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6 Things Your Friend With Anxiety Probably Wants You to Know

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Being friends with someone with anxiety can be difficult, draining and even annoying.

They may cancel plans all the time and avoid things. You may have to continuously give details and confirm things so they stop worrying. But for the friend with the anxiety, it’s much more complicated than that. These are some things I want you to know as a person with anxiety.

 

1. I don’t plan on cancelling plans. I’m eager to go and catch up or hang out, but on the day or night before, I have an overwhelming sense of worry, thinking how something might happen when I’m out or even having some completely irrational thought (that I know is irrational but can’t shake off).

2. I obsess over things sometimes. The obsession over small things or big things is either about over-worrying or finding a safe place for me. Sometimes it can be both.

3. Things have to be planned 100 percent. I might get lost, not know the time, not know the venue, might not know people… anything. I need all details so I can stop worrying about them. Usually I need to hear them more than once to be completely sure.

4. Please be patient… I freak out at things I know won’t hurt me, but in my mind, they will. Loud noises or other triggers may send me into a world of panic and as annoying as it may be for you, it feels like my world is crumbling down.

5. I’m trying. I’ve tried everything.

Please don’t tell me some things to try. I have tried pretty much everything in the book. From exercise and eating healthy to meditation and therapy. It takes time for me to heal enough to “function” properly. Some of us never fully heal. But everyone will get to the stage they want to be at… Please give us time.

6. Sometimes I feel hypersensitive. Every touch, noise, light, etc., may be painful. If I don’t give you a hug, please don’t be upset. I may be having a period of hypersensitivity.

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Photo by Jacob Ufkes, via Unsplash

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6 Things Your Friend With Anxiety Probably Wants You to Know
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5 Minutes in an Anxious Mind When Getting Ready for Work

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Today I don’t want to go to work.

I don’t want to go to work because I don’t want to leave the house. I don’t want to leave the house because the thought of leaving my home makes my chest clench even tighter. I don’t want my chest to clench this tight because when it does I can’t think straight. When it does, I can’t even make the most simple decision.

How many decisions stand between me and leaving the house?

How many decisions stand between me and a completed day of work?

Too many.

What if I make the wrong one? What if I look stupid? What if I freeze? What if? What if?

The thought of leaving makes me freeze. How many things do I need to do before I leave this house? My room is a mess, I can’t find anything, I don’t have the right shoes for work, my pants don’t fit. How on earth have I put on this much weight? Why is it still here? What is happening to me?

I stare into the mirror. Twenty-five and in the worst shape of my life. I try and hold back the tears.

Do you know what the worst part is? I want to go to work. I want to be back to “normal.” Driven, ambitious, outgoing, confident. My normal. I want to snap out of it. I want every single self-help book to suddenly help again. Videos, research, connections. I know what I need to do, I know how to do it, so why is it so goddamn hard?

I know what to do, yet it is my own mind working against me to stop it.

It’s betrayal on the worst level.

Who can you trust if you can’t even trust yourself?

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimages

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The Unexpected Effect Journaling Had on My Anxiety

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Like many people living with anxiety, it took me years until I was properly diagnosed. For a long time, I thought that I was simply a stressed person — a Type A personality, a leader. My affinity for being 20 minutes early to everything was something I applauded myself for. I didn’t yet recognize that the mental spiral that made me need to be early for everything was also a sign of mental illness. When I graduated from college and lost control of my depression, a diagnosis I had been aware of for years, my anxiety reached a new low point. I wasn’t able to keep a job because I struggled with the social interactions that came with assisting customers. I barely left the house out of anxiety-based fears around driving. I lost contact with most of my friends due to anxiety-based insecurities that kept me from reaching out to them or keeping the plans we had made.

