Blondie 1. Watercolor female portraite

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

Smiles, laughter, friends, good grades. These are reasons why people are surprised when I say I have severe anxiety and depression. Because mental illness is easy to hide when you dedicate every ounce of energy to keeping your inner demons to yourself.

I tried for so long to conceal my anxiety and depression and honestly, I did a great job. My life consisted of me waking up, putting on my mask of happiness and struggling through every moment. I would spend time with friends, go to parties, dance and laugh. I was friendly and outgoing and on the outside, I looked healthy and happy. I smiled and laughed my way through debilitating panic attacks unfolding inside of me as I sat at a coffee shop with my friends. I shuddered and shook and pushed my way through the anxiety as I sat in my classroom. I got out of bed at 7:30 a.m. even though I was awake until 5 a.m. crying my eyes out.

The reality? Concealing the pain and torture going on in my head was making it significantly worse. The anxiety and depression reached a point that was unbearable. It was hard for me to eat. I got compliments about how great and skinny I looked and I would take them with a forced smile, knowing my silent cry for help was going unnoticed. I started skipping class, but professors didn’t pay any mind to it. They only acknowledged the fact I was going to fail for being absent so much.

I reached a breaking point at the beginning of the second semester of my sophomore year. I was rushing sororities which was a major time commitment and required more talking than you can imagine. I was doing well in the beginning, until one moment I was sitting in a chair talking to another girl and began to have a massive panic attack mid-sentence. I was struggling for air, my eyes were filling up with tears and I could barely get words out. The girl had a strange look on her face, but smiled through her confusion as I tried to laugh it off and pretend I was just choking on nothing. I left the house, walking quickly through crowds of girls with tears streaming down my face. I didn’t even care if people saw my weakness anymore, I needed help and it was time to come clean.

I’ve learned so much through my experience with mental illness, but one of the most important lessons I was taught is that it’s OK to be honest about your struggles. I thought faking it would make my symptoms disappear, but the exact opposite happened. As I became more vocal about my illnesses, I realized not all people are cruel and judgmental. Sure there will be many who don’t believe you or think that mental illness isn’t serious, but there are so many people going through something similar and who are there for you to lean on. When you come clean about your battles, it can bring a great sense of relief. You can get the proper help and accommodations you need. You can finally give yourself permission to begin healing the way you need to.

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Thinkstock photo via OGri.

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My anxiety feels like:

… a thumping heart.

… a tight chest.

… short, quick breaths.

… a knot in my stomach.

… a swollen throat.

… heavy eyes.

… warm feet.

… a tingle in my ears.

… a pressure in my forehead.

… a fuzzy head.

… a tremble in my hands.

… and jelly in my legs.

I hear the blood rushing through my veins.

I feel the clammy sweat on my palms.

I smell the cold air.

I see everything.

I taste fear.

How do I look? Same as always.

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Mindfulness is about being aware of what we are doing and experiencing; it forces the brain to be in the here and now, which can help stop anxious thoughts in their tracks. It’s about learning how to control what you spend your attention on.

Not only did the orange give me tools to tackle my anxiety, it taught me a valuable lesson about making snap judgments and a little bit about my own humility.

About two years ago, I had hit a rough patch. I’d reached out to a wellness program run by my health insurance company and they sent me a packet about stress management. It had all the basic information: “Take a walk, call a friend, say no to new projects.” But tucked in the middle of the book was a paragraph about eating an orange. I thought the whole concept was ridiculous. How could eating an orange change my life? How would that help my anxiety? I laughed, I mocked and I shared with friends so they could mock it, too.

Then one night a few months later, I had a panic attack while home alone with and happened to have a bowl full of oranges in the kitchen. What happened next changed my life. I grabbed the little sheet of paper with the exercise on it, grabbed an orange and made myself comfortable.

Then I got to work. I took my time eating the orange. I made sure to focus all my thoughts and energy into that orange. I was completely present in the moment. I felt the orange, smelled the orange, looked at the orange. I thought about the rain and sun that it took to grow the orange. I thought about the long road the orange had to take to get to me. I thought about the scars on the peel of the orange, and when I took that first sweet juicy bite, I realized that none of those scars changed how absolutely divine the orange was on the inside.

Not only did it help with that particular panic attack, because it forced my brain to be present in the moment and didn’t allow me to worry about the “what ifs” and obsess over what had triggered the attack in the first place. It also changed my opinion of myself.

I have many scars myself: I used to self-harm. I have surgical scars. My broken nose is a lasting reminder of past trauma. My fragile skin shows scars from the silliest of things, too, and the emotional scar list could go on for miles.

I always used to think that these scars made me less valuable. After eating that orange, and realizing that the sweetest, most desirable part was on the inside and was still perfect despite the scars on its skin, I realized I still have value, too. My scars do not determine my worth, and neither do yours.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

A version of this post appeared on The Story of Spoonies.

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Thinking about going to the doctor creates stress and anxiety for me. Actually going can bring on a panic attack. This has given me a reputation with doctors and creates a problem for me. I am torn between disclosing my anxiety diagnosis and trying to hide it — albeit hard.

In my experience, doctors would trace every symptom back to my anxiety. It took me years to find a specialist who took me seriously and believed that some of my physical symptoms were not manifestations of anxiety, but had actual physical causes.

