Blurred and de-focused, Asian young woman pain in neck.

I have wanted to write this column for a while, but it’s so hard to find the words to describe anxiety attacks. It’s even harder to write about this topic when I know that anxiety presents itself differently in everyone, brought on by different triggers that manifest in many ways. Add in that these topics are taboo in conversation. Yeah, I have anxiety about writing about anxiety, but here we go.

This is what an anxiety attack feels like for me.

I mentioned in a previous column the symptoms and feelings I had when I forgot to take my anti-anxiety medicine one morning. Some of those things included feelings of bees buzzing in my head, my mind swimming with thoughts without any clear focus. I described my body feeling like Jell-O and my head and fingers feeling miles apart as I typed. But there’s more. Inside these moments, my stomach is twisted, a cold, hard knot that seems to sit in my pelvis instead of where your stomach is supposed to sit. My hands get clammy and sweaty. My legs feel heavy. My mouth is filled with extra salvia. Every sound and every movement around me seems 10 times louder than I know it actually is. I feel trapped, even in an open space. I can feel my whole body tense up. I want to run. Sometimes I dry heave. My cheeks flush with embarrassment, even when I’m alone.

Deep down, I think I feel shameful about these attacks. Why do they have to happen to me? I don’t know, but I’ve been trying to come to terms with these experiences since they began more than a year ago, and I started seeking help about two months ago. During these moments, my thoughts are racing with my biggest fears, moving so fast I can’t hold them long enough to analyze or worry about one single thought. So, I worry about all of them, all at once. I think that’s where the real feelings of anxiety stem from — not being able to work out the solution to one problem in the moment, and having the weight of multiple feelings and worries weighing me all at once. (I pray this is making sense to someone.) There’s no reason why my anxiety attacks happen when they do. Yes, I can identify a list of triggers, and I think, as I assume most people do, the things I have anxiety about are realistic. Again, that’s the problem and the reason why I think people like me struggle to deal with anxiety. It’s realistic to worry about how you might pay your bills at the end of the month; it is not realistic to worry about being eaten by a tiger if you don’t live near a zoo. But some people do worry about the tiger; their experience is valid, too. We all are valid. Your fears are valid. There is no worse feeling than feeling trapped within yourself, within your mind. If you’re struggling, I am here for you, and I wish you courage, strength and luck in getting well. Never be afraid to get help. There are resources out there. Click here for a hotline you can text for help. I love you.

This post originally appeared on Cerebral Palsy News Today.

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People will say, “just make him go.” And, “Let him know school isn’t a choice.” And, “He’ll get over it.” Maybe those words would help… if my child on the autism spectrum didn’t have anxiety and depression.

When your child is having a panic attack at the thought of going to school, “just make him go” doesn’t really apply.

When this happens on a daily basis, “just make him go” doesn’t really apply.

And when you do eventually every single day get him to school, “just make him go” doesn’t really apply.

Instead it is reminding your child to slow down. Reminding him of the friends he will see that day. Asking him what he is afraid of. What is behind all that anxiety. And hoping today he will have the words to tell you.

Because often the anxiety is just a wordless, nameless “I just can’t face it” feeling.

And behind it all?

You know that once he is at school he does well. He has supportive teachers who just love him and care for him and will give him the space he needs when he needs it. Who meet him where he is at and don’t pressure him to be someone he isn’t. Who understand his anxiety and depression and ASD and work with him and give him loads of support.  And who report all the great things he did each day, all the smiles, and friendships, and fun.

Slowly, with hugs and reassurance that he will be OK, my son gets ready for school. We discuss bringing a stuffie from home in his backpack for reassurance as he gets dressed. His body slowly relaxes. His face shifts from fear to calm. We pack things up for school, put on shoes and jacket, get into the car.

Another brief moment of anxiety: “Idon’twanttogo. I don’t want to go.”

Reminding him that the day is short and then it will be over. Going through the routine of the day.  Reminding him of the stuffie he has in his backpack if he needs it. He gets in and buckles up. We get to school and walk to the lines.

I walk him over to his teacher. There is a “routine” to our hand-offs. My son needs predictability. He thrives on it. Two hugs and two kisses for Mom. Then he gives a hug to his teacher and holds her hand for a while. The teacher gives me a silent questioning look: “How did it go this morning?” I give her a shake of the head. We have a silent conversation. But he’s fine now, with his teacher.

