Mature woman with dandelion

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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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?

I am a full-time college student. I also have an anxiety disorder, and have had one for as long as I can remember. This certainly isn’t an uncommon occurrence; a large portion of college students experience mental health issues.

Many people who struggle with mental health issues have done so for a significant portion of their life before college. On the other hand, the young adult years are a common time for mental health issues to first present themselves. Whether these issues are old or new, college is a unique environment. For me, a major part of adjusting to college was learning how to deal with my anxiety issues in this environment, knowing that it would look different from when I was in high school or at home.

As of now, I have completed three semesters of college. There have definitely been many difficult anxiety-related moments. I have had episodes of severe anxiety, complete with symptoms like dizziness and abdominal pain, during four-hour labs  I couldn’t escape. I also knew in these moments if I didn’t accurately complete the lab, it could turn into a much bigger ordeal, which only added to the anxiety. On multiple occasions, I have had panic attacks that demolished my energy just hours before a major deadline. As a result, I have turned in a fair number of late and lower quality assignments over my three semesters. These types of incidents have often made me question my worth and potential for the future.

However, over these three semesters, I’ve worked out some ways to better manage my anxiety in the college setting. I won’t pretend there are no longer rough moments, but compared to a year ago, my anxiety issues don’t feel like they’re as much of a barrier to reaching my goals.

I hope I will only continue to find other strategies that work for me in this environment, and I know the strategies I use may need to change over time depending on other factors. I also hope with work and continued treatment, my symptoms themselves will decrease.

I don’t expect the same strategies will work for all college students struggling with mental health issues. Every school is different, mental health conditions vary in symptoms and severity, and everyone has different life circumstances. In many situations, people decide the best choice for them is to take time off from school entirely, and that’s perfectly OK. However, I’d like to share some things that have helped me navigate college with an anxiety disorder so far, in the hopes that it will be helpful to someone else.

1. Contacting my school’s accessibility office.

Though I was already registered with my school’s accessibility office for another reason, I decided to also talk to the staff about my anxiety issues. Somewhat to my surprise, I was offered certain accommodations, both academic and otherwise. The office gave me a letter explaining my accommodations to give to my professors, and I was given the option to include or exclude my diagnoses from this letter. I will say having a note from my doctor and other documentation was critical for this process. If you want to register with your school’s accessibility office, I’d recommend trying to obtain documentation as soon as possible. In addition to being necessary to receive certain accommodations, working with the accessibility office has helped me to communicate better with my professors about my needs without providing too many uncomfortable details.

2. Working when I can.

In many cases, mental health issues can be unpredictable. I don’t fully understand all the factors that trigger my anxiety (though this is something I am working on). I’ve realized that even when I set aside adequate time to complete an assignment, unexpected bouts of anxiety often interfere. Recently I’ve been trying to get extra work done during times that I’m feeling good, even on assignments that aren’t due in the near future. In order to do this, I’ve asked my professors for assignments and readings ahead of time (here’s a big example of where that accommodations letter comes in handy), which most professors have been happy to provide.

3. Talking to an older student who’s been there.

During my second semester, I decided to ask an older friend if she had any friends who might be willing to talk to me about their experiences dealing with mental health issues in college, since I know they are so common. I immediately worried that this was a silly question, but the end result was that I was able to talk to someone with much more experience handling mental health difficulties at my school. I was able to get a lot of invaluable tips specific to my school, and it helped me to feel less alone.

4. Exercising.

OK, so maybe this one isn’t quite so specific to the college environment, or specific to mental health. However, for me, being in college has made different types of exercise way more accessible, which has been important for my overall well-being. I have access to a variety of facilities and some free classes, which is helping me to find new forms of exercise that make me feel good physically and mentally. I know there are times when mental health issues drain your energy and exercise seems impossible. I’ve definitely had those days myself. But if you’re feeling up to it, I’d recommend taking a look at what types of different exercise options are available to you.

5. Identifying physical places I can go to feel more comfortable.

I know when I’m anxious, being in a room with too many people or too much noise can greatly exacerbate it. That said, sometimes a bit of background noise and being around others can actually help relieve some of my anxiety. It really depends on the circumstances. During my first semester, I spent some time looking for places where I could be alone and have some quiet time, when necessary. I’ve also discovered certain public places where I can feel a little more comfortable when I’m having bad anxiety.

