Young military couple kissing each other, homecoming concept, soft focus,warm orange toning applied

In roughly the last three years, my husband and I have gone from dating, to living together, to married, to our first child, to a cross country move. In that same space of time, he has been deployed three times, had two long training TDYs (temporary duty assignments), and various other separations and TDYs. Added up, we have spent nearly one and a half of the last three years apart. Such is the life of a military family — especially one in which the active duty member has an operations job. My husband loves his job, and he’s good at it, and it never even crosses my mind to ask him to do something else. That doesn’t mean this life isn’t difficult. And like everything else, the separations this life demands are made more difficult by anxiety.

My anxiety during our separations stems from one of two places. The first is fear. Fear of the dangers of his job. Fear of not knowing if something were to go wrong. Fear of what he has to do and see and how it might affect him later in life.

The second is my personal self-worth. If other spouses are hearing from their husbands and I’m not hearing from mine, I question my worth. If he says he’ll call and doesn’t, it makes me question my worth. If he sounds even the slightest bit frustrated with me, I question my worth. If he questions my parenting decisions, I question my worth. I should be more clear, when I say question my worth, what I mean is that in each of these instances, he is verifying my deeply held irrational belief that I am not worth time, energy or love. The number of panic attacks I had in my son’s first year of life (my husband was gone for two to 10 months at a time, give or take) is too many to count.

The above sources of my anxiety may not seem to intertwine much, but in my mind, they go hand in hand. Here’s how a basic spiral to a panic attack looked at the peak of my anxiety.

I haven’t heard from him in three days. I hope he’s OK. I haven’t heard any news reports for the area, so I’m sure he’s fine. If something had happened someone would have called me. Unless something is happening now. Maybe I’m anxious because I can sense something is wrong with him. That’s silly. Nothing is wrong. He’s probably just super busy, or maybe the internet is down. Or maybe his helicopter came down. Remember that one time he almost crashed and the pilot didn’t recover until they were three feet from the ground? Remember how unsafe those damn machines are? They come down literally all the time. I look up crash statistics. OK, maybe not all the time. I’m sure he’s fine. He’s just busy or the internet is out. I try to distract myself with social media. Well, Jane’s husband just Skyped with her, so the internet is working fine. Well that sucks. Does he not want to talk to us? Did I do something to upset him? Why doesn’t he want to be a part of our lives while he’s away? Well, I wouldn’t want to talk to me like this either. I’m not exactly a joy right now. Look at me, finding fault with him while he’s there doing what he’s doing. I’m a terrible person. I’m not worth talking to. If he does call, I should be super happy and only talk about happy things. But he won’t call. He doesn’t want to see me. I look a mess anyways. I should put on some makeup in case he does call. I’m too tired to put on makeup. Not like this baby will let me put him down long enough to do it anyways. He could do so much better than me. He could get a spouse who is gorgeous and takes care of her appearance every day. I wonder if he’s talking to any other women while he’s gone. Maybe he’s talking to other women instead of me. Not like I could blame him. I wouldn’t want to talk to me either. I’m just not worth it. He couldn’t possibly love me. I’m not worth the love. We’re probably not going to make it. He’s probably going to trade up. He deserves better anyways. I find myself crying uncontrollably. I start shaking, my heart racing. I find a corner and hug my knees, trying to focus on my breathing.

See how that devolves from normal fears to irrational beliefs that my family was over? Here’s the kicker. I was actually in therapy for a few months of this separation, but my therapist never asked about anxiety symptoms. I had experienced these sorts of “meltdowns” for so many years that I thought it was normal, or rather, I thought it was just a personal failing, not an actual condition.

To be clear, again, my self-worth is no one’s job but my own. My spouse is not responsible for my self-worth. I do not want him to compensate for my beliefs on the subject, I want to progress to the point that I no longer hold these irrational beliefs. His actions in no way cause my panic attack, my own irrational thought processes do that. Would it have happened if we had more regular communications during separation? I honestly don’t know, but I’ll touch more on how my anxiety affects my spouse in another blog.

On the reverse side of this, the most recent separation occurred after I had began therapy using a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. We went the first full month of his deployment without speaking because of technical issues, and I didn’t have a single panic attack. I had typical fear about where he was, the dangers of his job, the lack of reporting from the immediate area to keep me informed, etc., but no panic about his safety or my self-worth. I missed him. I still cried a couple times, I still wore his sweatpants, I still ate too much pizza sometimes, but not once did I have to hug my knees and breathe it out from the safety of a corner.

