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The Reality of Anxiety and Depression Working With and Against Each Other

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Imagine anxiety.

Imagine being in constant fear of the possibility of something bad happening.

Imagine being unable to leave your house by yourself because you’re convinced you’ll have a panic attack and can’t manage it on your own.

Imagine having a panic attack at school or work, unable to do anything but sit and wait for the storm to pass because if you start reacting to it, everyone will think you’re being disruptive.

Imagine feeling like you’re having a heart attack, and you can’t breathe, but you’re trying your absolute best to ignore it for the sake of everyone around you.

Imaging constantly trying to make yourself appealing to others so they’ll like you.

Imagine thinking everyone secretly hates you and then having an uncontrollable need to prove your worth because for some reason, you care what people think.

Now imagine depression.

Imagine lacking the motivation needed to even get out of bed in the morning.

Imagine finding yourself questioning your self-worth as soon as you do get out of bed.

Imagine trying to talk to someone about it but only getting reactions like, “Oh yeah, I get sad sometimes too” or “Be grateful for everything you have! There are thousands of people who have it worse off than you!”

Imagine believing them.

Imagine thinking they’re right, and that you’re just overreacting, and that this horrible feeling you’re experiencing doesn’t matter.

Imagine thinking you don’t matter.

Now imagine experiencing both at the same time.

Imagine not having any motivation to get up in the morning but all the while worrying about being late for that day.

Imagine wanting to make yourself perfect for everyone but then thinking there’s no point and just cancelling any plans you had that day.

Imagine having one half that cares too much and another that doesn’t care enough.

Imagine constantly trying to figure out what to do with yourself.

One voice is screaming at you: “Do something! You have to! Everyone will hate you if you don’t do it!” And another one groaning and complaining: “Don’t bother. It’s not like anyone will notice if you do it or not. You should just leave and go back home. No one expects anything at home.”

Imagine having this war going on in your head.

Never ending.

Always at the back of your mind.

Two sides fighting for control over you.

But neither of them will ever win or lose.

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Thinkstock photo by Nastco

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The Bear Metaphor I Use to Explain What Anxiety Feels Like

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Imagine you’re walking through the forest at night. You’re lost and cold. Imagine the fear that would be running through your brain. What thoughts do you think you’d have? Probably something similar to this. “What if nobody finds me? What if I’m lost forever? What is lurking in the darkness? What made that twig snap? Oh, that was me. OK, onward. Wait, what was that?” At that moment, you see a brown snout stick out from the bushes, sniffing the air. “Oh gosh, it’s a bear. I just know it’s a bear. I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead. I’m dead.” It’s then that your brain kicks into flight-or-fight mode. Your first thought is probably to run away. It doesn’t matter that there’s no way you could outrun a bear or hide from it. People would probably say you’re ridiculous for trying. But, what else do you do? I know I’d run, the anxiety so intense I wouldn’t be able to think of anything I had learned in Girl Scouts about bears. I’d just run.

Life, for me and many others with chronic anxiety, is like walking through that dark forest. I’m always in a state of mild panic. And then, when I am called upon to do something, almost anything at this point, I feel as though I am faced with a giant, hungry, mother bear. I can’t think about anything except how to get away. Most people wouldn’t find what I am faced with nerve wracking. They have a hard time understanding why it’s so hard for me. A lot of people think I’m lazy and irresponsible. But I’m not like most people. For most my life I have dealt with anxiety and depression. And now as I am entering the world of adulthood, and all the responsibilities that come with it, it has increased into an unmanageable problem. Everything seems to be a bear, set on killing me. Going grocery shopping. Hanging out with friends. Making dinner. Going to work. Talking to people in general. And there are so many others who have this great of anxiety. The best thing anyone can do is being understanding. Knowing my friends understand when I cancel makes me feel like I can trust them and that next time, I can handle hanging out.

It takes a long time to get out of that dark forest, especially with a bear behind you. It’s an intensely frightening situation to be in. So when I cancel or call in sick or don’t respond to texts or phone calls, I’m in the middle of out running a bear and I’ll get back to you as soon as I feel safe.

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Thinkstock photo by Urmas83

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Please Don't Throw the Word 'Anxiety' Around Like It Means Nothing

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What does the word “anxiety” even mean?

Anxiety means different things to different people and everyone’s experiences with anxiety are unique to themselves. I believe this is why the word gets thrown around a lot.

