3 Simple Things to Tell Someone Who Doesn't Understand Anxiety

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When Panic Attacks Convince You You're Dying

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Foggy vision. Burning pain. Shallow breathing. I can’t walk. Heart palpitations. I’ll never get through this. Heart racing. I’m dying. Uncontrollable crying. Choking. Shooting pain in throat. Why? I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. Foggy. Numbness in my face. Blurry. Dizzy. Thump thump thump. Why? Who can help me? I’m dying. Smoke. Can’t feel my arms. Dry mouth. Frozen. Tongue numb. Can’t speak. Why won’t my legs work. I’m going to faint. Nausea. I’m so tired of this. Upset stomach. Heavy chest. I’m dying. Tense. Trembling. Chest pain. Shaking. Crying. Heart hurts. Stomach pain. Why? Crying. Excruciating. Trapped air. Hyperventilating. Shooting pains down my legs. I’m dying. Can’t breath. Water in my lungs. Shrinking. Collapsing. Sweating. Dissolving. Crying. Crying. Crying. How did I get through that? Despair. Crying. When will it happen again…

Even after thousands of panic attacks – some with as little as one of the above symptoms, some concurrently, some all at once — one thing that’s consistent is the fact I am certain I am dying and that whatever is happening to my body will kill me. It sounds silly, dramatic and totally irrational, but the feeling could not be more real, more terrifying or more debilitating… every.single.time.

You’d think I’d be able to apply logic: “It didn’t kill me last time,” “This will pass,” “It’s a panic attack.” True, I know my reaction to the sensations I feel are that of panic, but what I don’t believe is that panic brought them on in the first place, so each time this happens all I think is, “It will get me this time, this time it will get me.”

What’s hard to explain to those close to me is that in every single attack I have, the terror is just as strong as the last, but each time it happens, outsiders’ sympathy and help lessens, understandably so. “Oh, there she goes again.” For those of you who never have (and hopefully never will) experienced a panic attack: it’s like someone is about to push you off a building, like you’re on a sinking boat, a crashing plane. If you’re with me… hold me, reassure me, let me know I am safe with you.

I could be walking along the street, watching a movie, out for dinner, in the shower, at a party… in fact, I can probably guarantee I’m doing something with entirely no stress attached to it and I’m probably quite happy or relaxed… then bang. Blood drains. Here we go again.

I wanted to start writing about my demons. Anxiety. More specifically, panic attacks. This year, panic attacks have destroyed me. My life has fallen apart, and I have no idea how to put back the pieces, but I’ve been writing in a diary. It’s a total mess and random collection of thoughts, worries, feelings, anger, etc., but the idea of writing a somewhat more legible piece that others could read and quite possibly find help in seems like quite the cathartic task.

I hope the above image gives a little insight to others in how panic attacks can feel, so you can see what we’re up against.

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Thinkstock photo by Vanessa Galeote

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The Words From My Yoga Instructor That Completely Changed How I View Self-Care

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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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Image via Thinkstock

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A Day in the Life of a Student With an Anxiety Disorder

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Every day is a challenge. I wake up with a nervous stomachache. I get dressed and put on my mascara, trying to hold the brush tightly with shaky hands. I try to eat something, but I can’t. Everything makes me feel sick. At school I greet my friends with a fake smile and try to appear as calm as can be. It doesn’t last long. I spill out my worries in a stream of chatter. They are all irrational, so nobody understands. They tell me to “just calm down” and “it’ll be OK.” I don’t understand why it’s only me fearing the things that are so small to others. I feel in absolute danger. I don’t feel safe here. Or anywhere public. I want to curl up in my bed and tune out the world. Anything can go wrong.

In class I change my position many times in my desk. I cannot sit still. My mind wanders off into so many places. Wait? Did she just call my name? I fiddle with my pencil, carving my name into it with my finger nails. Oh no… pencil broke. I can’t get up to use the pencil sharpener. What if it doesn’t work? What if everyone looks at me? “Does anyone have a pen?” We start taking notes. I’m copying anything she writes on the board, but around my notebook page I sketch flowers with vines along the margin. I shouldn’t be doodling in class at my age, but I can’t help it.

I drop my pen. My hands are shaking. Now my legs are shaking. I can’t breathe. I feel dizzy, and my head is swaying from side to side. My desk is shaking now. My whole body is shaking. I pick up my pen. No, keep doodling. Distract yourself. It gets worse. The teacher is at the front of the room. I’m in the back, suffocating. I stand up and leave the room. Everyone’s watching. I run to the bathroom stall, tears dripping down my face. Pure anger that I cannot manage to stay in a full block without having an anxiety attack. Five minutes go by, now 10. I stop shaking and wipe my eyes. I go back to class and sink back in my desk and continue my doodles. I look up at the clock. I still have 45 minutes to go. How can I do this?

At the end of class, I take a breath and enter the busy halls of slow-paced teenagers. I’m content for a little while. Only now I have two more classes to go.

I shake and stutter during presentations. I feel ridiculous. My face heats up, and I try desperately to keep my hands from twitching. The teacher tells the class to give a confident presentation and give eye contact. I stand at the front of the room stumbling as I read from the page word for word. I’m angry with myself. Why do I have to do this? I love to talk with my friends and family. In fact, I never stop talking with them. Why do I let myself appear differently around others?

At lunch, the hardest part is making it through the cafeteria. I feel dizzy and hot in the lunch line and grab the quickest things possible. Water bottle, an apple. I’m feeling anxious with the lunch lady as I wait for her to give me my money back. I thank her, now I’m free again. I leave the cafeteria. I never eat in there. I never feel comfortable eating in there.

I consider going back to class. I don’t want to skip. I’ve never been the type to skip class, but I don’t feel safe going to class. Should I just go home? Should I stay in the bathroom for 84 minutes? I’ll try I guess. I’m now in last block. I’m almost done. I just need to keep drawing. That’s all I need to do to get through this. I’m still shaking. My friend plays with my hair behind me to calm me down. When 2:15 comes I feel accomplished. I did it. I lasted all day.

At night I lie awake with a head full of more worries. Dreading the next day, dreading the week. I’m up all night. I’m exhausted, but I haven’t slept in days. My teachers must think I’m lazy with my head down all the time. I’m in bed now. I’m safe. It’s until I remember… it’s only Monday.

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Dealing With Anxiety During My First Pregnancy

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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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Image via Thinkstock

 

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What It's Like to Drive in the Winter When You Have Anxiety

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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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Follow this journey on maamandcheese.com.

Photo by Kat Atwell: Standley Lake in Arvada, Colorado

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