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How Hyperfixation Helps Me Cope With Anxiety and Depression

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I don’t know how to casually like something. Whether it’s a book, TV show, musical artist or a creative activity, I will hyperfixate for a while and then usually drop it after a week or so. Sometimes, I’ll refocus my attention on it in a few months, or it will take a few years.

Recently, I binge-watched about three seasons of BBC’s “Merlin.” I also sped through the first half of the 853 page book “Anna Karenina.” I exclusively listened to the music of Coeur de Pirate for three weeks. I briefly resumed my obsession with “Hamilton” for a few days. I’m watching “Friends” for the millionth time. I’ve rejuvenated my love for All Time Low. This has only been in 2017 so far. It hasn’t happened yet, but about once a year, I take up knitting again.

So why do I hyperfixate? Why can’t I just like something without becoming completely immersed in it?

My theory is because I’m typically overwhelmed by bad mental health days (depression and anxiety), I tend to resort to outside distractions. I don’t know how to cope with my undesirable thoughts without total immersion.

If I’m not binging on a show, the thoughts are more likely to make an appearance. If I don’t listen to a specific artist or album on repeat, my mind is filled with self-loathing thoughts rather than lyrics.

In a way, I’m protecting myself. I would much rather think about how Phoebe and Joey would have made a great couple than about how I feel alone. I would love to read a book with depth instead of think about how I haven’t been productive for a week and a half. I’d rather practice singing along to the tongue-twisting lyrics of “My Shot” than berate myself for doing something inadequately – on that note, I just love when I nail singing these lines:

Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not.

A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?
Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!

In any case, it’s a coping mechanism. It may not be the most practical or convenient, but it works.

My hyperfixation isn’t a bad thing. It’s just an aspect of my mental illnesses I have to accept. I may get teased for it or told my hyperfixation is annoying, but it’s what works for me. Allowing myself to surrender to my passions keeps me from spiraling into a vortex of depression, and that’s OK with me.

So maybe your coping mechanism isn’t hyperfixation. Maybe it’s something else entirely, but as long as it’s not putting you or someone else at risk of harm, then I say you do you. If it works, then there is no reason why you should feel ashamed of whatever it is that you do.

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Thinkstock photo by Ryan McVay

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The Text I Got After a Co-Worker Saw Me Having a Panic Attack

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I love beautiful people. Those people who are just so beautiful on the inside that they can change the way you think about yourself.

I don’t always think too highly of myself. A lot of times, I feel embarrassed, misunderstood, and alone. Mental illness has this unfortunate effect on me. I’m not asking for pity; it’s just the truth.

For the most part, mental illness doesn’t stop me from living the life I want. It’s only a part of me. I did well in high school, hung out with my friends on the weekends, and worked at a local restaurant to make money for college.

I hated my job as a server. The stress of getting orders right, running food to tables, and trying to please my perfectionistic manager was more than I needed. During every shift, I counted down the minutes until I could go home. I didn’t like the job when I was making money, so I definitely wasn’t thrilled when I found out I had to volunteer to work the restaurant’s annual lemonade stand with a new hostess I didn’t know, another waitress and her three young kids.

On the night of my volunteer shift, I put on a white dress and a fake smile. I tried to make the best of it, but children downing cups of sugary lemonade and running around on a 100-degree North Carolina evening are a dangerous combination. About an hour into my shift, one kid threw up a few feet away from me after his sixth cup. Most people would have thought it was gross. Me? I was just faced with my biggest fear
since I was 9 years old.

“No one likes throwing up,” people say to me. I understand that. I absolutely hate it, and the idea of me or anyone else vomiting sends my mind into an uncontrollable spiral of anxious and irrational thoughts.

