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'The Universal Man': How I Acted Out My Anxiety on Stage

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To paraphrase the former would-be Vice-Presidential candidate Admiral James Stockdale: “Who is the Universal Man? Why is he here?”

These are questions that I’ve asked of myself. Depending on who’s asking and/or what the conversation is about, I’ll give slightly different answers. There’s the short, easy answer; and then there’s the long, complex answer. Let’s start with the short response and then work backwards.

The Universal Man is a fictional superhero character I created and portrayed during my work as a summer camp counselor. I chose that name as a sort-of ode to “Doctor Who,” a TV show which has lifted my spirits and inspired me for the last 12 years, and because I imagined my character as an enigmatic figure who may or may not have looked to the stars a few times.

Anyway, we were acting out a cliche-free superhero story over a three-day period, which began with the apparent theft of the camp’s dinnertime cookies by the Joker and his villainous underlings. Batman chased the bad guys away, and then the Universal Man stepped up, introduced himself, and gave the campers (and counselors) some not-so-cryptic instructions as to how to defeat the villains and recover the cookies. The Universal Man was unable to assist with the rescue mission any more than that, but he was the wise, enlightened hero who led everyone else down the right path.

The following afternoon, the Universal Man returned, having opened up a thrilling, brand new “Superhero Academy.” He was looking to recruit some brand new superheroes into his Academy to step up the fight against evil. Acting on his request, the campers created some new heroes for him (i.e. they dressed their counselors up in character), and these new heroes were introduced to the Universal Man through a series of on-stage interviews. He welcomed his new allies into his Academy with great excitement… and then, in a massive plot twist, he gleefully let his pretense slip away. The Universal Man was actually the arch-villain of the story.

After confessing he had masterminded the previous evening’s cookie theft, he revealed that the Superhero Academy was a sham. It was nothing more than a lure for the new superheroes. Frustrated at the campers’ (and counselors’) repeated, deliberate failure to sing his favorite camp song correctly, the Universal Man was hungry to get his own back. He thus ordered his accomplices, the Batman villains, to kidnap the new superheroes and hide them away at various locations around the camp…

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With some assistance from Batman, the campers and counselors eventually located and rescued the new superheroes. But, in a further plot twist, the Universal Man renounced the kidnapping plot (while showing no signs of repentance), and announced that Batman had actually helped him plan and orchestrate the whole plot! As he tried to pin all the blame on Batman — who had joined onto the villainous plot out of fear that the new superheroes would bin him off and steal his limelight — the Universal Man encouraged the campers to think of a theatrical punishment for him. It was only then that the camp director spoke up, pointing out that even the campers were not blameless in the story: they had (mostly unintentionally) antagonized the Universal Man by repeatedly singing his favorite song incorrectly, and in their mission to rescue the superheroes, they had undertaken challenges that forced them to go against our cherished, fundamental character values. She, Batman and the Universal Man had actually engineered the whole story to make this point, emphasizing that “good vs. evil” is always an oversimplification, and that empathy and dialogue would have helped everyone (campers, Batman and the Universal Man) to avoid defying our Pillars of Character. (Batman avoided receiving a theatrical punishment as a result!)

That’s my short, “easy” answer to the question of who the Universal Man is: he was a superhero who took extreme offense whenever he felt he was being belittled or undermined and who wasn’t afraid to resort to an elaborate plan to make himself look big.

Now for the long, complex answer:

The Universal Man is a walking metaphor for my anxiety.

While I was writing his character biography in my head, I imagined him as a man who feels the world has been acting against him in every way for too long. He never felt adequate in his academic or social lives because he was too used to being on the receiving end of trivial, malicious criticisms. Whenever he attempted to do anything or apply himself to anything, it was never enough. All of his friends and peers were flying high and succeeding in their fields, and everyone else on the Universal Man’s program of study was having more fun, more enjoyment, more positivity, and more good fortune than he was. The Universal Man had been ranked third (out of almost 100) in his class a couple of years earlier; he ultimately graduated outside the top 20 (out of a graduating class of 50-60).

His feelings of inadequacy hadn’t started there — they’d been around for a long time before that. But they were magnified by the events of the last year. And he had never really forgiven himself for walking into what he termed “the heartbreak that changed his life” a few years earlier.

