Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can’t Be Answered With Just a Google Search

 

Nagging Questions About Anxiety & Depression That Can't Be Answered With Just a Google Search | Is my anxiety a #firstworldproblem? Have I "suffered enough" to be depressed? What if my anxiety actually drives me to perform better at work or school? Thoughts on these tough questions + more in today's post!

In the year or so since my diagnosis with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I’ve had a lot of questions.

What exactly is GAD?

What causes it?

How common is it?

What are the best strategies for managing it? 

And in this Information Age, a simple Google search or a “Hey, Siri” can go a long way in shedding light on these types of data-driven inquiries. However, the experience of mental illness also raises many questions that are far too delicate, complex, and individualized for this method of answer seeking– questions that can’t be sufficiently addressed by examining “just the facts, m’am.” These are questions that require us to draw upon additional sources of knowledge, including personal and collective experience and intuition, to formulate an adequate response– and questions to which an “adequate response” may look a bit different for each of us and may shift over the course of a lifetime. These are the questions that come to mind again and again and tug on our psyches until we finally decide to face them.

Today I’d like to share three such “nagging questions” about anxiety and depression that have posed a particular challenge for me in my mental health journey. I’ll also discuss some of my thoughts related to each one in hopes of sparking an open, honest, and productive dialogue. I’d love to know if any of you have had these same questions, and if so, what insights you can offer. I’d also love to hear what other “nagging questions” you’ve faced in your life, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a mental illness. 

So let’s get this soul-searching party started.

1. Do I “deserve” to feel this way?

As most of us are acutely aware, our world is brimming with pain and suffering. Far too many of our fellow humans experience hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, debilitating illness, persecution, and other direct threats to their wellbeing on a daily basis–and in comparison, my worries seem pretty darn petty and meaningless and my “struggles” practically scream ease and privilege. What do I really have to be anxious about? Have I really suffered enough to warrant depression? Do I “deserve” to feel the way I do? Shouldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?

This is a difficult thing to explore from the inside without spiraling into guilt, shame– and as a result, further anxiety and depression–so I find it helpful to step outside my own experience and think about what I would tell a loved one if he or she came to me with these same questions.

I would first clarify that no one chooses whether or not to experience a mental illness. These conditions arise out of complex gene-environment interactions, not because people wake up one day and decide they want attention or special concessions. Some people do, in fact, behave in certain ways because they want attention or special concessions, but this is not mental illness.

Secondly, when we look at issues like poverty, we have to remember that just as mental illness isn’t directly caused by a lack of material goods, it isn’t prevented or cured by simply acquiring more of them. There are plenty of people who “have it all” and still suffer from anxiety and/or depression, as well as plenty of people who own very little and do not.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue isn’t whether someone “deserves” to be anxious or depressed, whether he or she has “suffered” enough to warrant these experiences. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of guilt- and shame- inducing questions don’t serve to alleviate the anxiety and depression– in fact, they’ll likely make it worse, and no one benefits from that. On the other hand, owning and accepting one’s experience and taking the actions one can to manage symptoms and strive to lead a healthy and productive life is a far better response. The more we take care of ourselves, the more we’ll be able to give of ourselves to others and contribute to the betterment of the world–and everyone benefits from that.

2. What if my anxiety drives my success?

As someone who has undoubtedly experienced anxiety for most of her life (long before any official diagnosis was made), I can look back and see a lot of worry and stress–and also a considerable amount of “success” in terms of good grades, leadership roles in extracurriculars, etc. Which leads me to wonder, what if my anxiety was actually a key factor contributing to these achievements? What if being tightly wound drives me to perform better? What if I start taking steps to reduce my anxiety and find that I’m no longer “successful”?

Thankfully, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causality. (In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good chuckle, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations. Good news for Nicolas Cage fans and cheese lovers alike!) So just because I’ve experienced anxiety and success at the same time does not mean that anxiety directly causes success.  In fact, research supports what most of us already know from experience– that a moderate level of psychological arousal contributes to the best performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be motivated to do your best–but being totally freaked out will send you into overdrive and inhibit peak performance. 

It’s also important to examine how we’re defining success here. I mentioned things like grades in school and achievements in extracurriculars, but what about the even more important things, like relationships, health, and spirituality? I would argue that my periods of highest anxiety have most definitely not correlated with my “best successes” in these arenas. Just ask my family, my doctor, or, well, God. 

And finally, even if I did somehow determine that my anxiety was an important driver of  success, the real question is, at what cost? Is getting good grades or a strong letter of recommendation or an award or a scholarship really worth the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social toll that anxiety takes on us? Is it worth the headaches, the stomach pains, and the heart palpitations? Is it worth the paralyzing fear and constant feelings of scarcity–that what we have isn’t enough, what we do isn’t enough, what we are isn’t enough? Is it worth the opportunities missed because we couldn’t pull ourselves together and the joy lost because we couldn’t get out of our own heads and just be in the moment?

