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The Metaphors I Use to Cope With Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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Over the years of coping with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), I’ve come up with a few metaphors to help describe to others and to conceptualize for myself what my symptoms feel like. Though I’ve been solidly in remission for a few years, the most distressing symptom for me has been depersonalization or derealization.

Depersonalization or derealization can happen anywhere, at any time — much like panic attacks. In this case, the metaphor that has worked for me is to tell myself to “drive the bus,” meaning “keep going, don’t stop (literally) driving the car, having that conversation with that person, working with that client, living my life,” etc. Also, at the same time, don’t push it away or avoid it. Using the “drive the bus” metaphor, I don’t “grip the wheel” (fight the sensation) and “turn the music up loud” (distract myself) to avoid the “screaming passengers” (my scary thoughts that arise when the symptom comes) in the back. Continuing with that metaphor, I also don’t stand up and yell or scream at the passengers — meaning, I don’t struggle or engage with the scary thoughts. In this metaphor, the bus is your life and the passengers would be the noise and tumult of your anxiety disorder. Sometimes the passengers are exceptionally loud and other times not, but either way you drive the bus; you live your life.

Occasionally, I have wanted off the bus — not to end my life, more to curl into a ball and just not be. But I don’t. I won’t. Because I’m here and I want to live my life, so I accept the discomfort and drive on.

I also use this metaphor: I imagine I’m holding hands with my anxiety or walking with it next to me. Here is why this is important: We want to erase the anxiety, and the truth is, we can’t. Anxiety is part of the human experience. But, when you have GAD, a lot of your anxiety is not useful or helpful because there typically isn’t anything to truly be afraid of. Another metaphor I use when the anxiety and fear rise up is, “Is it a lion? Is it really a lion?” No. It’s just a bodily symptom, a temporary change in my body’s state (depersonalization). Or, it’s just a cognitive distortion, my brain responding to the fear and trying to figure out or make sense of this symptom, but because it is afraid it isn’t thinking clearly or rationally.

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However, we can walk with our anxiety, not submit to it, but allow it to simply be. This is when the image of me holding hands with my anxiety helps me to make peace with it, helps me to allow it to just float through me while — at the same time — I move on with my day.

With my depersonalization and derealization, I typically would have a lot of scary cognitive distortion. It would start with a floaty, weird feeling as thoughts rise up that make me feel more anxious: “What if I can’t stop feeling out of my body? What if I never feel normal? What if I go ‘crazy?’ I’m probably going to ‘lose my mind’…”  This can turn into what I’ve now dubbed the Anxiety Tornado — whirling gusts of scary thoughts that simply grow stronger and more frightening. The way I deal with this is to take long and slow breaths and then close my eyes and imagine stepping out of the tornado and back to the present moment. Once I’m out of the tornado, I do some quick cognitive challenging:

“I’ve had this feeling before and I didn’t ‘go crazy,’ I just felt anxious and uncomfortable and floaty, but even with those feelings, I did continue to function.”

Using hard evidence is important in cognitive challenging. I also couple this with what is actually happening in the present moment. For example, “I’m having the feelings of anxiety and worry but am still sitting in the coffee shop and writing this article.”

This is how my metaphors help me conceptualize and explain my condition to others. I even have an index card that I refer to as my “coping card,” that has the bullet points of my metaphors.

• Drive The Bus

• Step Out of Tornado

• Challenge the Thoughts

• Stay in The Present Moment (Breathe)

For more about the use of these types of metaphors, I suggest checking out the workbook “Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life” by Steven Hayes, Ph.D.

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Thinkstock photo via kevron2001

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The Words I Say Each Morning to Help Me Accept My Anxiety Diagnosis

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Today, I will move forward. I will set out to do the best I can.

I will not let my overactive mind fool me into irrational thoughts and feelings.

I will have these thoughts and feelings from time to time, but I have learned how to cope and know they will pass.

It is possible that I will let my thoughts get the best of me. Yes it can happen, I do have an anxiety disorder, but this is who I am.

I am no better or worse than anybody else. I am just a little different. And that difference makes me unique.

Today I will move forward.

I say these words every morning before I start my day. It is my starting point, my first thoughts of many that my overactive mind will have. It took a long time to truly believe what I have written down. I don’t think anybody wants to admit to having a mental health problem. I thought of everything else but that, but this is who I am.

