woman writing

Everyone out there struggles with worry from time to time. Worry that keeps you up at night, makes you pace the floors or takes over your thoughts.

Worry and anxiety are persistent and debilitating struggles for me. Freezing and becoming non-functional during these times is a common reaction which then leads to more anxiety and fear that doing nothing is making everything worse.

So I have an exercise I have used from time to time (and am using more now) to help with this problem. If any of you out there need a hand, you may want to check it out.

1. Get out a notebook and pencil.

2. Write “My Worries” at the top of the page.

3. List them all out.

4. Order them in level of discomfort they cause you.

5. Take the first one and write it at the top of a new page.

6. Write: “My Thoughts” as a header and below it list all of the thoughts you have about this worry. (“I don’t know what I’m doing,” “I can’t do this,” “People will think I’m stupid if I fail,” etc.)

7. Write: “Reality” as a header and below it list the actual nitty gritty of the situation and what it actually means. (“I don’t know everything about this project but if I ask I can learn,” “I can do this, I’m just facing a new fear, which is hard,” “I’m not going to fail — but even if I did, what person out there hasn’t failed and stands to judge me?”)

8. Repeat for as many of the worries on your list as you see fit.

9. If you want to take it a step further, you can put an action step or two under each worry so you can feel empowered to use the information you just reflected on and turn it into positive action.

When I do this exercise, I’m able to attend to the self-defeating and erroneous thoughts that tend to overload my brain when I’m anxious. By facing the reality of the situation, writing it out and revisiting it when the worry comes back, I free myself and feel more grounded in reality.

This has been a lifesaver lately.

Just because I think it doesn’t make it true…

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9 a.m.

My first alarm goes off. I have probably lay awake well into the early morning hours the night before and waking up is difficult. I now have two hours to shower, get ready and make it to my first class of the day. I roll over in bed.

9:15 a.m. 

My second alarm goes off. I roll over again.

9:30 a.m.

My third alarm goes off and on a good day, I will sit up in bed for a few minutes, attempting to work up the courage to get up and out.

9:45 a.m.

My fourth alarm goes off. On a good day, I’ll already have made it out of bed. On a bad day, I’ll finally drag myself to my feet. Thoughts of homework assignments I haven’t completed yet and my ever-growing list of to-do items swirl around again and again in my head and I try to push these thoughts away. I’ll start playing YouTube videos on my laptop just for the sake of background noise, since I’ve found too much silence in the morning will usually set off particularly strong anxious thoughts and feelings that will stay with me for the rest of the day. Every day is a learning process.

9:55 a.m.

I finally make it to the shower and end up rushing to finish my morning routine in order to leave on time for class.

10:45 a.m.

On a good day, I’ll leave for campus and make it there by the time class starts. On a less than good day, I’ll be 10 to 15 minutes late to class after finding different things throughout the morning to worry about and attempt to fix. On a bad day, after I’ve gotten ready and am about to leave the house, I’ll sit on the end of the bed with my head in my hands and my heart in my throat and think, Maybe I can make it to my noon class…

1 p.m.

After reaching my first break in the day between classes, I’ll generally find something to eat. On a good day, I’ll order something in the food court without a problem. On a bad day, I’ll stumble over my words a little at the front of the line and think about it for the rest of the day.

3 p.m.

During my last class of the day, I’ll try to pay attention while also hoping my professor doesn’t directly ask me a question or ask us to get into groups for an assignment. It’s not that I don’t know the answer or don’t think I’ll find a group. It’s the constant worry I’m going to slip up and people are going to notice. And that’s the last thing I want. On a particularly bad day, I’ll sit in class as feelings of unexplained dread build up in my chest, before I’ll eventually have to excuse myself from the classroom. I’ll wander the building, looking for an empty bathroom, before locking myself in a stall in order to calm myself back down before I can attempt to return to class.

4 p.m.