Now, of course, my answer would be no, but I have the benefit of hindsight. If you would have posed these questions to my overachieving high school self who hadn’t yet experienced the worst that anxiety has to offer, I would have been like, “Yeah, but…SAT scores/college applications/MY FUTURE.” So I think it’s something I needed to learn the hard way, otherwise, I never would have believed it. 

3. How will I ever “repay” my loved ones?

As I mentioned to above, anxiety always comes at a cost. During my time in grad school, it definitely cost me my ability to fully show up in my relationships and be the daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, classmate, coworker, etc., that I wanted to be. I didn’t set out to become a selfish, angry, or distant person, of course, but I got so caught up in my own thoughts and problems and stresses that that’s essentially what I became. My tank was constantly empty, leaving me with nothing to give to anyone else.

Now that I’m in a much better place, I often wonder how I will ever “repay” these individuals for the love and grace they extended to me during this dark time in my life. I use quotation marks here because I know that strong and meaningful relationships are “give and take” and that my loved ones aren’t expecting to be showered with gifts and praise in exchange for their support. However, when you’ve just come off a long period of take, this question doesn’t feel unreasonable. Furthermore, despite the massive improvements I’ve experienced, I still have GAD, and it’s a lot like walking with a tiny pebble in my shoe–it’s always there, but there are days I don’t really notice it, days when it’s just a minor annoyance, and days when, seemingly out of nowhere, it lodges itself in just the right place and pain shoots through my entire body. And during those latter days, I can be pretty pathetic–like lying on the floor unable to move pathetic. Cancelled plans pathetic. Call my mom and cry pathetic. But now I’m honestly kind of hesitant to go to loved ones, because I feel like I’ve already used up all my “pathetic anxiety time” with them for now. To continue with the financial analogy, I made some major withdrawals from my relationships during my time in grad school, and I haven’t rebuilt my savings yet. 

I don’t really have a great response for this one, because I’m still struggling to figure it out for myself. My loved ones have assured me that they’re not keeping score, and I’m learning how to believe them. I’m also learning how to take care of myself so that I can show up for them–on a day to day basis as well as during those times when they’re in a low place and need that same kind of unconditional love they gave me. 

For those of you who struggle with anxiety and/or depression: Have you asked any of these same questions before? If so, what insights do you have to offer? What other questions tend to nag at you? 

For those of you who don’t necessarily struggle with these issues yourself: There’s a good chance that you know and love someone who does. What insights might you provide if they came to you with these questions?

Advertisements

Quick Life Update + Things to Read While I’m MIA

Hey hey! I know it’s been a little quiet over here on the blog lately, but I assure you that everything is okay. More than okay, actually, because I have some pretty exciting news…

Everybody, YA GIRL IS EMPLOYED!!!

That’s right, on January 2–just two days after I published my post about waiting periods of life and what I’ve learned during my five-month job search extravaganza–I was offered (and accepted) a full-time position with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission’s Community Partner Program in Houston. My first day will be tomorrow, January 18.

So as you can probably imagine, life has been an insane whirlwind of action items and a complete rollercoaster of emotions over the past 2 weeks. I have leased and furnished a one-bedroom apartment, set up insurance and utilities, acquired a business professional wardrobe, packed up all my things, driven across the country, and made approximately 482.5 trips to Target, Walmart, and IKEA. I’ve felt excited, scared, frustrated, energized, and exhausted. For every task I’ve checked off my to-do list, I’ve managed to add 3 more–contact this person, fax that form, buy this thing, sign that document.  And for every loved one I got to hug good-bye, there were many others whom I didn’t have the opportunity to see before I left Indiana. But despite the considerable amount of craziness and stress, I know I’m beginning a great adventure, and the best thing I can do is relax, enjoy the ride, and be extra kind to myself as I navigate the transition.

In that spirit, I’d like to let you all know what to expect here in the coming weeks/months.  I’d love to keep posting with some degree of regularity–after all, writing and connecting with readers is often what energizes me most when I’m overwhelmed. But since this blog is all about letting go of perfection and taking care of ourselves, I also want to give myself permission to not post if that is what works best during this time. If, instead of writing, I need to faceplant on my bed after an exhausting day of working or shopping or cleaning or unpacking or driving in circles because I don’t know where the heck anything is around here, then that’s what I’ll do.