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From the outside, as a person with anxiety, I, for the most part, always seem content in my ways. On paper, I have nothing to worry about. I always appear to be on top of things, surrounded by people who care about me, ready to take on the day with full force. There are other sides of me, however, that aren’t always visible to the naked eye.

It’s the crying to sleep at night, worrying over something that cannot be fixed.

It’s the panic of not getting a reply to a text message.

It’s the misery of misinterpreting one question on an exam.

It’s letting the small things that can go wrong take over the bigger picture.

It’s the constant fear of being called “needy” or “fake” if I ask for additional support.

It’s the constant paranoia of other people’s opinions of me.

It’s being told not to worry when my mind will not stop.

It’s being told not to care about what other people may think of me, while my mind is focused on the opposite.

It’s the difficulty I have in trusting anyone with my true self.

It’s the thought of someone bringing up a past event that I don’t want to think about.

It’s having to leave a college class to cry in the bathroom for not understanding one concept.

It’s an internal battle that goes on within my head.

What you don’t see is as much of a part of me as what you do see.

It’s not that I want to hide parts of who I am. It’s more that I don’t feel like bothering people with what I consider to be minuscule problems on the grand scheme of things. The problems I encounter may be significant in my life, but I feel uncomfortable having the attention thrown on me on the spot or for my friends to feel like they have to stop everything they’re doing to look after me. Sometimes, however, this is exactly what I need to help overcome any issues I may have, even if I am too afraid of judgment that may arise from other people.

I often feel when I do let people in to see both sides of me, they tend to leave me at my times of need. I either cannot open up properly or they look at me in dismay when I do and don’t know what to say to calm me down. Sometimes all I need is that shoulder to cry on. Other times I need to hide away and wait for my phone to go off for someone else to check in.

The times when I don’t speak up are probably the times I am most vulnerable. I feel at times I could vanish and no one would even notice. I know deep down this is not the case, but anxiety can sweep in and override any rational thought I may have and lead me into the darkest of moments. For the most part I am fine with myself, but it is very unpredictable as to when and if my anxiety will strike. It can be as simple as turning on a switch; it can go one of two ways and without force, it is impossible to reverse the effect it will have.

The little things that keep me going may be too small to even notice for most people, but they’re what help me get up in the morning. The smallest act of kindness can make the voice in my head change from, “Why do you even bother with all of this?” to “Hey there, this is what you’re here for. Keep going.”

The strength someone with anxiety has is unfathomable to those who don’t have it. We can seem like the most down-to-earth people around, though our condition can be extremely taxing on our psyche. Getting through a day without going into a state that makes you feel ill is an achievement in itself. Even though it may not seem like much, being able to get up every morning and get out the front door to do your day-to-day routine while your mind is fighting its own battle is something that shouldn’t be ignored. Be proud of the little things as well as the life events that will define your future. Every step is a step in the right direction.

Running away from my problems and investing my time into trying to help with someone else’s issues is something I used to tend to do instead of facing my own demons. I have learned this leads to disastrous consequences in the long run. Until I was left to deal with myself on my own after a particularly turbulent year, I wasn’t able to tune into my anxiety and face it with the courage and strength I needed for years. Once I faced it, it got a lot easier to manage. My anxiety is still here, but I have learned to embrace it in the most positive way I can. Accepting it as a part of my life is a lot easier than constantly having to pretend it doesn’t exist, even if it’s the last thing I want to admit.

Staying strong is hard, but the rewards are worth it. Embracing and becoming comfortable with each part of yourself is the the hardest part, but life is meant to be a climb. When you reach the top, the view is great.

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The feeling of anxiety pumping through your veins is unlike any other sensation. The sudden ability to awaken the entire body, to hyper focus attention and to make split second decisions saves lives every day. Yet, this same mechanism creates a feeling of instability and near desperation that debilitates to the point of non-functioning.

Imagine your body so full of energy you cannot expel it.

Imagine your body so full of nervous tension, the slightest sound feels like nails on a chalkboard.

 You need comfort, but you are afraid to move.

What if, somehow, this feeling gets worse? What if this feeling never stops? 

You cannot escape. Your body is underneath an object just heavy enough that you cannot move it, but you keep trying. Your energy depletes while your veins are on fire.

