What it’s like to have anxiety on a Friday night.

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In the Mind of a Person With Anxiety on a Friday Night

It’s Friday night, and I am having the same battle I have every night.

My brain won’t switch off.

I watch the television mindlessly, trying to ignore the noise in my head.

I start worrying about every conversation I had that day.

Did I offend anyone?

Did I handle the situation correctly?

Was that person really annoyed with me or is my imagination going into overdrive again?

I’m stressed about things that happened a week ago.

A month ago.

A year, even.

I feel myself start to shake.

My head goes fuzzy, and I start to sweat.

My chest hurts. I can’t breathe.

I reach for my medication to stop the panic attacks in their track.

Only then can I start to breathe.

The clamor in my head gradually subsides until I can think clearly and logically.

I have anxiety.

On the outside I am someone who strives to do their best at their job.

On the outside I appear happy, confident and successful.

And on the inside I am drowning.

Break the stigma.

Let people who suffer in silence know it’s OK to speak up.

We need to be able to speak up without fear of judgment, unfounded opinions or isolation.

Sometimes all we need is a non-judgmental, listening ear.

The war in my head is a lonely place to be on a Friday night.

Written By Alexis Nooyen

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It’s 3:45 in the morning. I absent-mindedly pick at the skin around my nails as I stare at my laptop’s screen and think about what I have to say. The countless minimized documents on my taskbar stare back at me, judging; a reminder of all the work I just can’t get done, and all the self-hatred that’ll probably consume me as the assignment’s due date approaches.

I know what you’re possibly thinking: Just pull it together and get some work done while you’re up, or go to sleep and get the rest you need. Two very logical options; I agree. For some reason, though, my brain does not. For some reason, I find myself every single night unable to shut off – consumed by thoughts of things that matter and things that, to a ridiculous extent, just don’t. So here I am.

It is only fitting now to introduce the main character in my story. Meet Anxiety: my very much real, very much petrifying imaginary friend. My bully, always keeping me in a fight-or-flight mode. My very own out-of-Hogwarts Dementor, always trying to suck the life out of me. Anxiety has always been there in my life. Until recently, though, I’d look the other way and pretend I didn’t see it. Can you blame me? I didn’t know its name – didn’t know what exactly it is. No one else saw it following me around, so I couldn’t really tell anyone.

But for the life of me, I knew it was real.

It was the panic attacks in lectures that always made me escape before time was up: the racing heart, the countless little pebbles clogging my lungs, the upset stomach and the weak, shaky legs.

It was the uncalled-for dread of sitting anywhere but the last row because I’d feel people’s eyes burning on my back.

It was the silly fear, at 23 years old, of going to the doctor or answering the phone when I didn’t know who was calling.

It was the nervousness of walking alone even to merely take out the garbage, and the last-minute cancellation of plans with friends for no justifiable reason.

It was being a professional procrastinator and then diving into a sea of disappointment and self-worthlessness.

It was, and still is, all of this and everything in between that I’m embarrassed to share.

But you know what? For the first time, I shared something. I spoke out – reached out for help when my nerves couldn’t take it anymore. Now I have a name for my bully and the knowledge I’m not its only victim. I am finally able to look Anxiety in the eye, acknowledge its existence, and let it know I won’t let it bully me for long.

You shouldn’t either.

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The news is full of stressful uncertainties that have the potential to severely impact the well-being of many millions of Americans. This instability disproportionately affects those who are at risk for losing health insurance and other basic government supports for mental health, chronic illness and special needs. Therapists are seeing a steady increase in political stress, which has even led to talk of a “post-election stress disorder.” Here are some suggestions I share with my clients to manage panic and anxiety, in spite of high political tensions and turmoil.

1. Be mindful of the body’s flight or fight response in times of stress.

Our bodies have a natural alarm system for stress. You may notice physical changes in a moment of stress, such as shortness of breath, racing heart, muscle tension, sweating and temperature changes — among others. These changes prepare the body’s stress response — to either fight or run away. This reaction makes sense given the fact we inherited our biology from ancestors who had to fight off wild animals to survive. Today, we don’t usually cross paths with tigers and bears, and yet your body may experience other stresses — such as politics, family tension or worry — as if you were literally fighting off these threats. (No wonder you have been snapping at your partner so much lately, am I right?)

2. Know the difference between fear and anxiety.

Fear is a protective instinct that keeps us safe when we are in immediate danger. Many people currently experience the very real threat of discrimination, deportation or violence in this country, which should not be tossed off as simple anxiety, and in some cases is actually protective fear. Fear motivates you to seek out safety. Anxiety, in contrast, is fear of fear. Anxiety is feeling fearful of the idea of a threat when one is not actually in immediate danger. It is important for us to trust fear instincts so we can recognize when we are unsafe and get out of danger. Recognizing when we feel anxious, but are safe, can help us use other tools such as relaxation to help us calm down in a moment of stress.