So I thought I’d round up a few things for y’all to read in case I end up doing more faceplanting than blogging. If you missed any previous posts and are interested in learning more about my job search (and the many life lessons I learned along the way), here are all my posts on the topic:

  1. Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part I: The Best Question for Clarifying Your Career Goals
  2. Job Searching & Self-Discovery, Part II: Identifying the Strengths & Skills You Have to Offer
  3. Eat, Pray, Resume: Figuring Out Your Life + Career Ambitions (A guest post I wrote for the lovely blog Nina Kardia!)
  4. Preparing for Takeoff: Finding Peace + Making Progress When You’re In a Waiting Period of Life

I’ve also read some other stuff on the interwebs lately that I think you might enjoy:

Well, that’s all for now; I gotta get back to the grind. I’d love to hear your advice regarding starting a new job and/or moving across the country, so please feel free to share in the comments below! I need all the help I can get. 🙂

Preparing for Takeoff: Finding Peace + Making Progress When You’re In a Waiting Period of Life

Preparing for Takeoff: Finding Peace + Making Progress When You're in a Waiting Period of Life | Regardless of what you're waiting for, viewing life's "in-betweens" as opportunities for learning and growth can help you make the most of these trying times.

If you’ve ever flown on an airplane, then you’re familiar with taxiing–the part where your plane leaves the terminal and begins its slow crawl toward the runway for takeoff. The part where you pretend to listen as the flight attendants give their synchronized Vanna White-esque safety demonstrations, knowing full well that if a sudden loss of cabin pressure or an emergency water landing actually occurs, your plan is to panic and pray for a miracle. The part where you realize that you definitely should have used the bathroom prior to boarding, because now you have to wait until the plane reaches cruising altitude and the pilot turns off the “fasten seatbelt” sign. The part where you either awkwardly make small talk with the passengers around you or pretend to sleep in order to avoid such a horror. (Hey, no shame in my introvert game.)

Taxiing.

It’s a necessary part of flying, a crucial step in the journey from Point A to Point B, and yet it’s hardly the highlight. Compared to the rush of takeoff or the thrill of sailing through the clouds at hundreds of miles per hour, taxiing is pretty slow and boring. And if you’ve ever been on a plane that seemed to take quite a while to reach the runway, you know that people tend to get worried and impatient during this time. 

Recently, during one of my own air travel experiences, it occurred to me how much this current phase of my life feels like an in-between, like slow motion–like taxiingI have been staying with my parents since the lease on my grad school apartment ended in late July, an arrangement that was intended to be a short-term fix until I secured full-time employment. I didn’t even unpack most of my things; I simply piled the bags and boxes in a corner in the basement so I would be ready to move the moment I got that coveted offer letter. Yet here I am, five months later, still applying to jobs, still sleeping in their guest bedroom. Still taxiing. I know I’ll reach the runway at some point, but I don’t know precisely when, and so worry and impatience have begun to creep in.

The more I’ve thought about this taxiing metaphor, the more I’ve begun to wonder whether this period of my life might be about something more than just finding a job. Perhaps there are other preparations that need to be made, other lessons that need to be learned, in order for me to be truly ready for “takeoff”–i.e., moving across the country, launching my career, and generally becoming a Real Adult Who Pays for All the Things.

Of course, I can’t know for sure what God has in store, but after a lot of reflection and prayer, I can venture a few solid guesses as to what He might be trying to subtly (or not so subtly) teach me during this time.

piggy-bank-1446874_1920
I recently deposited my entire childhood state quarters collection into my savings account, so I’m fairly certain that financial planning isn’t one of His concerns. I’ve totally got this!

First and foremost, I think I’m getting a crash course in Chilling the Heck Out.

If you’ve read any other post on this blog, or talked to me in real life for more than 5 minutes, you know that I’m a planner, a list maker, Preparedness Girl! My Myers-Briggs personality type is INFJ, emphasis on the J. As 16personalities.com so aptly explains:

People with the Judging (J) trait do not like to keep their options open – they would rather come up with five different contingency plans than just go ahead and deal with the challenges as they come. They prefer clarity and closure, always going with the plan rather than the flow.

Like, guys, the above paragraph so perfectly sums up my life that it should probably be engraved on my tombstone someday. I hate not knowing what’s happening five minutes, five days, or five years from now, so I plan things in my head and on paper to ease the discomfort, to give me some sense–some illusion–of knowledge and control.

So all of this waiting and uncertainty? Excruciating–yet so incredibly important for someone as tightly wound as me. I need to learn to find peace even in the face of unpredictability. I need to learn to be okay with answering “I don’t know yet” when people ask about my future plans. I need to learn to say, “Okay, God, you’re the pilot. Help me to be a faithful passenger.” Over and over and over and over.

I’d also venture a guess that I’ve been inadvertently enrolled in a second class: Introduction to Self-Worth. Because until recently, I had no idea just how much I tend to base my self-worth on my accomplishments, particularly those in the academic realm.

I’ve been a student for over 75% of my life, and almost 100% of the years I can actually remember. So in conjunction with my natural people-pleasing, over-achiever tendencies, I’ve simply become accustomed to using my performance in school as a proxy for my success in life. And to make matters worse, somewhere along the way, the line between “success in life” and “worth as a human being” got extremely blurry, until the two concepts merged into one. So if Good Grades = Success in Life and Success in Life = Worthy Human Being, then by the transitive property of equality, Good Grades = Worthy Human Being.  Math, yo. 

