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balance, comfort, and breaking through

In our day to day lives we become very comfortable with routine. We fall into a pattern of behaviors…the alarm goes off, we shower and rush to get dressed, grab some coffee and head out the door. Pressed for time we make our best of the morning commute and check in to work to chase another paycheck. And then it’s home to cook dinner, perhaps grab a workout or spend time with children, get some laundry started, and crash on the couch for a few before retiring to bed. Tomorrow, we’ll be back at it all over again. For the majority of us, this is life.

For someone who struggles with anxiety related issues, this regular, clockwork routine can become an absolute necessity. It’s critical during times of heightened anxiety that we maintain a healthy balance in our lives. This functions to keep us on far more level plane. Of the utmost importance is sleep. Getting to bed at a reasonable hour and even waking at regular times…both are essential. It’s also a good idea for us to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle. The benefits of regular exercise should never be undervalued. Exercise helps to build confidence and self-esteem; it’s a natural elixir for the mind. And a balanced diet free of caffeine, alcohol, and high levels of sugar can work wonders as well. Even proper hydration can help to offset anxiety. We should learn to never take the small things for granted. A well planned daily routine can propel us through even the most discouraging battles with this disorder.

Unfortunately, finding this balance usually takes some time. If you think that you have anything figured out on your first go round with anxiety, you’re probably being very foolish. Mental health related issues are very complex. I’m still continually learning about my own disorder. As soon as I seem to understand one aspect of it, a new development emerges. Over the course of the last ten years, I’ve found that it’s best to try to tackle each new battle slowly, by taking baby steps and allowing myself to rely on past experience to adapt to the new situation. Everyone is different. There is no universal solution. I only wish it were that easy. Believe me I’d love to have that magic pill for myself and for the rest of those who suffer with mental health related issues. But that’s not an option…battling this monster takes persistence, discipline, and guts.

Since my college years, anxiety has been a part of my daily life. But it hasn’t always been nearly as damaging as in recent months. In fact, for years it remained relatively dormant. Sure, certain circumstances would give me anxiety, but for the most part I went about my days feeling relatively unaffected by it. I traveled around the country, found and lost love, pushed my body to the max physically, and even knocked on doors for a living without ever encountering the debilitating fear that sent me back to my knees this summer. Sometimes I think back on memories of those times when my anxiety took a back seat to living and I shake my head…how did I get here?

The answer to that question is somewhat complex, but the general concept is actually fairly simple. I lost track of my healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. Last fall I began traveling a lot for work, which was a great thing. But I started eating less healthy while on the road, my sleep became irregular, I gave up exercising altogether, and I began to encounter more stress. I started working later in the evenings, forfeiting many of my other priorities because I wanted so badly to earn a better living. I stressed over bringing on new business, feuded with my boss and our management team regarding my commission structure, and landed myself at a crossroads in the job. I gambled away money to football on the weekends when I should have been taking time to relax and unwind, putting myself under an even heavier mound of stress. And I began encountering issues in my relationship; we were arguing more and more and things seemed to be crumbling apart as fall turned to winter. I needed her badly and I didn’t feel the same desire from her that I had found previously…she was slipping away from me.

I remember that time very well. I made excuses for my poor lifestyle. I told myself that it was only temporary. I acted a bit like I would have on the athletic field. Suck it up…play another down. Deal with the pain later. This was a bad move. In many ways, that mindset is something that I am very proud to embody. But it doesn’t always lead to the healthiest decisions. In this particular phase of my life, it forced me to overlook my own personal well-being. I can remember feeling completely overwhelmed time after time and then just literally sucking the stress deeper into my chest. I was going to reach a breaking point…it was just a matter of time. And sadly enough, I acknowledged that inside. I knew what I was doing, but I kept pushing. I told myself that a big pay day would make everything worthwhile…soon I’d be able to afford an amazing vacation where I could escape somewhere free of distractions and stress with my girlfriend. Then my worries would vanish.

As you know from my earlier posts, that’s not exactly how things played out. I lost my girlfriend this February, reached my breaking point a couple of months later, and fell into a pit of horrific anxiety that I am still working to escape. I did earn enough money for that dream vacation. I even accumulated enough miles for a free airline ticket. But I still haven’t taken time away. I don’t have anyone to travel with anymore, and my anxiety has severely limited my desire to leave my comfort zone.

Ahh yes, the comfort zone. Everyone who suffers with an anxiety disorder has one of these. This is the place where we can go to escape and salvage what remains of our personal sanity during times of panic. For most of us, it’s home. Home can be anywhere…my comfort zone has had many different zip codes over the years. It’s our place of refuge. It’s the only place where we feel we can go to get well because “home” passes no judgment. Anxiety feeds unmercifully off of the basic fear that we will lose control…for instance, an attack will present itself in a public place and we won’t be able to handle it and as a result we will be subject to shame and embarrassment. At home, we worry little about this, because a) we know that we can handle the anxiety there due to past experience and b) we know that if we do stumble and fall we will be accepted and perhaps uplifted by others who know us for exactly who we are.

The comfort zone is a pretty amazing thing…incredibly powerful. But it should come with a bit of a warning label – “for emergency use only”. When you’ve hit your bottom, you will need it. And you can and should go to that place to get well and regain your strength. You may find yourself at a point where you are too weak to confront your daily routine. The comfort zone can help recharge the batteries so that you can move forward. But a quick recharge is not likely to resolve your issues if you’ve truly hit a bottom. The battle has really only just begun…

Remember from earlier that it’s critical for those facing heightened levels of anxiety to maintain a proper healthy balance in their lives in order to stay on track. Chances are that while one has been in hiding out in the comfort zone, they’ve lost track of many of these things. So it becomes absolutely critical that they find that routine again soon. This part is extremely difficult.

I personally had to spend a bit of an extended stay in my comfort zone this spring and summer. Initially, I had a hard time facing anxiety in my place alone. But I forced myself through it, and in time I learned to feel extremely capable on my own in my little cocoon. Unfortunately, however I began feeling very detached from everything going on outside in the world around me. Because quite honestly I wasn’t participating in that part of life. I was really only trying to survive each day. It’s what I had to do at the time. Even as I improved steadily inside, I found that when I made efforts to leave my apartment, anxiety would strike quickly. I felt so out of place in the real world because I had spent so much time cooped up alone…it was as if I was just floating aimlessly about the world around me when I left my place. It was quite scary for me. I was becoming agoraphobic.

So, how do you beat this? Easy for me to say, but not nearly as simple for me to put into practice. You need to literally train your mind to do the opposite of what feels most comfortable. I know, it seems strange since you just spent so much time in that place allowing yourself to feel comfortable and regain strength. But it’s the key to getting back control of your life and your future. Anxiety plays off of your weaknesses; it constantly tells you that “you can’t, not today, too hard, maybe another time, not ready.” If you buy into everything it attempts to make you feel, you’ll be a slave to it forever. So instead, decide it’s time to take a stand. Fight back. When your mind says “I can’t today”, tell it “I can and I will right now”. And then go do it. When anxiety strikes and you feel like curling up in a ball and drawing the blinds, go outside for a walk or a run instead. If panic ensues while you are out in the car and you want to forfeit your plans and run home, pull over, regain yourself by taking deep breaths into your stomach and push through it…embark upon the long route to your destination. Go above and beyond. You will take countless positives from those experiences and you’ll be able to feed off of them time and time again in the future. It won’t be easy at first, but it will get better with each experience. And pretty soon, you’ll have nothing left to fear. You will have confronted everything head on that previously held you back. And you’ll carry with you an invaluable success story that will propel you to a far more fulfilling life moving forward.

Always remember that you are strong, and that you are only a victim so long as you choose to be. I will continue to tell myself the same and keep fighting. May God bless.