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I live with chronic anxiety.
I’m intimately acquainted with sweaty palms, flushed skin, and the positioning of heart in throat. I’ve experienced panic attacks, a specific brand of torture, which feel roughly like suffocating, hyperventilating, and having a heart attack, simultaneously. As a child, I spent years in doctor’s offices, trying to demystify the habitual stomachaches, which were – it turns out – this. Anxiety.
I remember, vividly, the first time I took an “as-needed” anti-anxiety med, the feeling of my muscles finally, truly relaxing. I remember thinking, “Oh. Is this what it feels like – to be… calm?”
• My Anxious Mind: A Teen's Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic by Michael A. Tompkins
• The Anxiety Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Anxiety and Worry by Lisa M. Schab
• My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind by Scott Stossel
If, like many of our users struggling with anxiety, you find sexual activity triggers your anxiety, do yourself a big favor: take any sex triggering you off the table right now, and keep it off the table until you first start getting some qualified help for your anxiety and make some progress learning to manage it. A qualified healthcare provider can help you learn to cope and figure out when you're at a point where sex can be a good thing for you instead of something which leaves you in a panic.
This is what anxiety has looked like in my life. For others who struggle, with or without a diagnosis, it may look otherwise.
The common ground is this: the anxiety dictates life.
As a teenager, I didn’t (just) feel anxious because I had a test, a new acting role, or a job interview. I felt anxious because I was awake. I quit driver’s ed because I couldn’t stop panicking and disassociating behind the wheel. Then I quit classes altogether, earning my diploma as a homebound student. I rarely left home alone. Then I rarely left home, period. I felt anxious when the phone rang, when someone suggested going outside, when I remembered the different, deeper life I wanted to live. I couldn’t order food, purchase necessities, sleep. I desperately wanted friends, hobbies, schooling. I also desperately wanted to hide under the mattress of my bed, to barricade myself under the weight of it, and never again have to hold a conversation.
This, I’m guessing, does not sound like an experience worth clinging to. Overall, anxiety is one of the most hellish things I experience as a human. It’s also one that I’ve fought, tooth and nail, against learning to manage.
The very nature of anxiety makes seeking treatment difficult. If I live in mortal fear of picking up the telephone, leaving my apartment, or speaking with other humans, making an appointment with a therapist is (understandably) going to feel at least three circles of hell past “impossible.” If any small symptom sends me spiraling into racing thoughts, hypochondria, and worst-case scenarios, I am – let’s be honest – probably going to just avoid medical care completely. And when I make that decision – to avoid those things my anxiety tells me are terrifying—my anxiety grows. It grows because it feeds on avoidance. It feeds on my lack of experience, my inability to tell it, “no, actually, I did this; now it’s over, and I didn’t die.”
This is how anxiety self-perpetuates.
When I avoid anxiety-provoking situations, my anxiety says, “See? This really is dangerous. That’s why you’re so terrified.” I believe it. I grow more anxious. And before long, my life has devolved into hours of syndicated 90s television and record numbers of attempted naps per day.
Anxiety has phenomenal skill for this, for twisting logic to its purposes. When I can’t quit repeating my inner to-do list long enough to risk sleep, anxiety tells me it’s for a reason, as if that exhausting mental repetition prepares me to function better than rest. When a friend or therapist notes that my shoulders have swallowed my neck – or that the energy from my shaking leg could power a small generator – anxiety smiles a bit condescendingly and says, yes but. Yes, but I can’t stop. I can’t try to still my body, to focus on my breath (which, funny story, makes me anxious) or to slowly try and release a small bit of this tension. I can’t. Because I’m terrified. And if I’m terrified, there’s a reason I’m terrified, and that reason is that I’m under threat. So, clearly, I need to prepare to run, perform, or hide at a moment’s notice. I need to practice what my pal Mad-Eye Moody calls “constant vigilance.” Sure, anxiety is probably destroying me. But I feel like I need it. Because when it's really got me, I actually believe that it’s keeping me safe.
There’s an old Sesame Street sketch where Bert discovers Ernie with a banana in his ear, and asks him what on earth he’s doing. Ernie eventually reveals that he uses the banana to keep the alligators at bay, and when a flustered Bert cries, “Ernie, there are no alligators on Sesame Street!” Ernie immediately responds, “It’s doing a good job, isn’t it?”
This is the rub -- and the lie -- of anxiety.
The same disorder that makes me feel so incredibly insecure, so tense and vulnerable and outright petrified, also convinces me, on some level, that it’s protecting me from harm. The same disorder that terrorizes me persuades me to keep it active, as a security system, even though it is anything but.
Mental illness can be one savvy beast, f’real.
A lot of the work I’ve done, in therapy and elsewhere, to better manage this disorder has been about learning to identify when my anxiety is manipulating me, when it’s hijacked my ability to reason for its own nefarious purposes. It’s also been about learning to resist those arguments.
This is crucial because – for smart folks, who likes to spend time reading and learning (on Scarleteen or elsewhere) – problems like anxiety have added weapons.
They can use all of our intellect and all the information we’ve gathered to make us a lot less healthy and a lot less safe. And they will. Until we learn to resist them. The good news is, as we begin that process, we have those same weapons –our intellect, our ability to reason, our cache of facts – to aid in the counterattack.
Granted, that is no small fight. I spent a lot of my life resisting help – even when I wanted help – because I was terrified of what it would mean: the people I would have to confide in, the phobias I would have to face, the possibility that I wasn’t really sick or wasn’t really curable.
I’ve since spent even longer unlearning my anxious habits. Over the years, I’ve gotten adept at identifying my common triggers and go-to freakouts. I’ve gained serious experience stepping back from the stories I spin about what’s happening, what’s at stake, and what I must do to stay safe. I’ve learned how to intervene on my own behalf, when my body gets tense and my head gets spinny. I have an entire tool-belt of new practices, which range from mindfulness and meditation, to systematic desensitization and cognitive-behavioral techniques, to calling friends. I’ve learned ways to relax my muscles when they enter panicked ninja mode and found my most effective methods for distraction, when my best option – in a given moment – is simply to wait it all out. I’m getting better, in other words, at distinguishing genuine methods for keeping myself safe and sane from methods that are, essentially, bananas. (B-A-N-A-N-A-S.)
Over the years, I’ve learned how to leave my home, order food, buy groceries, have friends, hold jobs, and even speak in public.
But from the inside, it’s not always as clear-cut a before-and-after story. As the person who lives in my body and cohabitates with my brain, I can tell you: the anxiety is still there. I still have this disorder, but my experience of it has changed drastically since I risked learning to manage it. For me, managing anxiety is a continual – but seriously, and very positively, life-altering – practice.
I believe that’s possible, for all of us.
It’s differently possible – based on the resources we can access, for instance, in terms of treatment and support—but it is possible. It becomes possible when we risk setting aside the notion that our anxiety keeps us safe and begin to recognize that, mainly, what our anxiety does is fuel more of itself. The progress that comes next does not come easily. But living this way isn’t easy either. And ultimately, the effort it takes to manage this illness is a whole lot more worthwhile than the effort it takes to live on its terms.