If I had gotten a job right after graduation and dived straight into the working world, I may have never questioned this flawed line of thinking. I may have simply swapped teachers for supervisors and grades for performance reviews and went on my merry way. But in this post-grad, pre-employment waiting game, no one else is setting the standards for what my life should look like. No one else is telling me to jump so that I can ask, “How high?” APPARENTLY THERE’S NO SYLLABUS OR REPORT CARD FOR LIFE, GUYS. HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO GO FROM HERE?

Although I still haven’t figured out the answer to this, the mere realization has been a huge wake-up call. If I were to write one of those cliche letters to my younger self, I would totally include this nugget of wisdom.

writing-923882_1920
“Dear Little Paige, Don’t wear choker necklaces with t-shirts, don’t waste so much of your time pining after boys who don’t know you exist, and oh yeah, don’t base your self-worth on your grades. Love, Big Paige.”

And finally, I think God has thrown in a little bit of recess to balance out the difficult coursework. Because this waiting period, viewed through a different lens, has also been a rare and beautiful gift of extra time. And in these past months, I’ve done my best to make the most of this offering. I’ve used it to read, write, and rest. To learn new skills and reconnect with family and friends. To do yoga to my heart’s content and take long walks around my parents’ neighborhood. To fly across the country and drive all over the state–as well as enjoy entire days of not leaving the house. To take care of myself, physically and mentally. To remember what it’s like to feel alive, and to remember all the wonderful things I have to live for–things that anxiety and depression wanted so desperately for me to forget.

So if you, too, feel like you’re in a waiting period, I encourage you to stay strong, dear reader. I know it’s hard. I also encourage you to look for ways–big or small–in which you’ve actually moved forward during this time. You might find that your world hasn’t been standing so still after all.

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World

A Playlist for Connection: Songs for Healing & Harmony in a Broken World | In times of pain and division, we need real, authentic connection more than ever. Here are some of my favorite songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

I really, really didn’t want to write about the election, or about politics in general.

I felt that I couldn’t possibly say anything that hadn’t already been said–or take any stance without my position being misconstrued.

And since my blog isn’t about politics, I reasoned that it was acceptable, even advisable, for me to avoid the topic.

But then I found myself totally overwhelmed with pain, frustration, and hopelessness regarding the current state of our nation and world. It seemed that I was witnessing more nastiness and division–both online and in real life–than I remembered observing at any other point in my life. In so many other upsetting and uncertain circumstances, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, I had seen people rise to the occasion and come together–but this time, it seemed that our differences were only driving us further and further apart.

So I did what I so often do in these situations: I made a playlist.

It’s such a simple thing, maybe even a silly thing, but throughout my life, music has truly been there to help me muddle through my lowest lows, celebrate my highest highs, and live out every experience in between. I’m always searching for the perfect soundtrack to match every mood and moment, from driving around town to drinking coffee to decorating the Christmas tree, and this time was no different. So I compiled a list of songs that just seemed to resonate with me in these post-election weeks, that seemed to say what I’ve been struggling to put into words. Then I tried to figure out what they all had in common. And then it hit me.

In one way or another, all of the songs were about connection.

About supporting and sacrificing for one another.

About walking a mile in another’s shoes.

About turning enemies into friends. 

About persevering together in the face of pain, disappointment, and uncertainty. 

About our common tendency to pretend that everything’s okay when it’s not. 

About how love has always been–and always will be–the antidote to fear. 

About the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

And this common theme made so much sense, because based on my observations over the past few weeks, I believe that what we need the most right now is real, authentic connection–the kind that demands honesty, bravery, and vulnerability. The kind of connection that requires us to listen intently to others, even if we don’t understand–even if we can’t imagine ever understanding–their views. The kind of connection that challenges us to share our own stories and beliefs with charity and humility, free from any air of snark or superiority. The kind of connection that absolutely hinges on the fact that every individual–whether loved one, stranger, or reviled politician–is a human being with worries, dreams, strengths, flaws, and–no matter how unlikely it may seem–the potential for good.  

So I  wanted to share this playlist with all of you, because although this blog isn’t about politics, in so many ways, it is about connection. It’s about letting people into the messiness of our lives, balancing virtual and real-life interactions, practicing self-care so we can better serve those around us, and being open with our struggles and encouraging others to do the same. And such connection is especially important as we approach the holidays, which, for many of us, means spending time with family members and friends with whom we strongly disagree on a variety of issues.

I had hoped to write this post without any disclaimers, but given the sensitivity of the topic and the fact that some of you may not know me in real life (and therefore may not read my true intentions as readily), I want to make this very clear: I’m in no way trying to minimize the suffering or fear of any individual or group. I’m not implying that we can just bake a cake made out of rainbows and smiles and suddenly get along. What I am saying is that I know we can do better. We have to do better. It’s a broken world out there, so let us each do our part to heal and be healed.

