person looking through hole in cardboard wall

I grew up with a mother who repeatedly emphasized that appearances mattered above all else. As a child, behind all my decisions, my mother’s voice was ever-present, asking, “What would the neighbors think?” The household was a dysfunctional battle zone, but only behind closed doors. From an early age, my mother implanted in my head the belief that neighbors gossip and the worst sin of all was giving them any fuel to add to their fire.

So I learned to carry myself a particular way, to walk tall, shoulders back, and smile like everything in the world was just peachy. I built walls to hold in my pain and bolted on a mask to hide my tears. I put on the performance of a lifetime for years, doing multiple shows a day.

On extremely stressful days or periods when my depression is weighing heavily on my soul, I try to push myself to go out in public because that is my last line of defense. Though I might break down and crawl into bed for the day in the privacy of my own home, when I am surrounded by people, my mother’s voice is ever-present with me. Somehow, though I want to curl up in a ball and cry, that little voice continuously harps to “hold it in, hold it together, don’t fall apart.” After all, what would those strangers think if I had a meltdown and became a crying, sniveling mess?

Every now and then, however, the cracks in my veneer begin to show. As much as I try to hold everything together, my walls crumble around me and I become a quivering, sobbing mess as all the depression and anxiety that has built up inside me comes pouring out.

Usually, it is in response to something someone has said or done to me, especially if they are unnecessarily hostile or aggressive towards me. It pierces through my artificial calm and triggers my flight response. Alarms sound within my mind to flee, to find somewhere safe before the fragile walls I’m hiding behind begin to shatter.

I honestly hate that I am so fragile, especially when it comes to conflict. For me, hard-wired somewhere in my brain is a connection between conflict and abuse. When I was a child and my mother became upset, some sort of harsh and irrational punishment was guaranteed, whether it was warranted or not. When my older brother saw red, I quickly learned to get away before fists began to fly. Though that little kernel of logic in my brain might reassure me that not everyone who acts aggressively means to inflict physical harm, my mind and my body react impulsively as if imminent danger lies ahead.

When I can neither flee nor quiet the alarm sounding in my mind, panic sets in and a meltdown occurs. The artificial calm demeanor I have created begins to collapse and it feels like the floor has dropped from beneath me. I feel as if I’m tumbling down a never-ending hole with nothing to grab onto, no way to prevent myself from falling apart.

I begin to feel unsafe, unheard. I am transported back to a time when I was a little child with a little voice that went unheard. Instead of reacting rationally, the floodgates open and a river of emotions cascade out.

My hands begin to shake. My mouth struggles to find anything coherent to say. I want to cry out and run away, yet I feel frozen in place, my feet cemented to the floor. I find myself sobbing, melting down, babbling this endless stream of verbal diarrhea, trying to simultaneously explain and defend myself. My thoughts and statements ricochet all over the place, from one topic to the next, following no pattern, rhyme or reason.

Inside, that young child is screaming, “It’s all too much, I can’t take any of this, it needs to stop!” She is in a complete panic, scrambling for the right words to say to make it all go away, to make herself feel safe again. An endless stream of, “No more! No mas!” echoes within every word she manages to squeak out between sobs.

Meanwhile, the older, wiser, more rational part of myself seems to be standing to the side, witnessing it all in disbelief. That logical fragment passes judgment, demanding to know what on earth I am doing, insisting I stop making a “spectacle” of myself.

Back and forth they battle in the background as the meltdown continues. The small, injured childlike facet of myself falling to pieces while the other more logical facet scoffs and demands I pull myself together. Little by little, my body and mind exhaust themselves and the river of sobs transitions into a slow trickle of tears. I find myself mortified that I allowed it to happen again because I feel I should be stronger than this. I’ve had a lifetime of building walls and bolting on masks. They should be strong enough to withstand anything by this point.

I wipe away my tears, take a deep breath and take my walk of shame out the door, because I know this won’t be the last time I fall apart or melt down. It is all part of the burden of the functional depressive. Though we may put on a brave face and act like our world is full of sunshine and peaches, our walls are made of dirt bricks that cannot withstand the waves of aggression from others or our own flood of tears that follows.

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Living with anxiety on a daily basis can be challenging for many of us. But when we have children, it becomes “next-level” to manage our own symptoms alongside the duties of parenting — especially if we think we should have it all together, all the time.

