From the vault: Getting Help With Your Anxiety

Anxiety Image

Image by Regina Lafaye

It’s not always easy to know when your level of anxiety is “abnormal.”

There are four D-words mental health workers use in assessing whether or not a certain behavior or emotion is normal.

Danger. Deviance. Distress. Dysfunction.

When it comes to anxiety, the last two are particularly helpful. If you need help with your anxiety, you would probably say that your worry causes you a lot of distress in your life, and/or that it keeps you from being able to function fully in your various life roles.

That was certainly the case with me.

Anxiety frequently filled me with such fear that I was unable to enjoy time with my family. Often I could not concentrate on my work and so it felt like I was living life on half the resources other people had available to them. I didn’t realize how much I needed help until recently because the solutions I was trying were often effective, or partly so, for considerable periods of time. I also didn’t realize I needed help because I did not really understand just how anxious I really was most of the time.

I was anxious enough most of the time that I felt it in my body.

My heart rate was often elevated above what is normal for me.

I felt almost constantly like I had butterflies (the size of eagles) in my stomach, and I usually did not know why. Have you ever given a speech and been so nervous beforehand that you were shaking and felt like you were just going to come unglued? That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety.

Perhaps comedian Steven Wright describes it best: You know that feeling you get when you lean back too far in a chair, and for a second you think you’re going to fall backwards, and then at the last minute you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time. 

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Anxiety and Depression: Coming Out of the Closet

anxiety and depression

Depression by Optiknerve at Used with permission of artist.

In 2006,

  • Approximately 15.7% of people reported being told by a health care provider that they had depression at some point in their lifetime; approximately 11.3% of people reported being told by a healthcare provider that they had anxiety at some point during their lifetime.
  • Persons with current depression and a lifetime diagnosis of depression or anxiety were significantly more likely than persons without these conditions to have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, and obesity and to be a current smoker, to be physically inactive, and to drink heavily.


Coming Out About Anxiety and Depression

I take medication to manage anxiety and depression. Many people mistakenly believe that to be on medication for something related to how we think or feel makes us crazy, or weak, or unstable, or unspiritual. I started taking medication back in February, actually. But I wanted to put some time between starting medication and coming out publicly with it. Read my posts since February and judge for yourself whether I seem crazy, weak, unstable, or unspiritual. Read my posts before that and you’ll see I was none of those things before going on meds either.

This is for you

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Responsible TO or Responsible FOR?

I used to nearly puke when I was grading papers.  In every class, there are always a few students who just don’t follow directions, and thus end up destroying their grade.

I am a firm teacher.  I write down requirements in the syllabus and expect students to do exactly what I have asked them to do.  But I am also clear.  I go over instructions again and again and again, which of course never stops one or two students in every one of my classes from completely disregarding them.  Students who do this simply cannot get a good grade in my classes.

A while ago I worked through a stack of final papers, and came to “one of those.”  I could tell right away my syllabus had been at the bottom of this student’s reading list.  I could also tell I was probably going to spend longer grading this mess than the student may have spent writing it.  I dutifully graded the paper, slapping a D on it.  But I did not do it happily. In fact, I did it with a sick feeling in my stomach.  I realized this grade would probably cause this student to fail my class, which meant it would have to be repeated, which would mean a few thousand dollars on top of an already expensive education bill.  I worried.  I fretted.  I played it over and over again in my mind.  I looked for ways to grant a few more points without violating my conscience and being unfair to the students who had actually attempted to meet requirements.  I lived under a dark cloud for several weeks, feeling upset and frustrated at this student for putting me in such a terrible position.  Next time I saw this student I struggled to make eye contact, even though I had done nothing wrong.  In the middle of this, I talked to a friend about how sick I was feeling about the whole situation.

“That’s because you are taking responsibility FOR these students, rather than simply being responsible TO them,” she said.

I dismissed her.  “I’m a counselor.  I know the difference.  I’m not bearing this student’s burden, I’m just fretting over whether or not I did right by him.”  A few hours later she shot me an email.

When I FEEL responsible FOR others:

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Anxiety, prt. 2

In my last post I mentioned that the best way to overcome anxiety is not to face it head-on, but to undermine it — to subvert it.  This is just a way of saying that the old advice, “Try not to worry,” could not be more useless than it is.  When we try not to fall, we pay more attention to our balance, and thus we are less likely to slip up.  When we try not to look stupid, we pay more attention to our behavior and may be less likely to do something socially unacceptable.  But when we try not to worry, we pay more attention to what we are thinking, and this is the last thing we should be doing.

The kinds of things that work best for anxiety are things that keep you in the present moment.  Anxiety is nearly always about the future, so the more focused you can stay in the present moment, the better.  The follow four techniques came from my good friend Tim McVay, a practicing psychologist, who specializes in treating people with anxiety.  Tim shared these techniques with me when I called him in desperation a while back, and they are effective.

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Anxiety, by Stathis Stavrianos at

Anxiety, by Stathis Stavrianos

Comedian Steven Wright describes chronic anxiety better than anyone else I’ve ever known.  I will paraphrase him loosely here:

You know that feeling when you’re sitting in a chair and you rock back on two legs and you go back too far and you start to fall, then at the last minute you catch yourself?  I feel like that all the time.

That’s it.  That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety.  It’s a feeling I wouldn’t wish on anyone I deem to be a basically valuable person my worst enemy.

I have worried for most of my life.  And I don’t mean worrying about normal stuff, like sliding into a ditch during a snowstorm, or about one of my kids when they are sick.  I mean making up stuff to worry about.  I mean watching the news (which, if you haven’t noticed, is always bad — and if it’s not, it’ll be spun that way anyway) and then taking it even further in my mind, spinning it into nightmares more horrible than any that would be spun on the AGBATT (All Glenn Beck All The Time) Channel.  Incidentally, this is how you get to have your own show on CNN — take a headline, run the story out to its ultimate dreadful conclusion, speak loudly and urgently, have experts on your show to agree with you or, hopefully, tell you that it’s probably much worse than you think, and combine it with flashy graphics and other high intensity entertainment pieces.  (If you’re unsure how to do any of this, from the fear-mongering to the flashy and entertaining graphics, simply visit most contemporary churches to learn how).

What was I talking about?  Oh yes, anxiety.  It’s amazing how our minds can take us from one thread to another to another, until eventually the stream of thoughts take on a life of their own and carry with them all the force of reality.  I am an expert at this.  I have seen things that would scare most people half to death.  I mean I’ve SEEN them.  In living color.  Playing on the screen of my mind.  Engulfing my emotions in wild flurries of helpless panic.  I have lived in this state for hours, sometimes days, sometimes weeks, at a time.  It doesn’t matter that they weren’t “real.”  My brain obviously didn’t know the difference, and generated the adrenalin and dread anyway.

Tons of people live with chronic anxiety and panic.  Some are reading this post, and I have a message for you.  You don’t have to live that way. 

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