Anxiety is one of those nasty but “curable” mental illnesses. I say “curable” with caution because it’s not as simple as taking antibiotics to rid a sinus infection. Curing your anxiety is not getting rid of anxiety but learning how to live with it.
I’ve struggled with anxiety my whole life, but in 2019 my mind broke. I struggled with the aftermath of a toxic relationship, worried about every little thing, took 18 credit hours with 3 jobs, worked a job with a horrible boss, and all it took was one panic attack. One moment of struggling to breathe, of shaking and derealization when driving back from Florida to open up the flood gates.
After my first attack, I got hit with aftershocks, but they were intense and more frequent. I didn’t understand what was happening to my body. The shaking, the feeling that I was floating, my heart racing, my chest constricting, my throat closing, the bad thoughts—I felt like I was close to death every time. I got help and was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
Mundane things became triggers, like leaving my home, driving my car, rooms full of people. My body was on high alert, constantly in that fight or flight mode we have encoded in us to survive, but there was no eminent danger. I wasn’t getting better with medicine and knew it was going to take a whole lot more than pills to help me.
I realized what I needed was somebody to walk me through what was happening in my body, to tell me I'm not crazy. I needed reassurance that I didn’t lose my mind. That's where therapy came in.
Let’s get one thing straight- I am no doctor. While I don’t have an MD behind my name, I have years of experience living with crippling anxiety. How anxiety shows up, how you cope, and what the root cause is will vary person to person and you should work with a professional to figure it out. But this is what I have learned both in and out of therapy. I hope if you are struggling, this gives you comfort knowing what you're feeling isn't uncommon. Here's what I’ve learned the past 4 years:
1. Anxiety/Panic is “curable”
This is my favorite because people are so ready to disagree with me at first until I explain. The quotations around curable is key. Anxiety is not like a sinus infection, where you can simply take antibiotics and be cured. Curing anxiety means you will still have it, but you will find a way to live with it comfortably.
It could take months or years before you find what works best for you. It’s something where the saying “age is wisdom” comes to play-- the longer you deal with it, the more you learn.
It’s all about a positive mindset. If you sit here and think you will NEVER get better, if you use anxiety as a crutch to not do things, you will always be held back. I whole-heartedly believe in the power of our mind. There’s countless studies showing that we are capable of impossible things just by changing our thinking or using our minds.
2. Stay in the here & now
Reality is where you want to live. Anxiety likes to walk us through memory lane or shove us too far into the future and planning. Too much of anything is bad, but anxiety has a talent for keeping us anywhere but in the present. When we live in the past, we feel guilt and sorrow. When we live in the future, we feel worried and overwhelmed.
Practicing mindfulness will help you keep that grip on reality. I struggled so badly at first with mindfulness, thinking practicing it meant you have to meditate. While meditation is a great tool for mindfulness, it's not the only one. It is anything that keeps you grounded in the moment, whether that is consciously breathing, taking a pause, doing a body scan, etc.
3. Understand your triggers/symptoms & what helps you calm down
Understanding what triggers you is KEY to preventing yourself from spiraling out of control. That’s not to say to avoid your triggers, because some things that trigger you might be necessary, but understanding your symptoms of an attack and figuring out ways to help you calm down is important.
Before I panic, my chest tightens, I have trouble breathing, a tingly sensation travels up and down my body. When I start to feel these symptoms, I know I need to take a pause. What helps me calm down is talking to myself, literally out loud I say “everything is okay, there is no reason to panic.” I make tea, close my eyes for a bit, and journal my thoughts. I realized that ruminating thoughts make me lose my marbles, so I get it all out on paper.
4. Just taking medicine won’t help
You can take every depression/anxiety medicine that is under the sun and chances are you either feel like a zombie or are now so dependent on those pills that you have to up your doses. Again, I AM NOT A DOCTOR, but taking a pill and expecting it to be a magic fix is not feasible. Every doctor will tell you to pair your medicine with therapy and that is the key here. It is OK to take medicine for mental health issues, but make sure you’re not just slapping a band aid on a sinking ship—get more help, more tools in your belt so you can properly learn to live with mental health issues.
5. You are in control
There were countless amounts of times where I needed to hear this, YOU ARE IN CONTROL. You are in complete control of your decisions and your thoughts. What you cannot control are the outside forces around you, including other people’s opinions, actions, decisions, etc.
I was terrified that I would “lose control,” or completely lose myself in my anxiety and thoughts. I also hyper-fixated on events I cannot control. It did me no good, only amplified my worries and anxiety.
6. Intrusive thoughts are not you
Intrusive thoughts are that thing no one wants to talk about but EVERYBODY experiences. An intrusive thought is any of those unwanted “fucked up thoughts” that sometimes pop up in our brain. I’ve thought “what if I just drive my car off this bridge” or I’ll be cutting a pepper and think “what if I just stab myself?” After these thoughts pop-up I think to myself “what the hell, I don’t want to do that.” AND THAT IS THE KEY. You CANNOT control those initial intrusive thoughts, but the thought afterwards is how you really feel.
There is a lot of negative social stigma behind intrusive thoughts, but every single person has experienced it. Most people can shrug it off as “just a weird thought,” where people with high anxiety or depression dwell on it. We start overthinking the thought, assuming we are bad people. I’m here to tell you it is a completely natural way our brain processes the day and things around us, just like dreams.
7. What-if’s are bullshit
Do yourself a favor and hop off the what-if train the minute you feel it moving. What-if’s are not real, they have not happened yet and most of the time, they will not happen. When you lose yourself in the what-ifs, all it causes is loads of anxiety. Be able to catch yourself in those what-if moments and shift your train of thoughts.
8. Reconcile with your past & guilt
It’s time to reconcile with yourself, with the past you and the current you. I am someone who carries guilt heavily, even for the tiniest things or for things that happened 10 years ago. I struggle to forgive myself for past things that I have done or that have happened. Nothing is more detrimental to your confidence and your future than holding on to the past and to guilt.
Let it go. Write letters you will never send, make amends, do whatever you have to do to let it go. Do not dwell on past events and think “I should have said this,” or “that’s so embarrassing,” because in the end, you are the ONLY person still holding on. Chances are, everyone else has moved on, you should too. This guilt does nothing but heighten your worries, anxiety, and depression.
Thanks for reading everyone! I appreciate each and everyone of you for taking the time out of your busy lives to read what I have to say. I pray my words can spark a thought, a lost hope, or a will to reach for the stars inside of you.
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