6. Adjusting my ideas of success.

Out of all the items on this list, this one has been the most difficult for me. It will always be a work in progress. I can sometimes be overly self-critical, and it can be really easy to fixate on GPA. I’ve learned a lot in my classes so far, and that’s a big success. I’ve also learned about what environments I work best in, and which ones aren’t as great for me. That’s also an important success, and is invaluable for the future. Some days, even getting through the day is a huge accomplishment. It’s easy to forget that success is contextual and relative.

Just remember that if you are a college student living with a mental health condition, you are not alone. Due to the stigma attached to mental illness, it’s not something that’s frequently discussed. Fortunately, this appears to be slowly changing. Mental illness is much more common than it’s made out to be. Chances are, there are many people around you who are struggling with something similar.

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In the United Kingdom, and in a few other countries, the coming weeks hold mock exams all up and down the country. January exam season is by no means the most stressful. Which really puts into perspective how stressful the actual exams later on are.

As someone with an anxiety disorder, this time is especially turbulent. Any form of education is.

I naturally have the desire to academically prosper and do well. But my anxiety brings about a secondary desire: to stay in bed and be alone with my inner turmoil.

This is a painful combination. I can even see my work from my bed. My revision, and/or essays are there waiting to be done. In most cases, they’re already started, maybe even nearly finished. But no matter how hard I might try, all I really want to do is sleep my life away.

To first explain to those who don’t feel this, I myself get overbearing panic from having to go into the supermarket or get on the train to go to and from college. So anything big, especially if it has consequences, good or bad, whether it be decision making (choosing a subject or degree?), doing an essay for said subject, doing a mock exam, or even actual exam, usually has a hurricane-like impact on me. On the outside, especially outside of home, I’m as cool as ice. On the inside, I’m burning up, and spiraling downwards.

I tell myself “You want to do well, you need to do well, and you will do well,” but behind that is also a much louder and more arrogant voice, saying the opposite: “You might as well give up, you cannot prevent flunking this, and you will flunk this” . 

I am not afraid to say I deal with this every single working day. The only time I’m satisfied or temporarily calm is when the work actually pays off. But unfortunately, due to the world we live in, after every accomplishment, small or big, there is another chapter in a book of work there is to do. It can easily feel like there is no room in the cut-and-thrust world we live in for the worriers, the self-diminishing, and the self-conscious.

I also find myself looking for validation. If I get a good grade, I still need someone to tell me it is a good grade. I cannot physically tell myself “you did well,” and quite frankly, if I did, I wouldn’t believe it. I have friends who understand this, and that can work because we can tell each other we did well; but the acquaintances around me who can live with just self-validation seem so distant from me at those times. I can imagine being proud of myself but not actually self-congratulatory. This is why I find it so easy to view myself as the abnormal one. Many people can get goodness from their work without the word of others. Less people can’t.

But that part is post-effort. Getting to that point where one feels worthy of appreciation and congratulations in the first place is the extremely hard part of academia. I thought maybe I only couldn’t work well under pressure, but even when the pressure is lifted, when there is no set-in-stone deadline, I find myself constantly thinking either “what if it isn’t good enough?” or “have I really tried my best?” Even when I know deep down I have indeed tried my best and worked as hard as possible, the latter still enters my thought orbit.

Sometimes I just feel like throwing caution to the wind, but I never truly can. Some people find relief in breaks; I just find I have prolonged periods of “I should be doing the work” or “I’m going to have to go back to being stressed straight after this.” Which is not in any way an easy way to function. 

I’m not under any illusions. I’m aware we are supposed to be somewhat stressed by work. But we’re still meant to be fully functional. I sometimes argue to myself that people influenced by pressure in the way I am should just take up a separate path. Choose to just do something low maintenance or easy. But where would the challenge be? And that’s where this combination becomes fatal. I enjoy the thrill of doing well. I just don’t enjoy the work and pressure that goes into it. Or the period in-between, (such as the time between an exam and result).  