Your body rejects your thoughts and insists it must fight a battle it will never win. This continues until your body becomes exhausted to the point where rest is your only option.

The tension releases into negative thoughts of inadequacy. Your thoughts cycle to questions of what motivated these feelings, to what part of you deserves blame. There are moments when anxiety feels like distant embers, a slow burn that does not affect everyday life. Occasionally you feel a slight burn, but you heal quickly. Yet, there is always a risk that the right conditions could ignite another devastating flame.

I use the metaphor of fire to describe the unique role of anxiety as a saver of life and taker of stability. It provides a lifeline but poses a terrifying threat. It is a loved and hated part of me.

Importantly, the described manifestations feel uncontrollable. While ignited often by the environment, anxiety arrives spontaneously too. A recognition of its erratic nature scares and comforts me. I continue to learn about its role in my life.

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“It’s a blessing and a curse to feel everything so deeply.”

David Jones

One day, you realize you’ve stopped living and are just waiting. Just trying to get to the next day while living in the thought of tomorrow. That’s not living. And the problem is, you don’t even know what you’re waiting for and fear what it might be.

You’re OK for a while. You talk normally, sleep normally, eat normally, laugh normally and those around you, love you. Then something suddenly happens and it’s like a switch turns on without any notice. The darkness creeps in. Then you are anxious. You become more anxious because you realize you’re anxious. Next you’re terrified you’re never going to make it back up again. You’re gasping for air and screaming but everyone passes by not knowing a thing. They can’t keep up with the cycle. When you’re feeling “up” you’re fine. You’re happy, jolly, expressive, fun, energetic, talking fast. It’s like you’re excited, but you know yourself what follows will break you down as quickly as it can switch on in the first place.

Then you’re asked, “everything alright kid?” And you say, “I’m fine.” You walk away and you realize, you’re not fine at all and feel “crazy.” All you can think, over and over again is, What the hell is wrong with me?

You hate the constant feeling of being a burden. Creating problems for everyone to deal with. Believing you are the problem. You provide them with disappointment. You feel the best thing you can do is to wear your best fake smile and stand tall and pretend all is fine for their sake. You hear “you’re so much better now and actually look healthy.” You smile but in your head you say, They think I’m fine now. And the pretending cycle continues.

You get attached to those you shouldn’t. Then you fall into a downward spiral. You want to please, make them proud. You want to be honest about yourself, how you feel, how you think. But you fear. You fear they’ll run when they know. Or they’ll stay, but judge you. Or, worst of all, wish you never told them anything. You can’t undo it. A conversation like that can’t be forgotten.

When you’re honest and they stay, you then worry everything will be blamed on your illness.

“Wow she’s moody. Must be an episode.”

“She’s not eating. She needs help again.”

“I’ve said something I shouldn’t and she’s reacted badly. I’ll blame it on an episode.”

Then you wonder. Is my illness now a part of our relationship? Like a third person. You fear the next moment will cause the break up. When they decide it’s too much. You’re too much.

They walk away because “I’ve got stuff I need to sort out for myself” or the classic “you’ve already got enough on your plate.” You think you’re used to it, but each time it gets harder because each time you convince yourself it won’t happen again, but it does. And you break. And break again. You’ll continue to break until enough is enough because some things are too broken to be fixed. My biggest fear is one day those I love will see me the way I see myself.

So what happens if someone comes along who does care? Not just says they “care” but actually wants to be a part of it and part of you. To learn about your illness and what you go through on a daily basis in order to provide support. You never would think it would exist, but it does. You meet someone you can talk to in whichever way you need or want. To shout and scream or cry and hug. To hold you and support you. To have fun with you and keep you feeling positive. To love you when you can’t even love yourself. That moment when someone comes along and makes you feel worthy and like you have a place and that without you, they wouldn’t be them.

It’s not always easy. There’s still feelings of responsibility and guilt, but sometimes it’s what you need. To have someone who makes it seem worthwhile standing here in this world today. Calls you brave when you don’t feel it, calls you strong when you know you’re not being strong and calls you amazing for holding on no matter how hard things are right now. And best of all, they are proud of you, who you are and all you are yet to be. This someone will come along and say, “I know you’re sad, so I won’t tell you to have a good day. I advise you to simply have a day – stay alive, eat, wear comfortable clothes and just don’t give up on yourself yet. It’s OK if the only thing you did today was breathe.” And this someone reminds you that you are here today living despite it all.