Anxiety is a bitch. It has a way of telling me that my worst fears are eminent. When my spouse is away from me — and especially when he is in a war zone — those fears are even more real. It’s not as much of a mental leap to believe those fears could come to fruition when there are statistics that prove the danger.

If any of you experience panic attacks, have past trauma that affects your current thought processes or find yourself making irrational leaps in your stream of consciousness, please realize it is not typical and it can be treated. The right therapist and approach can make all the difference in the world, and can make living this military family life much more bearable.

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Thinkstock photo via MariaArefyeva.

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I can’t know for sure how anxiety manifests in other people – and to be honest, it’s only in recent months I acknowledged I have my own manifestations of anxiety. As I’m currently feeling extremely anxious, I thought now would be a good time to put my thoughts and observations “down on paper” — so to speak.

The biggest and most obvious way anxiety appears in my everyday life is in my need to be liked. I cannot bear the thought I might do or say something to cause someone to think ill of me. I’m left with a pounding heart, shaking hands, I’m unable to speak and on the verge of tears.

Socially, this is difficult. I’m happy and comfortable around friends I have known for decades. I can say and share anything and we have a level of trust, support, friendship and love that balances any fear I may have. I am still nervous about saying the wrong thing, but I trust the consequences won’t be devastating – we listen, we learn, we forgive, we move on.

Outside that support network, it’s trickier. In work situations, it’s much trickier. In casual social outings or being introduced to strangers it’s hideously tricky. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I haven’t read their vibe and personality correctly? What if they judge me before they know me?

I don’t know where my fear of being disliked came from. Perhaps it was my mother always worrying, “What would the neighbors think?” Perhaps it was learning as a youngster that other people’s feelings are more important than my own. Perhaps it is my nature, not my nurture that makes me afraid of this. Who knows? It doesn’t really matter in the end – I am nice to everyone and I hope they might be nice to me.

My anxiety also brings a major fear of conflict.

I don’t fight. Ever. I will stand up for my beliefs. I can have a discussion with an alternate point of view. But I won’t fight with you. I can’t do it. You can yell and scream at me until you’re blue in the face, and I will stand frozen to the spot chanting, This too shall pass, silently in my head.

If major conflict arises in the workplace, I will probably resign. I’ve done it before. I would do it again. It shames me to say that. I feel like I have no emotional fortitude, but I can’t do conflict.

Unfortunately, there are also times when my pathological fear of conflict wars with my pathological need to be responsible – to care for others and defend those who can’t defend themselves. In a group setting, I steer clear of conflict – at any cost. But in a group setting, I also need to ensure everyone feels heard and understood and represented. Sometimes I will speak up – usually at a high personal cost. I will choose personal humiliation and grief over abandoning my moral compass which can sometimes leave me in a lose-lose situation. I become extremely anxious and distressed regardless of which path I choose.

Everyday life normally trots on by OK for me. I don’t have major panic attacks. When things are going well, I manage fears the same way I manage all my other emotions – I ignore them. Every single day is scattered with a thousand little moments of fear I try to ignore. There’s no relaxation or down time until I’m curled up in my pajamas. And to calm the chaos in my head, I’ve become extremely adept at organizing the chaos around me.

 

When everyday life throws curve balls, that’s when my anxiety quickly skyrockets. And when the rockets are skyward bound, that’s when thoughts of self-harm and disordered eating behaviors flare out of control. The unknown is a bad place for me to be and it is easy to yearn for old coping behaviors that numb difficult emotions and still those runaway thoughts.

I read somewhere that 2017 is the year of the Rooster, and that after the pesky Monkey messed around with everything last year, the Rooster will bring good luck and prosperity. I am depending on that little Rooster to calm my nerves and create a positive mindset so my anxious thoughts can settle and not escalate.

This too shall pass…

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Thinkstock photo via Sylverarts.


The thought process of anxiety is relatively well-known in today’s world. You don’t have to search for long before you find a list of all the varying states of mind that can be attributed to anxiety. Thoughts of, “I can’t do this,” “They think I’m faking” or even “I need to leave” are all relatively “standard.” However, the physical symptoms of anxiety are often overlooked.

I have struggled with anxiety for a long time now, and whilst I have had the “normal” thought processes of someone with anxiety, it is the physical side I really hate. Personally, I try to hide my symptoms, as do many others with anxiety, but when your mental state starts to affect your body it becomes a lot harder to disguise.

