I recently had a student approach me after speaking to a mental health group on his college campus. He was a friendly, thoughtful guy who wanted to know how I dealt with my anxiety. I had a few thoughts to share with him—methods that worked for me. He was seeing a therapist and working on cognitive behavioral therapy. It was good to hear that—he wanted to put his mental health first, which is important if one wishes to improve it.
Our conversation reminded me that I haven’t written much about my anxiety, which is ironic since it’s the first mental health issue I dealt with. Going back to my time as a small child, I often got nervous or worried in new situations. I didn’t like being away from my mom or my house. Being in new places on my own scared me.
Over the years, my anxiety morphed as I became nervous about getting good grades and finding friends. Some of the old fears still remained but I began to have a hard time being in social situations. I would often shut people out instead of joining in their gatherings or activities. It wasn’t easy for me to tell others that while I liked them, I worried about finding acceptance in their social setting.
Looking back, I've come up with four things I wish I knew about anxiety. It's possible if someone told these things to me it would have given me a leg up on tackling my fears.
1. You might need meds
This is the biggest one. Without anti-anxiety medication, it was impossible for me to calm down to the point where my mind could address ideas in a rational manner. I knew that certain processes might work to handle anxiety. Yet my mind was racing all the time in those anxiety provoking situations. It did so such that I never got the opportunity to use those methods that might have helped with tackling my anxiety. Once my mind drew back to a more calm level thanks to the meds, I found it was easier to focus on the lessons I was learning in therapy and self-help workbooks.
I know medications aren’t for everyone, but I can’t imagine functioning without one.
2. Panic attacks are ok
I’ve had a few panic attacks in my life. They’re not fun. And they’re always the result of fears running full-steam out of control. In the past I used to think panic attacks were the end of the world and meant there was something damaged in me—maybe even beyond repair. After I had the first one, I felt like a horrible person. But that’s far from the case. They're a part of having anxiety but they don't make me worthless. As we say in the mental health field: it’s okay to not be okay.
3. There are ways to control it
I found cognitive behavioral therapy to do wonders for putting my thoughts in context and understand why I thought what I did. The workbook Mind Over Mood was especially helpful.
4. Everything will be okay – look at past experiences
If nothing else, remind yourself of this simple idea: you’ve had periods when you felt anxious and as though you might not make it through that experience. But you survived. And you can continue to remind yourself of your strength any time you have anxiety.
I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II when I was 21 years old. I went through a rough patch in college and once I got my diagnosis my life made more sense. However, there are some things I wish I had been told which no one ever shared with me at that time. So here they are.
1. Those manic times when you think you’re productive aren’t always as good as you think
There was a time in my early twenties when my manic phases were in full effect. At first it was scary because I was getting three or four hours of sleep a night and felt fine. I wondered when my brain was going to stop functioning due to lack of sleep. But it never happened. So I then realized I could be quite productive. And I enjoyed that. But as comedian Chris Gethard told me (and I agree): “With the manic phases where you’re really productive you say, ‘Oh I just stayed up for twelve straight hours and I wrote fifty pages of shit!’ And then you go to sleep for a few days, you come out of it, you read those fifty pages, and there’s like, maybe three paragraphs that actually make sense.” And he’s right. It’s not worth it. While I could do a great deal of things, my creative work wasn't of good quality. Other work I would do, such as chores on a list, I find I can still do and don't need the other side effects that come with the manic phases.
2. You will get irritable
My stereotypical view of bipolar before I had it was that you are a sex-crazed, drug-addicted party animal for a while and then a crying mess that can’t get out of bed for the other part of your life. First, I didn’t know there was bipolar II, thus, a different spectrum of experiences that were also identified as bipolar. Second, I didn’t realize the amount of irritability that went into my manic phases. And it’s often about things that are small and unimportant. Let's say I’m running a few minutes late—what does that matter in the big scheme of things? But if I’m not paying attention to it I allow it to ruin my day by making me cranky toward everyone around me. Often times I have pre-arranged notions of how I want things to be and if that doesn’t happen I can be a jerk. I’ve gotten better at becoming aware of it but it’s still not always in check.
3. There are medications out there that can help (but it may take a while to find the right mix)
I received my diagnosis when I was 21. It took what seemed like decades to find drugs that worked for me. In reality it was less than a decade. But during that time I was on more medications than I can remember. I felt as though the moment might never come where I could experience some stability. But through experience and trial and error it worked. When I first started down that road I was so impatient. I know medications don’t always work for everyone but when you have diagnosed bipolar disorder they’re often pretty key to getting well. I’m glad I stuck through the process.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.