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20 Things I Wish People Understood About My Anxiety

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Why can’t you just relax?

Why do you always have to take things the wrong way?

Why do you let things bother you?

What’s the big deal?

I am not sure about you, but people toss those questions at me as if they were confetti. Almost as if they truly believe I can control what is going on in my body. Like I can just shut the switch off in any given situation, smile and be OK. I will be the first to tell you, sorry, but I cannot.

I struggle with anxiety, big time. A lot of it stems from my chronic illness. Many things that would never bother other people, bother me to a great extent. In reality, we all have anxiety at one point or another. We are humans, it happens. Sometimes however, my anxiety just will not shut off. For me, anxiety has kept me from doing things others can do in the blink of an eye. I cannot speak in public without breaking into a rash. I cannot go to the counter and order my own food, without breaking into a rash. I cannot drive on the highway without having an anxiety attack. I cannot take jokes about me without getting offended. I cannot express myself talking face to face without crying. I cannot talk on the phone without stuttering and stumbling. I try to stay away from social gatherings and invites so I do not have to run 10 million “what-if” thoughts through my mind.

Anxiety is a b*tch. That is the simplest way to put it.  It is one of the most familiar illnesses in the US, yet many just do not understand it. The best thing for someone with anxiety is to have a huge support system. The best support systems are often made up of our significant others, family and friends. However, sometimes, they are not there. Sometimes they just do not truly understand what it is going on with you. There are so many things I wish I could say to those in my life to help them better understand me. Obviously, I struggle with doing so.

Here are 20 things I wish others knew about my anxiety:

1. I never know when my anxiety will attack. I may go from laughing to yelling, all in the matter of a few seconds. When this happens, I need you to just wait it out.

2. I cannot just stop worrying. I do not worry just for fun.

3. I feel like a failure. When anxiety keeps me from doing the simplest task, I feel like I have let you down. So I tend to
avoid situations where I may feel even more like a failure.

4. I celebrate simple accomplishments. My small victories may seem silly to you, but to me, it feels like I just conquered the world.

5. Even if there is nothing terrible happening, I still find myself in a state of worry.

6. I am more than just this monster inside of me.

7. I don’t need you to fix me. I appreciate you trying, but I don’t need to be fixed. I just need love and support.

8. I’m not weak. I’m a work in progress. Every day I try my hardest to become stronger.

9. I am not antisocial and I am not blowing you off. Phone calls, voicemails and get togethers scare me. 

10. Try to be patient with me. I am trying. I am trying my hardest.

11. Sometimes I am quiet because I have a lot going on in my head. Stop asking me what is wrong and don’t assume I am mad, bored, tired or whatever else you may think.

12. I cannot just turn off my anxiety. I know you do not get it, but please try to understand.

13. Most times I do not even know why I am anxious.

14. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for all those times I have lost my cool, said things I didn’t mean. I’m also sorry for all those times that are still yet to come.

15. My brain does not just shut off, and it is exhausting.

16. If I am not comfortable doing something, please do not force me to do it. Let it go.

17. I have trouble making decisions. I’m a perfectionist and I just want everything to be perfect.

18. Never stop inviting me to things. I may decline 99 percent of them, but it is nice to still feel loved and wanted. And one of those days my anxiety may be at a low and my answer may surprise you.

19. When I say I cannot handle something or take on more, please understand I truly cannot.

20. I hold onto and replay every single word, conversation and anxiety attack I had and will obsess about it for years. 

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Thinkstock photo via berdsigns.

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What I Remind Myself When Anxiety Tells Me Self-Care Is Selfish

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Helping other people is always one of my greatest priorities. It is what makes me feel most purposeful and diminishes the anxious voice inside my head that causes me to doubt my worth and competencies. When I can bring a smile to someone else’s face or make his or her worries lighter, I feel so grateful to have been given that opportunity to make a positive difference. This need of mine to be of helpful service to others relates to one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson, “If I can stop one heart from breaking.” It reads as follows:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching,

Or cool one pain,

Or help one fainting robin

Unto his nest again,

I shall not live in vain.

Oftentimes, I judge myself so harshly, thinking I never do enough. This poem helps me realize any act of kindness is meaningful and I should not measure my worth by the quantity of what I do, but rather by the quality of what I do. I will always remember what my counselor from college told me. She asked me to think about how I react when a family member or friend of mine is in need. I responded that I let that individual know I will unconditionally be there for him or her, and any way that I can be of help, I will be. Then, she asked me to think about when I am in need and how I react. Sadly, I replied I always mentally and emotionally beat myself up and wish I were stronger. After I acknowledged the discrepancy in the way I treat others and myself, she encouraged me to treat myself like I would a family member or friend. Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a young woman seeking understanding, guidance and reassurance, and I no longer neglect responding to those needs. I answer my needs with kindness.

In speaking to my present counselor, she has helped me recognize you provide others with a gift when you let them help you. You allow them to shine, nurturing their ability to positively influence a life. She told me to allow others to be there for me, just as I am there for them. This definitely was a pivotal moment in my anxiety journey, because I realized how many walls I had built around myself to hide my struggles out of shame. Now, I have slowly outreached to my family and close friends, letting them share my anxiety journey, because I know they accept me and care for my well-being.

I used to think attending to my own needs would leave me with less time to help others. I now acknowledge that self-care is essential to the quality of my health and my ability to give back, which makes me most happy. I ask myself: How can I be of service when my reserves are empty and I feel broken? How can I lift others up when I feel so down? Taking time out for yourself to recharge is an equally important part of your schedule. On some occasions, I have pushed myself too far, insisting that everything was OK when in actuality an invisible storm of nerves was raging inside me. In those moments, I would become so drained, and my body would ache from the pressure of concealing my anxiety. Now, I strive to listen to my body’s pleas for some respite, because in those messages, I hear my body saying: You are worth being cared for. You are worth being loved. Even when you feel broken, know you are complete. Know you are enough.

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Thinkstock photo via AnkDesign.

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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.

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.

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.

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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