Chest pains — not just a tightening but true stabbing pains to the heart. At one time I was in so much pain I had to consult my doctor because I was terrified my heart was failing. I was fine, but the pain was very real. I’ve also had severe stomach cramps where I’ve had to leave a room to dry heave. All I could think was, “Have I eaten something wrong?” I hadn’t, and I was simply uncomfortable with the conversation I was having. I’ve had my legs go weak and almost buckle beneath me. I’ve had to brace myself between two walls because I thought I was going to collapse.

My experience of anxiety has mostly been with the physical symptoms. It took a long time for me to realize what was causing them. I expect there are others out there too who struggle with such things. The issue is, when you go to a doctor about chest pains, they look at your heart. If your stomach is hurting, they may look at your diet or give you something to settle it. In my experience, it’s quite rare for someone to make the link to the brain.

For me, I rarely experience the anxious thoughts anymore. I only have pain. I have my legs cramp along with my neck. I clutching my chest, trying to slow my breathing. There is very little I can do to stop these symptoms, as normally I can’t quite determine what is causing them.

Mental illness is not just a condition of the mind; it can affect the entire body in ways you wouldn’t immediately think. Learning to understand and recognize these physical symptoms is essential. It is essential because it does not matter how many irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) tablets you take — that pain will not subside until you relax, which is easier said than done for most people who live with anxiety.

So the next time your chest flares or your legs wobble, make a note of the situation you are in. Trying leaving the room or area. Learning the difference between actual physical illness and that caused by mental conditions will save you a lot of time and worry.

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I have always been the prepared one — maybe even too prepared:

The girl who double checked her school supply list before the first day to make sure she had everything just right.

The girl who analyzed project and assignment rubrics extensively to make sure the submitted work was perfection.

The girl who spent at least double the time the average student did preparing for a test, making sure not a single fact was overlooked.

The girl who never settled.

The girl who was never satisfied.

The girl who never felt “good” was “good enough.”

The girl who didn’t realize this push for perfection was more than just being a “good student, an overachiever.”

The girl who had normalized excessive anxiety and stress for far too long.

The girl who did not realize the damage excessive perfectionism and unrealistic self-set expectations can cause until it was far too late.

The anxiety became overwhelming. Unbearable. All-consuming.

The idea of not being “enough” popped into my head.

The average person may get that idea in their head from time to time, then let it go … but I could not.

The little idea turned into a fear.

Am I not good enough? Am I not trying hard enough? Is my best effort not going to get me anywhere? Am I going to be a complete failure?

The little thought escalated into an obsession. Soon, all I could see was the possibility of failure. It was everywhere. It haunted me constantly. It deprived me of my sleep. It broke me down until others could barely recognize me.

It took away my ability to see any future for myself.

It sent me into a major depression, stripped me of my personality and my happiness. It made me ill.

Nothing had prepared me for an illness which made me feel worthless.

Nothing had prepared me for an illness which made me feel like such a burden.

Nothing had prepared me for an illness which made me convinced suicide was the answer.

Nothing had prepared me for dealing with depression.

Four years ago, I thought I would be graduating this May, prepared for the adult world after four years of an amazing college experience. I never imagined I would take a semester off for depression. I never imagined I would take yet another semester off for full-blown mania. I never imagined I would be mentally ill.

College is meant to be an opportunity for growth, self-discovery and new experiences. I have grown, but I still have a lot of recovering to do to become my personal best.

I have discovered myself, but only after tearing myself down through anxiety and depression.

I have had new experiences which have shaped my values and future goals, but they are not the type of experiences I would wish upon anyone.

College has shaped me, but not in a way I could ever have prepared myself for.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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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.

My anxiety likes to tell me I can’t better myself. It likes to tell me I’m incapable of change. This, combined with the binge eating disorder I developed as a coping mechanism for my anxiety, has seen my weight fluctuate across a 60-pound range since I hit puberty. Having a body type that is not society’s definition of beautiful or healthy only encouraged my anxiety in lowering my self-image.

Since I began treatment for my anxiety a few months ago, I have been pushing myself emotionally and I’m making great strides. I decided to start trying to make some changes anxiety has kept me from in the past. As I gained some control over my binge eating, I thought adding regular exercise into my routine could have multiple benefits. The stress relief, the outlet for physical anxiety symptoms and happy brain chemicals being created would all benefit me with my anxiety. What I didn’t expect was what my anxiety would tell me while I exercised.