In a moment of stress, ask yourself: “Am I safe right now?”

If the answer is no, go ahead and call 911 or do whatever you need to do to get to safety. If the answer is yes, but you still feel unsafe, then calm the body down with simple relaxation strategies. This GIF works for me every time.

3. Soothe your body to get unstuck from fight or flight.

The truth is that the body’s fight or flight can help us get out of some dangerous situations. Your body is pumping chemicals that will make you run faster, be more alert and react more quickly. It can be really difficult though if you get stuck in fight or flight because of persistent worry or a panic attack. Not only is it scary, but many of your body’s other important functions, such as sleep, appetite, mood and executive functioning shut down because the nervous system is in emergency mode. This is why engaging another important instinct — the body’s rest and digest response — is so important. Soothing your body with mindfulness techniques can get you unstuck from fight or flight to be calm in the present moment. Relaxation skills can also help you stay safe because you will have the internal reserves to be more attentive and responsive if danger does arise. Here are some suggestions for grounding exercisesmindfulness apps and other stress management tips.

4. Be mindful of how political turmoil affects your wellbeing.

Tune in with how political stress affects your mood and health. Notice any patterns in your stress, such as how you feel after watching or reading the news, worrying about politics or talking about current events with others. Notice how political disagreement with others affects your relationships, as well as your personal sense of identity. Notice also any urges to avoid politics or try to block out or numb how it makes you feel. You will need to balance out all the effects of political stress by practicing strategic self-care. Take care of yourself in equal and opposite measure to effects of post-election stress. Use all of the same strategies that have worked for you during less stressful periods of your life, such as exercise, music, passion projects and community. You may need them now more than ever.

5. Find moments of safety between significant periods of stress.

For many individuals whose legal status, health access or other protections are in jeopardy, it can be hard to shut off stress. You may find yourself thinking about it all of the time. While acknowledging real and ongoing threats in our lives, it is still possible to find respite in small moments of safety. Practice gentle belly breathing, gaze at a beautiful sunset, squeeze loved ones tightly and tell them you love them. Savor pleasure found in small moments to recharge your batteries to confront another day in the post-election landscape.

6. Channel any lingering anxiety into action that makes you feel safe.

Develop a safety plan with your loved ones for emergencies. Build spaces into your life where you find trusting and loving relationships. Access resources that will make you and your loved ones feel safe in a practical way. Talk with others when you feel stressed. These are not “normal” times, and talking with others will make you feel less alone in managing emotional stress. You may want to consider starting a small group of friends to meet regularly and share stress management ideas. Therapy is also a good idea if regular self-care strategies aren’t working for you or if you feel disconnected with others. Many will channel their anxiety and frustration into political activism to work towards long-term solutions for safety. Here are some tips for taking care of yourself during acts of political resistance. Find safety wherever you can and enjoy these times of respite, even if they are brief moments.

7. Practice hope when you feel hopeless.

Acknowledging all of your feelings and learning from them is important, but practicing hope is essential for self-preservation and deserves a little extra attention. Find what personally gives you hope. What works for someone else may not work for you and vice versa. Maybe you find hope in taking the long view of history and thinking about how past movements of people have overcome adversity. Or maybe you will be inspired by new waves of activism. Maybe you will find hope in artistic expressions of political resistance. And if you look, surely you will find personal strengths that will get you through this time, which should also give you hope. Find your own voice of hope and become part of a chorus that gives hope to others.

We’ll get through this together.

Anna Lindberg Cedar, MPA, LCSW is an experienced Licensed Clinical Social Worker providing counseling in Oakland and self-care on the Internet. Find out more: www.annacedar.com.

Editor’s note: This story reflects an individual’s experience and is not an endorsement from The Mighty. We believe in sharing a variety of perspectives from our community.

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I used to run track competitively in high school and college. I put so much pressure on myself that I would get monumentally nervous, whether it was a big or small race. Races were typically on Saturdays, and the nerves would start building on the Mondays before. The frantic thoughts got stronger and louder with each passing weekday until eventually I got to Saturday morning, fatigued and full of dread. While warming up, the nerves would reach a loud crescendo. I must’ve eventually spoken to a teammate about it (I wish I remembered who) because finally I got some advice that took the edge off this problem.

The person gave me a trick that sounds too simple to work, but it did for me: focus on what you’re doing physically to distract yourself from all the mental noise. For example, tuning into how my legs were moving as I lengthened my stride; noticing how it felt to breathe in and out, deeply pulling the air into my lungs; feeling the muscles in my biceps tighten as I pumped my arms to pick up speed.