I didn’t have to look too far to devise this character because this character was me.

In the year before I created the Universal Man, I was working on my final-year university project in a university research building. My colleagues took an immediate dislike to me and held me up to double standards, unrealistically high expectations (especially in the first few weeks), and a general impression that I was clearly incompetent in my field of study. It got vicious a few times. I mostly got through it by keeping my head down and avoiding them as much as possible, but, for the first time in my life, I was once overcome by a genuine fear that this was the end of the road. I was stuck. I wouldn’t be able to graduate.

I did graduate in the end — but the saga had scuppered any chances that I would graduate with a top-quality grade. So, in a sense, the nightmare came partially true. One week later, I was treading the boards in character as the Universal Man. I couldn’t have asked for a better trick to help me to cope with the past and move forward from it.

It helped that the Universal Man was a villainous character. He allowed me to vent my frustrations as subtly as possible. At least one of his lines of dialogue was adapted directly from one of the most hurtful criticisms I’d received during the last year. The Universal Man’s apparent hypocrisy — in getting angry at the campers over the trivial issue of song lyrics, before ordering the kidnapping of six inspirational new superheroes — was a liberating call-out to my old critics (who weren’t around to watch me this time). Best of all, I was able to get away with playing such an angry character because I was careful to ham it up for the most part, thus pitching the Universal Man as neither a horror-movie monstrosity nor an outright comedy villain. And then his evil plot was thwarted.

So my ghosts were symbolically vented and defeated there. But I still struggle to put my anxiety away all the time, even with that particular experience confined to the past. So I’ve been trying a new tactic in recent months: using the Universal Man as a personification of my fears. “The Universal Man is out to make you fail. He wants you to do a bad job. He’s whispering critical remarks into everyone’s ears, and he wants to blow their remarks out of proportion. He’s cheering for/giving strength to all of your opponents in your competitive swimming races. When you were turned down after that recent job interview, he looked at you from across the street and laughed in your face.”

It definitely works. The Universal Man was born out of perhaps the darkest time of my life so far, and he has helped me to try to decouple my anxieties from what’s actually happening around me. He is still a “version” of me, but he’s not the real me — he’s just a character. And I am aiming to stop him from winning. “Don’t let the Universal Man win” is a good promise, and I hope to stick to it.

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What It Feels Like When Anxiety Comes to Stay

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It has been a while, but my old friend, Anxiety, has come to stay again. Oh yes, she has come for a visit every now and again but normally only fleetingly. It has been quite some time since she arrived with her bags packed and demanded room and board.

I wish she would leave, but it really feels as though anxiety has settled in for now, and the most irritating thing is that there is no reason for her to be here. These past few days have been some of the best I have had in a long time. Physically, I am feeling well, my pain levels are managed and low. Emotionally, I am positive and well on track in my recovery journey. There is nothing to worry about, and that means there is everything to worry about.

With nothing going wrong, my anxiety has launched a full investigation into what could possibly go wrong. That calm and peace I was feeling emotionally has dissipated into the fear of the unknown, and while the pain is managed, the racing heart and nausea that comes as part of the anxiety package deal is now in place. The excitement of children home from holidays, the busyness of a full house, the loudness of generators and vacuum cleaners and the dog running frustratedly around the house have turned into threats in lieu of any real danger.

The familiar feelings that come along with a panic disorder have returned. My heart is racing while I lay on my bed. My chest feels tight, as though my lungs are becoming frozen with fear. It hurts to breathe. The ribs that protect my inner organs feel as though they are squeezing in on them, shrinking and crushing me. Is it possible that my throat is closing? It feels as though I can’t swallow!

I get up and try to walk, to ease the racing of my mind, but my head spins and I feel as though I might pass out. My legs feel like jelly and my hands are shaking from the adrenaline coursing through my veins. My stomach is churning. I feel as though I may be violently ill at any moment, and there is a pressure in my head that I can only describe as being uncomfortable and worrisome. Everything feels too loud, too bright, too fast.

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I have bitten at my nails and chewed on my lips. I have held my breath until things seemed to be turning black around the edges. I don’t know what I am doing wrong but nothing seems to be able to end the panicked feeling racing around my body today.