On that sweltering July night, I remember thinking I was handling the situation well. I calmly took a customer’s dollar and handed him a cup of lemonade, forcing a smile. He probably had no idea how hard I was working to control my breathing and slow down my thoughts. I couldn’t fall apart in front of him. I work hard to keep my strong, easy-going exterior, and I don’t like people to see me break down. As long as he stood in front of me, I forced myself to suppress my emotions. I didn’t want to have a panic attack in front of this man. As soon as he left, I felt myself start to fall apart.

“Be right back,” I said, and disappeared into the restaurant.

I walked through the front doors into the chaos of a Saturday night dinner rush. People waiting for tables, servers running past with plates, and loud guest conversations ambushed my already over-stimulated brain. I looked around desperately for a place to
escape.

I spotted a chair in the back of the restaurant, thinking I just had to make it there. I focused on the chair and started walking toward it. It seemed to be getting farther and farther away. The room spun, and every sound intensified, then muffled together into a loud ringing noise. I broke into a cold sweat as I walked past tables of families enjoying dinner.

As I got closer, one of my coworkers sat down in the chair and started organizing receipts in her server book. I had to get away from everyone.

I changed directions and passed my friend on the way to the back of the restaurant.

“You OK?” she asked.

I nodded. I’m always OK, especially when I’m not. I lie because I don’t want people to worry about me, and I don’t want them to think I’m crying for attention. She called after me, but I didn’t turn back. The tears had started, and I didn’t want her to see me
cry.

I hate the person I become during a panic attack. I’m embarrassed of that girl. I don’t ever want anyone to see her, especially if I want those people to respect me. They’ll think I’m weak, and I try so hard to be strong. Even though I hated my job, I loved my co-workers. I didn’t want them to see the pieces of me I try so hard to keep hidden. If they saw me having a panic attack, everything I’m ashamed of would have been out in the open.

The only private place in the restaurant during a Saturday night dinner rush was the walk-in refrigerator. I kept my head down as I wove through the chefs on my way back. I pulled open the stainless steel door and collapsed to my knees the second it swung shut behind me. My body shook uncontrollably as I tried to find something to focus on. My eyes darted from the 5-gallon buckets of butter to the crates of diced tomatoes, and
finally settled on the boxes of frozen bread stacked to the ceiling. I quickly breathed in the 38-degree air as my heart pounded in my chest and I tried to stop my head from spinning. I was afraid I might pass out, or even worse, that I would throw up. I knew I wouldn’t, but I was still terrified. I closed my eyes and told myself I was fine. I’m fine. These are two of my most overused words. They’re a lie.

After a few minutes in the cooler, I knew I had to go back outside. My manager scared the hell out of me, and I knew she wouldn’t be happy if she knew I’d left the stand. I avoided her on my way out of the restaurant. I didn’t want to explain myself. Back at the stand, I put my fake smile back on and did my best to ignore the stain on the pavement. Another hour later, I finished my shift and went home.

Later that night, my co-worker who’d seen me rush to the back texted me.

“Don’t worry about tonight,” she said. “If you ever need a hug or anything when you’re stressed, just let me know. I got you baby girl <3 <3”

I read the text three times. It genuinely surprises me when people are that nice. I couldn’t believe it. After too many experiences of people being judgmental or rude, I wonder why anyone would want to be nice to me.

She was one of my favorite people at work. She always had a joke or a story to tell, and she could make anyone feel comfortable. That night she wasn’t just nice to me, like she had been since the day I met her. She was there for me.

I don’t know if Kendahl even gave much thought to the text. She didn’t have to. To me, that text meant everything. She helped me feel less weak, less embarrassed, less stupid. She made me feel less alone. She built up my confidence after I kept telling myself my co-workers all thought I was a pathetic attention-seeker. I just wanted to fit in at work, and I didn’t think having a panic attack in the cooler was the way to do that.

I responded. Even as I thanked her, I worried I was handling the situation incorrectly. I didn’t want to bother her. As the conversation continued, I realized Kendahl actually cared. She wanted to make sure I was OK.