Spotify users: If you’re currently logged into your account, you can click on any track below and start listening right away. If you’re not logged in, clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to do so. 

Non-Spotify users: Clicking on the playlist below will prompt you to sign up for Spotify. If you’ve never tried it, it’s a pretty amazing digital music service that I use practically everyday, so I highly recommend it! (I’m not receiving any sort of compensation for this endorsement; I’m just a huge fan!) But if you prefer to get your tunes another way, I’ve also created a graphic displaying all of the track and artist names. 

Songs for cultivating relationships and interactions based on honesty, charity, and humility--and for remembering the brokenness and fragility that unites us all.

 

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses

What It Means to Be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) + How to Use Labels as Tools, Not Excuses | I recently discovered that many of the sensory and emotional experiences I've had throughout my life are indicative of a trait known as high sensitivity. Understanding what it means to be a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has helped me to better understand myself, but I also recognize the potential for danger if I use this label--or any other label--as an excuse for avoidance and complacency.

Recently I was trying to explain to my boyfriend why I have such a strong aversion to violence and gore in TV shows and movies.

It’s not that I’m some delicate flower who can’t face the harsh realities of the world, I tried to say. It’s that I literally feel these things. When I see someone get shot or stabbed, I experience physical pain. When I see blood, even fake blood, I feel like I’m bleeding.

As I said these words, I felt frustrated, partly because I wasn’t sure whether I was making any sense, and partly because I wondered whether I really was a delicate flower and just didn’t want to admit it.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that my unusual sensitivity extends far beyond on-screen violence. In real life, if someone is in physical pain–whether from a gaping wound or a simple sore throat–I feel it. Heck, if someone is in emotional pain, I feel that, too, even if they’re trying their best to disguise it. I soak up the vibes of those around me like a sponge.

Well, folks, it turns out that there’s a psychological term for this stuff. I’m currently reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, in which author Susan Cain discusses scientific, historical, and sociological perspectives on introversion and provides advice on how introverts can leverage their unique strengths. I just finished a particularly interesting chapter pertaining to a personality trait that is often associated with introversion: high sensitivity.

When I first heard this term, I kind of brushed it off, probably because I envisioned a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) as someone who loves babies and puppies and cries every time he or she watches The Notebook. But according to Dr. Elaine Aron, a California-based psychotherapist and leading researcher in high sensitivity, Sensory-Processing Sensitivity (SPS) affects 15-20% of the population (including some extroverts) and has as much to do with responsiveness to physical stimuli as to emotional stimuli. And the more I learned about the trait, the more I thought, Oh my goodness, this is me. And I’ve never even shed a tear during The Notebook.

On her website, Aron offers a quick self-assessment to gauge if you might be a Highly Sensitive Person. As I went down the checklist, I couldn’t believe how many of the items I was able to tick off (including, of course, “Other people’s moods affect me” and “I make a point to avoid violent movies and TV shows”). A few other examples:

“I am easily overwhelmed by things like bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens close by.” Some of my most vivid early memories involve unpleasant sensory experiences. Once upon a time, I saved up all my birthday and Christmas money to purchase a sparkly Little Mermaid costume from the Disney Store–only to find that the sequins sewn all over the outfit made it unbearably itchy, and I couldn’t bring myself to wear it. Another time, I participated in a day camp in which members of a local high school dance team taught us some simple steps and then led us in a performance during halftime of one of the school’s basketball games. I was so excited to show off my moves–until the other participants and I filed into the gym and the noise from the crowd, the court, and the speakers nearly knocked me off my feet. My hands flew to my ears for protection, and it was everything I could do to hold back tears. I hated that I wanted to cry, but everything just felt so incredibly loud that I could barely stand it. Luckily, some of these sensitivities have lessened a bit over the years, but others remain. For example, I sleep with both earplugs and an eye mask because apparently even at night, the world can be too bright and loud for my liking.

“I have a rich, complex inner life.” You may have heard of “resting b*tch face”; I have “resting zoned out face” because, as I mentioned in my last post, I tend to get lost in the La La Land of my own thoughts. If you’re talking to me, I’m listening intently, but the minute the discussion stops, farewell, friend! I’m off to another dimension. My vivid imagination is a blessing as well as a curse, because the same creativity that enables me to dream up new and exciting ideas also allows me to think of every possible bad thing that could happen, ever. But either way, there’s always a lot going on up there.

download-1
My brain 95% of the time, with approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of all thoughts being totally irrational worst-case scenarios.