Breathe. Focus. Decompress. I lay myself down on the floor and try to remember to breathe all the way in and all the way out, to focus my mind on counting or grounding, practice mindfulness and calm my heart to a regular pace. I practice self-talk, positively affirming I am not going to be sick, my body is fine, there is nothing to worry about, I am just feeling anxious and it is all going to be OK.

But for every gentle moment I try to evict my familiar friend, she battles harder to stay put. It is upsetting when these things happen, and it can feel like you are failing at recovering. I feel like a failure today while I struggle to understand why I am letting panic take control over my mind and body. 

I feel panicked and overwhelmed, and even more annoyingly, I feel angry at myself for feeling these things when there is no real reason for them! And that is OK, it is perfectly acceptable to fall apart sometimes. We cannot be strong all the time. I am a capable woman and have worked hard to get to this place in my recovery.

I am so afraid this feeling will last, and it is feeding the worry and making me terrified. But the one thing I am trying to remind myself of is this: feelings are not facts.

Today I will rest, tomorrow I will work on evicting my unwanted guest.

Follow this journey on The Art of Broken

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The Projector: A Poem About Anxiety

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I am figuratively blind.

90% of the time, my eyes do not see what is in front of me
Only what the master of my mind projects through me
The master, you ask, was never me
The master is a demon who plucks horrible images
And projects them through my eyes so I think it’s me
Why can’t I see?

The projector is on a loop for what feels like an eternity
Preventing me from interacting with what’s in front of me
Only concerning myself with what could be
The medicine makes it better than it used to be
Not completely

This goes against everything they have taught to me
My thoughts are not my own. Seriously?
This fact haunts me

I look out the window, but I do not see the trees
I see all the things that I could be
And should be
All of the things that could happen to those around me
It’s utterly frightening
And it’s all my fault because the way I moved my body
That day didn’t seem quite equal on both sides

All of this is projecting through my eyes
While I sit completely still and silent
If only I could find the off switch

The truth is this — I deal with these feelings daily, but I will not allow this to be who I am. I am a strong woman, a great mom, a great wife, a great friend. I was made to explore this earth and spread as much love as possible. I was made to soak it all up. We all have our own demons to wrestle.

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How My Anxiety Is Like a Light Switch

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Everyone’s experience with mental health is extremely different. No two experiences are exactly the same. While one person may shut down during an episode, another might become very hyper and active.

It’s like a light switch. One moment, everything is amazing. I am getting what I need to complete finished, have had positive interactions all day, and just walked away from a joyful, laughter- filled conversation with my friends. We were dying over yet another meme from “The Office” she found on Twitter — the one where Dwight compares himself to a mongoose. Still giggling, my thoughts turn to college, and I cannot help but smile at the thought of a brand new adventure. There is still so much for me to learn in the topics that entice me, such as writing and biology; when I go to college, I will be able to delve much deeper into those subjects than ever before. New people, new places, a new home. Life is beautiful, wonderful and full of an abundance of joy and light. I believe so strongly in my future and all it holds. Most importantly, I trust the future, whatever it may hold. In this moment, I am content.

Switch! All of a sudden, fear. The laughter that just filled my ears disperses, and I struggle to my seat. Pulling out notebooks and my favorite pens, I can feel my current mindset slipping away. Something is wrong. My hands become shaky, and I can feel my heart starting to beat faster in my chest. I shake it all off, and begin taking notes on the class material. I listen to the teacher explain and gesture about the classroom, but I don’t hear what she’s saying. I’m somewhere else now. Flashbacks soar back and forth across my vision, intertwining hypothetical situations into the already-overwhelming mix. Images flash across my eyes, and I start to feel numb. I feel in danger, threatened, targeted, unsafe. I feel anxious. It’s almost as if my body knows what’s coming before I do, and is telling me through the burning sensations in my chest and head. While everyone else around me works peacefully on their homework assignment, I gasp for breath at an attempt to prove to myself I am still alive. I feel an incredible amount of fear, as if someone is pointing a gun right at me. This feeling of terror explains the tears beginning to form in my eyes.

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These sudden and abrasive switches between completely calm and happy to utterly terrified and paranoid happen several times a day for me. Most of the time, there is no known trigger to the switches. I’ll just be driving down the road, and all of a sudden feel an immense sense of panic and worry. If you could understand how I felt in a moment like that, you’d assume I had just seen several bears chasing my car. Or another situation where one would be pushed into fight or flight mode very quickly.