I truly want to share with others my experience with this problem. So long ago, I used to find it rewarding to help others, but anxiety and low self-esteem stole that from me. I want to claim that part of my life back in some small way, so I will try to explain part of my life and feelings about anxiety.

How did I get to this point in my life, a man in his 50s diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?

Well, it did take some time.

When I was in grade school, I had a hard time focusing or paying attention. If I grew up today, I would most likely be diagnosed with ADHD. But back in the early 70s my teacher said I was just overactive and would grow out of it. Well, that did not happen. I just learned to cope with it. I thought I was just like everybody else.

I was lucky to have a loving family. My father would indulge me in my many hobbies to try. But I would only get so far in these pursuits and they would be forgotten. Over and over again this pattern would repeat itself. I thank my father for trying, but he did not know there was a little bit more to me than we all knew.

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During my teens and 20s, I think a had an average life. I still had a problem trying to concentrate on subjects but managed to pass high school and go to college for a few courses. But I never did finished my first year. So I left school and went to work for an import company in their shipping department.

During this time, if I had a share of Microsoft or Apple stock for every time someone said to me, “You worry too much,” I would be a rich man.

I remembered my dad worried about everything. He would always check the stove or the furnace in the winter to make sure everything was OK before we went out. I always figured I took after him and it was normal.

I was always the careful and safe one. When I would see my friends acting recklessly, I always thought I was the sensible one. But I did notice they had more fun than I did. I always worried if it was the right thing to do and then overanalyzed the fun out of everything. As time went on I did less and less adventurous things.

I was married in my 20s, and that did not last long. We grew apart quite fast. She said I did not go out and try new things. I do admit, she was right about that.

During my 30s I moved up in my company and gained more responsibility and of course more stress. I had my first panic attack, which I thought at the time was a heart attack. I had a stress test and it came back normal, so I was told to relax and try to lower my stress level. This whole thing repeated itself a few years later with the same diagnosis.

During one of my doctor visits, he prescribed Alprazolam, the smallest dose they had and said to only use the pills if I felt I had a panic attack coming on. That first prescription lasted for over a year and half.

Over the years I was still told many times to quit worrying about things. Seeing myself still as the careful one, I chose to ignore any advice they gave. Hey, I know myself, everybody else is wrong.

About 15 years ago my father died of a heart attack. It hurt me badly, and I started to think about my own health, since I have high blood pressure and heart disease runs in my family. Then I lost my job of 20 years when the company I worked for decided to close down. It was not a good year. But I found work and made it through the tough times. I even got married again to a wonderful woman.

As time went on, though, I started to notice pains in my upper chest and I worried there was something wrong with my heart. I felt I would wind up like my father with a heart attack. Things got worse, and I began to worry about my impending death. During another ER trip, I was again told it was “just a panic attack.”

I did end up going to therapy for my shoulders and chest, since my doctor found my slumping forward could cause some pain in my muscles. But again and again he mentioned stress and anxiety might be the cause. I did noticed if I took a pill, the pain went away and I felt better, but I knew it had to be something physical. When the pain came back with a vengeance and I was becoming moody and sleepy, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which fit the symptoms I was having.

See, I know I was right all along.

It took some time to get my thyroid level back in balance with the use of medication. I was less sleepy, but the pain was still there, and the worry about heart problems returned.

Over and over again my doctor mentioned anxiety and even asked if I wanted to try a different pill. I said, “No thanks,” and my doctor said, “Fine.” I just continued to struggle and looked for different physical causes to this pain and feelings.

A few years ago the town I lived in was flooded when the river near my house overflowed its banks during a heavy rain. This was the first time this had ever happened. The water had destroyed my basement, and it was a heartbreaking time in my life. After the flood and during the repairs I started to noticed that anytime the weather forecast had rain in it, my anxiety and chest pains would increase. I was terrified of the rain. I started to enjoy winter because there was no rain. I hated the spring because that’s when the flood had happened. I began always watching the Weather Channel, looking for that next storm, dreading that the next rain would destroy all my hard work of rebuilding.

I started to realize this anxiety thing the doctor talked about was more real than I had ever thought. But I kept it to myself, and I fought the silent battle, even as my anxiety was starting to affect me on a daily basis.

Six months ago I started to notice myself getting angry for very small things.

