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  • Writer's pictureRita Winthrop

Sometimes the only way out is through: Dealing with Anxiety

I'll be honest guys, I didn't think my most recent post on Instagram about dealing with anxiety would resonate this deeply with so many of you. I guess, I knew that a lot of people deal with similar issues, but I suppose I just never realized how much this would inspire people to reach out. I am not ashamed of living with anxiety - at least not now, but at one time, I was, and talking about it was scary. I am the first to admit nowadays that I've got a little crazy in me (cause, why not make everything a joke, amiright?) So of course, it makes sense, for me to share my story, in hopes that just one person will feel like they're not alone in this journey.

If we're going to talk about how I deal with it, then we have to get into the deep down messy stuff, and how it started. I'll be the first to say that there's a lot of this story that isn't pretty, and sometimes even thinking about it makes me sad to realize that I spent so much of my life in such a dark space.

In the beginning

It started in my early teens. I don't recall the exact day, or exactly how old I was, I just remember very vividly that every night, when I was alone in my bed, I couldn't breathe. I'd hyperventilate, silently cry uncontrollably, and quite honestly, feel like I was dying inside. I know for sure never talked about it with my parents, and of no fault to them, they really had no idea what was happening with me. I always seemed to have the impression or hear the phrase "it's in your head" - which resulted me in keeping my mouth shut. Deep down I knew something wasn't right - but I just kept going with it.

Let me also set the scene: I was much more shy in high school, and was raised in what felt like a strict household - all of my friends were always out and about, and I was rarely allowed if it didn't fit the rules my parents put in place and I just so badly wanted to be present. I knew enough to know that if I was at a party (secretly because I could never even mention that idea to them) to not ever try to smoke or drink, because I knew if I got caught, that would be the end of my social life. Which of course, the idea of missing out, made me anxious.

Then something happened. It was the fourth of July and I was 15. I had gotten in a fight with my mom about me not being allowed to go out with my then boyfriend and friends. I often wasn't allowed, with no real reason given, but this time in particular struck a cord. I remember so vividly storming up to my room, shutting the door and breaking down. And in the fastest moment I could possibly remember, I cut myself. On my upper right thigh, with my own finger nail. I dragged my nail back and forth across my skin so many times the skin became raw and bled. I remember it to this day like it was yesterday. The fourth of July has never been the same for me ever since - because it was the day that started a really long hard 8 years of my life.

It wasn't like I jumped right into the self mutilation from that day and was doing it on a daily basis after that. It started slow. When I would fight with my family. When I couldn't sleep and was panicking alone at night. When my high school boyfriend and I would fight and ignore me for hours and then days. I started with just my finger nail, and graduated to pieces of glass or safety pins. And it always was on my upper thigh, so it was less likely to be seen. I didn't see it as a problem, it was my method of survival, so I kept doing it. Because as crazy as it sounds, the pain of cutting felt better than the pain I felt in my head and my heart. By the time I was finishing high school I was having panic attacks nearly daily.

In the middle

Heading to college was a great thing for me - but I'd be lying if I said there weren't some really low lows. While I gained independence and confidence, came more panic attacks and other forms of abuse to cover up my anxiety. As most college students do, I started to drink. Weekends, parties, special occasions. Which by the time I was graduating turned into 5 nights a week - the only two nights I didn't drink were the nights before my 8am classes - which should have been a glaring red flag. While I would not say it was a true problem, I 100% believe it would have been if I had continued that way for too much longer. The self mutilation continued. It went from just cutting, to punching, to slapping - all to myself. Occasionally I'd not allow myself to eat, or throw up my food - I'm lucky that those behaviors never really took over. Off the top of my head there were maybe 3 people who knew about what I was doing to myself before I started down the path of healing. Everything was a trigger. One second I would be okay, the next I was crying on the bathroom floor hurting myself again. For five years I suffered. In quiet.

It wasn't until another one of those vivid moments in those years that I will remember for the rest of my life. My on-again-off-again boyfriend through college, who had a lot he was dealing with on his own (which looking back meant no matter what we were toxic for each other) said something to me. In a moment in which we were breaking up, he, being one of the few people who knew about my cutting said "the one thing I wish I could have done in our relationship was to get you to stop that," and I remember feeling broken. Little did I know that it was that one statement that nearly stopped my self mutilation in its tracks. It was then that I realized that while I thought I had been silently struggling, I was self sabotaging my relationships, my success and myself. Just as quickly as I had started, I stopped. Now, I recognize that most people's journey may not be so easy to knock the hardest of behaviors - but this was just the first step to figuring out how to deal with this every day.

