Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me

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The Things I've Learned About Anxiety - That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me

There are some things that all the books, lectures, courses and research just can’t teach. They’re the things that come from people – the ones we talk to, listen to, connect with, acquaint with, like a little, love a lot or fight with.

So much is known about anxiety, but then there’s the human side. Science is awesome but even with everything it’s able to tell us, when it comes to that human thing we do, there are some things that can’t be properly understood until they’re experienced, touched, felt or seen – for real, not just through words of theory or a computer screen or the stark white pages of a straight-talking book.

The points that follow may not be relevant to every person with anxiety, but neither is the list of symptoms. Humans aren’t ‘boxable’ – we know that. We’re complex, fascinating, frustrating and between the heart and the head, there are countless versions of the human experience. 

Here are the things that I would not have known – could not have known – were it not for those who have experienced anxiety from the front line. 

  1. Anxiety is the fuel of contradictions.

    Sometimes feelings that are on opposite ends of the feeling spectrum, and which seem separated by the fact that any co-existence would be, you know, impossible, actually do co-exist. Sometimes they even feel the same.

    The first is craving solitude and craving people all at once. The second is having a fear of being seen and a fear of not being seen, at the same time. If you’ve ever known or loved anyone with anxiety and found yourself saying to them, ‘But I just don’t understand what you want.’ Don’t worry. Chances are they aren’t quite sure either. And that’s completely okay. Be grateful for the opportunity to practice being comfortable with uncertainty. 

  2. They’re wise – so wise – about who they choose to be part of their tribe.

    Anxiety comes from a hair-trigger threat sensor, remember, and the threat of psychological harm (humiliation, rejection, shame) can feel just as real as the threat of physical harm. Because interacting with people can be so anxiety inducing, people with anxiety are choosey about who they let close. They’re not rude about putting up the wall to those who don’t quite make the cut – not at all – but they’re decisive. If you’re one of the ones for whom the fortress is lowered, feel blessed, because you are. There’s something about you that feels safe and lovely to be around. 

  3. They’re awesome to have in your tribe too.

    Why? Because they’ll always have your back, your front and for the things you don’t see coming, don’t worry, because they’ll have them too.

    People with anxiety are some of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve met – they’re funny, kind, thoughtful and strong. They’re also very sensitive to what’s around them – it’s part of having a heightened threat sensor – and that sensitivity also extends to you and anyone else they’re around. They’ll think about what’s okay to say and what’s not okay to say, what needs to be done and what you might want.

    Anxiety has a way of persuading people to try for as much control as possible over the ‘unknowns’ in order to avoid potential chaos. This means they’ll be the ones who make sure everyone knows exactly where to meet, what time to leave to get there on time, what to take and the best way to get there. They’ll be the ones with the spare jumper, the spare coins and the spare phone charger. And if you need to make a call to let a bunch of people know you’re both running 20 minutes late to dinner, but your phone is out of charge, don’t worry, their phone will have plenty – you won’t need it though because they’ll already have sent the text to let them know. See. Way ahead of you. Just don’t forget to let you know how much you love them for it.

  4. Thoughts have more pull than knowledge. Yep. They run the mothership.

    The thoughts that are stoked by anxiety can be frightening, frustrating and suffocating. Above all else, they’re powerful. They’re more powerful than a lifetime of knowledge and the collective knowledge of a group, so don’t even bother trying to reason – it’s pointless. ‘Knowing’ that there’s nothing to worry about isn’t enough. Once fearful thoughts are in full swing, they will run the show. They’ll drive behaviour and bring feelings (fear, panic, anxiety) to life. All the knowledge in the world about what’s valid, real or likely won’t make any difference to those thoughts that are swelling. It’s the power of the mind against the mind. 

     

  5. Head and stomach. Sometimes it feels like it’s all about the head and the stomach.

    Anxiety can have a way of putting flashing lights around the head and stomach, as though they’re running the show – which, in that space of high anxiety, they kind of are. When anxiety is ‘on’, it’s as though the head and stomach are the only parts of the body capable of feeling, responding and being and every other body part is there to make them mobile and stop them dragging along the ground.

  6. ‘Everyday’, as in ‘everyday things’ means something different.

    ‘Everyday’ doesn’t always mean ‘no big deal’. No. It doesn’t. With anxiety on board, everything can feel like the biggest deal. What everyday means is ‘every day’, as in the things you do every day – today, tomorrow and the next day. As in, ‘Yes I know I should be okay with it because I do it every day, but I’m not.’ Anxiety doesn’t tend to keep a journal.