Feeling worthless and incompetent — a new and scary feeling for a former straight-A student, cheerleader and actress — I became passively suicidal. The tiniest inconvenience turned into a melodrama worthy of a daytime Emmy award, which was humiliating because I had always prized myself on being a composed and capable person. My thoughts felt felt uncontrollable. The thought of making plans to leave the house often left me crying on the couch, unable to stop myself from obsessing over every tiny detail that could go wrong or right on my journey to the library. And by the time I had gathered the courage to leave the house, the sun would already have gone down or my family members would be home from work, and I would still be in the same spot I had been in that morning: on the couch, in my baggy sweatpants, with a movie on and junk food beside me.

One holiday season, I was gifted with a journal. I would never have expected a diary to change my life, let alone help save it.

Like every aspiring writer, I grew up hearing about the importance of forcing yourself to write every day. I had tried and failed to keep diaries multiple times in my youth, but I decided that this time would be different. I wanted to feel successful at one thing. I wanted just one thing to do that would help me get out of bed in the morning. If I could accomplish one small task, who was to say that I couldn’t accomplish a second or a third after that?

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So I set myself the task of writing one page, front and back, in my diary every day. It didn’t matter what it was about — sometimes I cataloged the movies I watched, or what my cat had done that day. None of it was terribly interesting or noteworthy, but that is how the journal started. What I hadn’t realized was how cathartic writing about my feelings would be. There is no judgement in a journal, and there is no room for anything but honesty. What would be the point of keeping a private journal full of lies?

More importantly than the liberation of being completely honest on paper without feeling like I was burdening anyone with my dark thoughts, was the calming effect that writing had on me. I accidentally discovered that journaling helped pull me out of my spiraling panic attacks. I kept my journal in my purse, afraid of losing it if I left it anywhere but on my person, so I had it on me the day of a minor panic attack. I had made plans to get coffee with a friend and had arrived at our meeting spot, only to discover that she had had car issues and wouldn’t make it.

Perhaps to another person, this would be nothing. But an incident of the slightest inconvenience brought me to a teary breakdown in my car. The windows felt like they were pushing in to suffocate me, and I let out a piercing scream as all of the repressed frustration in my body caused my hands to shake and my teeth to chatter. My mind was racing, as it does during a panic attack, and all I could think of were horrible thoughts about myself and why my very close and kind friend had probably made up the car troubles to avoid spending time with me.

Without thinking, I blindly reached for the red diary and began journaling my thoughts. Rather than filling the page up with vile words about myself, I found that the slow movement of my hand forced my thoughts to slow. For the first time in over a year, I had found a way to quiet the frightened, hateful voice in my head. I tried to scribble out everything going through my mind, but there was no possible way for my hand to keep up with my anxiety, and I found that if I focused on my writing rather than my thoughts, the anxious voice slowed to silence. Focusing on remaining present and straightening my penmanship had slowed my thoughts down until the anxiety became just a dull thrumming I was able to ignore.

The next time I was struggling to leave the house, I forced myself to pull out my diary and write out why I was afraid. Again, the soothing movement of my hand moving across the paper slowed and organized my thoughts into a more manageable version of my fear.

At first, my diary was a safe space where I harbored all of my negative thoughts, but eventually I found that if I forced myself to find “the silver lining” at the end of each anecdote in my journal, then I was more likely to find “the silver lining” in my day-to-day thinking.

I had read somewhere that changing the way one thinks can help alleviate their depression, but I had lived with depression long enough to believe that positive thinking was no kryptonite for my depressions symptoms. I still question the validity of this logic, but the proof I have in my journal seems undeniable to me now. I never let myself end an entry on a negative note, that way I can never encourage myself to self-pity. I called it the “positive ending.” That, combined with the way my slow writing forced my anxious thoughts to slow, has been enough for me to feel changed by the time I finish my daily entry.

As weeks passed, my penmanship grew smaller and neater and my mind began to feel lighter. I don’t think my anxiety will never be “cured,” but I have now found a coping mechanism that keeps my heart from pounding itself into a migraine. I consider this to be a huge step forward.

