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Why My Love-Hate Relationship With Anxiety Makes Me Human

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I have an anxiety disorder. It has taken me months to speak those words and now that I have finally accepted reality, I think it is going to be a whole lot easier to work through it.

I’ve always been an “uptight” person, Type-A, perfectionist, whatever you want to call it. I always called it that and never “anxiety” because I didn’t even know what that was for a long time. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I’ve had this problem for a lot longer than I thought. It might not have manifested itself as severely, but I can definitely see how anxiety has shaped my life.

I always got stressed about school and that was normal. I have been obsessed with perfect grades since sometime in middle school and I doubt that will ever go away. My mind always blew friend problems out of proportion and I always ended up questioning things I did at a sleepover two months ago. It didn’t really affect me in huge ways, but I know that I am who I am because of what I can now call anxiety.

I have a love-hate relationship with my anxiety.

It is hate when my breathing becomes labored and I feel a panic attack start to bubble over inside me. When I cry myself to sleep because everything just hurts so much. When I send someone a bunch of texts and then they don’t respond and I am forced to question every interaction we ever had to see what I did wrong. When everything seems to be my fault.

It is love when I overachieve. When I push myself to the limit and accomplish great things. When a good day rolls around and I finally feel in control. When I am able to see how much my friends care for me on a daily basis. When I try and I fail and I keep trying because I can’t stop until I succeed.

Despite the bad days, the anxiety and panic attacks, the overwhelming doubt and uncertainty, this is who I am. I am an overachiever, perfectionist, Type-A, uptight, anxious person. I am not saying I want to have anxiety attacks every day. I do not mean to say that my anxiety can control me forever.

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I am only saying that sometimes, my anxiety makes me smile. Sometimes, my anxiety reminds me how lucky I am to be alive. Sometimes, I let myself feel anxious and terrible because I am allowed to not be OK. Sometimes, I remember that God gave me this for a reason and despite all I go through, I will make it to tomorrow.

So, I have an anxiety disorder. I am not perfect, as much as I try to be. I am broken. I am full of irrational thoughts and all the worst eventualities. But that does not make me any less. In fact, I think it makes me more human, more me.

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Thinkstock photo via Natouche

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4 Things That Help Ease My Anxiety

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I have always struggled with anxiety. Every day, my anxiety is very present and very real. The symptoms vary from day to day; sometimes I have horrible and intense anxiety attacks where I find breathing very difficult, I tense up, my chest becomes incredibly tight, my body shakes and I feel genuinely scared. I need help to calm down from these. Other days, I may feel emotionally overwhelmed, tired and detached from the world. My chest becomes tight and I may feel very low on energy, my brain and memory become hazy and I forget the simplest of things. One time I even forgot how to work the oven.

There have been many times where I’ve been having a conversation and repeated exactly what I said moments before. Luckily people are patient with me and I’m very thankful for that. The latest incident was when I had no memory of taking my night time medication, even though I remember unwrapping it from the packaging and pouring a glass of juice to take it with.

My anxiety festers in many different ways and I’m still trying to manage these symptoms, especially when I have to leave the comfort of my home. I have four things that help ease my anxiety, even if it’s just for a few minutes:

1. Pebbles

I carry at least two pebbles or colorful gems/crystals with me everywhere I go. I always have them with me. They give me something to fidget with to ease my trembling hands or dissociating mind.

2. Music

I’d be lost without music — anything with a beat, anything to get my fingers tapping. Music helps me feel grounded and focused on the here and now. It allows me to focus on one thing, to count the beats in a song and to be absorbed by music rather than the sounds of the world around me.

3. Counting

Counting brings me a lot of ease and comfort; from counting when I do my breathing exercises, to counting beats in a song and to setting tasks when I leave my home. If I have to leave my home, I give myself a task to distract myself from the intensity of my anxiety. Usually that task is to count how many dogs and cats I can see. I love animals, so counting to see how many cats and dogs I can spot brings me a temporary relief and comfort.

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4. Lists

I’m forever making lists, from small to-do lists to check lists. When I have to leave my home I have a fear that the safety of my flat is at risk, and when I am out it’s all I think about which causes my anxiety to worsen. I now make a safety check list — visual tick boxes to ease my mind when I am out and about. The tick boxes include unplugging appliances, securely locking windows and counting to 20 when I am locking the doors. I also have a medication check list — a simple ticking box aide where I list my different medications and tick the box once I have taken a certain medication. I also note down the time so I am fully aware of when I took them.

I rely on these four things every day. They help me, and at times, they bring me a sense of ease. I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me.