“I am deeply moved by the arts or music.” It’s a good thing that I’ve been able to slowly adapt to louder and louder noises over the years, because one of my favorite things to do is attend concerts. (I still try to avoid being right up near the speakers, though, and it often takes me quite a while to wind down after such sensory overload.) Music isn’t just a fun diversion for me, it’s practically a spiritual experience. The right song at the right moment (or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” anytime) can easily give me goosebumps, bring me to tears, or both. 

“Being very hungry creates a strong reaction in me, disrupting my concentration or mood.” This is SUCH a first-world problem that I’m trying to overcome, but I am literally the reason why “hangry” became a word. So out of concern for those around me, I pretty much always have a granola bar with me just in case.

“When I must compete or be observed while performing a task, I become so nervous or shaky that I do much worse than I would otherwise.” Just ask anyone who has ever been in the passenger seat when I’m trying to park a car. Or sometimes even turn on a car. It’s bad, guys.

download-4
My brain the other 5% of the time, when people are watching. What is this “driving” of which you speak?!

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

As you can probably tell, I love learning about personality, temperament, and what makes people “tick,” especially when it provides valuable insight into my own thoughts and experiences. For example, studying introversion has helped me to better understand how to take care of myself and leverage my strengths in both personal and professional situations. It’s also helped me to feel less ashamed of my weaknesses–and realize that, as Cain argues in her book, some of my “weaknesses” are actually just neutral personality traits that feel like flaws in our extrovert-oriented society. And discovering that my Myers-Briggs personality type (INFJ) is shared by less than 1% of the general population has certainly helped to explain why, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider.

Similarly, finding out that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has helped me to make sense of so many experiences I’ve had throughout my life, from racing thoughts to intense feelings of self-doubt to physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pain, and muscle tension. Researching the condition has enabled me to manage it more productively and communicate my struggles to others. And perhaps most importantly, by embracing my diagnosis, I’ve been able to separate my illness from the essence of my being. I have anxiety, but I am not my anxiety.

And now, I may have another piece of the puzzle–I’m likely a Highly Sensitive Person, and that’s not the same as wimpy, picky, or just plain weird. I mean, I totally am weird, but there’s a lot more at play there than my sensitivity.

I do realize, though, that there’s a fine line between using labels to better understand myself and using labels as excuses, and I’m still trying my best to find–and avoid crossing–this line every day. I want to know and take care of myself so that I can better know and take care of others, not so that I can live in a bubble free from anything that makes me feel anxious or overstimulated and totally ignore the needs of those around me. This might be my first instinct, but I don’t have to let my instincts become my actions.

download-3
My first reaction to pretty much any situation involving people, places, or things.

I’m constantly presented with opportunities to enter into uncomfortable situations in order to achieve a greater good. Most of us are. And I don’t intend to let my introversion, anxiety, or high sensitivity stop me. Rather, I hope that by developing a greater sense of self-awareness, I will be able to find a balance between leaning into the discomfort and respecting my limitations. Maybe I need to leave a party or event earlier than everyone else. Maybe, after a particularly impassioned discussion or difficult confrontation, I need to take some time to be alone and restore my emotional equilibrium. Maybe I need to arrange my home or office to reduce the likelihood of sensory overload. Maybe I simply need to dive in headfirst to the situations that scare me the most just to prove to myself that the world won’t end as a result. 

What do you think about the concept of high sensitivity? Do you think that you or anyone you know might be a Highly Sensitive Person?

Do you like learning about personality types? Why or why not?

Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me | Strategies such as getting more sleep and drinking less coffee can help keep anxiety at bay.

In my last post, I discussed five strategies, such as taking medication and seeing a therapist, that have helped me manage anxiety in the months since I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Today I have five additional tactics to share, this time focused on daily lifestyle modifications.