What my anxiety told me:

1. “You are weak.”
2. “You can’t do this.”
3. “Who do you think you are?”
4. “You aren’t capable of being better.”
5. “You’re just a fat, lazy slob — you can’t be anything else.”
6. “Why are you even doing this if you’re just going to binge it away tomorrow?”
7. “You could never have enough strength to see this through.”
8. “If you’re not going to see this through, why even start?”
9. “Why are you even trying?”
10. “You’re not going to get anywhere.”
11. “There are grandmas who could do this better than you.”
12. “What makes you think you are worth the effort?”
13. “You probably look like an idiot.”
14. “If anyone saw this they would laugh at you.”
15. “This effort is laughable.”
16. “If you’re not going to give it your all, why are you even trying?”
17. “That’s not your all! You should have done better!”
18. “If you’re so weak that you can’t do better, then you should give up right now.”
19. “You are weak.”
20. “You’ll never be strong.”

This is what I said back to my anxiety:
1. You can do this.
2. You just did this two days ago.
3. Just push a little more.
4. You got this.
5. You. Can. Do. This.

Multiple tears fell down my face as I pushed through different portions of my workout. My anxiety got louder and louder the longer I went, so I screamed back at it in my mind. I did not quit, but I was too exhausted at the end to claim any sort of victory. The next time someone tells you exercise is more of a mental battle for them than a physical one, I’d like you to think of this before you judge them as unmotivated. It is literally a battle in the mind for some people. It’s a battle that, even when won, is met with disdain in my mind because I had to fight it at all.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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I have been wanting to write this for a while — for three months, in fact. The thing is, however, that between my anxiety and my first foray into the workplace, I haven’t been all that together lately. Coming into the world of work (as they keep telling me it’s called) carrying my anxiety with me has been like carrying a giant orangutan on my back. (For a very funny real example watch this great advert by a staple in South African culture here.)

Having a mental illness in the workplace is still more hushed than most spaces I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it unspoken in school, broached in University, and now it’s back to unspoken. Having a mental illness in the workplace is vastly prolific, yet still not as addressed as issues like chronic illness and lifestyle diseases (which are very worthy of being addressed, of course). A study in South Africa, where I live, found that almost a quarter of the workforce were diagnosed with depression.

So while I’m carrying my monkey on my back, I suspect so are a large portion of my co-workers. But so far, no one has addressed this. Here is what I wish my employers knew, so I could be supported instead of feeling like hiding.

1. Anxiety doesn’t make me less productive.

Just because I have a mental illness (multiple in fact) does not make me or any other person less employable. In fact, those with mental illnesses often have very hard-won coping mechanisms that enable us to deal with daily life effectively. These coping mechanisms have helped me in my own life — things like recognizing and practicing self-care, learning to prioritize stresses and let go of ones if I can, and taking time out to regroup. I can function both because of and despite my anxiety.

2. My mental illness needs to be acknowledged.

My mental illness may affect my daily life and make certain tasks more difficult. Certain periods are much harder when I’m having a bad cycle, and having the support and understanding of my co-workers would mean the world to me to banish the nagging negative self-talk that often accompanies a bad phase. Acknowledging my mental illness could help me realize I have nothing to be ashamed of, a thought that often strikes when I’m in the middle of something — like a panic attack in the bathroom, which happens all too often. I might need the understanding to have my own way of working, whether it’s rejecting the very popular open-plan workspaces, or needing personal meetings to maintain direction.

3. I am not about to fall apart.

I may have my fragile moments, but I am not fragile. I have come this far and I intend to keep pursuing my goals, with my anxiety along for the ride. But…

4. I might feel like I’m about to fall apart.

Just because I have survived thus far doesn’t always mean I remember that or feel like it will always be true. An encouraging word here and there helps to remind me I am successful, despite what I may be thinking.

5. I might miss work, but it’s not because I’m lazy.

Sometimes I may need a day to sleep, rest, catch up on self-care and generally recharge to be able to function at work. Not allowing me the time to have a day off without needing a doctor’s note may make me push through when my reserves are already at 1 percent.

6. I might need some help adjusting.

These five steps could help validate, support and encourage me at work. In essence what someone needs from an employer is understanding and the space to come forward with personal battles without being belittled, unheard or disregarded. In this way, the workplace can become less about the unseen monkeys being carried, and more about the joint efforts going into work with them. In fact, if I could talk about my monkey, maybe my employer could reveal theirs. In this way, work becomes less about hierarchies and unseen despair traps, and more about shared experiences and the ability to work together, instead of work apart.

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Thinkstock photo via demaerre.

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