My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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60 thoughts on “My Battles with Anxiety

  1. I think this was really brave of you to post. Good, good luck for the future, I hope your courage and life can grow together again soon :)Thank you for sharing so honestly,

  2. That sounds so much like me. I am unable to drive on highways currently due to my anxiety. It is a constant battle that I often feel I am losing. I work at home and so I find it hard to go out into the world sometimes.

    • Oh gosh, we do sound similar. Are you able to talk to anyone about it? As unappealing as it sounds, my therapist is going to start me on a desensitizing plan where I have to gradually drive more and more. I can drive on familiar roads but the highway is out of the question, maybe in large part due to an accident we were in when we first moved here.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Wow. It sounds like if you hadn’t gone to a therapist you might eventually have become one of those people who can’t leave the house. I’m glad you are doing so much better. I think if you were brave enough to move to a new country by yourself, you are brave enough to do anything.

  4. I love this so very much (and also Alexandra of Good Day Regular People for sending me to you this morning). I understand, and yes–it is comforting and somewhat cathartic to know that we are not ever alone (though I so very much wish there was a different commonality). 🙂

    Admitting these feelings and fears is really a huge and very important step. That Anais Nin quote sums it up perfectly. I read somewhere that we have to make friends with the things that fear us. That to me was always so terrifying–I wanted no affiliation with them whatsoever. But the more I sit and rest with that which makes me scared, the less I feel that initial “fight or flight.”

    Every day gets better 🙂 Thank you so much for your courage and honesty today. This one hit home. XOXO

    • Thank you so much, Charlotte – it means a lot to know that you can relate, though I’m sorry we aren’t relating on a more positive topic! I agree with you that the idea of being “friends” with the very things that terrify us is totally unappealing. My therapist asked me if I wanted to be able to drive. What could I answer? Of course I do. But I just can’t imagine how torturous it will be to get to that point.

      I hope things get better for you too. Thanks so much for reading and for writing! 🙂

  5. This is fantastic, and I needed to hear about this. You are brave, but this sort of speaking out is exactly what those of us who aren’t brave need to hear. I’ve been contemplating going to counseling again. I’ve been twice, and I think next time things are overwhelming me and I shrug it off, I will think twice and look for healthier ways of addressing my anxiety. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad, Emily, and I’m glad that you will consider counseling the next time you feel overwhelmed. My biggest regret is that I refused to seek counseling during my first bout of depression in college. And thank you for being so supportive of my post – I appreciate that more than you know.

  6. Oh Cecilia, thank you so much for sharing this. I think so many of us have struggled with anxiety. I love this: “By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.” I’m so happy that you’re on your way to healing. I’ve had periods of severe anxiety. One thing I’m doing now that I really love (and can’t believe I love) is meditation. Check this out if you’re interested. They have a free ten-day trial. I’m learning to feel what I’m feeling, notice it, rather than masking it. http://www.getsomeheadspace.com

    xoxo
    Kate

    • Wow, Kate, I would *never* have guessed it. One of the reasons I was prompted to write about this was because more than one person has surprised me by her admission of having suffered from anxiety/depression. I am so sorry to hear that you’ve gone through periods of difficult anxiety. I LOVE meditation although I am only doing it very casually and probably the “wrong” way (I always end up falling asleep ;-)). I will definitely check out this link. Thank you so much, and thank you so much for writing. I always love hearing from you. xo

  7. You are brave and strong – anxiety, depression, etc. is still not openly talked about and like you telling people you go to a therapist even tougher to put out there. I am feeling really good in busting that door wide open a few years back and love that I am discovering my strong again, especially the confidence, belief and trust that I have in myself. Wishing You the BEST – Keep Going:)

  8. I admire your courage to share your struggles with us. We are all here for you. You are a beautiful person and deserve the peace and comfort you are seeking. I wish you all the best!

  9. Cecilia, I’ve debated on revealing my own struggles regarding anxiety. It’s somewhat of a taboo subject even though millions and millions people suffer from it. I know for me, my cultural context, inhibits my openness about it. I suspect, you too, faced the same challenges when you hit publish. This post is brave. I hope you know that. And your words are a gift to others: You’ve made us feel less alone. xoxo

    • Yes, Rudri, I think you know me well. I think I’ve gotten to the point where I’m going to write what I’m going to write, but in the back of my mind is that ever present voice from my family and even friends saying, “Why are you writing this? Have you no shame?” My writing/posting about this goes against what I’ve been taught to do.

      But I think it’s important to just do what is comfortable for you, and despite what you wrote in your comment, I feel that you’ve shared generously (and I mean that in the best way) and honestly about your feelings and worries. I’ve often found comfort in your words and it is that honesty that draws me to your blog.