Having an anxiety disorder is completely different than feeling anxious or nervous. Healthy anxiety is feeling nervous before a big exam or driving test. Having an anxiety disorder is being physically unable to carry out day to day activities because you are so overwhelmed with anxious thoughts and feelings. Most of the time, I don’t even know why I am feeling like this, and it can come upon me randomly in the middle of doing my shopping, or it can build up and I can feel it coming before I have even stepped outside the door.

For me, having an anxiety disorder feels like I am trapped inside a small box that is rapidly filling up with water and I am doing everything I possibly can to try and come up for air. It feels like I have been punched in my stomach and am trying my hardest to act like I’m fine. It’s constantly putting myself down and telling myself how much of a failure I am because I had to abandon my shopping trolley and go and sit in my car because it all got to be too much.

So, please don’t throw the word “anxiety” around like it means nothing. It may be insignificant to you, but for someone like me, it’s a part of my life every day and it is a lot more than just being nervous.

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Thinkstock photo via evtushenko_ira.

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How Anxiety Can Ruin Your Day

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The first thing I see when the alarm goes off is the light coming in between the blackout curtains. Dreams have terrorized me, as they often do, making me feel as though my heart is on the StairMaster. I look at my phone hoping to see what? I don’t know. I need to get up. I bury my mind in videos of cute animals, dogs saying “I love you,” cats finding their way home after being lost for years, goats. I know I need to shower. I know I do. I just… can’t. I can’t make myself get up, get going, get over it, whatever “it” is. I wait ’til the last minute, until I have only enough time to wash the spaces my dog likes to stick her nose in. What goes through her mind? “Oh, nice lady smell sad. I hope she still will play wif me.”

It’s 20 degrees and the sun is a rude party guest. I have made a mistake in not getting up. My son hates socks. “They bunch,” he whines.

It’s odd to sweat when you are cold, when you are still, when you cannot identify the “why.” The smell. It’s… I stretch my collar out just to confirm that it smells as bad as it usually does and sniff the tips of my fingers. That smell is not me. It can’t be.

I zip my coat. Fuck why won’t this thing zip up. Come on. Fuck. Come. ON. A lady wearing a coat that matches her dog’s tries not to make eye contact, but I see it. I see her judgment, unspooling like a typewriter ribbon. She’ll text her mom friend, the one whose children carry bento box lunches every day. Another layer of shame when I’m already overdressed.

I drive, but it doesn’t feel like driving. It feels like waiting in line. The trees are naked and grey. Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life… I wander back to the mid ’80s. I lost so many things between ’85 and ’90, innocence, people, illusions. My son bounces on each beat, “Are we gonna let the Now and Later break us down? Oh no, let’s go!” His cuteness should be a boon, but…

I drop him off with his grandmother. I should be more grateful. I should. I drive to the end of the block. The tick tock of my blinker signals right. I go left. I can’t go right today. I know I said I would, but I can’t. I turn off the radio. Drive home. Put on the alarm. Crawl into my bed. Under the covers, my heart is still on the StairMaster. Fresh tears wash the sand from my eyes.

For the next few hours, I lie. I lie to my friend who I was supposed to meet for lunch: “I’m suddenly nauseous. Raincheck?” I lie to my therapist: “I cannot come tonight. Something has come up.” I lie to myself: “This is the last bag of cookies I’m ever going to eat.” 

For a few minutes after every sleeve is empty and only crumbs rattle in the bag, I’m calm. I walk the evidence to the outside trash. No one ever looks in there.

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Thinkstock photo via hobo_018

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How Anxiety Affected My Retirement Experience

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After years of working — sometimes three different jobs at one time — I was able to retire. I had visions of spending lots of time with my grandchildren, taking trips and enjoying life with my husband. Unfortunately, this did not happen!

I have experienced bouts of anxiety off and on for most of my life. It has made it difficult to get close to people many times, and it was always a black cloud hanging over my head. I have taken meds off and on, gone to counseling and participated in many treatment options. I worked very hard at keeping it hidden, though. I considered it my “big secret.”

For the most part, no one knew that I struggled with anxiety. When I would have episodes, I would just take a step back and “deal” with it. Because I experience chronic pain due to many health issues, my family just attributed my “off days” as just having another bad day with pain. That became easier and easier as I got older. Retirement changed all that.

I went from working a very busy full-time job, actively volunteering and trying to be an involved wife, mother and grandmother, to not being able to leave the house without a full-blown panic attack. Sometimes being stuck in the house for months and months at a time. Or going out with my husband and gritting my teeth so hard I would give myself horrific migraines. And, what felt the most humiliating to me was when my claustrophobia had to make an appearance to the point my husband would have to sit on the toilet seat cover and talk to me so I could take a shower with the shower door open.

