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.

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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.

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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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Dear Teacher,

Yes, I read the homework last night. Twice. I can’t bring myself to ever not read it. My anxiety takes over and I panic wondering if you will ask if I read it or if you will give us a pop quiz. You never ask and there is never a quiz, but I had to read every mark on the 20 pages of reading. I had to reread sentences and words so I wouldn’t disappoint you. It makes me look responsible and smart, but I feel terrible when I lose sleep over missing a comma on page 194.

No, I’m not cheating. I need to sit like this because the other students’ movements and noises distract me. I wish I could tell you, but I’m too nervous you will think less of me.

Yes, I am listening. I hear every word you say, even if it doesn’t look like I do. My brain works fast. I can draw or fidget, hear every word you say, and still have room for my mind to accidentally wander away when you pause to answer a question. No, I am not looking at you, but I am still taking in more information than you can see.

Yes, I procrastinated my assignment—no really, teacher, I am sorry. I wanted to have it done for you on time without procrastination, but I spent hours researching this new interest of mine. I start reading and 10 articles later I realize three hours have passed and I panic to finish the homework I could have finessed by now. These interests are why every project or paper I do is on the same topic. One day, I will major in this topic and finally get my chance, but today is not that day, and I’m sorry.

Teacher, I know you never thought much about my quirks; after all, I was a good student and never had behavior problems.

But I did struggle.

I have graduated public education and only have one year left at my small college, where I have finally learned to advocate for myself. But I hope this letter helps you understand your current and future students who may struggle despite their high performance.

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Sincerely,
A former student

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Breathe.

OK. I am OK. A lot of people have panic attacks. My hands, feet and face will stop tingling as soon as I stop hyperventilating. My limbs will not fall off. My heart rate will return to normal as soon as I calm down. It will not be long before my lungs feel capable again. I am going to be OK.

According to The Kim Foundation, approximately 18.1 percent of Americans over the age of 18 in any given year will have an anxiety disorder. This is not a small percentage.

You are not the only one who has ever felt this way. There are others feeling it too, even right this minute, and you are never alone. There are resources you can reach out to, there are people to help you and this road is not a new one. It has been trodden before, will be trodden again, and though it may feel as if you are walking alone, there are thousands of other people walking it with you.

How do we calm down? It’s not simple, or easy. If it were, anxiety disorders would not exist. I am not a doctor or a mental health professional, but I can tell you what works for me.

In through the nose, out through the mouth, count to 10 and slow everything right down.

You are tingling because you are breathing too quickly, slow it down, and it will stop. This is a temporary feeling. It will not last forever.

Remember that you are OK.

It may not feel like it, and no one is devaluing your experience, but you are OK. This will not kill you, or hurt you. You are going to be fine.

Distract yourself — however you need to distract yourself, do it.

Color, draw, play loud music, watch television, talk to someone, google bad jokes. Think of something else.

Be kind to yourself.

You do not need to feel guilty for having a panic attack. You are allowed to be your own best friend. Have something extra to eat, to make up for the energy you have lost, rehydrate if you have cried. Do not beat yourself up.

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Look only as far into the future as you feel comfortable with.

If the future is going to frighten you, don’t think of it, if you think it will help, think of it plenty. Do whatever it is that you need to do to make yourself feel better.

This is OK. You are OK. Everything is going to be OK. If you cannot tell yourself as much just now, let me tell you.

It is OK.

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In a previous blog, I wrote how my anxiety is a prison of my mind. I linked the signs and symptoms of anxiety to being locked up. Let me allow you to take an excursion into my mind to see how my anxiety holds me captive in prison.

My anxiety prison has limited windows.

Anxiety possesses me in a dark space. It keeps me awake while others are slumbering at night. I can barely see any resolution for my situation. Sometimes, I can’t even accept my blessing of being “released” from prison. I’ve been using coping skills but my mind keeps telling me, I will not succeed.

My anxiety prison lacks privacy.

Anxiety puts me on “front street” in the presence of family, friends and colleagues. It shape shifts into a panic attack, extreme pessimism or lack of follow-through on tasks. It’s really tricky trying to disguise my lack of concentration, tension headaches, confusion, irritability and fatigue at work or in social settings. Even worse, I hypothesize everyone knows I’m anxious when they have no earthly idea when I am struggling. Unfortunately, this altered perception keeps me in confinement as well.

My anxiety prison lacks freedom.

The color teal represents anxiety. I guess my main concern is anxiety cannot just be one color. It can be a symptom of another physical or mental illness or it can stand alone. When my creativity and imagination run rampant, it’s hard to wear just teal, but because I have no other color options, I fall back, feel stuck and become discouraged. Then, I become afraid to take risks or do anything out of the ordinary. My right brain constantly asks my left brain for permission to use my gifts. Thus, when I cannot shift my right brain hemisphere, my prefrontal cortex does not reason nor produce logic. My intuition and ingenuity remain in a sensory state. My brain is on overload, but I am stuck. This leads to my challenges with paying attention and organizing myself. I can present as bored, uninterested or disengaged. So, when my anxiety takes my freedom, I can isolate, lose motivation and my hope.

Sometimes my anxiety can transition into depression. I can remain in isolation for days to weeks. I feel lonely. It takes something from me, just sitting in the dark. It’s really cold. I just want someone to reach out to me. I can see a very small window. It does provide a glimpse of light, but this window is not big enough for me to grasp the bigger picture—my ultimate purpose in life.

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While in the hole, there are guards who check on me regularly. These people notice my effort, resilience and strength. No, they do not have the authority to release me. I must rescue myself. However, they persistently emphasize the fighter within me. They encourage proper exercise and nutrition, risk-taking, literature therapy and following through with goals and dreams. Oddly, the guards see my aspiration even in my darkest moments.

Anxiety is a prison in my mind. When I get arrested and detained, there is no bail. I must endure it. Deal with it. Fight it. Rewrite it. And finally, accept it as a “beautiful nightmare.”

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Thinkstock photo via Luke_Franzen.

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