People with anxiety can and do make wonderful parents. It just means we need to be aware of it and learn to prioritize self-care.

On my lifelong path to well-being, I’ve found tools that provide me with support as someone with anxiety. It also helps to know there are others out there, just like me.

1. Establish good professional support.

Parenting is a massive challenge and most of us need help to get through. That’s why finding caring, professional support is paramount on the journey to managing anxiety. A good general practitioner and therapist can make all the difference in the life of a parent with anxiety, because it means we have support to turn to in times of need.

We don’t always know how to get it right, especially in parenting.

A trusted professional can help us manage our challenging thoughts and feelings as they arise, and steer us towards a better story of parenting based on our values. For the well-being of our family, consulting a professional before making any changes to our medication regime also becomes important. It means we are supported and well-informed on our journey. There’s more than one person to take care of now, so it’s important we let go of the reins and get help when we need it. This is a strength, not a weakness.

2. Implement healthy boundaries.

There are many things that change when we become parents — most of all, our priorities.

As we change, it’s important for bosses, partners and our children to understand what we are capable of within our parenting role. One way we can do this is by implementing healthy boundaries. Implementing healthy boundaries can enable others to know what we are and are not capable of doing each day. For example, if we are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, saying “No” to a request to help others doesn’t make us a bad person. It just means we are putting ourselves first to regain better health, which can only benefit our family.

Implementing healthy boundaries is about communicating with others and being open to nurturing our own needs. Rather than pushing them aside, we can lean into our needs. If we need help with identifying and establishing our boundaries, a good therapist can help. Knowing what we value most helps saying “No” a bit easier.

3. Ask for help.

Many of us with anxiety have become good at pretending we’re OK when we’re actually not. Asking for help can alleviate the load and remind us, “It’s not all up to me.” This could mean asking another parent from school to collect our child once a week, so we can go to the gym and run off some stress. Or perhaps ask a friend to cook a double batch of her awesome lasagna to keep in the freezer for those nights when there’s no mojo left to cook dinner.

Asking for help allows others to give back to us — and we all know how good it feels to give from the heart. It’s an important skill to learn, and I believe our children can benefit from knowing we can’t always be everything for everyone else. I believe asking for help can enrich our children’s lives with variety and compassion from others around them.

4. Establish a daily self-care ritual.

Self-care will look different at many times during our parenting journey. Some of us intuitively know what is good for us because it feels like a positive relief when we engage in it. Self-care is a way of managing anxiety through a proactive lens. Rather than putting out our internal fires as we experience them, establishing a regular self-care routine reminds us that we matter and our needs are just as important as the needs of our family.

These rituals don’t need to be huge, but they are something we need to practice to fill us up from the inside out. Whether it be a morning meditation, mindful drawing or an afternoon walk with our dog. With frequency, self-care begins to sink in and becomes a habit. It also helps rewire our brains to enable more self-care to unfold, especially when the going gets tough. Even five minutes a day can be helpful.

5. Tell it how it is.

Some days, no matter what we do, we’re going to have a hard day. Rather than trying to push through beyond exhaustion, it’s important to tell our loved ones what life is like for us in the moment. This means telling our partners, “I’m having a rough day with anxiety symptoms. I may need extra help with the kids today, or attend an extra yoga class tonight to help me destress.”

I personally believe it’s important to discuss our anxiety experience with our kids at a level they can understand, to help them gain an understanding and empathy for others. This might sound like, “Mummy’s feelings are a bit sick in my body today. This means today I might need some extra rest, so I can help my feelings relax.” Whether or not we say anything, our children will pick up on our anxious times. Giving children the language and skills to talk about this helps set them up for emotional resilience and tools to manage their own anxieties as they arise in the future, too.

This list is a work in progress and understandably, there are times when I feel challenged to keep up on my self-care. The key is to get back on the bandwagon as soon as I can, and know I am worthy of doing so — anxiety and all.

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I have struggled with anxiety for 10 years.