This helped tremendously.

Once I got grounded in my body, I was able to focus on the strategy of the race — determining when was the best time to increase my speed to pass other girls in the race as I ran. I wound up being able to hold my anxiety at bay long enough to have a successful track and cross country career at the Division I level. I’m so grateful to whomever gave me this trick. I so wish I could remember who it was so I could thank them!

Now, as an adult, I realize I use the same tactic when anxiety clangs into my workday. I switch my thoughts so I am focusing intently on whatever it is I’m doing – any little thing! It could be how my typing feels on my fingertips as I clack-clack-clack away at the keyboard, or simply how my feet feel in my shoes. Even focusing on the intricate details of each task can help — like, how can I write this email as kindly as possible? How can I creatively solve this problem my boss is asking me to handle?

 

I don’t know why it works, but delving into the details calms my anxiety. As long as whatever it is I’m focusing on can take up my full attention, my anxiety is finally, if only for one minute at a time, silenced. But that’s all I need, because I can get through my workday one beautiful, silent minute at a time.

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“I should exercise more. I should learn to cook. I should practice Spanish again. I should really meditate more! I should be more social. I should prepare more for my future. I should read more and watch less Netflix. I should do this, I should do that… blah, blah, blah.”

Lately, I’ve been noticing how much my brain comes up with things that I “should” do — an incessant stream of ideas that illuminate my current shortcomings in life. I’m sure, deep down, my brain is coming up with these ideas as a way to improve my life and to ultimately be happy, but this never-ending to-do list weighs me down constantly. It makes me feel like where I am right now, and who I am right now, isn’t good enough.

As I’ve been paying attention to it more, I’ve noticed how the “shoulds” really contribute to my overall stress and anxiety. No matter how many “shoulds” I come up with, there are always more that pop up, day after day after day. It’s exhausting. I also realize so many “shoulds” are related to my mental health: I should try more mindfulness apps. I should start journaling again. I should do more yoga. I should deep breathe more. These things are beneficial to do, of course, but when they start piling up, it starts to feel like I can’t breathe at all. I feel more tense because I know I’m not doing the things I should be doing!

So I am daring myself to notice the “shoulds” a little more each day. I am daring myself to let them go, as though each “should” is a heavy rock I’ve been carrying in my pocket, and I am now releasing into a river. I am daring myself to trust myself, to trust I know how to take care of myself, including when it comes to mental health. I am daring myself to be imperfect, because that’s what’s at the root of it all: this urge to have my life be perfect, to be perfect myself. I am daring myself to remember that no, in fact, I don’t need to do that if it’s too much right now. I will be OK without it. I will be OK.

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I waited until I had what I describe as a nervous breakdown. I waited until my unchecked emotions converged and powerfully washed over me like a tsunami. I waited until I showed up at my brother’s front door uncontrollably sobbing, not really understanding what was happening, but knowing all of my defense mechanisms were crumbling all around me.

The splintered lives I had been living have completely given out now, no longer able to proceed under the weight of all my angst, insecurity and sorrow.

It was under these conditions — a total emotional collapse — that I finally allowed myself to realize I needed the paid professional help of a therapist. No one should have to struggle so long before getting help.

For much of my 20s, I drifted aimlessly through life. I had graduated from college with a disdain for my focus of studies, which was biology. My first job out of college, while it was a Fortune 500 company with a respectable compensation package, was in the field of collections. I was on the phone berating people for their car payment money.

The collections call center was filled with young 20-somethings right out of college like me, so the social scene was lively, but the work itself was demoralizing. There was nothing even remotely rewarding about being on the phone all day arguing with people who may have been in deep pain themselves. My view of humanity became jaded and cynical through the lens of these contentious phone calls I was embroiled in all day at my job.

While that work was emotionally brutal, I performed above expectations and made my way up through middle management. My success only served to further cement me in a career track that I fell into without much consideration, let alone had passion or excitement for. All the while, my good friends and brother were making a considerable go of it in the music industry, a world I was on fire for at the time.

Music had been an intense love of mine. I played drums for my entire youth, went to countless concerts and helped a handful of local bands, out of the love of being involved in their shows. I had legitimate opportunities and offers to get involved in the music industry back then, but fear and a false sense of security kept me tied down to my collections career.

As time went on, I thankfully got another job opportunity within finance that involved sales, credit analysis and loan underwriting. It was a major step forward in the type of work I was performing, but I still felt adrift and disconnected in life.

It is hard to reconcile and explain, but while I always loved life and had an enthusiasm for friends and experiences, I was slowly beginning to feel a simmering angst and unease about my purpose and place in life.