These attacks happen everywhere and anywhere. Walking down the school hallways? Definitely at least 10 of those episodes. Hanging out with my best friend watching Netflix? At least three times. Working at the job I absolutely adore and feel comfortable at? Yes, even there. No place is safe from the monsters lurking around every corner.

I have an anxiety disorder. I like to say it doesn’t have me, that I am so much stronger than this damned thing, but there are definitely times where anxiety has me right in the palm of its suffocating hand. I am completely and utterly at the mercy of this horrendous monster. It can steal my state of total content and replace it with a panicked soul, gearing up to fight. It robs me of my logic, of my ability to process, understand and see things clearly. All prior knowledge of a situation seems to have been chucked from my mind, leaving nothing but the shell of a girl who cannot fathom the situation before her, let alone act gracefully throughout the encounter. Things I have already cleared away and organized within my brain are taken out and simultaneously thrown all over the place. Old issues I had already resolved are now out in the open again, and so is the panic each issue carried.

And when the messy, anxious Hannah meets other people — oh boy. Nothing good ever comes from interacting with anxiety Hannah, especially when it’s about important issues. I think I just come off across as a girl who cannot control herself — who seems “crazy,” obsessive, and “just needs to get help and get over it.”

Yup — someone actually said those words to me about my mental health conditions.

But if only they knew. If only they knew the lack of control I possess during my anxiety episodes, the constant feeling of fear and feeling as if death himself is breathing right on my neck. All my logic is gone. All past grievances, which had been peacefully resolved, are dug up again and rehashed. From the other point of view, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to deal with this sort of inconsistency. I know I would surely be frustrated and annoyed at the person for acting this way, probably even mad at their actions.

But as someone who is on the other side of that fence, I now understand. I understand the reasons for every simple outburst and frightening action. The person you are so used to dealing with and interacting with is no longer here. All of their logic, patience, ability to comprehend and process information is gone. What is left is a person who, right now, is being told by their body that they are going to die soon. They are in fight or flight mode, doing all they can in the hopes of staying alive. Don’t blame all of the pestering, annoyances and problems on the person. If anyone, blame it on the vicious monster named anxiety which ripped through your friend’s body and tore them apart from the inside out.

Because when your friend gets released from the claws of anxiety, they don’t need angry comments and accusatory tones greeting them as they are trying to catch their breath from their brush with the unthinkable. It is the achievement of a lifetime to get through episodes like that, but instead of a welcoming hug, they might be greeted with anger and betrayal from those closest to them. This only pushes the person further into the dark hole that is mental illness and can create trauma for them that will, in the future, have a profound and devastating effect. Be compassionate to them when they break free from the suffocation they were just experiencing. Help them feel safe, and only then will they be able to start to process everything going on.

I have faced traumatic experiences in the past, and I now believe that how others acted towards me during the entire process only made the problem worse. It has left me with an inability to process what happened in a healthy and normal manner. Months later, I am having episodes where it feels like the situation is occurring for the very first time. This makes it difficult for me to sleep, function, and process emotional information and situations. This inability to process things only increases the anxiety and depressive episodes I face, as my brain literally has no idea what to do with the information it is being handed. So instead of working through the apparent threat, my brain releases numerous hormones and sends me into fight or flight mode, resulting in severe panic attacks and extreme depressive episodes. Just like the light switch, it flops back and forth between the two extremes, resulting in mental torture. “Normal” one second, panicking another.

So that is how it really is — what it’s really like behind the scenes of an anxiety attack and the effects that attacks have on the actual person experiencing them. It’s terrifying to lose all control over one’s reasoning skills and processing abilities. So if you’re ever in a situation with an extremely anxious person, remember this:

1. They’re not themselves right now — everything they say or do should be taken with a grain of salt and not held against them for all time.

2. They are terrified! They might actually feel like they’re dying, or that the worst case scenario is going to happen and everything is going to fall apart.

3. Their ability to process new information or derive thoughts through logic is totally impaired. You might as well be talking to a rubber chicken or something.

So, have compassion. See it from their point of view. Do all that you can to help the anxious person reclaim control over their mind and body. In the long run, overall care of this person it is the best thing you can possibly do for them. How the situation is handled has a great impact on the individual’s long-term health, whether it may be apparent or not.