First steps to dealing

The first step was therapy. I don't care who you are - I am a firm believer that everyone should be talking to an unbiased third party. When I was 17 and still living at home, my parents brought me to see a therapist and it was awful: a middle-aged man who had ZERO idea what it was to be in my head, let alone to try to relate to. That didn't work out so well - it resulted in me shutting down even more.. But at 21, when I decided it was time for me to go on my own, I looked for someone with qualities that I wanted, not what anyone else wanted for me. A flower child, much like myself, my second therapist, lets call her Ms. C, always sat curled up in a chair with a cup of tea, with flowing hair in the most comfortable of rooms in her home. She was what I needed then. While I was still panicking, and not living the healthiest lifestyle (a.k.a. the drinking, cutting occasionally, not sleeping enough and working way too many hours) I was at least starting to see my self worth, and starting the process to understanding why I was anxious to begin with. That is a whole other story, but to keep it short, some things that happened within my family when I was little, resulted in me constantly feeling the need to be in survival mode: something I had always felt, had tried to explain, but had never been heard. Ms. C validated everything I had felt from the age of 6 up until that moment. That's when the real healing began for I could start to move on from the things I had no control over it when I was little.

And let me be clear - the anxiety, the cutting, the working too much, or drinking too much, or whatever it was that I was doing was 100% about the control - and how I felt incredibly out of control with everything else.

The one thing that started for me to notice my triggers that Ms. C suggested: create an anxiety journal. Only write in it in those moments I'm anxious. The date, the time, the feeling, what was happening in that moment? Who was around? Who wasn't? Had I been drinking? Journaling this allowed me to find patterns. Once I found patterns I was able to stay away from those toxic pressures.

Unfortunately, the one thing that took me much much longer to figure out was that toxic triggers could also include people. That included boyfriends as well as coworkers and friends. That has been a long process of eradicating those people out of my life.

After spending about 2 years with Ms. C every week, I felt good. I had started to workout, I was out of an unhealthy relationship, I was not cutting anymore, and I certainly wasn't panicking nearly in the same way as before. I had it figured out how to calm myself down. SO, fast forward a few years.

When anxiety came back, hard.

It was about two and a half years into Frank and I dating, and I found myself in a job that was REALLY not for me. In my head, I thought it would be everything I had wanted, but in reality I was working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., barely taking a lunch break, working a ton of weekends, and then working from 6 p.m. til 10 p.m. nearly every night to make up for what I wasn't able to get done at work - to put it simply: I was working literally 3 people's jobs on 1 person's salary and time frame. One night after about 6 months of living like this, while laying in bed, I had that moment again. That little 6 year old me who felt so out of control for her whole life came bubbling to the surface. I couldn't breathe. It had been a few years since I had a panic attack, and Frank had never seen it happen (although he was well aware of my past history) And for him to not be able to calm me down means that I was inconsolable. There again, those clear vivid moments that define what you need, Frank holding me so tight ever so simply, "babe, I think you really need to go back to therapy again."

And just like that I booked an appointment with someone new, Ms. K. She was kind, and held my hand, and let me cry. But she was who I could see myself being when I figured my shit out. She forced me to call in sick to take time off for myself, and to start looking for a new job. If it hadn't of been for her, I likely would have suffered in that job for way longer than I did. I haven't been to a therapy appointment in nearly 4 years - and that's not to say that it has gone away, (because it never will) but it has been a process of learning how to get out of my own way for literally half of my life.

Today, and how I'm healing.

Switching to my current job and getting rid of those people who pushed my buttons was the best thing I could have ever done. Learning to set boundaries between people, places and things is the second.

At work - that means, I bust my butt when I'm there, but it means that I also give myself lunch breaks, and I take days off every now and again. When I need to, I call in sick - because a mental health day, is just as important as taking a day when you've got a stomach bug. What it also means, is that I don't fall into the negative talk that happens so often at work places. If you want to bitch all day every day about work - then maybe its time for a new job. No one is forcing you to stay in a job that you don't love, so don't ruin it for the rest of us that do.