As anyone with anxiety knows, some days are good and some days are bad. For me, most of 2016 was bad with my anxiety. I started having semi-regular panic attacks and felt like I could never get my brain to turn off. I had gone through a lot in just a few short months — started dating my boyfriend, began a new job, had to move out of my apartment on short notice, moved in with my new boyfriend (we had only been dating two months at this point), then moved to my own place for five months, then moved back in with my boyfriend. Work had never been busier and my sister’s wedding coincided with an extremely important event I was responsible for planning with work. On top of that, in May of 2016, I experienced the worst panic attack of my life; I got stuck in a large crowd at a concert, tried to elbow my way out of there while panicking, eventually passed out in the middle of the crowd and had to get carried out.

It was a lot to handle and I still get tense at the memory of that panic attack. After that moment, my anxiety was at an all-time high at all times. I found myself sitting in meeting rooms at work, trying to breathe my way out of hyperventilating. Hiding my shakes at the water cooler. Smiling through the endless thoughts of trying to juggle everything my boss was asking me to do. To call it “overwhelming” is an understatement.

But that July, I found the “best medicine” for my anxiety: a 7-month-old puppy we named Lucy. My boyfriend Jason and I had talked about getting a dog for a while, pretty much since we had started dating. So that day in July, we decided we would just go look at the shelters and see what dogs were around. We poked around at two shelters and while I wanted to bring home every dog we saw, Jason didn’t feel like we had found one. We were on our way home and I saw we’d be going by one other place. I asked Jason if we could stop quickly and “just look” — with some hesitation, he agreed.

We walked into the shelter and the receptionist directed us to the dog kennels. When we opened up the door, we could immediately see one kennel and that’s where we saw our girl. She jumped up, tail wagging as soon as she saw us. I thought she was cute but too young. Jason, on the other hand, kept going back to her. Now it was me who was hesitating and eventually agreed we would ask them if we could take her out of the kennel. They took the three of us to a play area where she trotted around with a little puppy smile on her face. I kept saying she was sweet but too young. I was about to eat my words – as soon as I sat down on the ground, that sweet, young pup crawled into my lap and I was done. I felt something right away and I knew we had to bring her home.

And the next day, we did just that.

It didn’t take long until I felt my daily anxiety ease up – I had to concentrate on Lucy and what her needs were, not the millions of thoughts going through my head at one time. My thoughts now became checklists – “Did Lucy go to the bathroom? Check. Did Lucy get her breakfast/dinner? Check. Did Lucy take a long walk around the neighborhood to get some energy out? Check.” Being able to check things off my “Mental Lucy Checklist” made me feel accomplished and distracted me at the same time.

About a month after we brought Lucy home, I had gotten into a big fight with a family member that left me inconsolable, and I began a panic attack. I sat on the armchair in the bedroom, hyperventilating and shaking. Jason, who at the time was still struggling with what he should do when I had a panic attack, stood on the other side of the room, finishing laundry. Lucy, on the other hand, followed me to the chair and was sitting intently watching me, licking my hands and eventually sitting in my lap. I didn’t realize having a little weight like Lucy’s 30-pound body helped me feel stable and eventually I was able to catch my breath again.

A couple of days later, things at work were getting busy, stressful and very tense. I woke up dreading to go to work each day because of the workload I had. I finally forced myself out of bed and started getting dressed – only I couldn’t figure out what to wear. That’s one of the worst parts of my anxiety — making a simple decision like what clothes to wear can make me so anxious, and it sends me into a panic attack. I was sitting on the floor, going through the clothes I was choosing between, getting quickly frustrated. I could suddenly feel my heart rate speed up and before the full panic attack even had a chance, Lucy was in my lap. Just the distraction of her near-perfect leap from the bed into my crisscrossed legs was enough to make me feel calm and even made me giggle at her a little.

Time and time again, Lucy has amazed me with her skills to sense any kind of anxiety from me before I can even realize it. What is even more amazing to me is her ability to keep me calm. She’s still a puppy, just slightly over a year old with no formal therapy or comfort dog training. We haven’t even had her a year and she has bonded with me and Jason in a way that one cannot explain. She can sense our emotions and knows when we need those puppy cuddles. Don’t get me wrong — this silly girl is still a bonafide puppy and loves to tear up her toys, but she will always drop them if she feels we need her.

I will never underestimate the power of animals and I now understand, more than ever, the slogan and the bumper sticker I have seen on cars: “Who rescued who?”

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Everyone has those days when it feels like everything is just too much. You know those days when you didn’t sleep well, you failed an assigned, you were late to a meeting, you got in a fight with your best friend and you spilled coffee on your shirt, all before 10 a.m. Trust me, I feel you.