It’s been a year since the first time I realized my diary could be used as a coping mechanism rather than just a confidant for when I was down, and I try to tell every anxious person I know about my trick. The rules are flexible from person to person, but I do suggest a few guidelines:

1. Find a journal with a cover that makes you smile.

2. Recognize when your thoughts are spiraling.

3. Focus on what you’re writing rather than whatever your anxiety is “tricking” you into believing is true.

4. Make sure you end each post with a positive “silver lining.” Even if that silver lining is as thin or simple as, “Whatever bad thing happened today was awful, but thank goodness it didn’t occur last year when my depression and anxiety had even more control over my daily thoughts.”

I find that reminding myself of my progress has been one of the most comforting aspects of cataloguing my thoughts. There’s nothing as satisfying as flipping through the pages of my year and seeing how far I have come, and that I can attribute my improvement to my little handwritten book of thoughts. It sometimes feels like I’ve only taken small steps, especially when there is a long road ahead of me; but finding a sense of control at the tip of my pen, and realizing that I can literally close the book on my anxiety, has brought relief into my life.

Before I was journaling, I didn’t realize how many things I would refrain from doing out of the fear of being anxious. My anxiety was giving me anxiety. But finding my coping mechanism, my diary, and being able to carry it with me almost everywhere, has given me the strength to start venturing out more. Work isn’t as scary when I know I can journal in my diary to center my thoughts. An agreement to meet friends isn’t as threatening when I know I can always excuse myself to make a “phone call” and diary-out my worries in the car. And getting out of bed doesn’t seem as daunting when I know I can turn to my diary whenever I need it.

A lot of people who I have suggested this coping mechanism to have asked me if I truly believe that maintaining a diary has “healed” my anxiety. The answer is no, of course not. I’m not sure if I will ever be fully “healed,” but my journal has saved me from losing control of my life, and for now, that’s enough.

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Thinkstock photo via Christian Horz

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How I’m Overcoming the Perfectionism at the Root of My Anxiety

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I learned at a young age that “good girls” did X, Y, and Z. “Good girls” were nice, always smiled and said please and thank you. I have always felt small. No one seemed to want me. So instead, I tried to be a “good girl” — to be likable and perfect so I could be OK.

Maybe that was OK as a child. I was learning how navigate through this world. But now as an adult, I find myself still doing it; saying yes to everything my boss asks of me, letting my clients push me around, apologizing constantly to strangers for doing nothing wrong and apologizing to friends and my husband for not being “good enough.”

I have these impossible standards. No matter how hard I try, I can’t be the perfect student. I can’t ever be the perfect friend, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter, the perfect employee. And now matter how hard I try, I can’t get everyone to like me. It actually sometimes seems like the harder I try to be good, the less people like me.

I keep buying into the common misconception that women are supposed to be good and sweet and hardworking and silent. Even though in my head, I know this it’s not true.

These struggles are the root of my anxiety. I have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and social anxiety, but trying to be perfect and wanting everyone to like me appear to be the cause of my problems.

I keep wanting to change. I want to be assertive. I want to be strong. But then I find myself being quiet, meek and running around trying to make someone happy; or beating myself up for not being perfect.

I had a difficult counseling session yesterday. My counselor said, “Trying to be perfect is your biggest problem. I’ve been your counselor for almost two years, and I think I’m a pretty good counselor, but I haven’t been able to make a dent in your perfectionism.”

When my counselor said I haven’t changed it felt like I was broken, like I will never change. It seemed like he was giving up on me.

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But he hasn’t given up me. He keeps brainstorming new ways to help me. And I remind myself that my story isn’t over yet. Sometimes change comes quickly, but sometimes it takes a long time. The thoughts I am dealing with were so strongly ingrained in me as a child, so it will take a time to overcome them.

Today I am telling myself that I am not perfect and will never be perfect. I have to be firm with myself and fight back against perfectionism.

So I tell myself: You will never be the perfect student. You don’t listen well in class because you’re easily distracted. You panic during presentations. You’ll never be perfect. But you’re able to do quite well, and that’s OK.

