Anxiety is a big fat liar. Anxiety is the mind’s (also known as ego) way of protecting us from situations and things it perceives as threats – whether valid or not. It encourages us to stay home when we should really go out. It tells us we are dying when we aren’t (at least in that exact moment). It tells us we are bad parents and friends. It tells us we aren’t doing a good enough job at x, y, z.
Anxiety is debilitating. I remember, especially after my son was born, days where I just watched the minutes on the clock roll by until I could go to sleep again, because I was so mentally drained from having obsessive anxious thoughts all. day. long.
Anxiety is a thief. In the situation above, looking back, it’s hard for me not to ‘go there’ and think about the time I wasted being anxious and physically and mentally drained to the point where I couldn’t even make a basic decision, such as which outfit to change my son into after his diaper leaked.
Anxiety is those three things above and so much more.
Having dealt with anxiety my whole life, it has told me a lot of lies. In my mission to break down the mental health stigma and to raise awareness during Mental Health Month (May – if you’re reading this after the fact), I wanted to open up and share a few of those lies with you. My hope is that you can relate and know that you are not alone.
1. Disturbing images through intrusive thoughts
Although I have dealt with anxiety for my whole life, it wasn’t until after my son was born that I experienced my first bout of intrusive thoughts.
If you aren’t familiar, intrusive thoughts are quick images that flash in your mind. They are unwanted and can be anything that you find disturbing. These are DIFFERENT from actively thinking about something unwanted or disturbing. Intrusive thoughts can come at any time and are involuntary.
Something I learned through therapy is that intrusive thoughts are often the opposite of ways you’d normally act or things you’d normally do. This is a huge reason why they’re so alarming and upsetting.
I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was when I had my first intrusive thought. It ended up resulting in an panic attack because I had no idea what was happening or why I was having these thoughts. The thoughts had me convinced that I was going to have to go to the ER to be admitted. I remember telling my husband about it, feeling scared and ashamed. He remained calm and asked me some questions, and then softly explained that he thought this was a result of the anxiety and that the thoughts weren’t truth. I got SO mad at him because I was convinced he wasn’t taking me seriously.
Looking back now, I can see so many reasons why the intrusive thoughts were brought on and why I ended up having a panic attack: our cat had to be put down that day less than two months after our other cat had to be unexpectedly put down, I hadn’t eaten all day because I was upset, and I decided to hard core go out and mow the lawn and do yard work after my son was in bed.
Not taking care of myself.
Not eating = low blood sugar = anxiety.
Not acknowledging what had happened = avoiding my grief thus making it worse
But at the time I honestly thought I was going to be put into a mental institution. And I say that with 100% seriousness.
The next day, I called my Dr. and got in with a psychologist right away to start medication (something I had been avoiding – stupidly – up until then). It was at that point I found out that 80% of women deal with intrusive thoughts during their post partum time. I normally don’t swear on this blog, but 80 f-ing percent? 80%??? The number still shocks me. If I had known that intrusive thoughts were normal and common, and that the thoughts didn’t mean I actually want to do what I was being shown, how different things would have been.
Since then, I still deal with intrusive thoughts, but I have the tools I need to help me remember they don’t mean anything, and that they also show things that I DON’T want to happen.
2. That I’m dying
When I was 22, my cousin (who was the same age as me), went to urgent care on April 1 with a bad stomach issue, and on April 22, passed away of stage 4 colon cancer. Her death was incredibly traumatic for me, and, until I finally realized it about a year ago, shaped my anxiety in ways I couldn’t ever imagine.
Since then, health has always been a trigger for my anxiety. My health, family health, friend health. Death is also a big trigger – especially young and unexpected.
Every single pain, twinge, or illness I get results in me thinking that I am going to die. Hypochondria? Got it. An urge to call the nurse line any time my son gets sick? I’m dialing the phone. Making an appointment for the vet every time my cat throws up? Well, maybe not quite but the thoughts are definitely there.