I would fly of the handle at the slightest provocation. On two occasions my chest hurt so bad that I almost went to the ER. I took my medication and I felt better, but I knew there was something wrong. So one more time I went back to the doctor. After describing my anger, chest pain and worry issues with him, again the anxiety diagnosis was brought up. Once again the conversation about other medications came up and I explained I did not want to go that route.

Then for some reason I brought up the idea of speaking to someone about anxiety and learning some techniques on coping with my feelings. I could get this under control. I figured in one quick visit I’d get some tips and put this behind me.

Almost immediately my doctor said, “Your health insurance covers mental health therapy, I can write you a referral,” and within 10 minutes, I was walking out the door with one in hand.

It took me a week to get enough courage to make the phone call for an appointment, only to be told it could be a two- or three-week wait for an opening. Of course, they asked what was the problem and if it was life-threatening. Since I have lived this way most of my life, I said I was OK and could wait, and gave them my name and info, and that was the end of that. I kind of forgot about the phone call or most likely did not want to think about it, but two weeks later they called and I was given an appointment and a counselor’s name.

A week later I had my first therapy session. It was nothing like I thought. Even though I did internet searches on therapy, it seemed to me that this might take some time and effort.

Now I am quite certain that this does not happen often, but I want to add this unusual tidbit to this story: Just before my third session I was told my therapist was no longer with the medical group and I would be assigned a new therapist. They did not give me details of what happened, but I was not happy that I would have to start over with someone new. But it worked out well in the long run, due to a fine doctor who I had been assigned to.

I guess strange things happen even at the therapist’s office. Try to always keep a open mind.

As of this post, I have had 12 therapy sessions and have learned quite a lot about myself. It was not the in-and-out I thought it would be, but I am glad I’ve stayed.

I am feeling much better.

The point of writing this article is that I would have never accepted the fact that I have an anxiety disorder. It took about six sessions of therapy to finally admit this is what is “wrong” with me. For so many years, I questioned my pain but totally ignored the feeling of anxiety I had. I never put the two together.

I do have pain in my shoulders, but most of the time that pain is from hard work over the years. Still, it gets my anxiety started, and then my muscles tense up, which causes more pain, which causes more anxiety. So we go round and round. Also just getting the feeling of anxiety will cause my muscles to tense, causing the same pain, so it works both ways.

Admitting I have a disorder is the number one cause of my ongoing positive recovery. Out of all the things I have learned, I would have never come to that conclusion by myself. Someone had to point the way.

I could never thank my doctor enough for what she has given me, which is a new beginning. I have a disorder and most likely will have it the rest of my life. But I have learned to cope and accept my anxiety as part of me.

Trust me, all the information on anxiety I found on the web has helped me a great deal. All those stories I have read of other people’s experiences with anxiety has helped me understand I am not alone. But to talk to someone, a doctor, therapist, counselor or social worker, I believe is necessary to truly understand you have an illness that is real and that can be helped.

Please understand, if you decide to seek therapy, it will be hard work. You will learn things about yourself you may not be comfortable with. There are times you may cry and times you may feel great joy. But it is a learning process. You are learning to accept. Trust me, it is well worth it.

If you have uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, talk to someone. Start with your doctor, listen to what he or she says. Do not try to ignore or hide what you are experiencing . You are not alone.

And if like me, you have waited a long time to seek help, remember it is never too late. Every new day brings the possibility of a fresh start and one step closer to better health.

Today, I will move forward.

I will set out to do the best can.

And so can you.

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My Mono Was Taken Seriously. My Anxiety Disorder Was Not.

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The month of May in 2016 was undoubtedly the hardest one I have encountered in my 18 years of life. It proved to me that expectations are often faulty and I can never expect things to go exactly as planned.

Because it was my last quarter of high school, I figured things would go smoothly. AP tests were over, I didn’t have any finals that were stress-worthy and I was anticipating graduation with great excitement. At the beginning of May, my excitement was quickly snatched from beneath me and I encountered what was the first of my the two massive struggles I would face during the month.

In the early days of May, I began to feel extremely worried about trivial things and circumstances I could not control. I couldn’t sleep and I was hungry, but couldn’t eat. I was profusely sweating, shaking and constantly had headaches. I no longer enjoyed things I otherwise would have like soccer, watching Netflix or hanging out with friends. I figured it was just a phase and soon I would be able to get back to what I thought was “normal.”

But as the weeks passed and I kept my emotions and constantly racing thoughts bottled up, I began to lose control and ultimately had what can only be described as a panic attack. My mom became understandingly concerned and quickly scheduled an appointment for me with a physician the next day. At this point I knew what was coming, but it still came as a shock when I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

As I reflected on past experiences and an ever-present need to worry, everything began to make sense. With the help of medication and cognitive counseling, I began to reign in my anxiety and enjoy life again. I told a select few, but felt as though this was something that should be kept in the shadows–something that would detract from the image others had of me.

But as soon as this success with my anxiety came, I was met with my next hurdle I am still working to overcome. I began to feel exhausted and sick with everything imaginable. I figured it was the whooping cough or strep throat because both were making the rounds at my school. But lo and behold, both tests came back negative. We were at a loss as to what it could be, but it was soon suggested I get tested for mononucleosis (more commonly known as mono).

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With six days left in my high school career, I got the blood test and waited three long minutes to hear the diagnosis. And with my school days dwindling, I found out I was positive for mono. While it was a relief to have a name for the extreme fatigue I was experiencing, there is no medication to help aid recovery besides over-the-counter pain relievers. I quickly watched my restored plans for the end of senior year go up in flames.

In contrast with my anxiety diagnosis, this was not something I kept quiet. Within two hours, everyone at school knew and teachers and students alike began giving help where I needed it. I am currently attending half days of school and have more time for assignments which has helped me immensely, but all the help made me step back and ponder the comparison between my two diagnoses and the contrast between the reception of the two.

Both plague me with extreme exhaustion, give me headaches and make me shake uncontrollably. Both make me lack motivation to finish assignments and get out bed. Both force me to lose touch with the world and people around me. But what differs is how people react to the two. When it comes to mono, I receive endless amounts of support and well wishes, likely because the effects are so visible. There is no stigma behind mono (besides being known as the kissing disease) and people know how to respond when someone says they have it. It’s easy to be open about having mono because there is no extra judgment tacked on to it. In regards to my anxiety, I’ve found myself being concerned about whether or not to tell teachers and peers in fear they would not see it as a viable excuse for missing school and turning in late assignments.

In May, it became crystal clear to me that mental illnesses are treated much differently than those of physical nature. When struggling with anxiety, I am still expected to get up at 6:20 every morning, attend every class whether or not I am having a bad day and finish my work on time. It is merely seen as an “excuse.” As I stated earlier, when it comes to mono the rules can be bent in order to ensure I am comfortable. And although I am grateful to the many teachers and friends who have helped me while I have had mono, it angers me that we are a society that does not treat mental illnesses in the same way we do physical ones. It comes down to this. We don’t make people with mono get out of bed, but we make those drained from anxiety get up and put on a refreshed face for the sake of appearances.

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A Metaphor for People Who Are 'High-Functioning' With Generalized Anxiety Disorder

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If you have been to the beach, perhaps you know the sensation of standing on the wet sand right at the water’s edge, where the waves have softened into tiny splashes, and it feels much safer than being out in the big surf itself.

But as you’re standing there, enjoying the cool rush of the water over your bare feet, eventually you notice — the ground is shifting. The sand is sliding around and out from beneath your feet, not exactly disappearing, but not stable enough for you to remain standing as you are without having to adjust your stance.

This is the experience of being high-functioning while having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The day may be bright and beautiful, the sun shining in the sky and warm on your skin, laughter and games happening around you as the sun sinks. But despite all of that happiness, the ground is slipping out from under you, and you have to constantly move, regularly squirm and frequently tense your body in order to make it from moment to moment.

And quite often, no one around you has even the smallest idea of what you’re feeling. They don’t notice the sudden flinch, or the tension that ripples through your shoulders, or the way you might throw out your hands a little to steady your balance. No one may see you glance down, confused, reorienting yourself as you check that the world isn’t completely gone from underneath you. You’re still here, you’re still part of the scene. You just have to reposition yourself and get your bearings again.

Sometimes, you can’t. Sometimes you have to shuffle back up the beach a short ways, retreating from the overstimulation of the water still rushing and receding against your legs, and the sand not quitting in its attempts to shift back out into the sea. If you have to return to your towel, find the shade of an umbrella, maybe distract yourself with a book, or music or interacting with someone else, that’s OK. If you just have to sit there, feeling the more stable sand beneath you, reminding yourself that this part of the world isn’t falling away under your feet, you can do that, too — and eventually, you’ll be able to breathe again.