“Any table can wait a second for you,” she said and made me promise to tell her if I ever needed a hug or someone to talk to when I needed help. She told me if anything ever happened again, she was there for me. I’d always wanted someone to say that to
me.

The Lemonade Stand Panic Attack wasn’t the first of these episodes. Embarrassing symptoms often pop up when I least expect them. In fourth grade, I found myself in the guidance counselor’s office after leaving class and hiding under the librarian’s desk for hours. There, my first of eight therapists told me my brain wasn’t like everyone else’s. In the nine years since then, I have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorderpanic disorder, specific phobia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies, and depression.

I rarely tell people. From my experience, it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have. When people aren’t familiar with mental illness, they don’t know how to talk about it. By the end, they either end up feeling bad for me or not understanding at all. Sometimes they try relate to me by equating psychological disorders with ordinary moodiness and tell me about a time they were nervous before a performance or a job
interview. Then they try to give me advice. “Go for a walk, it’s a beautiful day,” and “Sometimes you just have to be positive” are two of my least favorites. Other times, they try to put my emotions into perspective for me. I’m sorry, but telling me about people who have it a lot worse doesn’t make me feel any better. Instead, it makes me feel like my thoughts aren’t real. It makes me think when I’m scared and helpless, my feelings aren’t a valid reason to feel that way.

These uncomfortable reactions aren’t the only reason I don’t share my story with people. It’s also hard for me to talk about. I don’t want everyone’s attention on my mental health. Sometimes I’m afraid people would think I’m just desperate for sympathy or that I’m making excuses for my behavior. My anxiety keeps me from talking about my anxiety.

During my junior year of high school, I decided to tell one of my friends about my laundry list of diagnoses. I was going through a particularly low time. I wanted to explain my behavior, and I trusted her. Before I got the chance, she told me her laptop was acting so bipolar. It kept turning off in the middle of streaming Netflix. I’m glad I didn’t tell her. She wasn’t the right person, but I still wanted to talk.

A few months later, I finally opened up to someone. This girl was the only person I’ve ever met who was also afraid of throwing up, and I felt like she really understood me. I tried painfully hard not to annoy her, only reaching out to her when I really needed advice or support. For a while, she gave it to me. She told personal stories and asked questions, so I felt like she cared. Then one day she stopped responding to my texts. It hurt that she took my secrets and left.

Not every response is that dramatic, but it doesn’t have to be. The small ones hurt too.

When I told another friend that I’m afraid of throwing up, she rolled her eyes. One woman told me depression was just a state of mind and I should try changing the way I think. People who react this way make me feel even more ashamed of myself.

These judgmental responses hurt, but they make the caring ones seem even more special. These beautiful people understand that mental illness doesn’t make someone weak. They see that it’s isolating. It’s impossible to know what goes on inside someone’s head. Fighting a battle in your brain is exhausting and inescapable, but just a few words can help a person much more than you might think. Be there for people. Build them up; they deserve it.

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The Bible's 'Do Not Be Afraid' Means Something Different When You Have Anxiety

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The phrase “do not be afraid” is mentioned roughly 365 times in the Bible. Countless pastors, authors, and speakers have put that number in their arsenal of quick-witted Christian responses, pulling it out in conversations like a cheap party trick.

“Don’t worry. Just pray.”

This Bob Marley approach to the issue is sadly in line with the Church’s historical approach to most issues of controversy and confusion. Since the first bite of the forbidden fruit, we’ve often used scripture as a rug, sweeping under it anything and everything we can’t explain, using God’s name in vain, treating it as a manifest destiny barrier between us and the uncomfortable.

But that phrase means something very different when you have anxiety. It’s like a declaration of your ineptitude, a pointed finger of shame at your ungodly existence.

I don’t believe God meant it that way, but that’s the twisted interpretation I’ve experienced with the Church. That’s the knock-off gospel I believe they’ve sold us, the one I’ve payed for with my dignity and peace of mind. But it’s not the one Christ payed for with His own life. It’s not the one God wrote with His own holy hands. And it’s certainly not the one He intends us to live by or believe.

