Throughout my life I have dealt with anxiety, for most of that time not having a name to call it. It took 20 years and multiple stints in therapy until I was finally diagnosed with a panic disorder — anxiety being a key component of it. While I constantly felt anxious growing up, I would just blame it on myself or the situation I was in. There were so many times I was overcome with emotion I didn't understand. I often think about what I wish I could tell myself about dealing with anxiety if I could go back in time.
I was a year and a half younger than most people in my grade. It weighed on me as I felt almost unworthy of friendship with anyone else in my year. I couldn't understand why it effected me so heavily and concluded I must have horrible self-esteem. Up until ninth grade, I was extremely quiet and had few friends. The idea of asking someone to hang out beyond the school grounds terrified me. In high school I found it easier to be outgoing, but the anxiety still plagued me. Anxiety made me believe that if my friends didn't immediately tell me something or include me, it must mean they hated me. If I said one wrong thing in class or anyone said something negative, or even constructive, to me, I was devastated.
"Whether you realize it or not, behind the scenes of your anxiety, you're telling yourself, 'I'm not going to be able to handle this,'" Gregory Kushnick, Psy.D. at Manhattan Psychologist, tells Bustle. "A powerful strategy is to counter this disempowering self-talk with self-talk makes you feel like you can handle the stressor. For example, you can tell yourself 50 times, 'No matter what I will be OK.'"
Eventually, my senior year, I went on Lexapro for the first time. Immense anxiety was only allowing me to eat minimal amounts at a time, no matter how desperately I wanted to eat more, and it needed to change. While it, along with therapy, greatly helped, and I eventually went off it, I still was given no attempt at a diagnosis, and continued to deal with constant bursts of anxiety.
Four years after that, as I entered my senior year of college, I was in an awful place. I didn't know how to handle it and just knew that I needed help. It took two months of therapy and one visit to a psychiatrist to realize I was going to be OK. I didn't feel OK yet, but I knew I was on the right track. Being told what I had and going back on my medicine was a relief like no other. Finally I could put a name and a reason to why I had felt all these awful ways throughout the years.
I only wish that I could have found this relief years earlier. It would have allowed me to target the problem sooner and might have saved me a lot of confusion and stress. Unfortunately, my time travel machine still has a few kinks in it so all that's left is to move forward, but maybe with one more look back. Here's what I wish I'd known earlier about dealing with anxiety.
1. It's OK To Ask For Help
I never really shared how I was feeling while growing up and even last Summer, when I was terrified and knew something was wrong, I barely did. I was so scared and unsure of what I was feeling, and I didn't want anyone else to feel as scared as I did. Looking back, if I had told my parents what was going on before I went back to school, I probably could have received help a month or two sooner than I did. A very big difference considering every day was a whirlwind of emotion and fear.
2. Anxiety Doesn't Make You Weak
In fact, dealing with anxiety makes you incredibly strong. Being dealt this hand is not at all a reflection on the strength you possess. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "A woman is like a tea bag — you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water."
3. You Are The Writer Of Your Own Story
It can feel easier to hide your feelings and condition away from the world —trust me I know. But, pulling off that bandaid and and actually talking about your anxiety is incredibly freeing. Bringing up in casual conversation that you have a therapy appointment later or you need to refill your medicine are ways to slowly break, not only society's stigma against mental illness, but your own. The more you talk about it, the less of a taboo thing it becomes. Of course, you should never feel obligated to explain anything to anyone else about who you are, but allowing it to become one part of you and not everything can make a world of difference.
4. You Are Not Alone
The more I've openly discussed my anxiety, the more people I've discovered who also struggle with mental illness. Being able to talk with friends, colleagues and, sometimes, even strangers about how they've dealt with anxiety has been life-changing. Knowing that it's not you against the world, and there are other people who understand exactly how you feel provides unbelievable relief.
5. Learn What Makes You Feel Better
It is up to you to determine how your anxiety affects you. There will be some days where it overwhelms you and feels completely out of your control. Taking time to wallow in it is OK but the important step is to figure out what brings you out of it. It can be meditation, a calm walk, your favorite song or a great book. Whatever reminds you that this is not a forever feeling is what you need at that moment.
6. You Don't Have To Feel Guilty
There have been plenty of times where I have felt guilty about having the anxiety. If I have so much going for me and a great support system, why should I ever feel bad. The truth is anxiety doesn't really care what your life is like. It can affect you no matter what your situation is. It's also important to remember that "the perfect life" doesn't exist and there may be issues in your life that you don't realize are contributing to your anxiety. Never feel like you're obligated to validate why you feel the way you do.
7. Every Day Won't Be Great, But It Will Get Better
While I feel eons better than I did this time last year, I still am nowhere near "perfect" — whatever that is. I take 10 mg of Lexapro each morning, meditate as often as I can, and see a therapist regularly. There are moments where I can feel each bad thought right on the edge, trying to get in. I overthink what people say, I get anxious in many situations, and half the time, I'm convinced everyone dislikes me. But, the key is, I'm able to recognize these thoughts as anxiety-based and I can make strides to overcome and invalidate them.
Having anxiety sucks — there's no sugar coating it. But, how you face it and who you lean on can make all the difference.