It's OK to Not Be OK

With the recent news of Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love and TODAY's Carson Daly sharing their stories on how anxiety and panic attacks have impacted their lives, I’ve never felt more encouraged to share my story. Whether it’s your first panic attack like Love experienced mid-game, in an arena filled with 20,000 fans, or, feeling as though you're "hardwired" to be anxious as Daly described it in a recent TODAY interview, it's something that is difficult to openly talk about.

I cope with anxiety daily.

The good days. The bad days. The in-between, nothing too exciting, run-of-the-mill days. They’ve all been met with some form of anxiety and/or panic-induced response to what was occurring in my life at the time.

My first panic attack occurred while in college. I was in a lecture hall with about 150 of my fellow classmates about to take a mid-term exam. Prior to this particular moment, I had heard very little from friends telling me about feeling ‘anxious’ or joking about having a panic attack due to the heightened importance that an interview or an exam brought on, but I never paid too much attention to it. Throughout my entire life, I was always the outgoing one. I was the one that was the class clown, wanted to make everyone laugh, and really got my energy from being around others. I was an extrovert in every sense.

Fast-forward to that mid-term, I sat down in the same chair I had every other class, right in the middle in one of the front rows. As the exam was being passed around, I immediately felt a tight pressure throughout my neck and throat. My breaths because shorter and shorter, and, for the first time, I immediately experienced my body present me with my first ‘fight or flight’ situation. The increased levels of cortisone where telling my brain I needed to do something, that I needed to react. But to what? Why was I feeling like this? I was completely motionless.

I took a blank exam paper and knew something was horribly off when I had difficulty writing my own name. The line for the “K” was an incomplete chicken scratch at best and likely resembled something my one year-old nephew could compose. I stopped, dropped my pencil, and excused myself from the lecture hall. I walked out on exam day.

I had so many questions as I was exiting the business building. “What the hell just happened?” “Am I ok?” “How do I get rid of this?” were all of just a few of the thousand questions and concerns that aggregated in my mind. Little did I know, at that moment, for whatever reason and for better or worse, I would be on the lifelong journey or learning my triggers and managing my anxiety. These thoughts, especially experiencing for the first time, are isolating. I felt completely and utterly alone. By that evening, I had convinced myself that I was broken, I would never be the same, and now my life was on this alternate trajectory path that left me with a lesser, weaker version of the person I was. The ensuing next few years found me coming back to one particular thought, “if only I could just go back to the day before I had my attack everything would be normal..."

You Are Not Alone

First, a few stats pulled directly from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America's (ADAA) website:

  • Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.
  • Anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life events.
  • Panic Disorder (PD) affects more than 6 million people, with women twice as likely to be affected as men

A Better Tomorrow

“The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.”
- John C. Maxwell

Through therapy, exposure, and a consistent daily regimen, I've gotten to a point where I feel confident in managing my anxiety. This doesn't mean there's a complete absence or lack of being anxious and the occasional panic disorder, no, those are the gifts that I will continue to be the lucky recipient of. However, I don't let my anxiety control or limit what I do or don't do. A few ways to begin working towards a better tomorrow:

  • Talk It Out
    Simply vocalizing your feelings and emotions with a family member or friend, and let them into a part of your life that for most of us that deal with anxiety, is typically blocked off from the outside world. There's nothing to be ashamed of and whoever you talk to will likely be more sympathetic and understanding than you ever imagined. A licensed psychiatrist is ideal as it's a non-bias third party that is also exceptional trained in guiding you to the most ideal treatment plan.
     
  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT)
    As described by Mayo Clinic, CBT is "a common type of talk therapy...CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way."

    A few years ago, I enrolled in a CBT program through Joyable. They set me up with a Coach that I'd talk to once a week to talk through things going on in my life. Work, family, what was weighing me down and heavy on my mind - I found the more open I was, the better I felt. With each week there were a series of exercises that I would be asked to do as I steadily increased my exposure to what was triggering my anxiety. It was overall one of the most challenging and rewarding things I've ever gone through and something I credit as a crucial stepping stone in managing my anxiety.
     
  • Embracing > Avoiding
    A key element to managing anxiety is exposing yourself, in a very gradual manner, to the very thing that triggers your anxious tendencies. That sounds awful, right? The thing that you know is going to make you feel uneasy is the exact thing to do in order to live a better tomorrow. 

    In 2011, the Psychiatric Times published findings of an Exposure Therapy study and reported that 90% of participants felt a reduction in fear in their phobias and avoidance. Furthermore, 65% stated they no longer felt like they had the phobia they initially began ET for.

Whatever that ‘thing’ is that you believe if you just had in your possession, that it would cure everything and all your problems you’re currently experiencing— it won’t. With a new job comes new stress, a new house brings new payments and responsibility, and a new gadget is just a shiny object that will lose it’s luster in the next few months. And money? Well, Biggie said it best, “mo’ money, mo’ problems.” 

I've never felt more like myself today than I have in the last 10 years. I again enjoy spending time with friends new and old, traveling to places I've never been before, and cracking the occasional joke during arguably the wrong time and place (according to my wife). I no longer live in fear but that doesn't mean the worry has completely vanished. I've been able to get to a point where I can identify triggers and put those initial thoughts and concerns into a more realistic perspective.

Thank you to Kevin and Carson for igniting the conversation and sharing their stories. I’ve shared mine in hopes that others will take the step in sharing theirs.  Lets keep the conversation going, open, and supportive. You’re not an anomaly, nor have an abnormality, or broken when it comes to how your respond to the stresses and pressures in your life.

It's time to embrace being perfectly imperfect.