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9 Things I've Learned From 9 Years With an Anxiety Disorder

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When I was diagnosed with panic disorder in 2009, I knew the road ahead was not going to be straight and flat. I knew there were going to be obstacles I couldn’t yet imagine, and I knew it wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

But looking back on these past nine years has made me realize how much I didn’t yet know and understand. I may have known the journey was going to be hard, but I didn’t know I was going to become a much braver, stronger and more well-rounded version of myself on the other side.

Among all of the things I’ve learned from living with a sometimes debilitating fear of the world around me, these are some of the key takeaways I’ll keep with me forever.

1. People aren’t mind-readers.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve walked away from a relationship thinking the other person didn’t care about me when they thought space was what I wanted. If I found myself crying in front of a friend or family member, the worst thing for them to do in my mind was walk away.

But here’s the thing: I never told them that. In fact, I never really told them anything. I typically just shut down. It took me years to figure out that the people I thought were abandoning me in my times of need genuinely just thought I wanted to be alone. This miscommunication put a strain on a lot of my relationships and made me feel much more secluded than I ever truly was.

2. Taking care of yourself isn’t selfish.

Because anxiety attacks can hit at any moment, there are bound to be times you find yourself panicking at an inconvenient time. Maybe you’re at your best friend’s birthday party, or you promised to go out to dinner with extended family. Whatever the case, if you need to remove yourself from the situation, then you should do so. Never feel bad for taking steps towards your own well-being. If you’re with people who truly care about you, they’ll try to understand. Don’t let the guilt eat at you and make it worse.

3. Therapy isn’t for everyone.

Don’t get me wrong on this one — everyone should try therapy. I’ve heard some really wonderful stories come out of therapy sessions, and I believe it helps a lot of people get back on track. But if you find yourself trying it for years and don’t take much away from it, that’s OK too. Everyone copes differently. Personally, my therapy sessions seemed to cause more harm than good. The key is to follow through with whatever works for you and not beat yourself up over the tactics that don’t.

4. You shouldn’t feel ashamed.

Trying to explain an anxiety disorder to someone without a diagnosis can be like trying to tell someone who’s deaf that sometimes you have trouble hearing too. Because everyone faces fear at one point or another, anxiety disorders can often seem like an excuse to get out of uncomfortable situations. But someone who has a hearing impairment wouldn’t necessarily have to fight to make others believe they’re at a disadvantage, and neither should you. Don’t let anyone downplay your struggles simply because they don’t understand them.

5. Doing what scares you is the best coping method.

One of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was convincing my mind I could do the things my anxiety told me I couldn’t. And truthfully, the only way for me to do this was to push through the things that scared me and prove my anxiety wrong. Nothing builds confidence like showing your mental illness who’s boss, and the more often you do it, the easier it becomes.

6. Laugh at yourself.

In college, I was required to take two public speaking classes (which I’m sure you can imagine aren’t much fun for people with anxiety disorders). I probably cried my way through 15 speeches and never ended up feeling more comfortable with presenting. But despite the embarrassment I felt in the moment, it never fails to make me laugh that something so small in the grand scheme of things could get me so worked up. I started beginning my speeches by telling my classes, “My only goal is to not cry.” It might’ve made some people uncomfortable, but it was a great way for me to break the ice before I started sobbing.

7. There are people who will truly love you no matter what.

There was a time when I honestly believed no one could ever love me for an extended period. But looking back on these past nine years, I’ve built some undeniable relationships that are stronger than anything I had ever experienced prior to my diagnosis. I met my boyfriend at one of my lowest emotional points, and I’ve never once been worried that he might think I’m not worth hanging around. It has been four years since then, and our background has proven we can make it through anything and come out stronger on the other side.

There are people out there who have an endless amount of patience and compassion — don’t stop looking until you know you’ve found them.

8. More people can relate than you may think.

As “different” as having a mental illness can make you feel, you are not the only one fighting these battles. It’s amazing how many people respond with “me too” when you’re open about what you’re experiencing. Don’t ever let the stigma convince you that you need to keep your struggles to yourself. Some of the best friendships can come from the strangest commonalities.

9. It doesn’t go away, but it does get better.

This statement is a hard one to admit because, realistically, an anxiety disorder never truly goes away for good. There will be times when you feel like you’ve beat it in its entirety, only to be knocked back down by a major panic attack. There will always be new challenges, but subsequently, there will always be ways to make yourself stronger.

I believe courage is built not from beating your demons, but from facing them every day, knowing they may never disappear. It may not always be pretty, but the rewards and the lessons learned will always be worth it in the end.

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Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

Originally published: June 14, 2018
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