I tell myself: You will never be the perfect employee. You run late. You’re unorganized.  And not everyone likes your quiet personality. You will never be a perfect employee, and that’s OK.

I tell myself: You will never be a perfect wife. You’re not always organized, you’re not a great cook, you forget some things and you’re too exhausted to clean the house most of the time. When you’re anxious you can be difficult to live with. You’ll never be the perfect wife, but that’s OK because your husband still loves you.

I tell myself: You will never be the perfect friend. You keep canceling plans because of panic attacks, and when you’re struggling with mental illness you become self-absorbed. You forget birthdays and don’t always listen well. You’ll never be the perfect friend, and that’s OK.

I don’t know if I will ever be cured of my perfectionism or anxiety. But I am definitely working on getting better. For today I am telling myself, I will never be perfect, and that is OK.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd

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What Happened When I Took My Psychiatrist's Advice During a Panic Attack

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Here’s the thing with most of my panic attacks, I never know when they’re going to happen.

I feel so weak for constantly having panic attacks. I feel so vulnerable and exposed, I feel like everybody is staring at me and laughing or judging how I can barely keep my life together. I’ve never felt so much panic run through my veins before. I’ve never felt so sick when I wake up. I’m sick of my breathing becoming shallow for no reason at all. For me, it’s the worst feeling ever, I don’t understand how I can be afraid of nothing but everything at the same time. I wake up blaming myself for everything.

That’s the feeling I wake up with every morning. See how negative that all sounds? I wake up feeling panic run through my veins and all I can think is how “stupid” I am for panicking over absolutely nothing. I never realized how bad it was to call myself “stupid” while having a panic attack until my psychiatrist told me. He told me that belittling myself during a panic attack isn’t going to help my anxiety, but feed it. Telling myself over and over again how stupid I am for panicking isn’t helpful at all. Feeding my anxious thoughts is only going to make it worse.

These are the things he told me to do instead:

Each morning before getting out of bed, he instructed me to mindfully scan my body and say, “I’m aware there’s some anxiety here.” He told me to tell myself, “I’m safe, I’m OK.” Next, he told me to tell myself, “I’ll keep an eye on this anxiety,” then go take a shower and don’t react to the anxiety. Then he gave me a “surroundings exercise” when I was supposed to list five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can taste/smell and take one deep breath.

I decided to put his advice to use.

One morning, I was cleaning the house. I decided to open up a few windows since it was a nice day. I found myself starting to panic because I couldn’t find the key to unlock the window in my bedroom. I felt my breathing start to shallow and all these negative thoughts came into my mind:

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You’re so stupid for panicking over a key.

Look at you. Pathetic.

Once I realized I was thinking negatively, I decided to put into practice the exercises I was given. I told myself, It’s just a window, and it’s just a key. You’ll find it eventually. Stop dwelling on how you cannot unlock this one window, there are plenty of other windows in this house that you can unlock. This one window doesn’t matter.

Telling myself this made my anxiety start to drop. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply, I found myself starting to worry less about the window and started getting on with my day.

I learned that the way we talk to ourselves during our moments of vulnerability can effect the situation at hand. Instead of calling myself names and putting myself down like I normally would, I found that I could easily control my anxiety. All this time I thought that my anxiety was a monster that couldn’t ever be tamed, but in reality, I was the one who was feeding myself lies. Being my own harshest critic never did my anxiety any good, and by learning to change my mindset, I’ve been able to get through these moments of complete anxiety.

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Thinkstock photo via Olga Siv.

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A Series of Unfortunate Anxiety Stereotypes

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In Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Snicket’s Aunt Josephine is terrified of everything. Estate agents, leeches, the telephone, Count Olaf. And then, when faced with her fear, the Count pushes her into the water, where the leeches devour her to her very death…

I love that film, but my God, that’s no motivation for someone who lives with anxiety.

And while I wouldn’t consider myself any kind of fan of those self-help books made popular thanks to Bridget Jones in the early 90s, I am on board with the notion of taking action upon feeling the fear.