My last class ends and I go to leave campus. On a good day, I’ll go home and talk about something funny a professor or classmate did and I’ll make some dinner and watch Netflix. Most days, I’ll sit in my car a few extra minutes before leaving campus, feeling like I’m in a safe place for the first time since leaving the house. I’ll obsess over every little social interaction I had during that day, go over what I did wrong and how stupid, stupid, stupid I am for existing this way. I’ll try not to cry, try not to start hyperventilating and usually fail. I’ll hate myself for crying for no reason.

4:15 p.m.

I arrive home. If someone else is home, I’ll have pulled it together by now, because there’s nothing anyone can do to fix this and I don’t want anyone to worry. I don’t want my irrational thoughts to be a burden to others. If I’m home alone, I’ll crumple into a ball on the bed, exhausted from simply existing.

And tomorrow I’ll do it again. And again. Reveling in the good days. Trying to learn from the bad days. Because for now, that’s all I can do.

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Thinkstock photo via Connel_Design.

Picture this. You are driving your car, it’s a beautiful sunny day, the birds are singing, your windows are down and the warm breeze is blowing your hair. You feel happy, content. You know where you are going and what your purpose is.

Suddenly, a storm comes out of seemingly nowhere. The peaceful warmth of the morning is suddenly replaced by strong winds, thunder and lightning and pelting rain. You can’t see. Your vision is obscured by the water cascading over the windscreen of your vehicle. You can’t hear, the sound of the drops pounding against the thin metal of your roof is deafening. It is suddenly cold; you are shivering.

You pull over to the side of the road, heart pounding, fear racing through your veins. You wonder how you are going to get through this — up ahead you can see the water is creeping across the road, and behind you the lightning has struck a tree, blocking the road in that direction. The sky that was blue only a few minutes before has gone dark. Everything seems hopeless; you are trapped.

What will you do? Will you stay where you are, hoping that help arrives? Will you try to drive through the rising floodwaters in front of you and pray to get through safely? You ask yourself out aloud, “Why is this happening?” After all, 10 minutes ago everything was perfect.

This is what life with anxiety can be like. You can be traveling along fine, you know where you are going and what you want to do. You are feeling positive and you are sure things will work out. Then bang, the storm can hit out of seemingly nowhere. Suddenly the world is going dark, and everything feels frightening, your heart races and your thoughts are zipping along a million miles an hour. Things seem to swirl around you, much like they do in the midst of a raging hurricane. It can be overwhelming, hard to stand, terrifying in its ferocity.

But remember that just like a thunderstorm, this panic will pass. Find higher ground and bunk down, be gentle and kind to yourself. Take a slow breath, wait and watch the world pass by for a little while. Wait and it will be OK, the storm can only rage for so long before it runs its course, and afterwards when the sun comes out, you will be thankful that you managed to make it through.

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Thinkstock photo via mdesigner125

When I was an undergraduate psychology major, we often asked what certain mental illnesses “looked” like. Some had fairly visible symptoms, but one illness always seemed to stump myself and my companions, and that was anxiety. It is hard to place a particular visual element to an illness that is so different for so many different people. While I had not had debilitating anxiety during college, I did experience a particularly scary health event that allowed me to experience what millions of people experience around the world every minute of every day of their lives.

For me, anxiety was more than just feeling overwhelmed. It included the process of becoming overwhelmed. I had specific triggers and pain points. When they got particularly bad, I could often find myself gasping for air and sobbing quite uncontrollably. But still, my anxiety was hard to describe. I imagine it could look like an amalgamate of Emoji symbols, each one harnessing and detailing a small part of what I was experiencing.

The sad face with the tear above his eyebrow. That one clicked first for me. It was able to visually represent my physical symptoms. The tears and the strife I felt were reminiscent of that.

face with cold sweat

The face that has a zipper for a mouth. That one represents how closed off I felt. I was not able to describe to others how I felt at times, especially when I started to spiral. I was in a place where I felt as if no one understood the pain, both physical and emotional, I felt on an everyday basis.

zipper mouth face

The emoji of a man in disguise. This is my ultimate favorite. Anxiety, for me, acted like a big old trench coat. It wrapped me up, made me a different person, with different feelings, different likes and dislikes, and a different demeanor.

sleuth or spy emoji

While I know it is not typical to use emojis to describe how I felt, it was difficult to pin one particular image on anxiety as a whole. For something so multifaceted, it was if I was not doing it justice. There are so many different experiences one can have when struggling with anxiety. Everyone’s choice of emojis to represent anxiety can be different. We do not all fit into the same mold with the same symptoms and the same effect.