It wasn’t until I became comfortable in my spirituality and strengthened my faith (the book The Universe has Your Back: Transform Fear to Faith was a huge help) that I found I can manage through health-related issues as they arise. Does that mean I never get stressed about those things? Of course not. Health issues are stressful, they just are. But I have gotten to the point where I can (for the most part) manage the unhelpful and unnecessary stress and anxiety, so I can focus on the necessary parts.
Even now, my mind’s default is to go to worst case scenario (that I’m dying), but I quickly remember that I don’t have to attach any emotion on to that thought, and I can let it float on by.
3. That I shouldn’t fly
I have an irrational fear of airplanes. And when I say airplanes, I mean airplanes. Obviously, I am terrified of flying. But I am also afraid of planes flying low overhead. Every time I pass under a low(ish) flying plane, the first thoughts that come to mind are some sort of variation of:
“What if this plane explodes/drops a wheel/starts descending right now?”
I don’t even like standing near grounded planes.
Yep – irrational.
I don’t know if in some past life I had an issue of planes, or where the fear comes from.
I have flown, and while I had one flight that was extremely turbulent, I was scared of flying beforehand.
So far, I haven’t found a great solution to getting around this fear. I know the facts. I know how rare plane issues/crashes are. But I can’t help it.
I’m hoping that as I move through managing my other anxieties, I can learn to at least tolerate flying to some level. Or, at least being able to have a plane fly over me without having scary thoughts. Good thing I live near an airport….(sarcasm…)
4. That I’m not a good enough (insert here: mom, wife, friend, employee, person, etc)
Sometimes I feel like no matter what I do, I am failing as a mom, friend, etc. That I’m not doing enough. I worry about how that will affect my relationships. I worry too much about what other people will think of me and that they are judging me.
I know this is common because I hear about it a lot from others.
So how we can stop feeling like this?
I found a couple of things that helped:
- Taking social media breaks: Yep – the comparison game is terrible for feeding those negative ‘I’m not good enough’ thoughts. I have a post on ways to detach yourself from social media where I share tips on what I do.
- Talk with a trusted friend or family member about how you’re feeling. They can reassure you that you are doing an awesome job!
- Remind myself that it is unreasonable to be able to do ALL THE THINGS, and that I’m doing the best I can. What more can I do?
5. That I don’t need therapy and/or medication
I added this in because although it doesn’t apply now, it did, and I think it is a common one.
I have been on medication and in therapy on and off my entire life. Each time, my mind/ego/anxiety pitches a fit and tries to convince me that I don’t need it. And each time, after I finally succumb, I wonder why I waited so long to do it.
It is OK to get help. You get help when you’re physically ill. You take medication if you’re experiencing symptoms of a physical illness. Mental illness is no different, and it is time that we start treating it as such.
I know it can be hard to find a therapist you feel comfortable enough to talk to. And sometimes it takes a few tries to get the medication just right. But you know what? You (hopefully) have a doctor for physical ailments that you feel comfortable enough to talk to. And when you’re dealing with a physical illness, there is no guarantee the treatment will work or is right the first time either. BUT, it is important to do the work – you’re worth it!
6. That I am alone
The anxiety I experience has manifested in different ways throughout my life, but the one thing that has stayed consistent is that I have been made to believe that I am the only one. During each anxiety ‘season’, I clearly remember thinking that no one could possibly experience something so messed up as I was experiencing in that exact moment. What a bunch of crock!
Here are some statistics to prove to you that you are not alone:
- 80% of all women postpartum experience intrusive thoughts (source: my psychologist)
- 40 million adults in the US deal with anxiety (source)
- Globally, 1 in 13 adults experience anxiety (source)
- Only 37% of those who suffer from anxiety are receiving treatment (source)
These statistics tell me that not only is anxiety super common, but a lot of people feel that they are not worth getting help or that they are alone. Which is NOT true!