  1. Overhauling my sleep schedule. Thanks to a combination of evening classes, a heavy workload, and my natural night owl tendencies, I essentially morphed into a semi-nocturnal zombie during grad school. Based on my sleep habits in high school and college, though, I know that I typically feel my best when I go to bed and wake up on the earlier side. So this summer, I have made a concerted effort not only to get more sleep, but also to sleep during the hours when I seem to benefit from it the most. Though challenging, these changes have truly paid off. I find that when I’m well-rested, I’m better able to keep minor problems and inconveniences in perspective rather allowing them to overwhelm me and completely derail my day. When my mind is clear and focused, I can accomplish more in less time and approach challenges with greater patience and creativity. And by golly, when I don’t spend my entire day eagerly awaiting the moment I get to crawl back in bed, life is just a lot more fun.
  2. Restructuring my morning routine. Now that I’m waking up considerably earlier than before, my morning routine has gone from frantic to focused and from exhausting to energizing. Not surprisingly, having sufficient time to shower/get ready at a comfortable pace and eat an actual breakfast–sometimes even while sitting at an actual table–has helped to minimize a great deal of chaos. But even more importantly, building in a bit of “me” time to work on a writing project or other creative endeavor before the craziness of the day sets in has paid off immensely. Until recently, I thought that this idea sounded not only unrealistic but also totally indulgent–have fun before the sun rises? Start my day off with my want-to-do list rather than my have-to-do list? Ain’t nobody got time for that! But after listening to a series of podcasts about optimizing morning routines (by Jeff Sanders of The 5 AM Miracle), I realized that I could make time for these activities and that doing so could positively impact numerous areas of my life. When I indulge my creative side in the early hours, I actually look forward to getting out of bed, feel more energized throughout the day, and dread the challenging or unpleasant items on my to-do list a little bit less. And my anxiety, which is typically fueled by feeling overwhelmed and out of control, is greatly lessened by this daily dose of intention and self-care.
  3. Drinking less coffee. Y’all, y’all, y’all. Coffee is my spirit animal. I love the taste, the smell, the feeling of holding a warm mug in my hands, and the excitement of trying new varieties and exploring different cafes. So when I realized that my beloved beverage was causing me some problems (such as nasty withdrawal headaches if I didn’t have my usual fix), my feelings of betrayal were worthy of an Adele power ballad. Since the thought of trying to break a caffeine addiction amidst the craziness of school and work was far too daunting, I decided to wait until after graduation to do anything about it. And since I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up coffee entirely, I chose instead to cut back to one cup in the mornings. I eliminated my afternoon java by gradually transitioning from half caf to decaf to no coffee at all, and after surviving an initial rough patch (thank goodness for extra strength Tylenol!), I found that my energy levels and mood noticeably stabilized and my usual “after dinner” headache seemed to disappear. Perhaps one day I’ll decide to eliminate my morning cup as well, but for now, I plan to savor it with all my might.
  4. Practicing yoga on a regular basis. I started doing yoga in the 7th grade and continued practicing until I injured my shoulder during my junior year of college. The long, frustrating process of recovering from this incident has included surgery, several rounds of physical therapy, a boatload of rest, and even a semester of wheeling a bright green rolling book bag around campus and totally bringing sexy back. Then, several months ago, I was finally feeling strong enough to roll out my mat again and try a few poses. I experienced some stiffness in my shoulder but no pain, so I gradually began practicing more frequently and for longer periods of time. And oh, how good it feels to be back! The deep stretches help to relieve the tension that tends to accumulate in my neck and back when I’m anxious, and the emphasis on mindfulness helps me to focus on the present rather than letting my thoughts run away with worries and worst-case scenarios.
  5. Getting lost in a funny, heartwarming story. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but for some reason I took it upon myself to watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls on Netflix this summer. As I sit here in the post-finale slump, counting down the days until the revival series premieres in November, I can look back at all the ways in which the show has proven to be an unexpected blessing in my recovery process. Sometimes it simply provided a much-needed laugh or distraction from my problems, whereas other times it hit close to home and challenged me to see situations in my own life in a new light. But most of all, watching a cast of generally lovable and well-meaning characters navigate the challenges of life reminded me that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to mess up, to have an “off” day (or to just take a day off), and to have doubts and questions even when you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. (How’s that for a binge-watching justification?) 

And that’s a wrap! As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please leave any questions or comments below!

 

 

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 Strategies That Have Worked For Me | Strategies such as embracing the diagnosis and seeing a trusted therapist can help keep anxiety at bay.

This past January, I visited my doctor to discuss some disturbing symptoms I was experiencing, namely dizziness, chest pains, and a rapid heart rate at the most unexpected and inexplicable times (such as when I was driving, lying in bed, or sitting in church). I walked into her office terrified that at just 24 years old, I was already exhibiting signs of early-onset cardiovascular disease. I walked out with the knowledge that while my heart and blood vessels were functioning just fine, my brain was another story: I was experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) along with panic symptoms. (Later on I would learn that I demonstrated many symptoms of clinical depression as well.)

In the months since these discoveries, I have taken a number of steps in hopes of improving my mental (and subsequently physical) health. I still have a long way to go, and GAD may be something that I have to learn to cope with for the rest of my life. Nonetheless, I have found a number of strategies and lifestyle modifications to be helpful thus far, and today I’d like to share some of them with you.

Unfortunately, given the relatively high prevalence of anxiety disorders (including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, phobias, and separation anxiety disorder), it seems quite likely that either you, dear reader, or someone you know and love suffers from one of these conditions. So while the following strategies may not be groundbreaking, I feel compelled to share, if for no other reason than to offer hope for the many others in similar situations. And although I am not a medical professional and am therefore in no position to diagnose or treat anyone else, I do have six years of public health education under my belt, so I intend to discuss the issues in an informed and responsible manner.

I have a total of 10 tips to share, but since I’m nothing if not verbose, I’ll keep this post at a manageable length by discussing only the first half. So without further ado, here are five strategies that have helped me manage my anxiety over the past seven months. And although I’m not focusing specifically on depression in this post, many of these same tactics have helped me tackle those symptoms as well.

