly only rate four or five on a scale of one to 10, even though it seems like eights and nines in the moment. I am truly thankful the feelings do eventually pass.

Three or four weeks into it now, I try to take a pill only when I absolutely need to and I try not to feel too guilty when I do. I’m giving myself permission to be human and flawed. More importantly, I try to reflect on anxiety’s return without too much fear. It’s been over a decade since my last encounter with it and I am admittedly a bit rusty. Knowing what it is and accepting it as such are two very different concepts. I read and I pray and I try to exercise daily. I remind myself to stay in the present moment without empowering the feelings of fear with a fight. Instead I simply try to let them come along with me for the ride. I realize I am not alone. I’m frustrated. I’d forgotten how all-consuming the grips of fear can be. And I still have questions. Lots of them. I try to be patient and hopeful while I wait for the answers to emerge. It’s not easy. But I am learning to cope with anxiety. Again.

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I am a huge romantic. My husband is my rock and has stood by my side through my depression and anxiety. My usual response when I have a panic attack or depressive episode is to call him and calm down with his help. He wrote me this letter to help me when I couldn’t get through to him. I think it is one of the kindest things anyone has
ever done for me. I wanted to share as a thank you to him.

Morning Sweetheart,

I know you may be a touch apprehensive right now, but I can assure you that you will do wonderfully today. I know you find it hard sometimes. You get stressed and feel a great weight upon you, but I know you can get through it because you are my Jane. You are a smart, creative, kind and inspiring woman. I loved you when I married you, and I love you more with every passing moment. Take big breaths. Drink lots of water. Have a really good day, sweetheart, and I’ll give you hugs when you get home. I love you.

I would recommend a similar gesture if your loved one is struggling. I think this is one of my most prized possessions, and I know they would really appreciate it. Giving all of you my love.

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Thinkstock photo by Upyanose

Coping with my severe anxiety is an ongoing process. Over the years I have developed a “toolbox of things” which I use to deal with it. Having a variety of “tools” and strategies can be handy because not all are useful or appropriate for each situation.

1.  I work with a doctor for medication. I have two types of medication. The first is medication I take daily to keep my anxiety under control. The second is medication to take as needed when I am dealing with panic attacks.

2. I have a counselor for support and to work on cognitive strategies to change my patterns of thinking. Anxiety attempts to control my mind, and it is important to me that I remain in control of my thoughts and feelings as much as possible. Working with a counselor helps me do this.

3. I avoid extremely stressful situations and limit the amount of stress I am under each week. Stress can contribute to anxiety so I monitor my stress levels and stressful activities and make certain I do only one stressful thing per day.

4. I try to eat healthy foods and exercise so I remain healthy. That involves choosing fruits, veggies, protein and drinking water. I walk, do cardio exercise and lift weights at least five days a week.

5. I maintain a positive support system. My family and carefully selected friends work together to assist me as I attempt to manage my anxiety and navigate dealing with people, places, and things.

6. I meditate daily. To help with this, I have downloaded meditation tapes on my phone that meet my various moods. Some are related to anxiety, some are specific to breathing, and some are basic meditation. They allow me to relax and recharge in 10 to 30 minutes.

7. I do yoga in addition to exercising and meditating three to four times a week. This helps me stretch and relax my muscles which I often tense due to my anxiety. I also must focus my mind on the exercises so anxious thoughts are excluded.

8. I use a weighted blanket. My blanket calms me when I am anxious and helps me feel centered. Some say its weight may help stimulate the brain to release various neurotransmitters that help me feel happy and calm, but I have yet to see a good scientific study.

9. I log off and turn off. When my anxiety begins to act up, I turn away from Facebook and TV and exercise, meditate or turn to my support system. Each of these activities may help to increase positive mood and calm my anxiety. Facebook and TV can have the opposite effect.

10. I hang out with my animals. Patting a dog is known to reduce blood pressure and increase happiness. I have three dogs and two of them work for me. Spending time playing with them can help with my anxiety.

11. I focus on hobbies that require mental concentration. Two of these include writing short stories and knitting complicated socks.  Knitting socks is my favorite hobby when I anxious because it engages my head and my hands.

What’s in your toolbox?