  10. So many people have anxiety in so many different ways that it surprises me that it is still so hard to acknowledge and talk about openly. But it is. My husband has been struggling with it for years, but didn’t want to admit that he was. He feels so much better now. For 15 years now, I have had Panic Disorder, which is a bit different from general anxiety. I have panic attacks in specific situations (for me, social situations). For the most part I am able to keep it under control, but sometimes it interferes with my life and the things I want to do. Like the driving. For me, it bothers me most when it involves my children. When my children started being involved in school concerts and dance recitals, it was a big adjustment for me to have to go to them. And, of course I had to. There was no option. At first it was really hard, but now I am so used to it that it is much easier. I guess I made myself do what your therapist is suggesting for your driving. I’m only just now realizing how far I’ve come in the last 8 years (when my youngest was born). I think, when my kids were little I used them as my excuse to stay home, without even realizing it sometimes. As they grew, I had to make myself do more. I guess I am proof that it can be done! Not always comfortably or completely, but better. Baby steps. And, I am still definitely an introvert, which I’m happy to be. 🙂 And, I am happy that you are on your way to feeling better! Good luck! You are very obviously not alone!

    • Wow, Naomi, I had no idea, and I appreciate so much that you’ve shared all this with me. I’m so sorry to hear about the panic disorder which must have been incredibly frightening. I’m familiar with it because my father has experienced it and once described it as feeling as though he was literally going to die. I’ve had a milder experience in the form of several isolated panic attacks. I really sympathize with the fact that you went through all this while raising three children. You’re right that it’s baby steps we need and the desensitization is the only (?) thing that’s supposed to work. I am inspired by your story, Naomi, and I admire you for having overcome your panic and anxiety bit by bit over the years. I’m also glad to hear that your husband is doing a lot better now. Thanks so much for sharing. xo

      • One thing I read about Panic Disorder that I have remembered, is that the more people you tell about it, the easier it will get. If you are trying to keep it a secret, it tends to increase your panic. So, now I will be completely cured (and maybe you, too!), because we have shared it on the internet. 🙂

        One thing I always wonder about is why do so many people suffer from anxiety? Probably more people than not. Has it always been the case, or is it more so in the last few decades? Does it have to do with the way we live- more isolated from nature and from each other than ever before? Or is it something else?

        • Naomi, have you heard of this book? I think it came out a few months ago.
          http://www.npr.org/2014/01/06/260152542/fear-of-fainting-flight-and-cheese-one-mans-age-of-anxiety

          It’s written by the editor of The Atlantic and he reveals his lifelong ordeal with anxiety, and yet he’s been so successful. No one would have guessed.

          Good question about why so many suffer from anxiety. I imagine it is a combination of the number of demands, our lack of support systems, the constant pressures to perform and to achieve a certain standard, and where we live. My husband and I now live in a very quiet town and are surrounded by trees. It makes a huge difference (though I cannot explain my anxieties then ;-)…I think this is more the aftermath of what I went through living in Tokyo prior to this and my system is now struggling to find its equilibrium.)

          I really like the idea that anxiety eases when you don’t try to hold it in. I was actually thinking about something related for my next topic! I keep feeling amazed by the people who reveal their own anxieties and depression. Honestly I would never have guessed. I really do wonder how successful people manage to cope with something so difficult.

          • Even though I know there are many people out there who suffer from various forms of anxiety, I am still amazed by all these stories and that it goes on and on.

            Thanks for the link – I have not heard of this book, but after reading the article, it sounds like this man has a talent for describing his (and others’) fears so perfectly. This kind of book is also good for non-sufferers to read, so they can better understand the nature of anxiety. It’s hard to convey to someone who has never experienced it.

  11. I am so stunned that you suffer from anxiety. You are a very complex person – not meant in a bad way at all – who can be, or seem to be, things from each end of the spectrum. I mean I couldn’t even contemplate addressing 200 people.

    Anxiety is a complex thing too and you have done well to describe it and open my eyes to what it feels like.

    • Thank you, Denise, and it’s interesting to hear that you’re surprised. I take that as a compliment. I may write about this in a future post, but one of the things that has surprised me is the people who tell me they have suffered from depression and/or anxiety…just people I never would have guessed because they seem active or confident or successful or happy or laid back, etc. I’m kind of amazed at how these issues can be so universal almost.

      Thanks for writing, Denise!

  12. I am so in awe of your honesty and courage, and thank you for writing about real issues. It sounds like your therapist was able to help lighten the load a bit, and I hope you get the comfort and stability you strive for. Btw, I have SO much anxiety when I drive. Sometimes, I can’t shake the feeling of dread and tension in my body for a good hour after getting out of the car. I really thought it was just a weird quirk I had, but it sounds like you suffer from a similar problem. As for my other anxieties, I’ve been dealing with it by making lots and lots of lists. It helps to feel in control of even the little things, like folding laundry. I should probably go see a therapist one of these days rather than just bake and make lists. Big hugs, Cecilia!