  1. Embracing the diagnosis and admitting that I need help. Although the diagnostic labeling of mental health issues can be a controversial topic, for me, discovering that my experiences had a name was immensely helpful. It enabled me to research the disorder and better understand what was going on in my body and mind; it gave me an explanation for my irrational thoughts and actions other than “I’m ridiculous” or “I suck.” It provided me with the vocabulary I needed to communicate my situation to others and helped me to understand that I wasn’t alone in my struggles. And most of all, having a diagnosis forced me to finally acknowledge the gravity of my situation and motivated me to take action and reach out for help. I was no longer just “stressed about school”; I was truly miserable and functioning suboptimally in almost every area of my life, and I lacked the knowledge and resources to turn things around all by myself.
  2. Taking medication. I was initially a bit reluctant and ashamed to take the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) that my doctor prescribed. The list of potential side effects made my current symptoms seem like a cakewalk, and since I’ve always been an advocate of making holistic lifestyles changes rather than relying solely on pills, I felt like a hypocrite for taking meds right away without at least attempting therapy first. (Therapy came later; see item #3.) But my desperation drove me to start taking the medication anyway and I’m so glad that I did. My panic symptoms (dizziness, chest pains, and racing heartbeat) have completely disappeared, and I haven’t experienced any noticeable side effects. We eventually upped my daily dose a bit and I’m happy with where we’re at right now. Yay for normal serotonin levels!

  3. Seeing a therapist with whom I really connect. Once I finished the semester and my schedule was more accommodating, I started making the 1-hour commute to visit a therapist who came highly recommended by several people I know. Although I wasn’t expecting to find a perfect fit on the first try, after just one session with Nicole, I completely understood why these individuals had spoken so highly of her. She was warm, funny, and an incredible listener, able to weave the various threads of my experiences together into a coherent picture for me to gaze and reflect upon. I laughed, I cried, and I discussed things I hadn’t even realized were bothering me, and the whole time I felt completely comfortable and respected, even when she pointed out that some of my thoughts or actions might be irrational or counterproductive. I’ve continued seeing her all summer and can’t believe the difference. Whereas my medication has helped alleviate my physical panic symptoms, therapy has helped tackle the thought patterns that send me into a spiral of anxiety in the first place.

  4. Talking and writing openly about my experiences. Initially, I wanted to share what I was going through with as few people as possible–my parents, my boyfriend, and maybe one or two friends. I was still processing it all myself and didn’t know how to go about discussing it with others. So for a while, I waited, avoiding the topic whenever possible and speaking vaguely of “appointments” and “medication” whenever I couldn’t get around it. And that’s totally okay! Eventually, though, I felt that I was ready to share–that in a way, I needed to share. My public health education had taught me many things, one of which was that mental health issues are incredibly common and yet all too often not diagnosed, treated, or even discussed. I had always lamented this reality and wanted to do something about it; here was a glaring opportunity. So I started by writing, and then, with some trepidation, by sharing that writing. Hitting “publish” on my first blog post was both terrifying and thrilling; I was finally being completely open and honest about my mental health, but what would people think? Would friends and family suddenly find me burdensome and unstable? Would colleagues be less likely to trust me with major tasks at work for fear that I might not be able to handle the pressure? Would everyone roll his or her eyes and tell me to get over myself? I was fortunate to receive an overwhelmingly positive response, but I see now that even if I hadn’t had such a warm reception, sharing my experiences was the right move for me. On a personal level, writing and talking about anxiety, depression, fear, perfection, vulnerability, mindfulness, identity, and more have been incredibly therapeutic, and on a professional level, I like knowing that in some small way, I’m helping to fight a stigma that causes so many people to suffer in silence.

  5. Being patient with myself. In some regards, I’m a very patient person; however, when it comes to my own personal development, I often expect myself to have it together at all times, to be good at things on the first try, and to flawlessly and immediately adapt to whatever life throws my way. When I started realizing that I would never expect this level of perfection from a family member or friend, I knew that it was time to start being kinder and more patient with myself. I’m going through a lot of life transitions right now, with graduation, moving, and the search for my first full-time job. It’s okay that it’s taking me more than a day, a week, or even a month to wrap my brain around it all. I also can’t expect managing my anxiety to be a perfectly linear process; there will still be plenty of days when I find myself overthinking the smallest of things, worrying about the unlikeliest of scenarios, or feeling tense and panicked for no discernible reason. I’m aiming for large-scale progress, not day-to-day perfection.

So there you have it! In the next installment, I plan to focus more on health behaviors such as sleep, exercise, and caffeine intake. In the meantime, if you have any advice of your own for managing anxiety (whether or not you have a diagnosed disorder), please feel free to leave a comment and enlighten us!