How Horror Films Help Me Cope With My Anxiety

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My passion for the horror genre has been around for as long ago as I can remember. An early memory revolves around a season two episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” in which Buffy is admitted to a hospital where a frightening demon is hunting down sick children. There was something about the vulnerability of a sick child and the menace of a creature that would feed on them that resonated with me heavily at the time.

Since that fateful evening in 1998, my love for the macabre and all things horror began to snowball. I became obsessed with classic horror franchises — “A Nightmare On Elm Street” and “Halloween” in particular really piqued my ghoulish interests. My mother was never supportive of my fascination with horror, and understandably so, but this made it difficult to rent what I wanted. And so, I would convince my well-meaning father into renting what I wanted on our weekends together. And it was together with my dad that I began falling in love with a genre so many reviled. There was just something about horror that sparked my creative engines in a way no other genre of content could.

Cut to the eleventh grade — a time where I finally began to understand what really set me apart from my peers, my passion in life: creative writing. Thanks to a handful of supportive teachers at the arts high school I attended, I began to understand my love for horror was not just a morbid fascination, but a true indicator of what I was passionate about — what I was good at. My creative work — while not always strictly horror — is and was always in some way inspired by the tropes of the macabre that fascinated me so heavily in my youth.

My creative work began to act as my strongest weapon against the true horrors of my anxiety disorder, a struggle I had perceived as a plague until around this time. This is when I realized my anxiety, just like horror, could be used as a creative tool.

Since I was a child I’ve coped with anxiety and phobia, so it’s no wonder my mother and so many other of the adults in my life tried to keep me away from a genre they perhaps perceived as triggering. It’s why I felt somewhat ashamed of my passion until adulthood when I began to realize horror was not my trigger, but instead my creative muse. The horror genre and my anxiety disorder would both become invaluable creative tools.

Horror allowed me to step out of the shadows and switch tables with the dark, menacing thoughts, which kept me so nervous during my childhood. I could reverse the effect and take on any role I chose: from the viewpoint of the monster in the “Friday the 13th” series to the feminine heroines of my favorite 90s slasher flicks, which empowered me as a young homosexual in a world which so often looked down on queer themes and effeminate values.

Now I’m an adult I have a stronger sense of what anxiety means to me. And I can look back fondly and understand that just because a genre of content was frightening, it didn’t mean it was having a negative impact on my mental health. Many of my peers who also have a shared passion for horror are also exceptionally creative people who have coped with anxiety and depression their whole lives. What we all agree upon is that the catharsis of horror holds a meaning to us, which is almost impossible to describe but it’s something we wouldn’t give up for the world.

Horror has the ability to lift the veil between the known and the unknown. And what we find on the other side is often gruesome, terrible and frightening – engaging with it is a whole lot less unsettling than just ignoring it all together.

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Why I Accept My Anxiety

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The other day, I was thinking how perfect my life would personally be without my anxiety. I get good grades, I have two parents who love each other and I have everything I could ever want. I also have one thing that I don’t want: Anxiety.

With anxiety, it dulls everything I have. It affects my grades. My parents are so frustrated it strains our relationship. It’s hard to leave the house some days.

But I do leave the house on those hard days, and that’s where my anxiety showed me what strength is.

It taught me that I actually have to work hard for straight As.

Personally, I believe it showed me that not everyone will understand — sometimes not even your family.

So today I pictured my life if I had never walked into that church and had that very first panic attack. It was probably inevitable, but if it wasn’t and I never had that panic attack I wouldn’t have had the experiences I’ve had.

I wouldn’t be as understanding of others as I am now. I wouldn’t give a second thought to mental health. I would still think to be strong meant the amount of weight you could lift.

Anxiety taught me that strength is so much more than that.

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Why I'm Giving My 'Anxiety Brain' Two Days Off

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Labor laws are in place to protect workers from abuse. They are meant to regulate the time a person can spend on-duty to ensure quality of life. The anxious mind however, is not aware of, nor cares about, labor laws.

