Some things I’ve learned about anxiety

I was looking at my Symple data the other day and I noticed that I’ve only had one panic attack in the last six months.

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And while I’ve clearly felt some anxiety in that time, it’s been pretty mild. (That blip in the data is the month where I felt like Symple wasn’t helping me anymore – oh how wrong I was.)

That’s bonkers to me. I feel like I’ve spent so much of the last 2-3 years crying and wondering what’s wrong with me and hiding from my life. To a certain extent, that’s true. I have been doing all of those things. I totally fell apart sobbing over the costume boot covers I was making for my friend V on the day Orange moved out. I spent one New Year’s Day in my bedroom sobbing and nauseous, hiding from the 15+ people in our apartment until my dad came in and bought me the anti-nausea meds they give to chemo patients. I started crying for (what seemed like) no reason on the plane to Florida, and then met the dude’s parents for the first time with a tear-streaked face and a brain racing a mile a minute.

But I’ve also been learning and thinking and trying and growing. All of those things have been really hard, but they’ve also been great. Here are some of the things that I’ve learned about anxiety/panic attacks in the last few years.

  1. It’s not your fault. Seriously. It’s not. I know it feels like it is sometimes and it feels like you should be able to control it because it’s in your brian, but it doesn’t work like that. You aren’t doing this on purpose and you’re not trying to make things all about you, and fuck anybody who doesn’t understand that.
  2. It’s ok to hide for a while. We need to do that in order to heal; anxiety and panic attacks are so internal that sometimes we need to withdraw in order to cope with what’s happening. Just don’t withdraw so much that you’re hiding from things or people that could help you.
  3. Learn what is going to help you and be forthcoming about that with the people around you, even if that means saying “I don’t know”. It’s ok not to know. It’s ok not to know in the beginning, and it’s ok not to know every single time. It’s ok to need to be on the phone with your chosen person for like an hour during one attack and then to completely withdraw and not talk to anyone for your next one. Just try to express it as best you can so that the people who love you have the chance to help, as they almost certainly want to do.
  4. It’s ok to ask for help. Yes, there is a lot of stigma. But there are also a lot of amazing mental health professionals who can help you figure your shit out. It is always your decision to share with people if you’re in therapy or not, and honestly, no one but you and your therapist have to know if that’s the way you want it. And they’re not the only ones who can support you; one of the things that’s been most helpful for me is how responsive my sister and the dude have been. When I express that I’m feeling anxiety and that I need some help reframing or some encouragement, they have both always, always, engaged with me and talked with me until I felt calm enough to get back to my life. I can’t imagine what that’s like for them – if it’s annoying or worrying or maybe it’s absolutely fine – but what I do know is that I know that I have two people who will love me unconditionally and give me the support I need when I say I need it (and even when I don’t say it).
  5. It’s ok to say no and cancel plans. Sometimes you just can’t. Like really, really can’t. It doesn’t make you a flake. It doesn’t make you a bad friend or family member. It doesn’t make you unreliable. It makes you human. And anyone who doesn’t get that or who thinks badly of you for it probably isn’t someone you want to be around anyway.
  6. It’s ok to be vulnerable. Listen, I love my tough-as-nails work persona. She gets shit done. But – moment of total honesty – I’m starting to be seriously thankful for this anxiety. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to let my guard down and really connect with the dude. And really, that’s everything. He’s everything (ok not everything but he’s a pretty huge deal). Without anxiety I wouldn’t be as close to my sister, and I can’t even imagine not having the relationship that we have. Experiencing anxiety has allowed me to form deeper and more meaningful relationships with the people that I care about because I’ve had to be vulnerable in front of them. I’ve had to be scared and broken and bewildered and for once in my life, not make everything into a joke. Anxiety has forced me to take my relationships seriously, and it has been beyond worth it.
  7. Anxiety is your nemesis, but it’s also your superpower. I mean, think about it: all of the things that we think are negative about anxiety are positives when you reframe them. My incessant ruminating is, in another scenario, my ability to focus for long periods of time and to really think something through. My crying about little things that wouldn’t normally upset me is also my crying about the wonderful moments of little joy that fill my life. The racing heart and racing thoughts are my ability to think on my feet. My sensitivity to light, sound, and smell is my ability to sense danger, which is always handy in New York and which will be extra handy when I’m a parent.
  8. No one can tell you the right way to manage this. Sure, some ways are healthier, i.e. meditation vs heroin addiction, but ultimately, it’s about trusting yourself and figuring out what’s going to be best for you. (To be clear, I am NOT advocating heroin addiction, or any other addictive substance for that matter.) If meditation doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. If you’d rather exercise by taking a boxing class and kicking someone’s ass than running, do it. You are the one who has to live with you for the rest of your life, and you are the one who should be happy with the choices you make. I’m not telling you to casually disregard other people, I’m just saying that you are always going to be the one that makes the decision. No one else can do that for you, and trusting yourself is important.

I know that there’s probably more to say and there is definitely more to learn, but writing this list has really helped me to feel like I’m through the worst of it. And it’s helped me to see that, even if I find myself having a bad day or a bad couple of weeks, I can get through it, because I’ve done it before, and something good will come out of it. Even if it’s just sitting in front of Gilmore Girls for two hours with a pint of ice cream.

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