I also want to be successful one day, be financially comfortable, and be in a position or career where I am enjoying it as well as feeling some pressure. And I do want to put the work in; I don’t want it done effortlessly. It’s just the climb to that point I believe possesses enough pressure and enough complex layers to crush me into fossil fuel. And when it does come to work with a deadline, I’m a perfectionist to the point of inflicting unneeded extra pressure. If I’ve finished an essay a long time before it is due, for example, I find myself going back to the word document again and again, knowing there is nothing more to add but wanting still to make it better, make it shine as a sign of “I can do this, and will do this.” 

But as I said earlier, once that essay is marked and done, I know full well there is more to be done, more work to do, more pressure to build, more downfalls to feel. And more times to feel academically not good enough.

It can feel incredibly unrewarding.

We have to individually fight against the idea we are stunted in our ascent to grace, fight against our inner hesitation, believe in yourself when nobody else will. And challenge whatever foe you are up against, whether it be your own thoughts, outside negativity, expectation, your mental illness or anxiety, or maybe all of these things.

Because you are capable of doing whatever you can vividly imagine yourself doing. 

If your brain can imagine it happening, you and your brain can make it a reality. 

The turmoil never goes away. Sometimes I look at my friends who know my troubles, my teachers, my parents, and I think every time, the same damn thing:

“Do they really believe the boy who cannot force himself out of bed and to the supermarket, can do well in life? Pass exams? Be mundane enough to fit in with the status quo? Can they actually be proud of a person who manages to occasionally do well in his subjects, but cannot function normally?”

And then I think:

“Do I believe in myself enough to put myself through this? Am I good enough for this to be worth it?” 

And every time, I just have to blink, breathe, and get on with it. Because I won’t know the answer for a while.

In the words of Airey Neave, There is now work to be done.”

And until that work is over, I’ll never truly know the stronger force. My anxiety? Or the drive-force to do well?

But of course, I hope the latter.

People with anxiety deserve to do well, no more than anyone else, but still nonetheless, we deserve to do well.

I find the effort we put into things when we finally do fight against the want to lay in bed or clear our heads and finally work as hard as possible most of the time pays off. We are rewarded for our determination.

Which brings me to this, let’s look at our Anxiety Heroes, those who still prospered, some do still today. It’s proof of anxiety not restricting creativity and academic success.

Emma Stone:

Emma Stone may be one of the most popular young American women in movies today, but she also dealt with numerous panic attacks to the point where she developed agoraphobia. While statistically, many people get panic attacks in their 20s, Emma Stone got her first panic attack further back in her youth. Just last September, she said she still deals with panic attacks once in a while but has found she’s developed healthy coping strategies to deal with them. Which have allowed her a continuation of success as the brassy and witty woman we often see on-screen.

Emily Dickinson:

Emily Dickinson was introduced to me as one of America’s most beloved literary figures and was a talented and famous poetess. I was only recently introduced to her work through a poetry anthology.

What I discovered through research, however, was that almost as well known as her poetry, is Emily Dickinson’s reclusive nature. Through letters and historical records, experts and researchers have speculated that Emily Dickinson began to limit her interaction with other people to her family members after leaving Mount Holyoke Seminary. Although Emily Dickinson conversed with journalists, other writers, and editors during the time that she lived, she limited the majority of her interaction to writing, refusing to meet many of them in person. As she grew older, she began increasing lack of interaction with others. As a result, it has now been agreed that Dickinson may have had some type of an anxiety disorder, possibly agoraphobia or social anxiety disorder.


The most famous British singer in the world has openly experienced not only panic attacks but also social phobia and severe stage fright. Performing in front of crowds of thousands can give anyone stage fright, but there is a some speculation that her anxiety and stage-fright attacks may have been an issue long before fame and large crowds. Most lovable is her openness about this. While she is extremely talented, the want to hide away indoors and live a private and peaceful life is still there. Which is a relevant point: never let success or popularity get in the way of your comfort zone. And she does so with grace.

Lastly, I would like to ask personally for some response to this article, which may form the basis of a future one but also allows this article to end on an encouraging note: Have you done well regardless of mental illness or personal difficulties? Have you gone against the odds? If so, I’d like to hear your story below in the comments. 

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

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