  7. Thoughts that begin as little thoughts can change the entire day.

    Did I lock the door? What if I forget his name? What if there’s an accident? What if we’re late? Or get lost on the way? What if the restaurant runs out of tables under the heater? … It doesn’t matter how much effort is put into preparation, organisation (and generally with anxious people there’s plenty!) once there’s a worry, it can white-knuckle for grip. You can practically see the imprint in their skin. The thoughts are often rational, plausible and possible, but anxiety makes them overwhelming.

  8. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’ The best thing to hear. Wait. No. It’s not.

    You would think it would be comforting to hear that there’s nothing to worry about, but it can actually be isolating.

    Think of it like this: Imagine being at the side of a wide road you need to cross. Everyone is telling you it’s fine to cross and they’re all doing it, but you see trucks, cars, buses and bikes barrelling from the left and the right. Nobody else can see them. You know the road is okay to cross, but you can’t – you just can’t. That traffic! So, not only do you feel panicked but you also feel like you’re in it on your own. It can feel like nobody else really understands, which they kind of don’t – otherwise they wouldn’t be telling you there’s nothing to worry about.

    The truth is, when it comes to anxiety, it can be difficult for people who have never experienced it to understand – but that’s okay. You don’t need to fully understand something to be a comforting presence through the unfolding of it.

  9. Anxiety and Courage. They exist together. 

    When it comes to courage, anxious people have it in truckloads. Just getting through the day can call on enormous reservoirs of courage that the rest of us would only need to draw on now and then. Anxiety and courage always exist together. They have to. You can’t get through day after day with anxiety blocking the path, without having courage to help push a way through.

     

  10. Stimulation or isolation. I’ll take isolation.

    Anxiety can force isolation. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – people with anxiety would rather sit outside in the cold on their own, than inside with their favourite people, the noise and the lights. It has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside and everything to do with the quantity. 

  11. Sometimes ‘I’m sick’ and ‘I’m fine’ means ‘I’m panicking. Don’t ask.’

    Anxiety hates attention. When anxiety is triggered, the normal human response if you’re the concerned other is, ‘Are you okay?’, or ‘What’s wrong’? If you have to ask, then no, chances are they’re not okay. They might be a lot of things in that moment, but okay won’t be one of them. Don’t worry – just be a strong, confident, loving presence. You’ll probably be told, ‘I’m fine’, or ‘I’m sick.’  It’s not a brush off, it’s a protection. Anxiety can really quickly go from manageable to out of control in a matter of seconds, or in the matter of an ‘are you okay?’ Don’t keep pushing it – just give a gentle ‘I’m here’ squeeze of their arm or hand and move on. 

  12. Sleep is a natural human function … yeah no.

    Anxiety is tiring – that constant bracing – but sleep doesn’t necessarily come easily. Tiredness makes anxiety worse and anxiety makes tiredness worse – you would think it would be a union made in doona heaven, but no. It can look at little like this: ‘I have to get to sleep, otherwise I’m going to be out of my mind with tiredness in the morning, so I just have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t get to sleep? But I have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t?’ Anxious yet?

As with any part of the human experience, there are so many things about anxiety that can only be understood by having it. If you love someone with anxiety, it’s important to pay attention. There will  be  wisdom and knowledge that only they can give you. Be open, and be grateful.

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147 Comments

Josee

Wow! Thank you so much for this! Someone who put into words the struggle I live with everday. I have a loving soulmate who accepts this from me (after long discussions about how I feel and what I go through and why) and is there for me. My daughters have “inherited” anxiety from me, which breaks my heart. They are getting help for which I am grateful. Thank you again

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Josee. Having people around you who love you and are able to understand what anxiety is like for you is so important isn’t it. It’s great that you can open yourself up to the support from someone like that. It can make such a difference. I’m pleased your daughters are getting the support they need.

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April

Thank you for this. I could agree more–especially about the attention part! Oh, and the sleep part. So glad to read something so close to my life.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Therese! If you call up the article on a laptop, at the left hand you’ll see share buttons. The green one at the bottom will print a print-friendly version for you. On a mobile, the print function will be behind the ‘Share this’ banner at the bottom. Let me know if you have any problems with this.

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chris

This article is so remarkably accurate–I feel like you were in my head when you wrote it. I’m sharing it as widely as I can to reach other people who are affected.