On those days where the world is a perfect storm of happenings and shitty moments, anxiety seems to rise. My FitBit tells me my heart rate is high as I sip my third cup of coffee before breakfast and pray the day will be over soon. I bite back tears as I sit through meetings and look up cliche but inspirational Pinterest quotes during lunch to get me through more hours of the day and whatever business awaits me once I’m home. Self-care is the last thing on my mind.

On days — or let’s face it, months — when the anxiety outweighs the happy and it’s all you can do not to pull yourself out of bed, I know how hard it can be. Depression and anxiety can be challenging enough when you aren’t busy, but when you’re busy and buried in work, it can seem like a mountain that grows every second.

So here are my ten little tips for self-care in college:

1. Engage in positive self-talk.

You are doing your best. You are amazing. You can do this! The wisest words a therapist ever told me were if I could think of myself in a positive light, it would shape my whole perspective. While it doesn’t fixed missed homework assignments or solve fights, it does help put them in perspective.

2. Treat yo’ self.

Besides being one of the best running stories on “Parks and Recreation,” the idea of “treat yo’ self” is an amazing piece of advice for someone overwhelmed with school or work or life. Splurge and buy a nice Starbucks treat to get yourself through the day or get that new dress you’ve been eyeing forever.

3. Have a cup of tea.

When I have a bad day or my anxiety is high, I often get a soothing cup of tea to soothe my soul. There is nothing better than a warm drink in your hands as you cosy up on the couch. Pro tip: go for low caffeine like a fun herbal tea if you’re trying to sleep or wind down.

4. Take a bubble bath.

Pretty much enough said. Pop on some nice music, put in a fun bath bomb and relax in a nice bath. It melts my stress away.

5. Create a Spotify playlist.

Spotify lets you pick what songs are best for you and you can have playlists for everything from working out to studying. I have one full of mellow but uplifting songs for when I’m anxious that has been playing on repeat for the last few weeks of midterm season.

6. Talk to a friend.

Call up a friend and meet for coffee or talk to them on the phone. Tell them what’s up in your life, vent, cry, etc. They will be there to hold your hand as you cry, provide advice and be there to support you.

7. Take a nap.

Honestly my life motto is, “When all else fails, nap it off” and anyone close to me knows this about me. Some days are rough and you can’t turn them around. My anxiety often messes with my sleep, making me more anxious. Don’t be afraid to silence your phone for a few hours and to get some much needed shut eye. You will wake up in a better mood and with more energy.

8. Exercise.

I’m not a huge exercise fan, but boy oh boy, does it sure put me in a better mood. Exercise releases endorphins which naturally make you happy. So whether it’s going to the gym, walking around the block or trying out a new yoga class your friends been raving about, get out and move. Your body will thank you.

9. Light a candle.

I’m not sure how I feel about the science of aromatherapy, but lighting a candle always makes me feel better. Just be careful not to leave it burning when you leave or nap. I’m partial to candles that smell like yummy baked goods, but almost every stores sells a variety and you can even pick up little ones for a buck at your local dollar store.

10. Take a self-care day.

Take a day for yourself. Turn off your phone. Don’t check your email or school stuff. Sleep in. Do things you love. I’m partial to Netflix in my pajamas and hanging out with a close friend. Order some takeout. Take a nice bath. Go to bed early. The plans are up to you!

Anxiety is normal. Being overwhelmed is human, but don’t let it control you. You are a cup and you can’t pour into any other cups (school, work, friends, etc.) if you don’t fill yourself up. So take time for yourself, whether it be a hike with friends or a nice bath and early to bed. And always remember, self-care isn’t selfish.

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Thinkstock photo via MistakeAnn.

There’s an app I use that lets people share their anxieties and comment on the posts. This app has helped me a lot, but sometimes it makes me sad. Especially when I read about someone feeling like a burden.

I want to share my story.

I grew up with anxiety. Anxiety and I have always been close friends, even before I knew the word. I can remember times as just a little kid when my anxiety took over. 

For years, I wouldn’t walk on playgrounds — I had to crawl, afraid I’d fall off. For years, I had to sleep next to my mother, afraid I’d die in my sleep. We’re talking an embarrassingly long amount of time here, like, I had my first boyfriend before I began sleeping in my own room. And today, today it comes out as being afraid to go places alone without my current boyfriend by my side. No one knows I struggle with this fear.

