I know I’ve touched on this subject before, very briefly, in some of my past blog posts. However, with September being Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I wanted to go into a little bit more detail about anxiety and mental illness in general.
I want to start by saying – if you are feeling depressed, anxious, lost, confused, hopeless, or struggling in any way, shape or form, please, do not be embarrassed to ask for help. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed about. I totally understand, it’s a lot easier said than done.
My symptoms of anxiety began in childhood, though they were so small, they were overlooked. It wasn’t until high school, when I began having horrible social anxiety (though at the time, I had no idea what that was, and I didn’t understand “what was wrong with me” or why I felt the way that I felt) that I never experienced as a child. During my childhood, I was very outgoing. I performed in talent shows, I danced in recitals, I played sports, I read a poem in front of the entire elementary school and wasn’t nervous about it. Fast forward to tenth grade – I can remember vividly sitting in my American Sign Language class, a class I actually really enjoyed and found interesting. The teacher was going around the classroom, asking each person a question, and they would respond back in sign language. I remember the fear that washed over me, and I had no idea why. You’ll know the answer, I reassured myself, but I was still filled with doubt. What if you don’t, though? You’ll have to say you don’t know and the entire class will be staring at you. Even if you do know the answer, the entire class will be staring at you. These thoughts swirled around my mind, escalating to the point that I just had to get out of there. I don’t even remember if I asked to go to the bathroom, I just remember feeling relief once I was out of that classroom. I remember feeling sweaty, my palms tingly, and somewhat breathless. (I did not have a full blown panic attack that day, which I would realize later on in life when I actually began having them.) I do remember asking myself why I freaked out so badly, but once I was safe in the bathroom, alone, I realized I didn’t care. My thoughts were no longer racing, my breathing was starting to return to normal, and I didn’t feel that dreaded fear I had felt while in the classroom. Who cares, I thought, it’s gone now. Sitting in the school bathroom, I realized, I couldn’t just stay in here. But the thought of actually going back into that room, facing the entire class (because in my mind, I truly believed that everyone could see the anxiety on my face) wasn’t even an option. There was no way in Hell I was going back. And I didn’t. Ever.
Side Note: It took me about five months to get caught skipping classes. I stopped going to American Sign Language, Geometry, Gym class, and eventually History. I attended the rest of my classes. Our days were broken up into four periods, so these classes would be an hour and a half, every other day. During these times I would literally sit in the bathroom, or in a friend’s car, texting or reading. Some days, my mom would drop me off at school and I’d go in, hide in the bathroom until first period began, then sneak out the side door and walk home. I have no idea how I was able to get away with this. The only reason I got caught was because I skipped gym class last period, and my brother was home sick that day. He told my mom, and I really thought nothing of it. I lied and said I had a study hall, and that I just wanted to come home because I was finished all my work. My mom ended up calling the school, and was finally informed I was barely attending my classes, and definitely not passing.
My mom was the one who made me realize I actually had a legitimate problem. Anxiety wasn’t something talked about that much, at least not something I was familiar with in 2004. I refused to admit that anything was wrong for a long time. I claimed that I just “didn’t want to go to school” and that I didn’t care ( I know, I was such a rebel.) Once that word was thrown out there, though – ANXIETY – it was something I thought about. (Shockingly, I wasn’t really in tune with my feelings as a teenager. I truly didn’t understand how I felt, nor did I really want to think about it. Anyone who knows me now knows how aware I am of feelings – my own, and other people’s.) I remember the first time I went online and looked up Anxiety on Internet Explorer – I was shocked and speechless at what I read. I cried. I wasn’t alone. There were billions of people who experienced what I was feeling. I didn’t have to live this way.
Do you ever think of your life in segments? When I think back to this time period, I always think of this as a defining moment. Before Anxiety, and After Anxiety. (I guess there really is no before & after, it was always there, lingering, and it doesn’t ever go away), but this is when I decided that yes, I needed help, and that I was ready to change my life.
It wasn’t easy. It’s still not easy. But over the years, I’ve educated myself, and it’s made life much more manageable. Most of the time, I’m able to talk myself through my anxiety. A few months ago, I went to 102.5 Country Fest Street Party in Boston. It was jam packed, and we had to fight our way through the crowd just to get a beer. I was anxious, but I talked myself through it (it’s only your anxiety, you’re fine, everything is okay, just breath!) I remember Jena telling me she was so proud of me – she asked me if I felt anxious, and I said that yes, I did, but I was okay. She told me I had come so far, and that a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to do that – and she was right! And it made me so happy to hear that. Of course, I have my bad days. I recently skipped a party because I was so anxious, I had a panic attack hours before it – and I was so mad at myself about it after. I was mad that I let my anxiety get the best of me, I let my fear rule me. But I can’t beat myself up about it, I just have to move on, and continue fighting this battle.
There are many different ways people cope with anxiety. I’m going to list some of mine, and I hope that someone finds at least one of these methods helpful to them.
WAYS TO COPE W/ANXIETY & PANIC
- Talk yourself through it. (My favorite is: This is just your anxiety talking, it’s okay. I don’t know why this works for me, but it does, usually.)
- Talk to someone. Whether it’s a friend, a parent, a significant other, a therapist – let it out! Keeping it bottled up makes it worse.
- If you have plans (a concert, a party), or any other kind of event that makes you nervous, tell one of your friends before hand. This always helped me – Jena knew about my anxiety, and for some reason, just knowing that she knew, that if I needed to leave she understood and would just go with me, made me feel so much better.
- Breathing Exercises. (Yes, I’m serious!) Take a deep breath, hold it for three seconds, and then slowly let it out. Do this about four times. It slows your heart rate down and relaxes you.
- Distract yourself! Seriously, do something, anything. Read a book, watch TV, clean, organize your closet, go run an errand – do something that will help you take your mind off of the fact that you have anxiety. Sometimes just changing your scenery is all you need.
- Exercise. This is one I need to take my own advice on more often. Every time I exercise, my mind feels a billion times clearer. It doesn’t even have to be an intense work out – just waking on the treadmill, listening to my favorite music, helps a lot.
- Remember that it’s okay, and that you are going to be okay. You cannot die from a panic attack. You’re not going to go crazy or have a nervous breakdown. You will be okay. It passes. It always, always passes! I know it sucks in the moment. I wouldn’t wish a panic attack on my worst enemy. But it doesn’t last forever.
- Color! Coloring is so therapeutic. I like to light a candle, drink some tea, and just relax. It really does help, as silly as it sounds.
- Make small goals for yourself. Example: At one point in life, I literally couldn’t even go into Dunkin Donuts by myself, my anxiety was that bad. I would make small goals to get over my fear of being alone in public. I would go into Marshalls for two minutes. ( I know, doesn’t seem like much, but to me, then, it was huge.) Once I accomplished this, I would do it again, but add another minute. I did this until being alone in public no longer frightened me.
- Make a list of all the good things about yourself. Yep, I’m serious! Having anxiety can be emotionally draining, and often leads to depression. When you become frustrated with yourself, for so long, you start to forget all of the wonderful qualities you have. So list them! You are more than your anxiety. It does not define you, though at times it can feel like it does. Never forget how wonderful and amazing you really are.
I’m thankful for my struggle, because without it
I would not have stumbled across my strength