The anxious brain works overtime, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This leaves us, the owners of these over-enthusiastic minds, physically and emotionally spent. Every little bump in the road is equivalent of a crisis. As a result, our shoulders are slumped, our skin is sallow and the call of a warm bed in a dark room is too much to ignore. When my computer goes on the fritz, the first thing I do is to try turning it off and on. Reboot the sucker. Maybe the human brain works the same way.  

The good folks at my hospital’s therapy clinic are teaching me how to maintain control over my thoughts. Racing, catastrophizing thoughts are the byproducts of anxiety and is the direct cause of the unpleasant physical side effects of panic. So, in an effort to improve my quality of life, I’m forcing my brain to take two days off. From Friday night until Sunday night, I will not allow intrusive, catastrophizing thoughts to take over. For two days:

1. I promise to eliminate all expectations of others. It is fruitless to base my happiness on what I expect people to do or to say.

2. I promise to be thankful for the home I have instead of finding fault with its flaws.

3. I promise to not overthink every interaction I had with people this week. I will remind myself I was always kind and considerate and that is good enough. What other people think of me is none of my business.

4. I promise, for two days, to accept life is uncertain and stop mentally wringing my hands over everything out of my control.

5. I promise to busy my hands with a puzzle or a craft and busy my mind with music and books.

6. I promise to halt the negative thoughts that creep into my conscious. It may be useless to try to stop them, so I’ll just put them off until Monday.

7. I promise to remind myself I deserve this break from constant worry and anguish, because all the worrying in the world will not change the outcome of anything.

Come Monday, I’ll see how I feel. Hopefully that little almond-shaped part of the brain (called the amygdala) which, in all of us with panic disorders, is way too active, will send out warning shots only in the face of real danger. Being kind to ourselves in this way will make it infinitely easier to be kind to others.

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To My College Roommate Who 'Jumped in the Fire' of Mental Illness With Me

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Editor’s note: If you live with an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “NEDA” to 741-741.

To My Beautiful Roommate,

We met last summer and texted periodically through the end of our senior year up until move-in day. I felt like we would get along well and you seemed like a really cool person. Yet, somewhere in the pit of my stomach, I felt like I was lying to you. How do you tell someone you’ve had social anxiety since you were a kid? How do you tell someone that you spent so many nights shaking, crying yourself to sleep? How do you tell someone you’ve wanted to die and have come so close to doing so by your own hand? How do you tell someone about the scars on your wrist? How in the world do you do that?

But I knew I had to tell you. It wouldn’t have been fair to you not to. I knew this meant I would potentially have to find a different roommate, but you seemed like a super accepting person and I knew honesty was key. So, one night I texted you and gave you the basic rundown. I didn’t share specifics, but I told you how depression and anxiety are things I’ve been struggling with for a long time and while I know how to manage them better now than I did five years ago, there are still bad days. I told you I understood if you didn’t want to room with me because of it and there would be no hard feelings.

You responded beautifully. You told me jokingly that I couldn’t get rid of you that easily and if I ever wanted to talk, you were there. I exhaled in relief.

Then, school started. Well, “welcome week” started. We were at an info session for something, but my anxiety began to skyrocket. I needed to leave. So, after what felt like hours of contemplating this, I quietly left the room to “go to the bathroom.” I walked outside and calmed myself down. After realizing I left my water bottle there, I texted you asking you if you could bring it back to the room. You said of course and asked if I was OK or if I needed you. I don’t remember the excuse I gave, but I remember being overwhelmed with gratitude for you.

When you came back, I thanked you and we both made a cup of coffee and began to talk. I have no idea how the subject came up, but we started talking about mental illness. You told me how you didn’t always know how to respond and when your friends in high school first experienced it, you didn’t respond in the best way. But, you learned from it. I don’t know how much I shared with you, but I told you I had left that session because of anxiety and you said you had suspected that, but didn’t want to push anything. You told me you were there for me and if I needed anything to just let you know. My heart was overflowing with the compassion you showed me. To this day, those few hours of just drinking coffee and talking is one of my favorite and most comforting memories.