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Stephanie

Thank you so much for this article. I have lived with depression and anxiety for much of my life. Recently I’ve had trouble Trying to describe my thought process and just My overall way of thinking to my SO. He’s very supportive but is still learning to understand me and so many of the things you mentioned in your article we have faced. I had him read this article and it gave him some clarity on things I just couldn’t explain well. Also thank you because as much support I get from friends and family there are times when I feel like I just must be the most ridiculous person in the world they way I feel and think and react. But reading this reminds me not only am I not alone this, but that there are also positive attributes to me just being me so again I Am so grateful for this article and for the perspective it gives. Thank you!

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Stephanie. Anxiety is one of those things that can be difficult to understand if you haven’t been through it. You are so not alone! There are so many people struggling with anxiety and depression. I understand how difficult anxiety can be to live with but people with anxiety seem to have so many wonderful qualities about them. You sound like someone who is warm and generous and I imagine the people you have chosen to be close to know how lucky they are to have you.

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Kim

Hi

You basis your daughters have it to? I have an 11 year old son who is having a terrible time with this. We have to wait till 11/5 for an appointment which is tour. How are your daughters managing this? How old are they. Do they take medication for it? I am so nervous about this. Thank You Kim

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Kim. My daughter is 13 and has found a few things that work for her. Understanding where it comes from was the most powerful thing for her. She also practices mindfulness for 7 minutes before she goes to bed and will sometimes sleep with a heat pack. There is research that has found that staying warm works alters the neural circuitry related to mood – it seems to work for her. Here is some information about that https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-without-medication/. She has practiced breathing a lot (it triggers the relaxation response that neutralises the neurochemicals that are released during fight or flight) and seems to be able to access it when she needs it. We did the figure 8 thing. The information about that is here https://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/. She hasn’t taken medication and has a bit of a toolbox now. She calls on different things at different times, depending on what she thinks she needs. Some days it will strike out of the blue, but when it does she seems to be able to settle herself to a point where it’s in the background for her, rather than staring her down. All of the articles on anxiety are under the ‘Being Human’ tab in the menu bar, then click on anxiety. There are lots of different ways to manage anxiety, so you might need to try a few before you find the ones that work. Different things will work for different people. It will take time, but it is manageable. The more things you can try with your son, the more he will have to draw on at different times. I hope this is able to help your son. I really understand what a worrying time it is for you. Even if you end up with medication, it’s really important that your son also has some skills to manage it, so that he won’t always have to rely on the medication. I wish you and your son the very best, and hope he is able to find some comfort soon.

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stephanie

glad to know that I am not as crazy as I thought and made to believe I am. Tried to explain to my husband but would always be told I was crazy to get over it. Going to print this off to show him then maybe he will get off my case about the way I feel from minute to minute and day to day. THANK YOU!!!

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Hey Sigmund

You are so welcome Stephanie! Anxiety can be difficult to understand from the outside but I hope this articles is able to help you to be more understood. And you are certainly not crazy!

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Rhonda

Totally true. I’m reading it and going ahem and ahem and yep that’s me. That’s totally me. It puts stuff into words.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Rhonda. There’s so much more to anxiety than a list of symptoms isn’t there. I’m so pleased this article has made sense for you.

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Kaitie

While reading this article, I found I could relate to so many of the things discussed! Especially concerning the trade off between stimulation and isolation. I often find myself craving a few minutes of quiet, even when I am surrounded by my closest friends. This article captured that need to escape and breathe when it feels like there’s just too much happening. I felt stronger reading this and knowing not only that I am not alone, but also, that there exists a web of support for those of us struggling with anxiety. This was a great read, I will share it with some of my friends

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Kaitie. I’m so pleased you were able to take strength from the article and know that you aren’t alone. There are so many people struggling with anxiety. Thank you for letting me know and for sharing the article!

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GRAINNE

my little 7 year old seems to have anxiety – would be glad of any advice / tools to help her.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Grainne. The most important article is this one https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ .

It gives a child friendly way to explain to kids exactly why anxiety feels the way it does. It’s powerful because it helps to stop the spiral of them becoming anxious about the anxiety. You might have to simplify it down to suit your little person though.

There’s also this one which talks about anxiety in younger kids and what you can do to help them with it https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/

This one is about how to use positive discipline in a gentle, loving way with kids who have anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/positive-discipline-for-anxious-and-non-anxious-kids/ .

And finally this one is about when you love someone with anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/ .

Hope they help!

