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Finding Balance Through the Ebb and Flow of Anxiety


I’m 5 years old, and I’m stuck in a dress that’s too tight. I can’t get the garment over my head. Every cell in my body is panicking. My breathing is rapid and shallow, and my heartbeat is fast like a thundering drum. I’m screaming, crying and running around the living room begging for my mom to get the dress off of me.

Later, I wake up on the couch, still wearing the culprit dress, but the back of it is cut open. This is my earliest memory of being completely overcome by anxiety and feeling powerless to stop it.

In my mid-20s, debilitating anxiety would strike again — frequently and aggressively. Every night as the sun crept down, anxious thoughts flooded my brain, I was on the verge of a panic attack and I would flee my apartment. After some of my belongings were stolen from my home, the violation sparked the beginning of my panic disorder.

I was a strong, independent, young woman who was avoiding staying alone at night. I was deeply ashamed of my anxious, needy behaviors. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and neither did the people around me. I drank heavily to numb the anxiety and shame. I couldn’t break the vicious cycle and get my life back without the aid of a highly-skilled psychologist and the proper medication.

If you’re one of the 40 million people in the U.S. living with an anxiety disorder, you may realize your phobia is irrational. But because of the way that your brain is wired, you have a much harder time redirecting your destructive thoughts to stop the dreadful descent. You endure daily mental complications that may impact your relationships, your job and your overall quality of life. The anxiety script may go a little something like this:

I’m not safe. I have to get out of here. What will people think? They hate me. I’m so weird. What if I lose control? Who will want to put up with this? I’m such a mess. I’m going to die alone. I’m going to lose my job, my partner and my friends…

This burdensome spiral of negative self-talk hits over and over again — unexpectedly or when various phobic circumstances arise. On top of living with a brain that inflicts this upon you, people who live with anxiety disorders may also deal with judgment, criticism and unhelpful comments from those who are uninformed about anxiety.

If you’re on the verge of a full-blown panic attack, it’s irritating and insulting to be told to calm down, snap out of it or get it together. I would gladly hit the calm-down-immediately button if there were such a thing, but sometimes, the spiral of fearful thoughts is too quick and intense, and I can’t see my way out of it.

Because anxiety can be less visible than other health conditions, maybe the validity of your anxiety is called into question by others, especially if you are a “high-functioning” person living with an anxiety disorder. Perhaps, you feel guilty for calling off work because of a rough bout with anxiety while people who have the flu don’t usually experience that guilt. Because mental health stigma still exists in our culture, we may feel ashamed and like we have to keep it a secret when we’re not well mentally.

When my anxiety is heightened, daily activities, like communicating with people, running errands or driving in heavy traffic, may be especially tricky. I may overly seek reassurance from friends and family to assuage my anxious brain. My anxiety may also manifest itself as anger or irritability that’s difficult to control at times. Any sudden change, loss or unfamiliar circumstances may send me into a spiral of disparaging thoughts that chips away at my self-worth, relationships with others and safety.

About eight months ago, a dear friend of mine died by suicide. I became a prisoner of intense anxiety, grief and rage. This terrible trio tangled me up and took the reins. Grief on its own is complicated enough, and anxiety intensified the devastation. I lost control of my emotions and lashed out at people; friendships ended. I wondered when there would be a day where I wasn’t crying and feeling utterly hopeless. Somehow, I stayed sober — almost 18 months now. Slowly, I’m finding my new normal, and I have immense gratitude for the people in my life who chose to show me compassion instead of criticism.

Maybe it will always be this way for me — trying to find balance through the ebb and flow of anxiety. The only constant in life is change, and in my brain, that could mean another anxiety storm brewing around the corner. Sometimes, I’m OK, and sometimes I’m not — and that’s OK.

I become aware of my unhelpful thought patterns in talk therapy and learn how to bust through the loud, damaging self-talk that complicates my life. I celebrate each small victory against my anxiety brain — especially acquiring the ability to pause before I decide to act on an anxious thought. The more I learn and endure, the stronger I become.

If you experience someone behaving anxiously, take a step back and try to find compassion. Imagine living every day of your life with an anxiety brain that clashes against your rational self. How would you like to be treated?

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 “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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Lead photo via contributor