My transition to college was much more difficult than I anticipated. I quickly was surrounded by self-harm urges and the depression was overbearing. I frequently left the room to go on walks in the middle of the night to clear my head. Through our first semester, you were so kind to me. You were so helpful. You did so much more for me than you will ever know. You took away sharp things I had so I wouldn’t be tempted. You talked me through my moments of weakness. You were just there. And you were great.

Over winter break, I felt like we were growing apart, anxiety plagued my mind and I thought you didn’t want to live with me anymore. I made a New Year’s resolution to be a better roommate to you. I told myself I would keep all the mental health stuff separate from you. Well, unfortunately my plan didn’t work out too well when on the first day back, I had probably the worst anxiety attack of my life and had to call a friend to come up to our room. I didn’t want you to have to see that. I didn’t want you to feel like you had to do this again. I felt awful.

Later in the semester, you heard me purge. The shower had been on and I didn’t think you heard me — you hadn’t when I had done it in the past. But, I came out and you texted me saying “hi.” I responded “hi.” And you asked how I was. I said I was fine and asked how you were. You told me you heard me make myself sick and didn’t know what to do or say, but you wanted to help.

I explained to you I didn’t mean for it to happen and I was trying to stop. I told you I was OK and I thanked you for caring. Over the next couple months, you were there when I struggled with my self-image issues. And you stood by me through it all.

Slowly over the semester, I realized there was no use trying to completely separate this from you. I was significantly better than I had been first semester and I didn’t need to rely on you as much, but when I did, I knew I could.

So to my dear, dear college roommate, thank you. Thank you for hugging me when I cried. Thank you for kicking people out of the room when my anxiety was at a high. Thank you for asking me if I’m OK every time I leave the room to go on a walk. Thank you for being there for me through it all when you have no obligation to do anything. Thank you for laughing with me over the dumbest stuff. Thank you for binging Netflix, drinking coffee and obsessing over snow. Though you had little experience with mental illness, thank you for jumping into that fire with me. Thank you for caring. Thank you for being the best.

I love you,
Your Roommate

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Why My Recovery Has Encouraged Me to Stop Looking So Hard for Love

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Moments of self-doubt. Hours of being unsure about my feelings. Days of not feeling like talking. Weeks of being unable to keep calm. Months of wanting to make everything be perfect.

This is just a taste of some of the things you can expect from me. I have my phases, which come in waves most of the time. Anyone who has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression will probably tell you the same. But love is something I struggle with. It’s not that I don’t want love. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. I crave it, long for it, look for it from everyone. It’s something I need. As someone who struggles with the darkness in my brain, I often feel like I need more love than other people do.

But loving me can be hard sometimes. I’m often unpredictable. There are days when getting out of bed is easy and some when it’s barely possible. Some days, I just need to lay in bed and sleep, but some days I want to go on spontaneous adventures. There are nights when I just want to read a book and drink tea, but there are also nights when I want to go to every bar or club and dance all night. I like to keep my significant other on their toes. I’ll often bottle emotions or thoughts up, sometimes for weeks. This often hurts not only myself, but the person I’m in a relationship with. I’m getting much better at this, though.

There are good things about dating me, though. I often give all my heart to others. I’m often very forgiving, because I know at some point, my mental illness is liable to cause me to do something stupid. I like to think I’m a very caring and kind partner. I can sympathize easily with others, because I understand what it’s like to struggle with things. I love helping others. I want to help others. Having someone to walk through life with is something I need.

I guess what it all boils down to is this: I need love and I need to love people. And so do you. People need other people. Don’t forget that. Let love do its thing. I’ve stopped looking so hard for love. That’s become my goal for 2017. Let love find me. Love those around you and first, yourself. That may be the hardest part of all of this, loving yourself. But you can do it. I know you can, because I’m learning to love myself more every day.

“There is never a time or place for true love. It happens accidentally, in a heartbeat, in a single flashing, throbbing moment.” ― Sarah Dessen

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Why We Need to Stop 'Shoulding' Ourselves

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“I shouldn’t have said that.”