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Robin

What a wonderful article. Thank you. You present such an accepting and positive point of view. It touched me so much, it felt almost like a hug. I have lived with mild anxiety my whole life, but now that I have just retired and moved to a new state, I have been struggling a bit more. As grateful as I am for the freedom, it means that I have to build a new life and make new friends in a new place. As you so aptly put it, everything now feels like a “big” deal and it is far too easy for me to choose isolation. Reading your article has motivated me to find some help, to find a way to make this easier. Thank you again.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Robin. I’m pleased this article has helped you (and I love that it felt like a hug!). Moving state is a big life change. Such a brave move – and a really positive one for you by the sounds of it. It’s great that you’re open to finding whatever support you need to make things easier – there’s no need to struggle through these things if you can avoid it. I hope the move proves to be the beginning of something wonderful for you.

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Gracie

Thanks so much for this article. It resonates so much with me. The fear of being seen and not being seen, the fortress and just knowing who to trust, who will understand us such a hard one. I have PTSD from birth trauma but have had no help from my gp. Feel like no one understands. I’ve been fine for ages but something recently set it off again and the anxiety and panic is doing my head in. But through my own research am learning so much about how to cope with it. Your article Anxiety in Kids us really helpful. Must be just a big kid. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Gracie. I’m pleased the articles have helped you. It sounds as though you’ve been through something really traumatic and that can feel really lonely if you’re not getting the right support. There are people who would really understand what you’re going through, it’s just finding the right ones. If you can find a different GP or a counsellor you click with, I’m sure it would really help you. It’s great that you’re doing your own research – the more you can understand what’s happening the more empowered you’ll be.

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Donna

Great article that describes my daughter to a T. She and I had a very rocky relationship in her teen years, as I chalked a lot of her behavior up to typical teen angst and couldn’t understand why she didn’t ‘grow out of it’. Reading, talking to others, and her counselor have made me realize that I probably made it worse, and I am truly sorry for that. We now have a better understanding, but the paradoxes are baffling – wanting to be alone but then being lonely, stressing out because she is exhausted, but then not being able to sleep. The worst part of this affliction is seeing an intelligent sensitive beautiful person that I love struggle with the everyday things I take for granted. “Baby steps” is what I try to tell her – and celebrate the little victories and try not to beat yourself up so much when disappointment comes your way.

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Hey Sigmund

When someone you love is struggling with anxiety, it can be so difficult to understand what’s happening for them, especially if you’re not aware that anxiety is even a factor. Behaviour that’s being driven by anxiety can be so baffling – it’s baffling for the people with anxiety too – but when you understand what’s happening, it can start to make more sense. You’re so right with the baby steps. It sounds as though you’ve become a wonderful support for your daughter.

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Nimesh Joshi

Just Superb Article

Dear Hey Sigmund,Its a great service You have done,You dont know probably.

I am the person who inheritated Anxiety and unfortunate that people around me doesn’t understand it all .Its not their fault either.

spare battery Charges,always ahead strictly what I am but then it make 99% me in Isolation.still struggling to find the way out .But yes,This article is of great great help

God bless You

Thanks

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Jen

Great article. I try so hard to get friends and family to understand the way it works. Some get it, some try to understand but just don’t get it, and others just brush it off. Sometimes one person can do all of those things at different times!! The cyclical nature of thoughts you talk about at the end of the article is perfection. I have emetophobia (fear of vomiting if you don’t know…it goes beyond the “But nobody LIKES to get sick.” thought process. ) It can drive much of my anxiety, and often my thoughts are cyclical due to the physical symptoms of anxiety. (Nausea, the shakes, headache, digestive issues….) “OMG, my stomach doesn’t feel right. It’s probably my anxiety. But what if it isn’t? What if I have caught a stomach virus. OMG I don’t want to get sick!! No, no, no…this is just your anxiety. But, how do I know? Maybe it’s not. Oh I really don’t want to get sick! You’re not going to get sick, it’s just the anxiety symptoms. You need to calm yourself down before you make yourself feel worse. It’s just the symptoms of anxiety. You’re going to be OK…..But, what if it’s not just the anxiety?” It can continue like this infinitely. Same thing if someone else mentions they don’t feel well (God forbid it be my kids or husband) the anxiety starts for fear of it being a stomach virus and me freaking out that I’ll catch it. A vicious circle indeed. I think too, most people who suffer from anxiety will tell you that they KNOW they are being irrational, but you just can’t help reacting when that fight or flight response kicks in. It’s frustrating, and even more so when people just don’t get it. Again, the article was fantastic, and felt so very supportive. Even reading through the comments was like a big enthusiastic “We totally get it!!!!”” 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased the article was able to help you feel more understood. Anxiety can be so hard to understand, as much as the people who are close to you might want to. Not everyone in your tribe will understand what you’re going through, however much they try, and that’s okay – as long as they are still able to be good for you in some way. Take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone in what you’re going through – there are so many people who really get it.

