If you’re newer here and aren’t familiar with my personal history with anxiety and agoraphobia, I’ll take a minute to fill you in before I talk about how I’ve been able to overcome many hurdles.
I’ve always been an anxious person. When I was younger, I dealt with long phases of anxiety, but it wasn’t until about 6-7 years ago that things took a turn for the worst and my awareness of fear for everyday things started to spiral out of control. I became sheltered, and as the years went on, extremely agoraphobic.
Related: What Is Anxiety, a Panic Attack, and Agoraphobia?
It was tough to do “normal” things like go to the grocery store or drive anywhere more than 5 minutes away. Leaving my house caused internal feelings of terror and even sickness, and it always took me a little bit of time to ready myself to step into the car.
The worst part in all of this was feeling like I was letting other people down. I canceled appointments, events, and even pushed away friendships because I didn’t want to have to deal with attempting to explain myself or excuse myself if I felt a panic attack coming on. It was just easier to be alone, which was a vicious cycle in itself because the more alone time I had, the worse I felt.
Just over one year ago, I had told myself that enough was enough. Previously, I had tried various things from meditation, herbal and natural anxiety remedies, self help books and workbooks, to just trying to force myself to do things I didn’t want to do. When nothing seemed to work, I hit rock bottom and I decided that I needed to step up my game.
I finally built up just enough courage to see a doctor for some professional help. The process to get there was not an easy one. However, I did it and it was probably one of the best steps I could have ever taken.
That day is one I will always remember. I was extremely nervous because doctors and medical clinics are one of my #1 panic attack triggers. Basically, I avoided them like the plague. When I was called in, I sat in a chair by the door with my full winter getup on (parka, boots, hat, gloves) and wore my sunglasses, which sort of became an item of comfort for me. I am sure I looked absolutely ridiculous, all bundled up in my layers of invisibility seeking garments. I was absolutely ready to bust out of that room, bag in hand, at the slightest feeling of panic.
But I didn’t. Sitting there, fighting off those feelings and reminding myself to breathe, I told myself that I had to stay. It would only be a few more moments and I was strong and could do this! The nurse spoke to me with no judgement and by the end of the appointment I was starting to open up a little. I think this experience in itself was the start of my recovery, because there I was, terrified inside doing the one thing I hated most, but using my inner strength to get through it.
After another appointment, I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder and was given an SSRI (Cipralex), which works by increasing serotonin to your brain. I was assured that it was totally safe before I agreed to it. Now I wanted to add a disclaimer saying that I wasn’t fond of the idea of a medication. I am not very keen on pharmaceuticals and never liked the idea of having to take one, personally. However, it got to the point that I felt I needed to give it a shot as everything I’d tried previously had no effect. If something could help me in the process of actually being able to go out and push myself to get over this, I had to give it a shot. It has never been my intention to rely on a drug, and I don’t intend to forever. I will say though, that I think this step was important in allowing me the ability to continue working on myself internally. I don’t think that medication is a final answer or a magical treatment for anxiety. There is still a lot of work you need to do on your own, using your own strength, but for me, I was so far down the rabbit hole at that time that it helped get me to the point of being able to help myself.
Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change
Along with this medication, I decided to take on a new perspective. I was more determined than ever to become “normal” again, so I started reading books like A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life by Steven C. Hayes, and Ask and It Is Given by Esther and Jerry Hicks. Although they’re not all geared towards anxiety in particular, they talk about the mind and how in control of our thoughts we truly are… which is of course a huge part of anxiety. We often believe that what we think must be true, but that is so far from reality.
One of the major things I got out of this type of self-help was learning that our fears and thoughts are not real. We cannot touch them, we can’t describe them as a physical form. Things that are real are things that we can see… things that are fact. This laptop I am typing on is real. The keys and how my fingers move across them while creating words are real. My “what if” thoughts about panicking in a convenience store lineup are not real. Knowing this now, and truly understanding it, I am more easily able to stop those negative thoughts in their tracks and brush them away. They don’t exist.