In Daring Greatly by Brene’ Brown, she talks about the dangers of believing that you are alone in what you are experiencing. And that it isn’t until we are able to open up to someone or see that others deal with the things we do that we can start to heal.
I started the series ‘Anxiety Stories | Normalizing Anxiety in Today’s World’ because I know what it is like to feel alone. And I wish that I had something like this series to read when I was feeling deep in the anxiety trenches.
Because truly, we are not alone. And this is so common.
I invite you to read other’s experiences. They can truly be healing!
Anxiety Stories | Normalizing Anxiety in Today’s World
7. That I need to take my thoughts at face value
I divide my anxiety up into two parts. The first was when I was a teenager, and I had obsessive thoughts and anxiety over throwing up in public after having a panic attack on stage during a band concert.
The second was when I was pregnant and after my son was born.
Those two parts don’t mean that those were my only times feeling anxious – those are just two defining moments in my anxiety story.
It wasn’t until after dealing with anxious and negative thoughts for 31 years that I realized I didn’t have to take those thoughts at face value.
What changed? When I realized this:
The brain’s job is to think. So, it thinks. But that doesn’t mean we have to take those thoughts as truth! They can just be….thoughts.
After I realized this, man, the anxiety I experienced changed a lot.
There are two resources that really helped me realize this notion:
Book: The Chemistry of Calm by Henry Emmons MD
Those two resources are a must listen to/read. Non-negotiable. Go. Now.
8. That I am in danger
Remember how I mentioned above how the job of our brain is to think? Well, it has another job as well. To protect us.
I’m sure you’ve heard of our amazing evolutionary flight or fight response, right? This response helps our body determine whether fight a wild animal or run away and hide, and greatly aided our hunter/gatherer ancestors of ours. When this response is triggered, a physical response is sent throughout our body. Chemicals are released, and our body gets prepared. But what happens if that response is triggered but nothing happens (because you felt a small pain in your leg (me + health), perhaps)?
You may want to try and flee, but in reality, there isn’t an immediate threat. However, your body and mind don’t know that, so those chemicals that once helped our ancestors fight or flee like mad are still circling around in our body with no where to go or no energy to feed. Leaving our nervous system on high alert.
So there I am sitting there feeling anxious about my leg, and my thoughts start floating around.
“Omg, what if that is a blood clot that is about to release any second and travel to my brain” (they never are rational).
If I don’t step in and stop these thoughts from taking hold, my body and mind might say:
“What? A blood clot! Heading for the brain?! OMG DANGER DANGER!”
And release more fight or flight chemicals.
And so the cycle goes.
The anxiety I experience likes to tell me lies. Like, that I’m going to die. That I didn’t hang out with my son enough today. And so on, and so on.
And when I attach emotions to those thoughts, my body starts perceiving them as real, tiger-like threats.
But in reality?
I’m not in danger. There isn’t a lion waiting outside my door for me.
In that exact moment, I’m OK.
So how do you get to that point? Mindfulness.
Mindfulness helps you realize where you are in any given time, and brings your mind to the present instead of freaking out about the past or future. It helps you realize that in any given moment, you are OK.
Unless there really is a lion waiting for you outside the door, which in that case, let your body fuel you with fight or flight chemicals!
If you are interested in learning about how to incorporate mindfulness into your life, I have a free 7-day e-course that teaches you just that. Or, you can sign up below to receive 71 tips on how to implement 5 minutes or less. Or both!
If you’re interested in learning more about the mind/ego/anxiety and how to tame those negative thoughts, I have an entire post dedicated to just that!
7 Ways to Tame Your Ego & Invite Peace Into Your Mind
What lies does your anxiety tell you?
There are some great resources on how to get help below:
- National Institute of Mental Health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: Online Resources and Finding Help
- Crisis Text Line: Text HELLO to 741741 (US number) to be connected with a trained crisis counselor.
- Finally, this is a great page from ‘Everyday Help’ with a ton of resources for mental health assistance such as financial help for therapy and medications, support groups, etc.