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Thinkstock photo via Victor_Tongdee

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How This Simple Phrase Helps With My Anxiety

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A while ago, I got into one-word mantras. You know, bite-sized pieces of wisdom that would somehow make my day smoother, brighter, happier. I eventually figured out that there isn’t a one-word solve-all — no bandage for all of my problems. But, there is a phrase that gets me through the day: “you’re OK.”

I started using this phrase on a whim. A fitness Instagram profile I follow suggested to pick a phrase that motivates you and post it. What came to mind was possibly the simplest phrase. It wasn’t fitness related, per say (but it does get me through the last couple of sets when I’m struggling). It was more of a way of mentally checking-in with myself, taking a step back and talking to the panicked voices in my head: you’re OK. I used to repeat it to myself on the way home from work when I was shaking with exhaustion. Or, on the way to work, when my heart was in my chest and my mood was somewhere around my shoes. I use it when I have to take a lap around the building because I can’t organize my thoughts, or because my chest is so tight, I can’t take a full breath.

Anxiety is something I live with. But instead of getting panicked about it, I’m telling my anxious mind: you’re OK. Because in the end, I know I will be. I’ll reach home. I’ll collapse into my work chair. I’ll pull in a breath and I’ll make a to-do list, and the day will be done. I’ll be OK.

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Panic, but Not at the Disco – at the Parking Garage

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I came home with the kids, some groceries and a full blown panic attack today. My husband said, “What’s wrong?”

I say, “I’m having a panic attack.”

He says, “Why?”

Why? That’s a really good question.

It probably started this morning, a Sunday, when I was feeling conflicted and guilty about whether or not we should go to church. Trigger one.

I think I don’t really want to, but I feel obliged and moved to, at the same time. My family don’t want to come, which I understand, so I go alone. Trigger two.

While I’m there I connect with some familiar faces, I squeeze a woman’s hand when she tells me her friend found her son dead after five days, and I weep with a man who just wants to love all the people on the fringe of society. A girl I’ve spent several hours with and know online didn’t remember who I was until I reminded her. An innocent mistake, but for me: Trigger three.

I am moved by talk of great poverty in the world and wonder what I could possibly do to contribute. I feel purposeful, moved and conflicted. Yet somehow useless in the scheme of things. Trigger four.

There was someone there I get a sense is unhappy with me for some reason, so I message her but don’t hear back. She must be unhappy with me. Trigger five.

I feel agitated all day. I’m speaking mumbo jumbo about how I feel about the greater system of church, spirituality, but the people, I love. I don’t struggle to love people. We have committed ourselves to loving people. I probably put too much effort and energy into the way I love people. I can’t even get that right. Trigger six, and it’s not even midday.

So. There’s a voice that’s kind of loud today. It’s that voice that tells me I’m a bit fat. That I’m not really doing anything meaningful with my life. That I’m not quite good enough to tackle the projects I have on my plate. That I might not get that job I applied for, and it tells me I can’t build the business I want to, and applying for a job is a cop out because I should be following my dreams. Triggers seven, eight and nine.

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Later, I take the girls to a kids party at the movies. Social anxiety. Trigger 10.

It’s something that should be simple, there’s another Mom there I know, but I feel like she might be unhappy with me too. I touch her arm in conversation to try and build connection.
But that’s quite creepy right? I’m a creep. Trigger 11.

We leave the cinema, and my husband wants me to grab some things from the supermarket. I feel so wound up at this point it bothers me. I can’t find the soda. My daughter can’t keep up and complains I’m leaving her behind. Let’s wrap that all into Trigger 12.

Then we forget to scan the hot cross buns and my daughter walks out with them without paying. I choose not to go back, because it’s too hard. But I feel guilty. Trigger 13.

We get in the car, I put my (what I thought was validated for free parking) ticket in the machine, I owe $8 and it tells me I need to go to the pay station. Fuck. Trigger 14.

There’s people waiting behind me, they’re annoyed for sure. I run out of the car, leaving the kids there, the machine is super close. But it’s out of order. Trigger 15.

I run downstairs, in a fluster, that is out of order too. Fuuuuuck. Trigger 16.

Cars are lined up, everybody hates me, I left my kids in a running car, I race upstairs and ask if I can skip the queue. The man says no. Trigger 17.

I explain my awful actions, I’ve left my kids in the car and everybody is waiting for me. I’m the worst human right now. I race back to the car and a man is there telling me I could have actually just paid right there. So I pissed everybody off for no reason, just because I can’t think in a fluster. Triggers 18 through 24.

Now that voice is super loud and completely taken over, stealing my breath and any shred of confidence I had as a human. You are useless, stupid and now you’re upset about it, what a loser. You know you shouldn’t panic about panicking. Thats what makes you more panicky. My kids are berating me, “Why did you do that Mum? We got in trouble!” I’ve lost count of triggers, and can’t even breathe.

I start to to cry, and my chest is tight, but I have to drive and get out of there, and get my kids home safe. The voice gets louder…instead of just brushing it off, look at you now, you pissed everyone off, and fucked it up and now you’re having a panic attack. Good one. You can’t cope with this, you’re not going to be able to cope with the new job, if you even get it and there’s dinner guests at home. How embarrassing. You’ll go home crying in front of them. My kids have gone quiet, and asking me if I’m OK, I can’t even answer. What a crap Mom.

I arrive home. My daughters hug me, and this brings a small amount of peace. My friend hugs me. I cry. And disappear. And snap at my husband. How do I explain all of that as a reason for a panic attack?

Writing this all down helps. Because I know that voice is not the truth, it’s just some thoughts. It was just a moment in time after a very anxious day. A series of unfortunate events that led to a hectic physical and emotional response.

So, as a word of advice, when you see that someone having a panic attack, it’s not likely just one thing that triggered it. It could have been a whole Sunday of triggers, background anxiety and a nasty voice. Throw in an unexpected situation where you’re potentially disappointing people on top of that, and you have a perfect storm.

That’s why.

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Thinkstock photo via Ozgur Coskun

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The Anxiety Coping Technique That Turned Into a Passion Project

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You may be thinking, really, another coloring article? But hang in there with me, and let me tell you my story as I reflect back on Mental Health Awareness Month.

About two years ago, I started having anxiety attacks. I felt like I was in a chronic state of stress at work. And to top things off, my partner and I were planning our wedding. Prior experiences had been stressful, but the attacks were new for me; the tight chest, the shaky feeling I had on the inside while finding it hard to move, the migraine after. It was scary and I didn’t know how to help myself or how to tell those who cared about me what I needed for support.

It got to the point where I realized I couldn’t get through this alone — sometimes that realization and acceptance is the hardest part — so I sought out help from a professional. Along with therapy, I tried a range of different coping strategies and now use a combination of them to manage my anxiety. I took a meditation class, I started walking outside more and I started coloring. Coloring became one of the most successful coping techniques I developed. And for a while, I was grabbing every adult coloring book I could find and going through packs of markers like it was my job.

Back at my actual job, I realized I needed a project for myself to feel reinvigorated. Science outreach has always been my passion, but over the years, that passion got farther and farther away from what I spent my time doing at my 9 to 5 position. One night, while coordinating patterns and colors, I had a lightbulb moment for a side hustle.

I thought, what if I designed a coloring book that celebrated women in science and technology careers? And with that, “Super Cool Scientists” was born. “Super Cool Scientists” features 22 amazing women in science, technology, engineering and math careers. A community of people from all over the world have come together in support of the coloring book idea, with a successful Kickstarter campaign and positive feedback to follow.

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It’s hard for me to express the deep gratitude I feel for everyone who has supported both me and the project throughout this process. I’m grateful, not just because their support helped get the book designed and published, but also because their support validates something that is so connected to my anxiety. It helped me realize my journey of learning to live with anxiety can also have a positive side. Coloring helped me calm down and it also helped spark an idea that reignited my spirit. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

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Thinkstock via shironosov 

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How Weightlifting Eases My Anxiety

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Throughout my life, I’ve unsuccessfully tried several different gyms and workout routines, never quite finding the right fit for me. I always had the desire to get in shape and go to the gym, but I continually considered it a chore that would only heighten my anxiety. I had never in my life considered weightlifting. I believed all the misconceptions out there, thinking I would never be strong enough and it would make me bulky and unattractive.

Weightlifting has provided me with a healthy outlet for my anxiety and even on my worst days, I walk into the gym and find instant relief. I’m forced to solely focus on my lifting, allowing my brain to shift away from its anxious thoughts. I feel a release from all my daily tension as I work through my reps and my workouts provide an outlet for all of my pent-up anxious energy.

 

Every time I lift a little heavier and reach a new goal, I feel continual reinforcement that I can get over my anxiety. I’m motivated to push myself harder because in lifting, failure is OK and even encouraged, because failing makes you better. Embracing this mentality at the gym has helped me adapt it in my daily life.

Of course, the people who have been guiding me along the way are a huge part of my journey. The gym has become my place of refuge, allowing me to abandon my anxieties at the door so I feel refreshed when I leave.

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Thinkstock photo via Reince Preibus

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