Sometimes the moment you stop looking for something to get through the daily pain and struggle is the moment someone will come along and change your outlook. To live, not just survive. To believe maybe, just maybe, your good moments or your good days may just happen a little more often and last a little bit longer.

When you stop looking, it’ll come.

“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying I will try again tomorrow.”

Mary Anne Radmacher

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You become obsessed with finding the right job. You have a long list of criteria it has to match just so your anxiety won’t be a problem with doing the job.

You refuse to let the negative thoughts cloud your head and push the “what ifs” out. As long as you find the right job, you know you will be fine.

You finally find one that matches your impossibly long list of criteria and you didn’t think it would be possible.

You click “apply” and fill out the application. You adjust your cover letter and resume to fit the position and once you click submit, you pray.

After what seems like you’ve submitted hundreds of applications (in reality it’s probably only 10), you finally get a call regarding a job interview. You drop everything to make sure you can be there and start planning what you will wear, what time you will have to leave to get there on time and search the company’s website for what it stands for. You make sure it’s an equal opportunities employer and that they won’t judge you if you have anxiety.

The day comes and you get ready, all the while watching the clock. You force yourself to eat something and get in the car and go.

You double and triple check the location, making sure you at the right building, correct floor and that the organization’s name is correct like on the email confirmation you got.

Once you have it sorted out, you find a place to sit because you are 30 minutes early. This is too early, but you wanted to be sure you found the right place and would have extra time in case you got lost — despite printing out directions and using a GPS to get you there.

You make sure you have the correct information and in order to pronounce everything right, you cling to the email printout like it’s a lifeline and will provide you with support during the interview.

You make sure to walk into the building exactly 15 minutes early because by now you have worked out that 15 minutes is an acceptable time to arrive. You decide 30 minutes looks too eager and you don’t want to make the interviewer feel rushed or like they have to see you right away.

You say your name and that you are there to be interviewed for a position, all while trying to keep it together inside despite wanting to run out the door.

You take a seat where you’ve been directed and look around the room. You practice your breathing exercises, question what you are wearing and wonder if your makeup is OK. You check if your phone is on silent for the 15th time and wonder if it would be OK to check Facebook.

You get called into a room. it’s bright and airy and the interviewer looks friendly enough, but you can never be sure.

You wait for the first routine question because you have done this all before.

“So tell us about yourself,” the interviewer says.

You wonder if they would judge you if you mention you have anxiety, but decide to keep your mouth shut for now. So you instead tell them a rehearsed spiel about how you have two sisters, two cats, live at home, have a blog, love to bake and volunteer for a mental health organization that is very close to your heart (without mentioning it’s because you have anxiety). You mention you chose this field because of work experience you did when you were 17 and the rest is history.

The interview continues on with more standard questions. All the while you question if you said the right thing and wonder how you are coming across.

You consider maybe mentioning your anxiety if it comes up, but it doesn’t. You realize they don’t suspect a thing. Maybe, just maybe, you can hold off telling them until you have the job as they did say they were an equal opportunities employer.

You let your hands under the table fiddle with your rings and bracelets to keep your anxiety from getting in the way and figure anything is better than biting your nails in front of the interviewer.

Then the dreaded question comes.

“Do you have anything to ask us?”

You sit and think for a while, wondering if you should tell them about your anxiety before finally saying, “I have anxiety. It’s under control and I am on medication for it, but how will you support me if I start to struggle in this job?”

The interviewer smiles at you and starts to ramble how it’s not a problem and they will support you as long as you do the work and can handle it all.

The interview eventually finishes up and you walk out of there feeling lighter and hopeful that this job will be the one.

Then the waiting game starts. You take your phone with you everywhere and make sure it is always charged. You tell your family and friends how you are hopeful this is finally the job for you and your unemployment might finally end soon.

Your phone rings and you recognize the number. You answer it, but with just a few words, your world starts to crumble.

“I’m so sorry you didn’t get the job,” the voice  on the other end of the line says.

Your dreams of what you could have been fade away until you can’t help feeling like a failure. You ask for feedback and get told while your interview technique was good, you just weren’t quite the right fit for the job. You let the tears fall and realize there is a better job out there for you and you just haven’t found it yet.

The next day you start the process all over again.

Follow this journey on Erin’s Antics.

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