But, feeling like a burden is something I was told was correct. Ever since the first year of my anxiety attacks, my family made me feel like a “burden.” I was purposefully made to feel like a burden.

All throughout high school, my close friends, my parents and eventually my high school “sweetheart” made me feel as though I was the biggest burden there was. I was told I was too much, no wonder I didn’t have any friends, that I’m “crazy” and I should be locked away in the mental ward.

It’s a miracle I’m where I am today.

I still struggle with feeling like a burden, especially to my boyfriend who does most things around the apartment and to my grandparents who support me financially. But I know I’m not. 

It took one friend, one loving friend to show me I am not a burden. She has been there throughout some of the toughest moments of my life. She’s stood by my side through everything. And when I asked why, her answer was simple. “Because I choose to be in your life.” And when I asked my boyfriend, his response was the same. Funny enough, they’re siblings.

I want you to stop and realize, you are not a burden to those in your life. They actively choose to be there for you. The right people will come into your life at the right time. If they cause problems, it’s probably to teach you more about the kind of people you let close.

To those of you with less than loving families, know this: you are not alone. All of us here, we’re all supporting you; even if we don’t know you, we want you to survive. You deserve to survive! I encourage you to find support groups, a therapist, anyone you can. Reach out to those online who share in your struggles. Just because we may not be related to you, doesn’t mean we don’t care. Sometimes, friends make better family members anyway.

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It can start with the smallest thing: you make a bad joke at work, forget to text back a friend or say the wrong thing in class and bam — the thoughts start. Suddenly you’re worthless, you’re horrible and everyone hates you.

Or at least, that’s what it feels like.

It might not make sense to “know” everyone in the world hates you because of a small mistake or awkward moment — after all, you don’t hate someone for making a corny joke or accidentally saying the wrong thing. But for some people with anxiety, this feels real. Very real. And once the thoughts start to cycle, it can be hard to pull yourself out.

If you ever feel like this, like your negative thoughts are flying through your brain so fast you can’t even catch one, we understand you can’t just “snap out of it.” But there are some things you can do to talk through your thoughts and (hopefully) lesson the anxiety. To get you started, we’ve compiled a list of questions to ask yourself before concluding everyone hates you.

This list is based on skills you learn in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). For a more in-depth look, this piece on Psych Central and this online CBT course are great resources. This list cannot replace receiving cognitive behavior therapy. Consider it your emergency starter pack.

So everyone in the world hates you? Ask yourself these six questions first:

1. What caused me to feel this way? Can I identify the moment that started this cycle?

Identifying the moment that started your negative thought cycle (making a bad joke, tripping in public) can allow you to pinpoint the scope of what really happened. So yes, although your mind feels like running away and living in isolation for the rest of your life, does what actually happened warrant that response?

Also, it’s just good to know your triggers in case you’re ever in that same situation again.

2. What’s the worst-case scenario? What are other possible scenarios?

In this situation, if the worst-case scenario is “everybody hates you and you die alone” — try to think of other possible outcomes. If you didn’t text your friend back, maybe they’ll be annoyed. Maybe they’ll be worried about you. Maybe they’ve already forgotten about it, and you guys will talk again soon.

3. What evidence do I have to support this worst-case scenario?

Like a detective, examine the facts. Do you have enough real-life proof to support your worst-case scenario? Or is one of the other scenarios you’ve identified more likely true based on what you know?

4. Am I fortunetelling?

In your reaction, are you taking into account things that haven’t happened yet? For example, do you feel like your friend is never going to talk to you again, or has your friend actually stopped talking to you?

5. Am I mind-reading?

Similarly, are you assuming you know how the person feels? Are you predicting what they’re feeling based on facts, or are you guessing how they feel?

6. How would I view this situation if I was an outsider looking in?

Oftentimes (a lot of the time) we’re more compassionate to other people than we are to ourselves. If the situation was flipped — and you were the friend/person you “bothered” or let down — how would you feel? Would you be annoyed? Forgiving? How would you expect someone to react in your situation? This different perspective can help you weed through your emotions and get to the truth.

Everyone probably does’t hate you. You’re going to be OK.

Or as mental health advocate Mark Henick once tweeted at me:

Real People. Real Stories.

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