I read an article about actor Ryan Reynolds yesterday that prompted me to write about this subject today. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and I’m a little bit late writing this. As he said in his article, “One of the reasons I’m posting this so late is I overschedule myself and important things slip.“. He is absolutely correct. When you have anxiety important things do slip, as do many other things. I should know, I have struggled with an anxiety disorder all my life.
Everyone Has Anxiety at Some Point
It’s hard to explain what chronic anxiety is like because it’s something that has to be experienced. All of us, at some point in our lives, will suffer from bouts of fear and anxiety. A car nearly bumps into yours on the road causing a rush of adrenaline that gives you the shakes. Or, you have to give a presentation at the office and you get butterflies in your stomach beforehand. This is “normal” anxiety.
Anxiety Disorders are Different
Chronic anxiety disorders are different. Your brain learns that the world is not okay even if you are perfectly safe. It responds to seemingly normal input from the world and creates a chemical soup of emotions that sends you into the fight, flight, freeze, flop. or fawn (friend) response. Chronic anxiety turns on thought loops that keep you looking for threats and seeking safety. You examine what happened yesterday. You worry about what could happen tomorrow. And because you’re brain is in control, it’s virtually impossible to think your way out of panic. The limbic system of your brain is in the driver’s seat and you are forced to ride along.
It’s Not Only Anxiety
This chronic anxiety brings about a long list of symptoms that make life more and more difficult. Chronic pain, insomnia, digestive problems, and headaches are just a few symptoms people with chronic anxiety endure on a daily basis. Some of us are getting by, where we have jobs and seemingly normal lives like Ryan Reynolds, but the struggle is daily. Others of us are disabled by it, unable to go out into the world because the stimulation is too much. Our brains and nervous systems are overwhelmed, hacking our bodies and our minds.
How I Cope
But, having had this my entire life, I have learned some things that work for me. I learned to meditate, which is really hard for the anxious mind at first but it really does help with practice. I use grounding exercises to get me present in the moment instead of looking forward or back in time. Sleep is vital, so I have a good sleep hygiene regimen. Finally, I do better with a schedule so I know what to expect. Kahlil Gibran said,
“Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”
For me that’s true and although I can’t control everything, I can have some control over my own schedule. These are just a few ways I have learned to cope and thrive, despite my mental illness.
You Are Not Alone
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, I wanted to be transparent – I am a minister with a life-long mental illness. Without honesty and openness, there will still be a stigma surrounding mental illness. Let’s remember to hold space for those who struggle with anxiety and any other mental health issue. Because, the brain is an organ of the body and like any other organ, it can get sick too. And if this resonates with you, I see you. I honor you. And, you are not alone.
If you are suffering from a mental illness or think you need help, please contact:
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357),
or TTY: 1-800-487-4889
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Callers can also order free publications and other information.