Recently I have received an overwhelming amount of incredible messages from a wide range of people. From close friends, acquaintances, to complete strangers, sometimes even I forget that were all struggling with similar battles even though on the surface others lives seem more at ease then our own. Rich, poor, high school, college, single, married, mothers, fathers, business owners, lawyers, I’ve received messages from them all. What an incredible relief it would be if we all knew we were sharing similar struggles! Although each person messaging me has a unique story with fighting mental illness I’ve been asked the same question almost every time, “How did I overcome my anxiety and depression?” While I would love to sit down with every single individual and talk to them personally I believe the most efficient way is to write an essay on answering that question. So here it is!
Note to reader: This essay will use the words anxiety and fear. They can be interchanged. Apply whichever word you feel relates to your situation the best.
Since fourth grade anxiety attacks would seemingly come out of nowhere wherever I was, I’d suddenly become stricken in an instant by physical pain, clinching my chest, gasping for air, covered in sweat. It was enough for a child to want to avoid any public situation. I was a kid born with a scatterbrain, more times then not my head was racing with negative thoughts and emotions. I was a very thin kid; blessed with a physically healthy body I was always active yet my overweight mind just couldn’t keep up. It was like an obese kid trying to keep up with the other kids playing basketball; my mind lagged and then crippled me with an anxiety attack when it has had too much even though it was everyday routines for most. I was unaware of how out of shape my mind was and even more that there was anything I could do to change how I thought.
For those who have been diagnosed with anxiety and panic attacks I highly recommend seeing a therapist. I have been seeing the same therapist since my panic attacks first started as a kid and she is one of the single most important people to ever come into my life. I recommend a therapist because they are professionals that can teach you more information about what you’re going through then you ever thought existed. Most people will find comfort in talking to a therapist because they can give you an external non-biased opinion that you cannot get from your friends and family. They don’t have any emotional investment and will be able to give you the most logical and practical advice. All insurances are accepted by one therapist or another usually with small co-pay. Remember this is your health and well-being we are talking about, it is an investment that will save you a lot of valuable time and effort in the future. For high school and college students, therapy is free on campus. Go to your school website and search for the councilor center. Although there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, just like a regular doctor, therapists are legally required to be confidential. If you go to an on campus councilor there is no risk in your friends or family knowing unless you tell them yourself.
By high school I started to notice a pattern between certain social situations and my anxiety attacks. The social situations included long and far from home car rides, fear of getting sick when I wasn’t at home or with my parents, or any situation with a large group of peers my age such as field trips, sleep overs, or just going to school. Acknowledging and accepting what triggered my fear and anxiety was step number one to getting better. Next, I had a choice. It was a choice I could make or not make every single day of my life. I could stay home as much as I possibly could and avoid any situation that might trigger my anxiety in order to feel safe and comfortable; or I could continue to do everything I would do normally despite the chance of an anxiety attack.
At this point in my life I wasn’t as determined to cure my anxiety nearly as much as he was determined not to miss out on wanting to be an average kid and hang out with friends, nor was I aware that there was anything I could do to prevent anxiety attacks. Yet, from constantly exposing myself to uncomfortable situations with the reward of being social with friends I indirectly discovered that the more I was aware of what triggered my anxiety the less severe and painful they became. It is equivalent to watching the same scary movie over and over again, by the tenth time you watch it you know what corner the monster is hiding behind so when it jumps out it doesn’t scare you nearly as much. In fact, your fists are up and cocked back ready to nail that monster square in the nose. When you take the element of surprise away from you enemy you gain the upper hand! Seek out the anxiety before it seeks you out, if you know its coming yes it will be painful but not nearly as much as when you’re not expecting it. The more you do this the less power the anxiety will have over you over time, until your brain learns that the situations that once triggered it isn’t a danger at all. Your anxiety will soon go from looking like a grizzly bear to a small puppy that just makes a lot of noise.
“But I don’t want to feel any pain, I just want it to be easy like everyone else” if you haven’t ran in a very long time you will quickly become short of breath and your legs will feel weak. Who is it you want to be just like? Those people who have been running for years? It takes practice just like anything else, no pain no gain. Above all practice patience, many fears and anxieties stem from being impatient. This is not a race were trying to finish here. Fear will always change forms, throughout our entire lives it will be our job to sharpen and strengthen our minds until you are able to take your fears and turn them into your strength. Remember the goal here isn’t to be anxiety free anxiety is part of being human, it is how quickly we recover and increase our tolerance to anxiety. You expand your comfort zone by getting out of your comfort zone. No externalities will cure your anxiety; not a dream job, not a significant other, or a significant place you move. The sooner you put your mental health first the sooner you will attract those external things and be able to sustain them.
Mindfulness is not a destination it’s a journey. We need to stop thinking of our mind as part of ourselves, as part of our soul, and begin to start thinking about it more as a muscle in our body that can be trained, that can be fine tuned and transformed into a better shape. Just like our outer body appearance doesn’t determine who we are as a person neither does our mind have to anymore. Lastly, progress will not always look like progress. During severely stressful times in our lives when we have reached our threshold we will slip up. We will say to ourselves “I haven’t gotten any better, I failed”, But if that thought runs through your mind ask yourself, Did you handle that situation better than you would have six months or a year ago? How about two years ago? If the answer is “yes” then you are progressing and you should be content with yourself and say next time I will do even better. “If you want to succeed, fail twice as fast”
Lastly, keep a record of your habits. I call these your “truths”, for example, I am my most centered and rational self when I routinely exercise, eat healthy, meditate, keep drinking to a minimum, and practice hobbies that I love such as reading, traveling, and playing guitar. Obviously life can get hectic and it will be hard to keep your truths close but it doesn’t always have to be perfect. Don’t have time to do a full workout? Go for a ten-minute run around the block before work. Don’t have time to cook a healthy meal? Buy a banana and yogurt at the grocery store instead of McDonalds. Absolutely paralyzed from stress in your life and feel like you don’t want to do anything but drink? Lay on the couch and watch Netflix, at least you didn’t drink and take out your stress in an unhealthy way. That is progress!!
Acknowledge and accept the patterns between your fears and what triggers them
Go seek out a professional therapist
Make the choice every day to not avoid those situations that trigger your fears
Realize that your thinking mind is like a muscle completely separate from your personality that can be transformed and strengthened. You have a choice to not live an emotionally hijacked life.
Purposefully put yourself in situations that trigger your fears and anxiety. Start small and build up.
Do not compare your fears and anxieties to others, only to yourself. How would you have handled the present situation, six months, or a year ago?
Keep your truths close: exercise, healthy eating, meditation, doing things you love