The truth is it’s OK to worry.

It’s OK to be afraid, just like it’s OK to be angry, or sad, or hurt, or happy. I believe my emotions are God-given expressions of who I am and who He made me to be. Feeling things, both good and bad, is healthy. The problem only comes in how I act on those feelings.

In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he writes, “in your anger do not sin,” (4:26). He doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry.” He says, “Don’t let your anger cause you to sin.” Anger isn’t wrong.

In the same way, worry isn’t wrong.

It isn’t when I take a sharp breath in angst that I sin. It isn’t when I lie awake at night in fear of the future that I do wrong. It’s when I let that angst and fear come between me and God, when I let my fear consume me to the point that I don’t trust God anymore.

The problem isn’t in having fear, the problem is in not having faith.

I’m not saying it’s always easy to distinguish the line between the two, but I am saying there’s a difference, an important difference, that we as the Church need to recognize and reiterate.

So dear one, you fear fighter, you anxiety abolisher, you worry wrestler: take heart. For I don’t believe God has condemned us for the war waged inside our minds but rather desperately wants to fight it for us.

I don’t have to stop being scared; I just have to start being still.

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Thinkstock photo by arada photography

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To the Guy Who Was Patient With Me While I Was Having a Breakdown

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I tend to have my moments where I have breakdowns and begin to panic over every little thing. I’ve always been the one to bottle up my emotions and keep everything inside until I collapse. I know it’s wrong of me to do that, yet I always find myself doing it. I remember one night a lot was going on, and I couldn’t control my feelings. Something sparked my emotions, and I couldn’t stop crying. I started wondering if I needed to take another one of my antidepressants because my anxiety was so high.

And then you were there on the driver’s side slowly watching the one you care for fall apart. You’ve never seen the side of me where I felt like I lost all control. You’ve never seen the side where I couldn’t stop crying because I didn’t know what to do. You’ve never seen the side where I felt like I wasn’t good enough — not until that one night.

You didn’t know what to do. You saw me having a breakdown because of my anxiety and depression, and you didn’t know how to react. You tried to hold my hand, but I pulled away because I didn’t want to be held. I wanted to be left alone in my own misery, but something in you knew that wasn’t for the best. You tried to make me feel better. You tried to put a smile on my face and tell me things will eventually be OK. You tried your hardest, and I felt like I was failing you inside.

I wasn’t happy mentally nor emotionally, and you still wanted to be by me. You still wanted to be in my presence. I sat there at the kitchen table with tears streaming down my face, and you looked at me and said, “I’ll be here if you need me.”

So, thank you. Thank you for being so patient with me after I thought I’d “lost it.” Thank you for trying to understand where I was coming from when my anxiety and depression started taking control. And thank you for still being by my side ever since you saw me on that night I couldn’t control my feelings. I know it takes a lot to handle me, and I appreciate that in more ways than you’ll ever know.

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Anxiety, and Dealing With the Loss of a Beloved Co-Worker

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The only thing worse than fearing loss and sickness on a daily basis is actually losing people around you – it can trigger your anxiety in ways so unpredictable that the anxiety in turn causes even more anxiety.

I was shocked by the sudden passing of a beloved co-worker a few months back, one who felt like the “mom” of our group and my first boss in my current occupation. The loss was jarring in so many ways that I still find myself thinking about it or experiencing memories of her at the most unexpected times. My co-worker was someone whom I greatly admired professionally, who kept her cool in situations where my anxiety was screaming at me that we needed to do something. She would always remind me: “We aren’t saving lives, we’re advising clients.” Her perspective can be applied to so many areas of anxiety and how easy it is to say but for someone with anxiety, how difficult it is to actually do.