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Thinkstock photo via Jeffrey Hamilton

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Trying to Balance School and Anxiety

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Put simply, dealing with anxiety and school at the same time sucks. It’s a cycle of feeling so anxious you have to skip lessons, then feeling more anxious because you’ve missed a lesson and then thinking you’re going to fail everything. It’s feeling like when you go to a lesson you’re an idiot, but when you don’t go you’ve let everyone down. It’s having to make the decision between taking care of yourself and going home and resting or sitting in class holding back tears so your attendance mark won’t go down.

Personally, I find it difficult to think in a straight line at the best of times. My thoughts rarely follow from one another and more often jump from worry to insecurity to pay attention to what you’re supposed to be doing. Attempting to follow a lesson is…interesting.

I have found that there are two types of teachers when it comes to anxiety: the ones who just seem to get it, and those who don’t. While the ones who are understanding can help to ease the pressure to a level that is just about manageable. Those who don’t can make the hard days almost unbearable. There is no experience quite like sitting in a classroom holding back a panic attack and being called on to answer because you looked like you were daydreaming, or having a teacher be ridiculously vague about the work you have to catch up on from the lesson you missed because you were in an empty classroom sobbing.

For most people, going to school is probably a mild annoyance getting in the way of having fun or a place to go to see your friends and aim high in your goals. Don’t get me wrong, I recognize how incredibly privileged I am for the opportunities I get in terms of my education, but for people living with anxiety, going to school can be a nightmare.

Between thoughts that I’m never good enough, being judged by everyone and keeping up with homework, revision, lessons, and socializing, so much brain power goes into appearing “normal” that there is little room for anything else.

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I have written in my previous posts that I am coming to see myself as more than just my grades, and about how my teachers have been incredible in helping me, but that doesn’t mean I’m enjoying school.

If you’re reading this, and you are a teacher, please consider what I am about to write. One in four people lives with a mental illness. That means that if you teach a class of 30 students, it is likely that at least seven of them may have a mental illness. While you don’t have the power to make it all better for them, you can help. Your actions can either drastically reduce or massively increase negative feelings your students may be having. Show your students you care.

If I had to list the top things my teachers have done to either help or hinder my mental illness recovery, it’s this:

Offer an ear or even an empty office.
Knowing I have someone I can go to if I’m feeling anxious makes more of a difference than I can explain. It helps me manage my anxieties and know that you’ll listen to me lifts a weight off my shoulders. I often find it hard to get myself out of a panic attack, so having you there to help me minimizes the emotional damage and exhaustion. Similarly, knowing I can go to your office even if you aren’t there is a privilege I greatly appreciate. It gives me an escape and a place to hide when I need to. It helps me get away from the watching eyes of others and gives me the headspace I need to be able to talk myself back to reality.

Be flexible.
I’m not always able to make deadlines. Sometimes, I plan to do something but am thrown off. This might be because I’m too exhausted to process thoughts, or because in the time I had allocated to this particular piece of work I ended up panicking. Knowing that I will be able to hand in a piece of work a couple of days late if necessary reduces my anxiety so much that even just knowing I have the opportunity to be late can help me get my work in on time. A flexible deadline takes away so much pressure. If you’re the sort of teacher who is lenient, thank you.

School is hard. Mental illness is hard. Put the two together and it’s like adding gasoline to a fire – too much and it will explode. If you’re a teacher, please take the wellbeing of your students into account before laying on the pressure. By being there for your students, you might just save a life.

If you’re a student, hold on. Be kind to yourself and take a day off if you need to. Find that teacher (or another adult) that you can open up to and who can help reduce some of your anxiety. There are people out there who want to hear your voice, you just have to find them. You might not be where you want to be, and you might not end up where you expected to be, but you’ll end up where you were meant to be. It’s okay to not feel okay, but it will be okay in the end.

Thinkstock image via Monstrillustrator.

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Top 10 Things You Do Because of Your Anxiety

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1. You always cancel plans, even if you really want to go.