I don’t remember any of this being part of my retirement plan. The saddest part is I was talking to women I had met standing in a store and they were talking about not being able to get out of the house, and I asked to join the conversation. To my surprise, we were all three newly retired and experiencing similar episodes. The first thing that jumped to my mind was I don’t remember seeing anything about this in the barrage of “getting ready for retirement” mail and solicitations I had received. Nor any warnings from my friendly neighborhood physicians!

How many of us are there out in the “Congratulations, you are now retired!” community? I thought life would get easier in retirement, not more difficult.

So, I make appointments with myself. I set a date on the calendar, the same as I would for a medical appointment and leave the house. Even if it’s just to take a walk on our 60 acres, I make myself leave the house.

Easy? No!

Needed? Yes.

My husband is beginning to understand what is happening and the guilt I have for not being able to be the “fun wife” walking into retirement with him. This has felt unbearable at times.

So I take my anxiety meds, make my appointments and work at trying to deal with this. But I know now I am not the only one. I can think of at least two others!

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Thinkstock photo via mheim3011.

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When I Confided in a Friend About My Anxiety, Her Silent Reaction Spoke Volumes

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My friend and I were sitting outside of a quaint coffee shop on a warm spring day. The sun warmed our faces, and a gentle breeze rustled through our hair.

My thoughts whipped through my mind like gusts of wind in a storm, standing in stark contrast to my placid surroundings.

Do I have to tell her? I should, she deserves to know the truth! But what if this changes everything?

“There’s something I’d like you to know,” I said, as calmly and evenly as possible. Though as I spoke, I could feel my heart race and my stomach drop. I reached in front of me and took a small sip of my hot chocolate, though it was little more than a delay tactic. A way to postpone revealing my potentially friendship-altering secret — if only by a second.

My friend leaned toward me intently. I noticed a glimmer of concern flash across her face, but her gaze radiated warmth.

“I… um… I’ve been dealing with anxiety,” I stammered, wishing I had maintained my collected demeanor instead of sputtering out my words.

I scanned her face for traces of pity or signs of judgment, but I found none. Her expression was kind as I looked into her eyes.

Then, with one subtle act, my friend forever changed the nature of our friendship.

She leaned toward me, gently and silently, her gaze nurturing and nonjudgmental. Her silence spoke volumes.

In her silence, she seemed to say: I’m here for you. I’ll never leave you. I promise I’ll be with you every step of the way.

And she listened.

She listened as I shared that I felt I needed to be open and honest about my mental health because my anxiety was worsening. She listened as I told her about the night I experienced the worst panic of my life — the night I realized I could no longer struggle in silence. She listened as I lamented that I knew I needed to stop pushing myself so hard, but if I slowed down, I might never achieve my goals. She listened as I confided that the prospect of asking for help terrified me.

She did not interrupt. She did not change the subject. She simply listened.

Occasionally, when I paused to collect my thoughts, my friend would ask for clarification. She otherwise allowed the conversation to progress naturally — to meander its way through the challenges I was facing.

After a few minutes, I asked her about her life, and our conversation shifted. We chatted lightheartedly about everything we always had — work, school, the activities we just had to do together before we went our separate ways post-graduation.

It was then I realized my friend did not perceive me as “crazy,” or as “insane,” or as any of the other derogatory misnomers people had used in the past to describe my anxiety. She did not even see me as “anxious.” She saw me.

Just me.

All of me.

In that moment, I knew my intuition was accurate. Revealing my experiences with anxiety to my friend had permanently altered our friendship.

It deepened our bond. It strengthened our trust. It drew us closer than we ever could have imagined. It was a gateway to honesty, a key to openness, a door to vulnerability.

It was the moment I realized the paradox of disclosing my anxiety. In a few minutes of conversation with a friend, nothing had changed between us and everything had changed between us.

We stood up to leave. “Thank you for sharing your story,” my friend said, hugging me tightly.

I remained silent as my friend and I hugged. I was so overwhelmed by her love and support that tears began to well in the corners of my eyes. My silence spoke volumes, expressing the flood of emotion that overcame me — an outpouring I could not put into words.

Thank you for accepting me as I am. Thank you for standing by me in my most difficult moments. Thank you for being my friend.

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Thinkstock photo via lorenzoantonucci.

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