In my friendships - it means that if someone isn't going to put forth the same amount of love to me, as I do to you, then you've gota go. Some might call that harsh, but when I invest in someone, I expect that in return, because my anxiety will spike if I feel like I'm unsupported.

In my relationship - it means that I have found someone who supports me and doesn't push those buttons. Previous partners would push those triggers and make my anxiety so so much worse - if you are dating someone who does this to you, GET OUT NOW - THIS IS YOUR SIGN. You are deserving of so much more than to have someone create these negative feelings in your body. Now Frank, he calls when he says he's going to, and shows up when I need him, but he let's me be independent and figure it out on my own. He also knows that sometimes I just need a good hug and to let me cry it out.

Other helpful tricks

Of course there's been a few things along the way that have always helped:

Journaling - this is a big one. I've been writing (clearly) for all of my life. It's calming. I recently found all of my journals from high school and college. My mom asked me if I planned on reading them again, I gave a resounding "hell no!" to that, and threw them away. Don't relive it if you don't have to. I also love writing out my goals - that's been my most recent practice, and it's a great way to stay level headed and forward thinking.

Working out - this is another big one. It gets my energy out of my body. I'm pretty high strung regardless of the anxiety, so working out helps me to work through it and focus. Nothing solves some stress like lifting some weights, crushing a run, or sweating it out in a yoga class. If you're not working out, and you're anxious, give this a try.

Eating well - I know this sounds dumb, but what you put in your body has a direct relationship with the energy you put out. If you're filling up with too many carbs, caffeine, alcohol, sugar, you name it, you're going to feel like trash. When I'm feeling out of sorts, I try to avoid all of these things. Speaking to alcohol directly - if I am anxious and drink, I 100% get more anxious. So don't be dumb, and don't drink.

Supplements - There's a few things that I used to take to help me chill in times where my other remedies wouldn't work. St. John's Wort, Ashwagunda, and Valerian to name a few. Valerian to help me sleep (because when I don't get enough sleep, I can get anxious) and the other two are known for mood stabilization. I also drink Kava Tea (by Yogi) or add a lavender essential oil into my coffee (make sure its one you can consume!).

Taking time off - Sometimes, you just need a mental health day, it's as simple as that.

Go get a manicure/hair cut/facial/massage/hit up the infrared sauna - literally the epitome of self care. If I'm having a rough week, I will try to do at least one of these if I can.

Get off social media - this is another one that seems silly, but when I'm in a negative head space I find that comparing myself to others on social media (in all the ways) doesn't help me chill. So put your phone in another room and go....

... Get Outside - Fresh air does the body wonders and helps you reset. I love being by the ocean, or better yet, swimming in the ocean. Instantly refreshing for body, mind and spirit.

Spend time with friends - a quick coffee date first thing in the morning can be an immediate reset. Hit up a workout class together, or schedule a phone date if you're not in the same city. My best of best friends know that sometimes I need to be forced out of my house when I'm in a funk.

Make a list - When I feel like I have too much to do, I make a list, doesn't matter how small. I always put "workout" or "do a face mask" on my list to let myself schedule a time to do something for me, while still being productive.

Get a therapist - there is no shame in the game of going to talk to someone. My friends and husband are amazing, but sometimes you need to be able to talk about people or experiences without the biased reaction. Find one who fits you and your needs. If your needs seem similar to mine and you're local to Newport, I'm happy to share Ms. K's contact with you.

Recognize that some people have to be on meds for anxiety and depression - I've been lucky that I've been able to deal with it on my own, but I have plenty of friends who need to be on a prescribed medicine. There is NOTHING wrong with needing to be on something sometimes. You gota do what works for you to get your head on straight.

If you've made it this far, I commend you for reading all the way through. I also thank you for allowing me the opportunity to tell you where I've been and how I'm going forward. The one thing I always try to remember is that if something isn't working, you gota find out how to make it better. Doesn't matter what part of life that falls into. I totally recognize that I will have some high highs and some low lows because I'll deal with it for the rest of my life - but I've got my skills up my sleeve for those off occasions. For a long time, I felt incredibly shameful in talking about this sad past, but my hope in sharing this journey is that you know you're not alone in it.

Need to hear more or talk it out? Reach out or comment below.



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