It could be as little as going on a shopping date with your friends or your mum, and you will be out for just a few hours, but you seem to have canceled it more times than you can remember by making up some lame excuse. In reality, it’s because of your anxiety. I have missed out on countless things because of my anxiety. It definitely stops me from doing what a “normal” 20-year-old should be doing at this age. Before the event, I build myself up for whatever it is by thinking of every single possibility that could happen. Some are far too extreme (which I know) but I still convince myself otherwise. So, by the time the day comes around, I have made up a huge scenario in my head, like how when I get there I am gonna have a major panic attack in front of everyone and make a fool of myself, resulting in me “keeling” over and pretty much dying right there. No wonder I cancel all the time.

2. You feel extremely guilty when you have to cancel on people.

This could be anything — a date, going out for a meal, going to a party, going shopping, going for an interview. It could be literally anything. You beat yourself up about it until you feel ashamed and guilty, especially if it is a regular occurrence. My boyfriend is a lot more outgoing than me; on weekends, when he’s off work, he likes us to go on adventures and spend time together but sometimes (seems to be becoming a lot more regular) I don’t feel like going out and just want to stay at home. This makes me feel really guilty, and like I am holding him back. He assures me it’s OK and that he understands, but I can’t help but beat myself up about it.

3. You constantly doubt yourself every day, and your head is filled with “what ifs.”

Thinking of the worst case scenario in every situation seems like second nature to me. As a person who struggles with health-related anxiety, I know about “what ifs” all too well. I constantly think my headaches are something more serious, which causes more headaches; it’s a vicious cycle which seems to never end. I have been back and forth to my doctors four times about them, and each time they have “reassured” me it’s nothing more than tension due to my anxiety, my mind just doesn’t accept it.

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4. You obsess over conversations you have had that day.

This is one of my favorites. It could be literally any conversation you have had with a friend, work colleague, your boss, or even a bus driver. You go over it in your head in detail and convince yourself you sounded or looked stupid when in reality you didn’t. You think about what you should have said or beat yourself up over it, thinking things like, “Why did I say hi like that, they’re gonna think I’m weird.” You think about it until you cringe. We need to stop being so critical of ourselves.

5. You struggle to hold down a job or stay in education.

I think this is personally one of my main struggles. I am now on job number five, I am starting university for the second time around and I am only 20 years old. Each time you “quit” it gets harder and harder to pick yourself back up again, but I am determined to better myself. Since the age of 12 I have wanted to be a nurse, but of course anxiety got in the way of that. I am now working towards helping others who struggle with mental illness, which is one of the reasons why I write – I have a huge heart and love helping others.

6. Things easily get on top of you.

Sound familiar? Oh yes, I have a minor breakdown if my bedroom’s untidy, and I feel like the littlest things suffocate me. I can only deal with things bit and bit, otherwise I feel like everything is crashing down on me.

7. You get agitated easily and have a short temper.

Following on, once things get on top of you (however minor it may be) you easily “snap.” It is usually on those who you love, which leaves you feeling guilty. It feels like it is all one big cycle and there is no way getting out. So, if you didn’t feel bad enough about canceling on people all the time, thinking “what if” in every situation, going over awkward conversations and being jobless, you are now in a mood and snapping on those who you love. Gotta love anxiety.

8. You’re either extremely exhausted or completely wide awake.

… Or both. Personally though, if I am being completely honest, I hardly ever struggle to get to sleep. I am the polar opposite — I struggle to stay awake all day without a nap. I spend most of my day tired and looking forward to bedtime. The only time I struggle to sleep or stay asleep is when I have something major on my mind like an interview, the first day at a new job, an exam or an appointment at the doctors the next day. For anyone who struggles to sleep though, I recommend an app called “Calm.” It has its own sleep section which I find really soothing. Other tips I find helpful are a hot bath before bed, a nice warm drink, or having the fan on (the light breeze and sound of it relaxes me). Opening your window it has a similar effect. I love listening to the rain whilst going to sleep.

9. Some days you really struggle to get out of bed and face the day.

All I can say to that is well done if you got out of bed today. Some days it seems near impossible and all you want to do is climb back in under the duvet with your cat — well, that’s me! I try to avoid sleeping in as it makes it harder for me to get up if it’s already later in the day. I also give myself a task for the next day too, so I do actually have to get up.

10. And finally… you are your own hero.

There is nothing more scary and uncomfortable than fighting a battle inside your own head every single day but still managing to paint a smile on your face. Take each day in your stride. You can do this.

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Unsplash photo via Fade Qu

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