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Anxiety is…

Sneaking in to whisper “I love you” into each child’s ear for the 50th time, just in case it’s the last.

Endless thoughts of what will happen next, and when, and why and how…

It’s asking God for forgiveness 500 times for the same thing, because you want to be sure.

It’s having night terrors at 30 years old, and waking up gasping for air.

It’s seeing the worst case scenario in your day dreams, instead of a white, sandy beach.

It’s spending the end of the day seeing wasted moments and broken hours, that could have and should have been spent more wisely.

It’s praying over your babies as if you will never pray over them again.

It’s writing these words at 1:17 a.m., because if you don’t, you may never get to write them.

Anxiety is the endless comma in the world’s longest run-on sentence, because a period is too final, and you’ve got more to say.

And what if you don’t get to say it?

Anxiety is a thief. Of joy. And peace. And love.

Because I have to get this done.

And it has to be this way.

And I don’t have enough time.

And please forgive me.

Anxiety is not…

The answer. Or the ruler. Or the end.

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Thinkstock photo via fyb

It starts as scattered seeds. Kernels anchored by anxiety and waiting for the right conditions to sprout. Some days they are fertilized by memories. Some days by fear. Most often they germinate themselves, arriving with a lunchbox of sunlight and water as they feed one another.

They don’t grow up and out, freeing themselves. Instead they grow in twisted, circuitous paths around my body. From a seed into an invasive vine.

Most of the time I have no idea why I feel anxious. No idea why my brain is trying to prep my body for flight. The more effort I put into getting to the roots of the creeping briar, the deeper they dig and the faster it grows.

The tendrils move behind my eyes and squeeze. They continue down into my lungs. Unlike most plants, this one eats oxygen and exhales adrenaline. I have to remind myself to breathe. Dizzy and tingling, exhaustion creeps into my fingers and fills my churning stomach.

I look for a problem to solve, only to discover my mind is rootbound and unsure. I try to tease it apart, to get to the “why.” Lightheaded, I pull harder. Eventually, I’m just hacking at it with desperate fists and hoping to figure out something, anything. And so it grows.

It spirals and twists, over and under, through my body. Forcing its way out via my skin and stealing all of my uneasy energy for itself. I wonder if it’s going to take me out with it as my skin vibrates and crawls, electric. Every nerve ending is fragile, every touch spreads cracks along the surface. My muscles twitch, a whole body version of restless legs. My daughter gives me a hug and it’s all I can do to not scream.

Finally, the vine slows and I pull the thorny infrastructure apart, once again able to think. I know this bramble will eventually starve itself. I know this, but I am equally convinced this will be the time it just keeps growing, unchecked. I know this plant is nothing but over-watered anxiety. I know this, but I am equally certain its roots are more sinister and deadly. I don’t even need WebMD to catalog the potential maladies.

I swing back the other direction. Maybe I just drank too much caffeine. That would be preferable to anything else, but man would I feel stupid.

But what if…

What if my brain is just… broken?

I am shaky and weak when it finally dies back. There is still a lot of work to do to get rid of all the rotting vines and I’m too tired. Weary and hungover and achy from misplaced adrenaline. I step around the wilted and spent anxiety, worried it is only becoming mulch for next time.

I am forever looking for any signs of movement within those seeds, but somehow they always, always surprise me when they finally sprout. I wish I could tell them they aren’t even real, but how do you call out the nonexistence of something when it is actively hurting you? How do you detach yourself from something clinging like kudzu? How do you separate yourself from something that, in the moment, feels like it is you?

It feels impossible to look at something objectively while it is pulling you apart.

It sure does have interesting flowers and look at the color of those leaves!

Oh. That’s right. It also has thorns.

And isn’t that a cute swarm of killer bees…

Follow this journey on Rhiyaya.

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Image via Thinkstock.

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