    • Hi Ngan, thanks so much for your encouraging and kind words here. And thanks so much for sharing about your driving anxieties. I had no idea! It’s weird how I just assume that anyone living in California would have no problems with driving (!). You probably have good reason too, especially depending on where in CA you are. I was just in Boston and the drivers there are INSANE. My brother says that driving there is like playing a video game – you never know when someone is going to dart in front of your car from behind a double parked car, etc. Anyway, it sounds like you have found a way to help manage your anxiety. The baking is great, I think – anything that brings pleasure and good smells and feelings – and the lists probably help a lot with staying organized too!

      • When I lived in Boston and had to rent a car to get furniture, I almost had a heart attack with the crazy driving there! I never say never, but never driving again in Boston proper is on my don’t do list. San Francisco drivers are almost as bad. It’s really the tight streets and one way streets that cause me so much anxiety. Let’s just forget about LA altogether; I can’t drive there, period. I’m working on being a more comfortable driver though. It’s the freedom of going places that makes me try to overcome this anxiety. I like your brother’s analogy!

        • I didn’t realize you had lived in Boston! Smart move, to put it on your “don’t do” list 🙂 I was actually wondering if you lived in LA because I have heard of the driving and traffic there. My therapist asked me if I wanted to drive more, and I realized I had to answer yes, or otherwise my life is closed forever. I actually drove part of the way home from Virginia (I’m in NC) over the weekend! It was a back road but I guess I have to start somewhere. 😉

  13. Cecilia, you’re the best — I’m so proud of you for being so brave! Like Naomi, I have panic disorder, and I have social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder too (oh, and selective mutism. Fun). I don’t drive at all — never had a license, I’m petrified of doctors and hospitals (inconvenient, since I have a chronic physical disease too), and speaking in front of classmates made me ill. I’m not exactly a success story, but life did get easier when I just explained to other people what was going on. People are, in my experience, very sympathetic and quick to help when they can. And talking to a professional is great! A big step — I hope you’ll be feeling better speedily.

    • Isn’t it amazing to hear all these stories? Thanks for sharing yours, too. It is so true about feeling better after telling people about it. It was hard for me to do, at first, especially to my family, because I knew they’d be very surprised. I’ve always been a healthy, happy, easy-going person and no one else in my family had ever experienced a panic attack. But the more I told people, the easier it became, and the better I felt about it. I hope you also continue to feel better!

      • It really does blow my mind, Naomi. I guess we all have this image that successful and happy people don’t suffer or don’t have problems somehow. I’d kept my depression to myself throughout college and that has been my big regret. I definitely prefer to err on the side of being too honest now, but it’s true that people, in general, are sympathetic and want to help in some way.

    • Thanks so much for everything that you wrote here, Carolyn. You really were the inspiration for me to even admit that I have this issue. I hadn’t the faintest idea that you were going through or had gone through all of this. I know you have taught, and you were so articulate and friendly during the Literary Wives call that I never would have guessed any of it. Someday I really would love to hear more about how you dealt with it all and succeeded. Cheers!

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  15. Thanks so much for writing this post! I have felt the same way, especially with the inner anxiety and the outward need to control your environment. My mother always said that if anxiety or stress can’t make itself known in one way (we push it away, we stuff it down, we ignore it) it will pop up whack-a-mole style in another place. Like our bodies. Or our willingness to drive, or make eye contact, or eat well. I’ve found this to be true over and over again. I’m glad that tackling some of the inner issues is helping you to let go of some of the outer ones as well. It’s a really important thing to talk about!

    • Thanks so much, Emma! I’m happy to know that you relate but sorry that you, too, have experienced the same. Your mother is right. Every time I wonder about how others aren’t “anxious” I have to realize that their anxieties may just be manifesting themselves differently – unhealthy defense mechanisms, bad habits, etc. I hope that you are doing okay!

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

  16. “What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving?”

    I agree with the overwhelming sentiment of these comments–it was brave of you to publish this post. Not just because you opened up to a significant portion of the Internet, but mostly because of your ability, and willingness, to admit this to yourself, which I think is the much more difficult battle in many ways.

    I pulled out the quote above because I don’t think you should underestimate how important just getting through day-to-day life is. I often fell back on this when I was so terribly stressed out in college that I couldn’t fall asleep at night. I reminded myself that I could wake up in the morning, get dressed, get to my classes, and take a stab at the overwhelming amount of work I had to do. And simply by accomplishing those things, I was being successful. Maybe not the degree of success that some people crave, but you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it. I hope that was helpful, and again, I admire you for posting about this. A big hug X

    • I love your words and wisdom here, Alina, and especially this: “Maybe not the degree of success that some people crave, but you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.”