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I talk to my friends, coworkers and family quite often about my panic attacks. I am honest about their frequency and their intensity, and how it feels to have that metaphorical sand slip away from me, making my legs shake and my heart leap, and I have to run back to my towel, no longer enjoying the proximity of the ocean. They know that I struggle.

But sometimes I feel like I can’t walk away from the water’s edge, no matter how badly I want to. The rest of the beach feels just as unsteady, if a little less damp. It’s still noisy, still bright, and still full of people and sounds and smells that I can’t always categorize. The sand is uneven everywhere, and there will be days where I just have to give up and leave the beach.

But it’s OK, even when that’s the outcome. Not every day is good with GAD, and the bad days can leave you holding on tight to anything you can reach, trying to ground yourself somehow. The important thing, the thing that I always have to remind myself, is that not every day is bad either. That some days the sun will stay warm, not get too hot, and I won’t get caught up in the stomach-plunging fear of feeling the sand slip away; I can run into the surf too and play and forget for just a few minutes how hard it can be to breathe when the world won’t stay still.

Some days it is harder to hold my ground than others, and that is OK. Because I know the tide will come in again and put that sand right back where it belonged, and I know the sun will come out again tomorrow to light up that beach, and I can try again.

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Thinkstock image via UpPiJ

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Why My Anxiety Can't Be Hidden

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One of the things I envy most about others is their ability to hide what’s going on in their heads and keep the appearance of calm under pressure.

I’ve read articles by people who also have general anxiety disorder (GAD) who are able to conceal their anxiety with a smile or a well-practiced poker face. This is something I am incapable of.

When I experience anxiety, it is accompanied by a phenomenon I call “The Mean Reds.” You may recognize the term from the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It’s how Holly Golightly describes her experience with anxiety. It helps me to associate my condition with Audrey Hepburn because it makes it seem more elegant somehow. In reality, The Mean Reds as I know them are not pretty.

It’s a reaction caused by adrenaline. First my temperature rises. Within a matter of seconds, splotchy, red patches appear all over my chest and neck. To someone who isn’t familiar with my tendency to become flushed with anxiety, it would seem that I’m breaking out in hives or some kind of sunburn. This often prompts them to ask me what happened to my neck or if I’m feeling OK. Addressing the issue often makes my anxiety worse which makes me even redder.

I’ve always been prone to becoming flushed easily, but it became much more frequent in the last couple years. Now, it is the first symptom when my anxiety is on the rise. When I know I’ll be likely to experience a lot of anxiety during the day, I dress accordingly in high-necked shirts or a scarf. I also wear my hair down most of the time because it is comforting to feel like I have a curtain to hide behind.

I wish more than anything that I didn’t have to wear the signs of my anxiety on my skin. I want to be able to pretend that everything is OK. I’m very good at keeping my voice calm and maintaining a smile, but The Mean Reds always signal that on the inside I’ve lost my cool.

My goal for this year is to be more open about my general anxiety disorder. I’m finding that it’s freeing to tell people that I struggle with anxiety. People are typically pretty understanding, but I still would rather avoid the conversation when I can. I just don’t want anyone feeling sorry for me.

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If The Mean Reds force me to open up about my anxiety, then maybe they’re a blessing in disguise. If my struggle takes a little chunk out of the stigma of mental illness, then maybe it’s worth it.

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Thinkstock photo via Stockbyte

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Why I Draw Comics About My Anxiety and Depression

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I’ve never been good at expressing the strange thoughts in my head. So I draw them. I started sharing my comics and artwork on Tumblr some years ago. It was anonymous and in English so my family wouldn’t read it (I’m French and lucky for me they’re not very good at English). The feedback was amazing, I never imagined I could offer comfort to people online and also receive a lot of support from them.

I was drawing about something I didn’t even know. I didn’t know I had a mental illness until it became stronger. Drawing was no longer enough against the anxiety disorder, the panic attacks and the depression. I had to take a work leave and start talking “for real” to the people close to me. And they were incredibly understanding. Why did I wait all this time imagining how they would react? I’m so grateful to have them and learn a lot every day.

Now, I think I can say I’m proud to draw about mental health and will keep doing this. It is really important to me. And apparently to many more.

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Follow this journey on Tumblr.

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