The self-effacing anxious doubt that comes with this kind of loss was ever-present as well. I often found myself asking: “Will I ever be as good of a person as she was? How can I make sure I’m honoring her and living life to the best of my ability daily?” This might come up for any person struggling with the loss of someone who played a prominent part in their life, but for someone with anxiety, these thoughts are almost always swirling around, and when they come to the forefront, it’s uncomfortable.

Everyone is suddenly feeling just like you do, and that’s weird. Loss is even more pronounced when you have such a solid group of co-workers who I have been blessed to have for the last five years, a group that has become more of a family than simply those I work with day in and day out. And while it made me appreciate that “family,” it also brought up that anxious feeling of loss again, of losing family. Selfishness sets in too, that old familiar “beat yourself up about your anxiety” adage that comes up for me so often: those who were close to her, related to her, must be going through so much worse — and knowing this only made me feel worse.

So what can I as an anxious 32-year-old woman take away from this experience? Part of it is the knowledge that I’m going to be anxious – I will push myself to remember her as best I can and I will face the perhaps unpleasant side effects of that. I need to know I’m going to struggle through it, but I also need to be OK with that. If something like this puts my anxiety front and center, then I’ve got to understand it’s going to be that much harder to control for a certain period of time. I think one of the hardest things for an anxious person is acceptance — acceptance that this is who you are, that you are going to react to something and you know it, and that there may be nothing you can do about it. But a small comfort, if any, is that can you accept it and know it’s coming.

***

At this point it’s been quite a few months since I originally wrote this post and I do, in fact, still remember my co-worker when I pass by my old office or something comes up at work that she would find funny. But I’ve taken the good with me, and the anxiety around the situation has faded, as it always does. So I take comfort in that, too.

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Thinkstock photo by jacoblund

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The Complexity of Being a Mom With 'Functional' Anxiety

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The problem with appearing “functional” is that people expect functionality. My anxiety does not always allow for functionality. Not in any real, productive sense anyway. I do what I consider the bare minimum: I feed and clean my children (and myself), I make sure they know I love them, I clean the house and make sure the fridge is full. I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere though.

I see my husband, who is fantastic at his job and is so successful, and I feel like I’m missing out. I don’t diminish what I do as a mom, being a mom 24/7 is tough work! Even when I get sleep I’m still exhausted! But I find myself wanting for something more. I want to see myself functioning in a role other than “Mom.” It doesn’t have to be outside the house. It could be as simple as this, talking about something that is hard for me to talk about. Maybe finding a way to help someone else feel better about themselves in an effort to feel better about myself.

Honestly, I think I use cleaning the house as a little bit of an escape most of the time. It’s a stress reliever for me, but it’s also an excuse for me. If I’m cleaning the house or taking care of babies, or some other motherly duty, then I can’t go out. I find that I more and more want nothing to do with going out. I use the fact that we moved to a different state as an excuse that I’m holing up in the house. We moved a year ago. I know. But the thought of leaving the security of my home for any longer than necessary seems to put me in a state of discomfort and even sometimes panic. I like my home, not feeling outside scrutiny or criticism. I guess part of me feels like I scrutinize myself enough, so why get it from the outside too? That’s my fear and anxiety taking over.

My anxiety has left me feeling like I’m struggling (and not winning) a battle just to be a functional person. There are so many things I want to accomplish that I feel my anxiety is holding me back from. These are things I have wanted to accomplish for years but feel no closer to now than I did 10 years ago. It’s infuriating! I know what is holding me back, but I still haven’t been able to overcome this.

That’s not entirely true though. I feel, for the first time in a long time, like I have taken a step toward doing what I want. It started with writing about my anxiety and being open about it. It was (it still is) terrifying! But I am being open and pushing myself to try and ease some of that anxiety because as ironic as it is, talking about it helps. It doesn’t stop being scary, talking about what feels like my biggest weakness, but when I get it out there, I start to heal a little. And I think the only way I will feel like a “functional” person again is through healing. I need to be able to go out of my comfort zone, out of the house, but I need to be able to heal a little first. Baby steps, right?

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