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

“I shouldn’t have eaten that.”

These are common phrases I hear from clients in my counseling practice. So many people are so hard on themselves so much of the time, believing self-criticism will help them attain their goals. After all, many of us have all been raised with a “no pain, no gain” attitude. Our culture expects so much of us and requires us to live at such an unnaturally fast pace that it has caused an epidemic of perfectionistic and stressed out people. Who could possibly keep up with the unrealistic expectations of our culture without having it take a toll on our mental or physical health?

Many of my clients think their self-berating will get them in line or keep them in line. I often ask (rhetorically of course) how it is working out for them, knowing full well if it was working, they would probably not be sitting in my office! Many people fear if they stopped beating themselves up or being really hard on themselves, they would never get anything done. Is self-hate really an effective motivator? Can’t we motivate ourselves with kindness, passion or encouragement? I work with people in all walks of life — nurses, doctors, personal trainers, teachers, etc. — and I often ask them if they ever speak to their patients, clients or students the way they speak to themselves. They wouldn’t dare. They would likely be fired if they did, not to mention they often view others which such different standards and with so much more compassion than they do themselves. Why do so many of us feel compassion and kindness toward others but then turn inward with a whip of self-criticism and perfectionism?

Many of us were raised with the belief if we were kind to ourselves and liked or even loved ourselves, we would be conceited. But is that true? Can we upgrade the program on that one and all agree self-care and kindness is not necessarily self-grandiosity and entitlement? When someone lives with the internal program of “shoulding” or self-criticism and perfectionism, what usually ends up happening is that they are either very anxious about getting things done and getting them done perfectly — a thankless, never-ending job since none of us is perfect! — or they end up burning out or rebelling and are unable to get things done at all. This often leads to feeling depressed because they can’t keep up with their self-imposed rules, regulations and expectations.

So where does all this “shoulding” leave us? For many, the answer is depressed and anxious. So many people “should” themselves regularly with high, unrealistic expectations. They are very driven, perfectionistic, achievement-oriented and outer goal-focused. I call this being a “human doing” rather than a human being. Others fall into the opposite extreme of the spectrum and find it hard to get much of anything done. They struggle with procrastination and then beat themselves up about it. They struggle with depression and feel badly because they can’t get themselves to do what they set out to do. Then there are those who bounce back and forth between “shoulding” and rebelling. They may also “should” themselves but then rebel and can’t seem to get themselves motivated.

I used to be a “bouncer.” I was either excited by some new diet or completely blowing it off. I was either totally into some new Jane Fonda workout or I couldn’t get myself off the couch. I was either swearing off alcohol or all-out partying. I was not a big fan of moderation, you might say. So, if listening to your harsh mind messages is one choice and rebelling and feeling badly about yourself is the other, you may not realize there is a door number three. Door number three is following your heart. It’s making your choices out of love and kindness and what feels the most right to you, rather than making your choices because of a self-imposed whip or rebelling from the beating and going on strike. I have heard it said that the longest 12 inches is from the head to the heart. The heart is a loving voice. It’s our intuition, the part of us that is compassionate and kind. But it’s hard to hear that voice when it is being drowned out by the megaphone of the mind. A kind voice is in there though — we all have it.

We were not born “shoulding” ourselves. We learned every internal rule we have. And fortunately, we can unlearn them. We can learn to delete the harsh messages in our mind in the same way we can delete a virus from our computers. And we can upload new, kinder messages. We can get things done from a place of moderation. We can rest in a place of peace, relaxation and self-worth. 

So see if you can take a few moments now and then and ask your heart rather than your head, What feels right for you? I promise you will still get things done. It just won’t be from an anxious place of trying to prove you are worthy or a depressed place of thinking you aren’t.

Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and author of “Getting Over Overeating for Teens.” She is also co-author of “The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook and “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Breaking the ‘I Feel Fat’ Spell.” Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her books, blogs or podcasts, please visit www.andreawachter.com

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