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Yesterday I got home with organized plans on how to study, ready to take on the world. I decided to wait until my mom got home (around 4:30) to actually begin my process. But by then, I had lost all motivation and was completely unable to accomplish anything. I wanted to study; in my mind I could see all my notes laid out and me solving practice problems, but in reality I just couldn’t. “Study for 15 minutes,” my mom would beg. “I can’t. I can’t. I can’t,” was my only reply. Around 5 we went to go look at a new apartment for my older sister, a nice break from the stress of not studying. It got so much worse when we arrived back home. I began to cry about not studying.

Earlier that day my teacher, in an effort to convince us to study, had used a favorite scare tactic: “If you haven’t started studying this test will be really hard and the results are permanent and assessments are 60 percent of your class grade.” In my head this became a lecture on not getting into college and failing everything. Needless to say, scare tactics don’t work so well for me.

Anyway, I sat at the table crying about needing to studying, but not studying. I calmed down a little and enjoyed dinner, and then it got worse. As it got later I began to be upset that I hadn’t studied earlier. I ended up sitting in the corner of my kitchen (it felt safe) crying hysterically for multiple hours. I was embarrassed, scared, upset, and exhausted. Being terrified is beyond tiring. Eventually I decided I wouldn’t take the test and sat with my mom and sister, still upset.

I went to bed early, trying to least get the sleep I needed, but when I woke up this morning I didn’t really feel any better. I knew I was too exhausted and worn out to go to school; I was absolutely not faking being sick.

So, right now, my classmates are taking their tests, and I’m lying in bed. I have friends who get three hours of sleep and are fine. I usually miss about 15 days a year from being sick. It’s sucks, and I wish I could go to school, but some days the world feels against me, and I can’t.

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Thinkstock photo by disqis

Avoiding text messages. Refusing to pick up the phone. Tapping. Nail biting. Hair pulling.

While these might seem like rude or annoying habits to an outsider, for someone with an anxiety disorder, it can be part of their everyday life. And while most people understand what it’s like to be nervous or anxious, those with more persistent anxiety or panic symptoms might express or cope with their anxiety in different ways — ways that might be hard for others to understand.

To find out other ways anxiety manifests itself, we asked The Mighty’s mental health community to share one thing people don’t realize they’re doing because of their anxiety.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “Zoning in and out of a conversation to prepare a response or to silence your brain. My brain is so active, I am constantly thinking of the right word, then I say the exact opposite.” — Willi M.

2. “I literally carry my water bottle with me everywhere. I cling to it because if I start feeling anxious or nauseous, sipping water grounds me temporarily. I also say I’m sorry, a lot. Whenever I feel uneasy about anything, sorry immediately comes out.” — Marla S.

3. “I’m not on my phone because I’m ‘just another teenage girl with her eyes glued to her screen.’ I’m on my phone to distract myself from the thoughts in my head telling me everybody is staring at me and judging me. In fact I’m more than likely just scrolling around on my home screen.” — Alyssa D.

4. “A lot of fidgeting. I play with my ring, bounce my leg, swallow a lot, flex and point my feet, eyes dart between trying really hard to focus on the person in front of me, but I’m often actually looking at exits. I have meditation rings and often wear long necklaces to keep my hands busy while I’m anxious. Otherwise I often end up with deep half moon dents in my palms from my nails or scratches/rashes on my forearms and chest from scratching because of anxiety.” — Erin W.

5. “Touching my face and hair constantly. Making plans and hoping they fall through. Looking for exits as soon as I enter any place. Obsessing for days about conversations and what I said wrong/ could have said.” — Mary C.

6. “Disappearing for a bit. Sometimes at an event if there’s nowhere else, I will visit the toilet repeatedly. Not to use it but just to get a little space away from everything so I can reset. It’s not a glamorous hideout, but it can work!” — Natalie J.

7. “Showing up late. I usually have to force myself just to show up to a social event, so the thought of being early, having to sit or stand by myself, having to find a way to distract myself while I’m waiting, without drawing attention to myself, or worst case scenario — having to socialize with people I don’t know! All of these thoughts force me to make sure I’m never early! (Even though it’s also scary thinking about people staring at me if I walk in late!)” — Holly L.

8. “Not asking for or accepting help with everyday tasks when I’m sick or injured or just need a hand with something. People think it’s stubbornness or a control issue, but really it’s anxiety and fear of judgment. If I’ve been sick and haven’t done the dishes for a few days, I’m embarrassed at the mess and loathe the idea of someone silently judging me for it even if they genuinely want to help me get caught up.” — Chelsea D.