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Vee

So wonderfully put into words. My son describes it as the feeling in your stomach of being worried even when you are not worried. It is a challenge to live with, and yet he feels it fuels his creativity. I will share this site. Thank you.

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Raul Loys

I have been dealing with anxiety for many years and have read plenty on the subject as well as having my regular therapy sessions , but I have never seen it described as accurately as in this article . Thank you so much , this one is a keeper

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Emily

Reading this made me cry (in a good way). For so many years I’ve been dealing with anxiety and its never been something that I could really explain to people, but this article is all the thoughts in my head that I could never form into words. Thank you!

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Victoria

Thank you so much for this article. I have lived with anxiety most of my life and it has often made me feel like a defective human (why can’t i cope? why can’t I do this simple task?). The positive things that you mentioned in your article, like how much courage it takes to get through a day when you struggle with anxiety or that we are a positive addition to someones circle because of our emotional intelligence and sensitivity actually brought tears to my eyes. I have learned coping mechanisms over the years and have experienced long periods of ‘remission’, but am sometimes still blindsided (and debilitated) by the intensity of what I feel. It’s like a terrible monster that no one else can see occasionally jumps out of innocuous places and ties me up. The gentleness with which you described those of us who struggle reminded me again to be gentle with myself; my struggle does not define me as a failure – in fact it has made me stronger, kinder, gentler and wiser than I would have ever been otherwise.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome. I’m pleased this article has been able to help you be kind to yourself and open up to seeing yourself as someone who is many kinds of wonderful.

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Christy Dawn

Anxiety is a brutal and constant foe. It’s a fight to sleep and a fight to wake; a fight for solitude and a fight for relationship. It’s a walking, talking life of contradiction. How can I have a fast sense of humor yet not want to talk to anyone? How can a group of friends feel like a multi-sensory attack that must be avoided with ninja stealth? How is it that one moment I can’t catch my breath and the next I’m hyperventilating and fixated on my heartbeat. Ugh…All this being said, thank you for the article. I will be following you and although, (as I suppose is true for most who do the daily death match with anxiety and panic), I know a lot about myself, instead of being enlightening, this is often isolating. It is no great comfort to understand yourself if you cannot explain yourself to anyone else. This is where you come it. It’s nice to feel “seen” even when it is from someone whom you’ll never actually see.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, you are seen. I’m pleased I’ve been able to help you to feel that. The way you describe your anxiety is so powerful and I get it – I get what you’re saying. Anxiety can be such an awful thing to live with – a constant and exhausting struggle. I’m pleased you have found this site. Hopefully you’ll find plenty of things here that will bring you some comfort and help you to feel validated, supported, and let you know that you’re not alone.

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Amy bell

thank you so much for this post. I am a soldier with ptsd and I live daily with anxiety. My loving husband does his best and is wonderful but this will truly help explain how it works. Thank you again!

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Natasha

You have put my feelings into words that I have been unable to find for the longest time. Thank you so much for this beautiful and well written article and for making all of us feel like we certainly are not alone.

Thank you for caring enough and taking out the time to reach out. The struggle is very real, very lonely and it has been very soothing and calming to read words of understanding instead of being verbally attacked by those who don’t quite get it (even though they may try). This article made me feel positive today.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. You are certainly not alone, though I really understand how it can feel like that. I’m pleased the article has been able to help you feel supported, understood and valued – you are.

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Garry Watkins

Thank you for this article. I can totally relate to this and I will pin it on my Pinterest and send it to my Google+ site. I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder which is comprised of many anxiety disorders including obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. The OCD is the most crippling for me however my social anxiety disorder also makes it extremely difficult for me to leave the house sometimes. I have a blog about my struggles with physical and mental illness on my website at garrywatkinsonline.com.

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David Elder

Some very help insights and coping mechanisms.
Ultimately , for me the answer is to ” Cast all my cares on Him ( Jesus ) for He cares for me ”
He is available to all who call on Him.

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