My only means of finding joy back then was to try and manufacture it on the weekends through partying. I had no career goals or big life objectives. At work, I just tried to chase down a paycheck and get myself to the weekends. The shallow social scenes of bars and clubs were where I went to try and mask my insecurities and growing disconnection from life. My identity was rapidly becoming intertwined with partying.

For the first few years out of college, partying with friends was innocent and fun. We stayed out late, we roamed around Philly and Atlantic City in big groups of 10 plus guys, and had the time of our lives. I also maintained my involvement with the local music scene, attending shows and spending weekends with the bands I was tight with. It was incredible fun and it kept me tied to my passion for music.

As I got deeper into my 20s, friends started to slowly settle, relocate to different cities for work and start families. The local bands I was tied into, who served as a genuine sense of community and fulfillment for me, all had their moments in the sun and disbanded off into other walks of life. My brother ascended rapidly in his career in the music industry and made a few major relocations to different parts of the country.

While all of my close peers seemed to be settling into different lanes of life, I doubled down on the partying. I was also funding much of my “faux baller” extravagance with credit cards. This sounds pathetic to me now, but socially, partying was the only thing I knew to do outside of working during the week.

My immediate family was always there and present for me, but I felt an isolation from them that only deepened as I got later into my 20s. I still had a great group of close and supportive friends, but they all had moved on from the late night revelry on the weekends.

I was immature and lacking self-awareness, but on some level, I also recognized my lifestyle was not sustainable, either emotionally or financially. When those feelings of discontent started to come up though, all I did was avoid and deny them. When you are living a life that is out of harmony with yourself and the universe, I believe something eventually has to give. All of the dysfunction in my life finally did boil over and it gave way through a major emotional event.

I broke down, hobbled and scared, and rushed over to my brother’s house. I knocked on his front door, unannounced, sobbing uncontrollably. My sister-in-law answered the door and I was so relieved to see her. I unleashed what felt like a decade of bottled up emotions. My brother came home from work right away. My parents left a vacation they were on to come home that day, too.

I shared just about every single detail of my past few years of dysfunction and unhappiness in my life. It was a major unburdening. The next day, I went into a therapist’s office for the very first time as a result.

Prior to my collapse, I had thoughts of possibly needing to go see a therapist, but I immediately denied those thoughts over the fear of what that could look like to the outside world. I remember looking up into the mirror once, after brushing my teeth and bursting into tears. Instead of taking that troubling outburst as a sign of needing help, I quickly stuffed that moment of sadness far away to be left unexamined. I wanted that hurt out of reach to never be thought of again. I denied it and moved on with life.

To me, going to see a therapist voluntarily would have felt like some sort of admission that I was not a “normal” young adult living a “normal” life. I was afraid of admitting to myself that I needed help and even more so, of what my family would think. The latter part, the potential shame with my family, was completely unfounded.

My family would become the most stoic and nonjudgmental support system imaginable, but I had all sorts of fears and worries built up about sharing any kind of problems with them. Those unfortunate feelings all stemmed directly from the conditioning regarding mental health that so wrongfully exists in society.

We have to fully erase any remaining stigmas attached to seeking help for mental health. I believe a “normal” human existence is one wrought with pain and struggle. It is inescapable. We all share the same challenges of having insecurities and feeling disconnected in life at times. As a society, we need to seek a new normal, which I believe includes the proactive choice of seeking help before a crisis strikes.

Proactive care for our minds and mental well-being needs to become as routine as seeing a dentist. There is so much proactive care and maintenance that we put into our physical health, but for some reason, caring for our minds has been attached with shame and weakness.

I have been to see a therapist a few different times over the past 15 years and each time it has felt like a life-saver to me. The most recent time I went, I went well ahead of any sort of crisis striking. I made the determination that I wanted my emotions to be in the best state possible for being a father to my young son.

I did some powerful deep work on connecting moments from my youth to my current parenting situations with my son and it was a huge help. I also worked a good bit on my hyper-sensitive nature, how that impacts my parenting, as well as the unfair expectations I sometimes place on myself as a parent. None of this work could have been hashed out on my own without the professional help of a therapist.

Too often, seeing a therapist is the “last resort” step. We often wait to play out the string of a dire situation for too long, until we crumble under the pressure. We typically view therapy as a reactive measure to extract ourselves from a crisis, but it does not have to be that way. Therapy can be a proactive tool for self-empowerment and life improvement.

Do not wait until you bottom out like I did. Take a step towards a more fulfilling life and seek the guidance of a professional therapist. You deserve the best life experience possible.

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Unsplash photo via Stephen Arnold.

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