In my story, Aunt Josephine, following some rather effective therapy sessions, jumps in that rowing boat, casts a net and catches those pesky leeches, saving herself and the rest of Lemony Snicket’s fantastical world from death by nasty little bloodsuckers. Oh, and she just ignores the evil Count Olaf. I mean, who is he anyway?

You see, having anxiety doesn’t make me a mouse (ugh, stereotype city; Jerry wasn’t exactly a wuss, was he? *slaps wrists*). But both friend and foe seem to think it does. Why, when there’s a mental health issue, do people assume you’re weak?

If I can’t breathe properly because my lungs are chocka full of pneumonia, no one’s like, “Wow, that girl really can’t cope with life.” But if I can’t breathe properly because I’m mid-panic attack, it’s seen as a weakness.

Oh, and of course, all I need to do is “calm down!” Easy peasy! Sure thing. As soon as you just suck that infected gunk right out of your lungs and breathe, you wheezing fool. Pull yourself together! It’s no easier for me to pull my head together when my brain’s going at a million miles an hour than it is for someone to tackle a physical illness. So how similar are they?

Well, look at it this way: both can benefit from medication, and both can benefit from self-preservation.

Back in 1995, I did in fact have pneumonia. And if I had taken all my antibiotics and stayed in the house instead of going out clubbing in my platform heels and shiny shift dress from Bay Trading Co., I would have probably made it back to college a week earlier. Similarly, if I take my antidepressants, and practiced mindfulness and counseling techniques, my panic attacks are not as intense and the recovery time quickly diminishes.

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And that’s another thing. I have health anxiety. I am a hypochondriac. But as you can see, that didn’t stop me hitting the dancefloor to be all consumed by Fatboy Slim and The Violent Femmes. No. As soon as the X-ray confirmed I didn’t have a life-threatening disease, I relaxed and continued in my mission to snog a 19-year-old while smoking a John Player Special and drinking a Taboo and lemonade.

Anxiety isn’t about being afraid of what’s directly in front of us. It’s about the unknown. Did I put the dryer on with my beloved cats trapped inside? Are they being burned alive? Is my throat closing up? Am I going to die this very night? How will he feel when he sees a dead body lying next to him? I haven’t got life insurance: how will my family survive?

Catastrophizing. Worry chains. Imagining the worst. Building a picture in my head that wouldn’t be out of place in a Japanese horror movie. But when I know what I’m dealing with, I’m actually OK with it.

Well-meaning friends will warn me not to push myself. To look after myself. And I know it’s born out of love, but that’s another thing that people may not know about people with anxiety (well, me anyway): I am so anxious about the fact that somebody might be taking advantage of me that I meet them head-on.

In fact, I’m known at the local vet as the only client who managed to overturn an insurance decision. Well proud of that one! (But I still miss Trevor the cat, who, thanks to my successful fight with the insurance company, was given every possible chance to live.)

When I’m seen as weak and it is used to undermine me, it can be pretty catastrophic. Tell me I’m self-indulgent; tell me I am having a bad effect on the people around me; tell me I am self-obsessed. It just makes things worse. Because I really enjoy thinking I have a fatal illness or that the bus I am on is about to topple over and scatter my body in pieces on the central motorway. And it goes without saying, I am doing it with the sole purpose of irritating you and wasting everyone’s time.

Just as you’re not much use with your head over the netty when you’ve been struck down with a virus, I’m not much use mid-panic attack. But just like that virus, the symptoms disappear. And you come out the other side ready to take the world on.

I am not anxiety, I am me. Do not look at me and see Aunt Josephine, and I will not look at you and see Slimer from Ghostbusters just because you once had the snots.

It’s 2017, and we are getting there. But we’re not quite there yet. It’s time we bigged up those who have survived mental distress. Because seriously, can you imagine how it feels to think you’re dying, to hear threatening voices or to feel like there is no point going on? I can’t imagine the latter two things myself, but big respect to those who can.

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. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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