Just do it
With my new perspectives, it started to become a little easier to push myself to do things that usually caused panic. While I still felt sick and my stomach turned in knots before I’d step foot inside my car, I did it anyways. Even though those thoughts would still come as I was driving, I still drove. My mind was in a constant battle with itself, with the fearful “what if” monster on one side, and the new, ballsy bullshit-caller on the other, who was always there to tell the other to shut up. I’m not going to lie, it was tough, but it was more than I had done before.
I also started taking little solo trips and drives around town and testing my abilities to do certain things. I think the solo aspect was important because it allowed me to worry about myself and not be concerned with anybody else. So often I fear that if I panic, I will embarrass myself in front of somebody, or they will worry about me and just make things worse. Taking moments out of my day to do something for me and only me (like go to the beach) really helped to clear my mind and calm my nerves.
Making small routines
While a lot of therapy sessions will recommend that you jump in feet first and face your fears head on, I disagree. While this might work for some in the short term, I really question whether or not it will last or if those fears will come back to haunt them in the future. The problem with surprise exposure therapy (have you ever seen those shows on tv where they just force someone to be alone with their fears and handle them in an attempt to “get over” them?) is that our brains don’t tend to work like that. Whenever something frightens us, our brain naturally stores that experience away for safe keeping. It’s an evolution thing, so that we’ll be prepared for when or if it happens again, I believe. This is kind of how anxiety works. Something makes us anxious, and those feelings/thoughts get stored away for later (gee, thanks!) and become triggers. So, if putting somebody in a fearful situation is supposed to help them, what would actually happen to that response? Don’t you think it would also get stored away?
Instead of trying this “quick fix” type of therapy, I’ve found it most helpful to take baby steps. The more your mind can get used to a situation and know that it’s not a fearful one, the better chance you have of overcoming it completely. It’s all about becoming comfortable with a situation. That takes time.
I began taking small steps and pushing myself a little bit farther every day. An example of this might be driving to get the mail and coming home. Then the next time, driving to get the mail and then going a little farther and coming home. Or maybe going to the grocery store to pick up one item, and slowly work your way up to a full cart.
Small routines like this have been what have helped me the most. I went from being totally terrified of the grocery store and those dreaded lineups, to doing the shopping twice a week, full cart and all, and soon the anxious feelings wore away. I no longer dread lineups and actually enjoy grocery shopping now. I never thought I’d say that a year ago.
There’s always a reward
You know that feeling you get after you’ve achieved something great? That’s the feeling that also comes with accomplishing something that causes you a great deal of anxiety. It’s like all of your fears and worries suddenly subside, your heart rate goes back to normal, and you feel a rush of adrenaline. That feeling is one that I started focusing on every single time I accomplished something or overcame panic. It’s an amazing feeling! If you can focus on knowing that your worries will be rewarded and you’ll soon feel great about yourself, those thoughts overpower the fearful ones. Every time I left a store and got back into my car, I’d smile to myself and say “I DID IT!”… seriously.
A domino effect
Once I started experiencing these small triumphs, there was really no going back. The more you accomplish, the stronger you become inside and it really does act like a domino effect. Knowing that I had previously completed a fearful task made it easier to do the same thing the next time because I had the opportunity to realize that there really was no fear in the situation.
The anxious and sick feelings started to subside and my “before leaving the house” ritual vanished completely. To be able to just grab a jacket and leave the house is something that many people don’t appreciate, and to be able to finally do that myself feels pretty great.
I’ve done more things in the past few months than I have in the past few years. Things that used to terrify me have slowly become a part of my life. I think it’s safe to say that the “severe” element has been dropped from my diagnosis, but I am not perfect and still have a little ways to go. Although I still experience some anxiety in certain situations, I am continuing to work on those and, who knows, maybe by this time next year they will have disappeared as well.
As always, I don’t post this type of thing for any sympathy or praise. I post them to help others who may be dealing with the same thing. Mental illness is something that isn’t talked about enough and if I can use my voice to get a conversation going, then my mission is complete. I hope that anybody struggling with anxiety, depression, or other forms of mental illness knows that there is hope, even when it seems like you’ve hit the very bottom. It takes a lot of internal strength to overcome, but together we can support each other and hold some of the weight.
If you have any questions, feel free to ask away 🙂
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