      That’s such a wonderful way to look at our day-to-day efforts, as small incremental successes. I actually drove from our state line back home (almost all the way home) over the weekend, but I was able to talk myself out of feeling proud about it. But it’s baby steps (there’s a quote about it, right? something about a journey starting with one step or something like that). This is great, Alina, I love it.

  17. This is a wonderful post, thank you for your bravery and the openness of your writing. You seem like a very strong woman. I have suffered from panic attacks and severe anxiety since the birth of my twins (my mother died the year before I conceived and my father when I was 3 months pregnant) and it took a long time before I realised that I needed to get help. we do so try to struggle along, keep up the strong front. I’m coming through it now, but it is a very diffuicult thing to live with, a very difficult to explain to others.

    • Wow, Cathy, I’m so sorry to hear about losing your parents at the same time that you had your children. These traumas can rattle and unnerve us for years and years. I agree that it’s hard to explain to others…they either know what you’re going through because they’ve experienced it too, or they cannot picture it. At the same time, I too cannot imagine how one can experience something seemingly stressful without feeling the anxiety. Wishing you all the best, Cathy…

  18. Hello there. I am really grateful to my friend DA for having mentioned you and for me to find your blog for this particular post. Not to mention the wonderful, thoughtful responses of your readers! And yes, I agree entirely on your true bravery to have done this. I live in France and depression and anxiety are absolutely taboo subjects – this despite the fact that one in five adults take medication to treat either of these illnesses. What a difference after having lived in NYC where going to see a therapist and getting into treatment was considered a badge of wisdom in its own way.

    While I do not write about it directly on my blog, I have struggled with depression and anxiety (which developed from a severe and recurring case of insomnia) for much of my adult life. I treat it and live with it as best as I can – but I try to not let it define me, which I feel is a trap that can be easy to fall into. In your clear as a bell writing, it would seem to me that you are really aware of where you are and how wonderful that you have the means to keep working through it and moving forward. I am sending you thoughts of Strength and Well-being from Provence,
    Heather

    PS. If you have never read or listened to the writing of Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, it might be worth a look for you as she has been particularly helpful.

    • Heather, I appreciate so much your soothing, kind, and encouraging words here. I’m very sorry to hear that you have been living with depression and anxiety as well. And thank you for mentioning the cultural piece. I also come from a culture (Chinese) in which mental illness or mental anything is taboo. I had not realized that it is the same way in France. I imagine that maybe this is the case in most countries though. You are right about NY and the therapy culture! 😉

      It sounds like you are doing great. My therapist recommended a book that advocates learning to live with one’s reality but to move on despite it, and to not allow oneself to be defined by it. It sounds like you are already there. It’s very healthy. http://www.amazon.com/Get-Your-Mind-Into-Life/dp/1572244259

      And thanks so much for the recommendation of Pema Chodron’s work! I don’t know much about Buddhism but I’m quite intrigued actually. I will definitely look her up!

      Thanks so much for stopping by, Heather!

  19. I just started following your blog after seeing your wonderful post about bookstores in Boston, and then I saw this, and it’s something that I might have written at anytime in the past ten years. Thanks so much for having the courage to share this. It’s always so mind-boggling to see how many people suffer from anxiety, because all of us have learned not to talk about it. I’m so happy to hear that you’re doing well, and again, thank you for writing this. I love that quote by Anias Nin, too — how true is that? 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment and follow! I know it’s weird to say that I’m happy that you can relate to this anxiety issue, but I think you know what I mean. It’s been comforting to hear from different readers about their own experiences. I’m sorry that you’ve gone through this too but I hope you’ve been able to find good ways to cope. Yes – the Anais Nin quote is just perfect! And it came to me at just the right time. 🙂

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  21. Oh, yes, my friend, a lifetime of anxiety and depression, and pain and disappointment and isolation. It is a wonder we do what we are able to do! And knowing this about ourselves, and how we still DO, makes me feel proud. It’s not so easy, is it… people should try being me for a day… LOVELY post. And thank you.. for reminding me, how incredible I really am. Also, loving this until the day I die: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” You have made my year with this.

  22. How brave of you to write this, to see a therapist, to share this with the world. I, too, have major struggles with anxiety. Like you, I always have. I think seeing a therapist has helped and was really, without me saying it online, the reason why I decide to commit to courage this year. My life was getting smaller and smaller. I was unhappy, yet, I could not figure out why. My marriage was suffering, my relationships with friends were suffering, my children were suffering. So, I got help (and am getting help) and my life seems brighter. Cheers to you and your courage!

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