I have been feeling my emotions so intensely lately. The anxiety gathers in the area where my body holds the most tension- where my neck meets my shoulders. Once I get up and start to move around, it is slowly able to release. But, when it releases, I feel it in my whole body. This happens most often first thing in the morning.
My legs begin to tremble, and I doubt my ability to stand. And then an intense tingle rises up through my body, until it finally hits my head. It comes up so strongly and so violently that I feel as if something bad is happening to my body- like I might pass out, or vomit, or have a seizure, or, who even knows.
But then it hits my eyes, and I’m able to cry. Not just a few tears, but a full-on, hysterical sob. The above painting, acrylic on canvas board, is a visualization of what this rush of emotion feels like. I call it “Geyser,” because that’s how violently it happens- like a geyser or a volcano.
I hate feeling this way, but at the same time, it’s nice to know that I can release all of the built up anxiety through my tears. I’m hoping that my art can eventually take that place, however.
This is a blog about high functioning mental illness. Some people don’t believe it exists. If you are successful and appear to have everything in your life together, you can’t possibly be “mentally ill.” Right?
Wrong. Some people just hide it really well.
I attended college on a scholarship and went straight to graduate school, where I graduated with a high GPA. I work in a mental health organization, providing therapy and teaching life skills to kids and teenagers. I’ve worked there for three years and have been promoted three times. I live on my own in an apartment. I teach guitar lessons, and I’m involved in community organizations.
And I suffer from anxiety and depression.
When you see me saving the world at my job, you might not know that I cried in my car this morning because I was so anxious about going to work. You might not know that two months ago, I was so anxious that I would come home from work and curl up straight in my bed, because it was the only place I felt safe. You might not know that, when I go on my breaks at work, it’s because I’m feeling particularly anxious, and that I’m about to go take a walk in the parking lot and call a friend to help me calm down.
And every day, I get out there, and I do it again, despite all the unknowns.
I can guarantee you, that you know someone like me. Probably, several people. And you might be one of them, as well.
Lately, my facebook newsfeed has been blowing up with posts from friends and acquaintances who are experiencing the sorts of big changes in their lives that can only be expected of adults in their mid-twenties to early thirties. Proposals, engagements, and marriages. Pregnancies and births. It’s easy to think that everyone is entering a new stage of their lives and that I’m being left behind.
But, the other day, as I logged on to a flurry of these posts, I thought of it a different way.
What if all of this extra time was a gift?
When you’re in a romantic relationship, your focus shifts from yourself to your partner. When you have children, it shifts to them. As you start a family, it seems as if it is very easy to lose connection with yourself.
I have a friend who got married soon after college and who has two beautiful children. She posts images of her happy family, but then writes about how she’s felt like she’s lost touch with herself. When she was in school, her hobbies were to sing and dance- that’s what brought her joy. Since she had gotten married, and definitely since she had children, she has not been able to do these things. She feels like she’s lost touch with herself.
I can say the opposite is true for me. Over the past 5-10 years, not only have I gotten better at my favorite hobbies, but I’ve found new ones as well. I’ve put a lot of work into myself, and I have become braver, stronger, and more assertive. With every year that passes, I’ve pushed and challenged myself more. I’ve become more and more connected with myself, and as that connection strengthens, it will become harder and harder to break, no matter what life delivers me.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to keep the focus on myself this entire time. I have had so much time to grow and evolve . . . and I can say with confidence that I’ve been making the best of it.
No matter how hard we try in life, we will all find ourselves in this place- many, many times. The bottom will drop out from under us. We will fail. The sh*t will hit the fan. Things will get real. And we will be left in a daze with nothing to do but pick up the pieces.
It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve found ourselves in this pit before. We will find ourselves here again. Therefore, each of us needs to cultivate a routine for coping and adapting with challenges. Here are the 10 things I believe everyone should keep in mind during tough times.
1. Let yourself feel your feelings. This one is the hardest, yet it is also the most important. If you let yourself feel your negative feelings, they will eventually pass. If you suppress them, they will linger in your body, where they may fester and cause you more physical and mental woes later.
2. Let yourself take a break. There are times where it might not be plausible to allow yourself to work through your negativity as soon as it arises. That’s okay. When you have time to be alone, give yourself some space to relax and express your feelings to a journal. Or process it with a friend, if that’s more your style.
Along the same vein- don’t make any decisions right away. Wait a few more days until you are more clear-headed, or else you might do something you regret. It might not seem like it now, but the feelings will pass.
3. Remember that you aren’t the only one! When we screw up, we are so quick to assume that no one else could have possibly made the same mistake we did, and as a result, we beat ourselves up over it. That is an incredibly unrealistic assumption! Because of the omnipresence of social media, we are often comparing ourselves to other people . . . or rather, the photoshopped images that we have of other people in our minds. But, we must remember, that most often, people only use social media to display their good news. They aren’t going to go public about their screw ups, unless they’re looking for advice.
Talk to other people that you trust. It is very likely you’ll find someone who has been in a comparable situation.
4. Don’t take it personally. It didn’t happen because God and the universe are out to get you. It didn’t happen to you because you are a bad person, and it didn’t happen because you are cursed.Whatever it is happened because hard times are a fact of life for everyone.
5. Seek perspective. Is it really as big of a deal as you are making it out to be? Again, I find it really helpful to talk to a friend. Many times I have thought I was a total loser who ruined her future, and they have been able to show me where maybe I or someone else was overreacting.
6. Speak kindly to yourself. Talk to yourself the way you would to a friend who is experiencing the same circumstances. Being harsh with yourself will only make you feel worse.
7. Participate in your self care activities. To gain your energy back and to lift your spirits up, you will have to rest. Participate in whatever activities rejuvenate you. For me, this includes yoga, meditation, journaling, singing, spending time in nature, and drawing mandalas. For you, it may be one of these things, or something else.
8. Can you learn from it? Now that you’ve let yourself feel and process your feelings, it is time to move on. What’s done is done. You can’t change it, but perhaps you can grow from it. Is there anything you could have done differently? Something you’ve learned so that you won’t repeat the situation again? Take note of all these things.
9. Determine your action steps. Where would you like to be in a few days? In a month? What will it take to get there? Make a list of these (bite-size) steps, and then start doing them!
10. Seek positivity. Moving on is going to be challenging. Surround yourself with supportive people. Watch shows that make you laugh. I like to print out inspirational slogans and hang them in places where I will see them often. (This includes in my car, on the mirror, by my desk, by the front door, as my laptop and iPhone wallpapers . . .)
The important thing to remember is that although suffering is inevitable, it is also temporary. If you play your cards right, you can find the rainbow on the other side.
In The Way of the Happy Woman, which I have just started reading, Sara Avant Stover recommends writing a YES and NO list as a reminder to keep yourself on track. The YES list contains all the things you should remember to do to keep yourself happy and healthy, and the NO list contains all the things you should remember not to do. It turns out, I had written mine a couple of months ago, only I called it my “Rules to Live By.” I share mine below: