An Essay about My Struggles with Mental Health Awareness and Anxiety by James Bonner

Conquering Anxiety: Strategies, Insights, and Support for a Calmer Life

I didn’t know what anxiety felt like until I was almost thirty. The onset of my anxiety was a symptom of an abusive relationship. I was trapped in this relationship for years, which triggered intense mental and emotional distress. I tried to escape into my daydreams, but my partner’s manipulation and control eventually consumed me. She deliberately isolated me from friends and family. My anxiety became a constant companion. After three years, I finally escaped and began rebuilding my life. Despite my freedom, I struggled with lingering anxiety and depression. Breaking free from the subconscious need for permission and guilt was an ongoing challenge. Anxiety has been the single worst and most difficult thing for me to manage.

After escaping I moved into a cheap studio apartment and spent a week (maybe more) cocooned inside, I went out for the first time. Aside from returning to work after a few days, Returning to work made me nervous because I was terrified that she would show up unannounced and make some terrible public scene—something I’ve witnessed many times before and struggled to avoid. I left the house and went to Ikonic Coffee on Lena Street (a café in Santa Fe, New Mexico), ordered a coffee, and sat down with my laptop. I knew I’d have to relearn how to engage with people. Once, when the right words and questions seemed to flow effortlessly, even thoughtlessly, from my lips, I was now doubting myself. I knew that to remedy my doubts, I would have to practice. Practice being around people. But I was angry. I was angry because not only had years of my life been wasted, but I was coming back into the world at almost thirty and feeling like a child. I resented having to start over. I desperately wanted to fast-forward through the work and be already standing on the other side.

I used to love being around people. I loved engaging in conversation, interacting with strangers, and people-watching. I think people are amazing (or we can be). I wanted to experience that again. But I was terrified. I was uncomfortable. I sat at a table at Ikonic Coffee, stiff to my core. Afraid to move even slightly. The natural movements of a loose body, just breathing, felt forced and unnatural. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do anything. This experience, since escaping, was my first time being around people again. I knew it would be challenging. I desperately wanted to have a casual conversation with whoever was next to me. That was too lofty a goal. I should have expected only to ease my way into feeling comfortable by simply being around people. My body was so rigid with apprehension that I started shaking. I felt a warmth increase and radiate from a center near my solar plexus like ripples exploring outward. When I started feeling feverish, I awkwardly stood and left.

For the first half of my life, I was naturally empathic, able to read a person’s body language, emotions, and thoughts without conscious effort. In my early twenties, I realized the connection between what I was feeling and the feelings of others and actively developed that inherent empathy. However, the abusive relationship manipulated and changed me, distorting my empathy into anxiety. I didn’t know that my ability to read people had been masked and was influenced by my newly acquired anxieties, mistaking anxiety for empathy. I trusted and nurtured my anxieties for years, believing I was working through those anxieties and my depression. Anxiety, like depression, synchronously affects the body and the mind, the worst of both feeding off and reinforcing the other. In the body, anxiety feels like inexplicable and urgent feelings of guilt, fear, worry, and anger.

Our mind invents stories to interpret and explain our otherwise inexplicable feelings. Once our anxiety-riddled mind focuses on whatever fabricated motive our mind invents, anxiety compels us to obsess and agonize over that false reality. Our minds aren’t always certain, so the process repeats itself with new worries. But the previous worries are never dismissed. Our new fabricated worries are stacked upon the old. Anxiety is exhausting and adrenergic. In the body, anxiety is the opposite of empathy. When we’re used to trusting ourselves and our instincts, we learn to rely on our instincts. When we can’t tell the difference between our instincts and anxiety, we unknowingly condition ourselves to trust our anxiety as well. When we consistently reaffirm our anxiety (or anything), we are deepening our dependence on anxiety. And that’s a dangerous thing.

After years of trying to move on, I realized that moving on from our traumas and working on our traumas are not the same, and it’s tough to know the difference between the two, but living unaware that moving on and working on are not the same can be damaging. Because often, when we’re moving on from the upheavals of our past, the triggers that are still buried in our emotions gradually and progressively become a part of who we are. After years of this, it’s difficult to know where our psyche ends, and our problems (anxieties) begin. We must learn how to work through our anxiety. It is possible to conquer these conditions—anxiety and depression—but it does take work. I ignored the work for a long time until the anger, stress, anxiety, and depression made me so miserable, especially at my day job, that something had to change. Everything had to change. I thought my efforts at work were leading me in the direction I wanted to go. I took a pause and reevaluated that thought. I asked myself, “If I could do anything, what would I do?” Once I knew what that was, I asked myself why I wasn’t doing it.

I took a big step backward and saw the big picture. Well, my big picture. It was obvious that, at the surface, I was still balancing unmanageable measures of anxiety, stress, anxiety, and depression. And that was the only way to see beneath the layers of trauma I had to explore the depths of myself beneath. The key to exploring those depths turned out to be meditation. And as I rediscovered myself beneath the constructed layers of distress. I started unfolding my passions. The things that encouraged and inspired me. The things that made me happy. So, I figured I needed to find a way to remove the constructed surface layers of my anxieties. So, what I loved most about life was seeing the light again. I also knew that while working on bringing my passions to the forefront. I needed to acknowledge anxiety and depression as they were beginning to affect me so that new issues couldn’t reinforce the old. People tend to be comfortable with our bad habits.

We’re not a particularly disciplined species. Immediate gratification is strictly important. We would rather live in misery and convenience than apply effort and discipline for a short time to build good habits and allow our passions to invent our lives. My efforts over the last few years have taught me, unequivocally, that the first step to addressing anxiety and depression is to discipline ourselves to acknowledge the moments that we are being affected as we’re being affected (it’s easier with anxiety than depression, but anxiety presents in more ways than depression). It’s going to take time and effort to acknowledge your anxiety every time. There are instances you won’t catch but keep establishing the habit. Eventually, you’ll be able to heed your anxiety enough to start introducing an alternative feeling (I think replacing anxiety with excitement is the easiest alternative because the two feelings are surprisingly similar). It’ll be hard at first. It’ll get easier, but at the same time, it starts to get tedious. Applying yourself is the only way to remedy your anxiety, and this process, once habitual, will guide you there.

When I wrote this essay initially, I wrote about how I had applied the effort to work through my traumas, anxieties, and depression. I couldn’t recognize the person I was the year before. It’s been almost a year since then, and my anxiety today is practically gone. I hadn’t thought about it in months until this essay was scheduled for an edit and an update. I know that it is as difficult as it is to manage day-to-day. We come to rely on our anxieties and depression, and it can be uncomfortable and scary even to change. The easiest and most reliable way to acknowledge your anxiety is to say it out loud and, in the moment, “I’m feeling anxious right now.” When I was meditating, I realized that the part of me that was aware of my anxiety wasn’t anxious. I eventually came to recognize that anxiety is another way for our subconscious to protect us. It’s a terrible internal defense mechanism, but it is a defense mechanism. Through the practice of mediation, I began to see anxiety (and several things, really) from different angles, and that helped me to survey and navigate a path through anxiety.

My journey through anxiety (and depression) has been a transformative odyssey of self-discovery and growth, and by confronting my fears, embracing my vulnerabilities, and re-cultivating empathy and self-awareness, I have emerged stronger and more resilient. I have learned that healing is a process, not a destination, and every step forward is a success. I hope my story will inspire others to face their struggles with courage and effort and to know that they are not alone in their quest for healing and happiness.

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Arda, hello!

At first, I didn’t know what I was dealing with, I had not experienced anxiety until my early thirties, and only after I was coming out of a bad relationship. Up to that point, my feelings were a guide, I trusted them to reveal truths that may not have been so immediately apparent. The anxiety turned my feelings into a static. It took me a while to figure out that I was dealing with anxiety, and, yes, coming to that realization took the help of a therapist, a cognitive therapist. And I started taking Citalopram (I think), can’t remember exactly what it was, but I’m pretty sure it was Celexa (citalopram). That seemed to help.

However, I’ve always known that our bodies are capable of much more than many people like to believe. Our emotions and our minds are regulators, and designers of our realities, we just have to relearn how to consciously understand and to manage the resolution. I believe that medications are a crutch that numbs our minds’ influence over our bodies. I do think that other therapies can help, but because therapists are supposed to be guides for our own intervention, it’s crucial that you find a pretty damn good therapist otherwise it’s a waste of money; it might be better to research therapy’s instead of therapists and then learn as much as you can about the therapy’s.

I do still suffer from anxiety and depression, however, neither consume me anymore, because I am able now to separate feeling anxious with the awareness that I am feeling anxious; think of it like this: say you’re sitting at a coffeehouse, for example, and someone is just staring at you, and it feels remarkably uncomfortable, and then your anxiety takes over and the feeling becomes overwhelming. We feel anxiety because we’ve created the habit of unconsciously composing a story in our heads, “Why are they staring at me?” “Is something wrong with me?” Etc., and that story about the experience becomes our reality, we’re living the story. Our anxieties are a result of the stories we invent, and then we build on that story in the moment, and over time. And we develop our perception of ourselves based entirely on that illusion.

What if we were capable, instead, of recognizing that it is just a story, and that it’s not real? What I taught myself to do was to, essentially and metaphorically, put myself in a different chair, in the coffeehouse, as if I were watching me create the story, so that I could eavesdrop on the story that I was creating (because that other me was being stared at). I taught myself to think of the situation as if what I was watching and what I was feeling were two separate experiences. You can think of it also as if you were walking through your anxiety, as if you are passing by an open vent (the cold air from the vent being the anxiety in this metaphor), and then stepping out from underneath the vent.

Eventually, I learned how to relearn the difference between anxiety and my “gut feelings,” and how to accept that my body was feeling anxious while my mind was simply aware that my body was feeling anxious. At that point, my anxiety no longer consumed me, and then I could replace that feeling with whatever I wanted. The process took a little while to learn, and it involves catching yourself while you’re feeling anxious enough times to create the habit, but that process has worked for me better than any medication or therapy, unless, like I mentioned, you’re able to find a therapist that helps you through the process.

James Bonner

Hello, what else did you do to overcome your anxiety? Did you get any professional therapies?

Arda Erguvan

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