I am aware that anxiety can manifest itself in the body in unusual and surprising ways, but that shouldn’t be cause for neglect of the patient. Sometimes physical illnesses are overlooked and not treated properly because a patient has a mental illness.

Doctors need to understand the needs of the patient and accommodate them to the best of their ability. To help and to heal, not create more damage and harm. Sometimes they might need a reminder.

If you are a doctor who has a patient with anxiety or any other mental health condition, please consider the following:

Understand we are people. We need a little extra kindness and compassion.We might already be nervous and anxious about being there. Try to do whatever you can to create a relaxing environment.

Listen to what we have to say. If you don’t take us seriously or brush us off, that can make us feel even more isolated and alone, and feel that we may never find someone who understands us. All we want is relief. If I tell you my stomach is constantly bothering me, order a CT scan or an actual test. Don’t tell me to take more anxiety meds and try to relax. Your job is to explore all possibilities. And while anxiety might be one of them, it is not all of them.

Reassure us that you heard us and understand us. Explain things to us in a way we can easily understand, and let us participate in our treatment. You may know medicine, but we know our bodies.

Understand that what you write down in our chart will follow us to other specialists and doctors, and that what you write about us might be what other doctors will believe, too. This might prevent us from getting the care that we really need.

The bottom line is that people with anxiety can get sick in their bodies. People with mental illnesses can get physically sick. We need proper care. We deserve it.

A special thank you to the few, but great doctors out there who have taken me seriously and explored all the options.

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My anxiety was a long, unwavering journey.

It wasn’t just me who was affected by it, everyone in my life felt its impact in various ways. Whether it was helping me through an attack or seeing me struggling to breathe when out shopping or in class or just seeing me crying as I walk by.

It’s been difficult. I have tried everything I could do to get better and it’s worked, but I still continue to regularly feel symptoms of my mental illness. Now I just know how to manage them.

Every day has become different. I can’t predict what it’ll entail. When I was at my worst, each day was a routine. Somehow I had associated certain places or things with having attacks, so whenever I approached them, they became triggers. This became a struggle when I had to face them each day or I wouldn’t pass my exams or I wouldn’t have a social life. I’d have ended up isolated.

Thankfully, I realized it was due to perspective and the things I deemed “scary,” actually weren’t. I could face them. In fact, I did face them and I got better. Or for starters, the panic attacks lessened. I used to have at least a dozen attacks every single day. Now, I don’t even know when the last one I had was. My days are no longer encompassed by worry of when a panic attack will come. If I have one, I have one and that’s OK. I will survive it and it won’t make me relapse.

Inevitably, I still get the symptoms of anxiety. Just because I’m “better,” doesn’t mean it’ll leave me. Currently, I can feel nauseous due to the slightest stressors and fatigue often consumes me. I still get the mental aspects as well, but these days, it is easier for me to shut the omnipotent thoughts away. I know how to manage my illness and after such a long journey, I finally feel like I can overcome what it derailed of my life. I know my anxiety. I know I am stronger than it.

Mental illness isn’t a choice. But I realized I needed to make the right choices for me so I could get better.

No matter if I have good days or bad days, I will be OK.

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Thinkstock photo via itskatjas.


Dear Student,     

Recently I noticed you were missing more classes than usual. I wondered and worried about what was going on. Did you not want to do the work or simply stop caring? Did the classes become boring or unhelpful? Or was it something else? Then you asked me to talk after class and what you shared touched me in a deep way.

You said that you have been trying your best, but you are dealing with many challenges in life right now. Specifically, you explained you have been struggling with anxiety that is ruining everything. You described the cycle of getting overwhelmed by circumstances that exacerbate your anxiety, which in turn makes those circumstances worse. You articulated how difficult it can be to interact with classmates who you don’t feel comfortable with. You told me sometimes you are on your way to class, then get too anxious and turn around. You said you were sorry and you weren’t doing this on purpose.

My first thought then and now is “thank you.” Thank you for your honesty and courage. I know it took a lot for you to show up and even more to speak up. You may not believe this right now, but you are brave and you are strong.

I am not sure what made you feel comfortable enough to reach out, but perhaps you caught on to the subtle signs that I struggle with anxiety too. Maybe you noticed the way my voice shakes as I sometimes stumble over words standing in front of our class. Maybe you sensed my inner turmoil as I worried you all were bored or not benefiting from the lessons. Maybe you saw this for what it really is — an intense fear of failure and belief that I am not enough.

When we spoke after class, I told you I understood. I hope this didn’t sound trite or insensitive. I recognize how frustrating it is to hear someone say they understand when you are not sure they really do. In light of that, I want to acknowledge your pain is uniquely your own. Your specific experience with anxiety is not the same as anyone else’s. However, I also want to say that you are not alone. You are a warrior and there are many others standing alongside you in the fight.

Lastly, I want you to know I meant it when I said I am here if you ever need to talk or if there is anything else I can do to help. I believe in you, I am proud of you and I hope to stay in touch as you journey forward towards a future of uncertainty, progress and ever-growing inner strength.

Sincerely,

Your Teacher Who Has Anxiety Too

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