Thriving with Anxiety

Today I did an Ignite Talk (five minutes, 20 slides that automatically advance every 15 seconds). I talked about Thriving with Anxiety. It was an honest talk about my struggle and journey with anxiety. It was hard being vulnerable and sharing failures… I really think stigma about mental health will not go away until we can be honest about our struggles. Below is a written summary of what I shared.

Last year for a podcast with a high school student, we asked her what we, as educators, can do to help students with mental health issues. She quickly and eloquently said, “take care of your own mental health… you can’t help us if you haven’t helped yourself.” Such wisdom and truth.

I really believe shame and stigma will not go away until we, the adults, share our journey… and not just the good parts, but acknowledging the struggle. It is not enough to say mental health issues happen… we have to be vulnerable.

I have never known a day without anxiety. It has always been part of me… you can say it is my normal. I didn’t even know anxiety was a thing for the longest time. My dad once said we are just worriers. I never knew not worrying all the time wasn’t “normal.” I later learned that anxiety is the constant worry I experience all the time… It can make you irritable and impact your sleep (I would always wake up stress over things… big or little). It might alter your eating habits… if I was highly anxious I couldn’t eat.

My husband is the least anxious person I  know. When we were dating I would ask him what he was thinking and when he would reply nothing, I thought he was hiding something from me. I could not imagine someone’s brain being blank.

My anxiety throughout my life has led to extremely perfectionistic behaviors. I was the student teachers loved in their class. I got my work done near to perfection and would do everything in my power to be a good student. School was my thing and my anxious behaviors were reinforced with success.

My perfectionistic behaviors lead me to avoid risk-taking. I didn’t want to do anything I was not guaranteed success. I would play it safe… so I kept doing school because it was something I knew I could do.

It wasn’t until I was completing my PhD that I started to question my behaviors. Here I was at the highest level of academics and I still didn’t feel like I was enough. I realized my identity was what I did not who I was. It was at this point I decided to see a counselor for what I was experiencing. Little did I know, but I was embarking on the hardest two year journey. My counselor graciously walked with me through darkness and self reflection. To this day, I still say she has impacted my life as much as anyone.

My counselor would often state that life gives us what we need at the moment. I always thought of this from such a warm and fuzzy place. I need a hug so life sends me a hug. I slowly started to understand at times life gives us challenges and these challenges are as much of what we need as a hug.

I was working on hours to become a Licensed Practicing Counselor (LPC). It takes 2000 hours under supervision to achieve such a status. After almost two years I was towards the end and it was discovered by my supervisor and me that I didn’t have the correct paperwork filed…. meaning none of the hours counted.

My worst nightmare had become a reality… I had failed or in my mind I was a failure. I was devastated and my anxiety was at an all time high. I saw those around me love and support me. My family embraced me and my supervisors and bosses did all they could to assist in the situation. None of them viewed me as a failure and still loved me… but I didn’t.

I looked at myself with such disgust. While others were not judging me, it didn’t matter. I couldn’t accept their love and support, because I had none of it for myself. It was a crisis point and I had to decide what to do.

My counselor used the analogy of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly. I was good at being a caterpillar and morphing into a butterfly was scary and unknown… but even more, the time in the cocoon is lonely and dark… this part of the transformation had to be done by me and only I could do it.

As I slowly started to learn to fly I quickly realized the transformation didn’t take my anxiety away… anxiety will always be part of me and honestly I wouldn’t want it to be any other way because it is what make me, me. Instead of my anxiety controlling me, I have learned how to control it and work with it. I am better at doing this at times and sometimes I still struggle… but that is part of the journey… it doesn’t end, we just learn as go.

Presenting to a group of high school students last year I talked about the one thing all my clients had in common when I was a counselor. They all wanted to be understood and fully accepted for who they were at that one moment…. isn’t that what we all want? As much as we can give this to others, if don’t give it to ourselves, we can never accept it from others.

I continue on this journey not only for myself, but also for my son. While I have no control over if he will experience anxiety, I can control what example I am for him…. he deserves it and I deserve to live a life where I fly instead of crawl.

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