9. “Being super irritable and easily set off. I have extreme reactions to the littlest things. I get sick to my stomach if I’m somewhere and start to feel anxious. I even throw up.” — Patricia L.

10. “When I’m having bad anxiety, I develop a real fear of checking my emails and texts. I avoid reading them because I just know it will be about something bad and it’s somehow my fault.” — Nikki W.

11. “I’m a naturally loud talker, but when I get anxious and begin to feel insecure, I get even louder, almost yelling. I know it happens, but I don’t realize it when it does. This leads to people pointing out that I’m being really loud, which only increases my anxiety and insecurity. It’s a vicious cycle.” — Amanda K.

12. “I stare at a spot and can’t look away… can’t speak, can’t look at anyone… even if that person is right in my face asking if I’m OK, telling me they love me… it could just be a blank wall and I will stare at it for hours, in a zone of no life, no brain… I’m like a doll with no movement and no soul.” — Tiffany P.

13. “I play with Scotch Tape. I roll it into little pieces and mash it between my fingers until the sticky is gone and then I will get another piece. I go through up to three rolls a day. It also helps me not to pick at my skin on fingers because it is keeping my hands busy.” — Marcia Austin P.

14. “When I talk to people I tend to act as though I’m trying to rush through the conversation. The flight response. I don’t mean to do it. It’s as if my brain doesn’t know how to deal with the situation, so basically decides to not deal with it at all.” — Naomi U.

15. “Putting in my ear buds and listening to music. I do this all day. My brain functions much better when I can choose my background noise. Most people think it’s because I simply love music. I do, but because it is the one constant that has helped me stay focused. There are moments when I do this in a room full of people. Most assume it is because I am antisocial or annoyed. Truth is I am bringing myself down to avoid a panic attack. Stick around me long enough and you know exactly what is happening when you see me place those ear buds in and hit play. I have even used break time to run to buy new ones if I realize I have forgotten them at home. It is my one constant accessory.” — DeEtt B.

16. “Fiddling! They say it’s an annoying trait but things like shaking your leg or playing with your hair or fiddling with your hands. It is such a helpful coping mechanism though for people with anxiety who sometimes just need something to ground them and keep them present.” — Hannah F.

17. “Not being able to make phone calls. People think I hate taking on the phone because I’m a millennial, but it’s honestly because my anxiety. I break in cold sweats, throat tightens. And then I feel emotionally exhausted for the rest of the day.” — Heather M.

18. “My voice gets tiny and it’s hard to talk or express my thoughts or tell others what I need that may help. My mind races with millions of thoughts coming and going. I can’t make eye contact with anyone.” — Maki P.

19. “Being very noise sensitive, saying sorry constantly, repeating the same question, paranoid about people being annoyed at me, forgetting things easily, biting the skin on my lips, my head shakes uncontrollably sometimes.” — Becca H.

20. “If anxiety builds while I’m in public, I often stand completely still like a statue. There I’ll be in the produce section, unable to move for several minutes. I regain some normalcy by remembering to breathe deeply. Once I’m moving again I may finish shopping or I might hurry out the door leaving everything I’ve shopped for behind.” — Nancy M.

21. “My eyes are constantly scanning the room. People often think I’m staring or ‘watching’ them, when in reality I probably couldn’t even tell you what they were doing.” — Dana W.

22. “Unable to sit still. People don’t understand that’s related to my anxiety not just because I have ‘energy.’” — Aurianna S.

23. “Talking to myself under my breath, mostly reassuring myself, always needing to be moving either my hands or my legs; never being able to stay completely still, closing my eyes and taking deep breathes when I start to feel my chest getting more and more constricted and biting the life out of my nails is a huge one.” — Hannah M.

24. “You’ll rarely see me eating lunch at a table with several others at work. Sometimes the food noises – and especially mouth noises – are too much! Let me eat in peace, alone with my anxious thoughts.” — Emily B.

25. “Yawning. Sometimes when it gets so hard to breathe or I can’t open my mouth to reply to someone, yawning allows me to take a deep breath or take a little more time to think of a reply.” — Zaehl S.

What would you add?

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