The world can be a scary place. There is so much that is expected of us as individuals nowadays that navigating the pressures of education, jobs, bills, social media can be brutal and utterly exhausting. There's a reason more and more young people—and people in general—are being diagnosed with mental health disorders such as general anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and depression. Having an anxiety disorder isn't a death sentence, nor is it a condition that must prevent you from living your life to the fullest. It just means that your brain is wired differently, so you need to live your life a bit differently, too. It's not bad, it's just reality. Diabetics need to cut out certain foods, people that suffer from kidney disease need to avoid salt and drink loads of water, people with eczema need special creams to protect their skin. You need to take steps that protect your mental well-being. And that's perfectly normal. So here is a little guide on how to get through the real world, from someone who's been dealing with anxiety since they were 17.
If you struggle with navigation, journeys, and public transport:
- Public transport was the one thing that scared me the most at the height of my anxiety. The fear of getting trapped inside a train carriage, being surrounded by strangers, feeling claustrophobic—all of that led me to countless panic attacks on train platforms, needing to have my mom pick me up, and spending loads of money on taxis because the thought of getting on to a bus made me want to pass out. Therapy helped a lot, mainly in having a professional tell me that the feeling of being trapped was just in my head. No one will hold you hostage on a train; if you're uncomfortable or feeling panicky, just leave. Exit the train, take a breath, sit for a minute, and step out of the station if you need to. Sure, it might take you a bit longer to reach your destination, but at least you won't be exhausted and worn out from the panic.
- If you know that you're going to have to commute regularly to work or school, practice your journey during off-peak hours. A quick Google search will tell you which hours have the least movement, so you can get comfortable with the journey you'll have to make and know how long it takes between each stop. (That way, you can exit at any time if necessary.)
- If, like me, you struggle with what is generally referred to as navigation anxiety, there are really great apps that can help you move around a city with ease. A favourite of mine is CityMapper, which helped me navigate London and granted me the resources I needed to not get anxious about just walking around.
If you struggle with things like presentations and job interviews:
- When it comes to giving a presentation, we all know how terrifying they can be. Talk to your professors, teachers, and lecturers—explain the situation to them. Tell them that you feel like a presentation isn't the best way to show your commitment and work, and come up with an alternative, like doing a research paper or presenting only to the evaluator instead. That way you'll show that you're interested in the class and want to do your best, which earns you some understanding and leverage.
- If that's not an option, write down every word you would say during said presentation. Like a speech. Not just some cue cards, write everything down. Read it several times in front of a mirror or just pacing around. That way, when you feel comfortable with the words, you'll feel more at ease about not choking up or making mistakes. You'll still have to go up there, but at least you'll have a bit more confidence in yourself which usually makes things run smoother. Also, *please* remember that no one really cares about you up there. Presentations are boring, only meant for the person evaluating your work. When I realized that most people are staring at their notebooks or phones, or just chatting with their friends instead of paying attention to me, things got a lot easier.
- For job interviews, being prepared is once again the best way to feel less nervous. Oftentimes, anxiety feeds off of any insecurity you might be feeling and blows it out of proportion. So, be prepared. A job interview is like giving a presentation on yourself. There are loads of websites that will give you examples of questions routinely asked by recruiters and employers. Read as many of them as you can, and write down a few bullet points for each one. Research the company you’re interviewing for, and try to put yourself in their shoes. What would they like to know? Also, once again, know they have probably gone through dozens of interviews, and almost all of them have been as nervous as you are.
If you struggle with exams and school assignments:
- Be honest with your teachers. Tell them you're struggling with your mental health and are unable to keep up with the deadlines. Once again, honesty is usually the best policy. Research your school's mental health services, and use them. They might not actually be good at providing therapy, but they may be able to assist with extension deadlines and special exam conditions. If a crowd of people, dutiful exam invigilators, or the pressure of a very important evaluation totally freak you out and will make you underperform, there are usually ways to accommodate that. You just need to read up on it and follow the correct procedure. The thing about anxiety is that it makes you so nervous that you feel you can't ask for help, but you can. And while some people are misinformed about it, a lot of them will empathize and try to help you.
If you struggle with going to the doctor:
- This is something I'm still learning how to deal with myself. Days ago, I had a panic attack about going in for a routine ultrasound. I cried for 30 minutes sitting on the bathroom floor. I hate hospitals, doctors, the sterile environment. Given how much I've struggled with my health all my life, I've lost count of the panic attacks I've had in doctors’ waiting rooms, choosing to be in ridiculous amounts of pain all because of my mental health. A good way to make yourself feel better is to think about the things doctors and nurses see every day, like people stuffing foreign objects in their butts—no kink-shaming, but stuff like shoes and whipped cream bottles should not go into your butt. Whatever your complaint is, they've probably heard it. The other folks in the waiting room? They’re likely too concerned about themselves or loved ones to be looking at you.
- Dress up in something that you find really comfortable, and take your phone or a book. If you can, bring someone with you. You're never too old to go to the doctor with your mom, trust me. Or ask a friend. If you must go alone, get on one of those meditation apps and meditate in the waiting room. Don't be afraid to ask for directions or help. That's what people are there for. It's their job. Also, drink water. You'd be surprised at how easy it is to get dehydrated when you're under loads of stress.
If you struggle with being around your family:
- Family can be great, but it can also be pretty horrible. If the latter is the case for you, don't feel obligated to be nice to them or be in the same room as them just because they're family. Sometimes the people in your family aren't good people and aren't good to you. You don't owe anyone niceness if you're being mistreated or disrespected. Don't be afraid to walk away from a family gathering if you feel uncomfortable. Offer to take out the trash, walk the dog, or say a friend just texted you and you need to step outside for a few minutes.
- Don't compromise your mental health to keep up family appearances. I learned that lesson this year. Now? I always have a migraine when certain family members come around. Or I've been throwing up. Or just feel really sick. Making the effort not to start any waves always ends up with sacrificing my mental well-being, and I refuse to do that again. You need to put yourself first. Family can be really complicated, but "a blood bond" isn't bonding at all. Respect, trust, and loyalty are.
If you struggle with going out and being with your friends:
- When you're dealing with anxiety, the simplest things can seem incredibly daunting. Leaving your house can seem as difficult as climbing a mountain; the prospect of a panic attack can make being out in the unknown feel like the hardest thing you've ever had to do. The messed up thing is the less you leave your house, the scarier it is going to feel. You need to leave the house, breathe in fresh air, and be around other people. Mental illness is very good at making you feel alone and making you isolate yourself at times when you need the support of those who care about you.
- Make sure you surround yourself with good people—people who understand your limits and don't try to push for something completely out of your comfort zone when you're in a vulnerable state. If necessary, stay within your comfort zone—a café you really like and have been to before, a park that you're familiar with, a quiet restaurant in which you feel safe. Take baby steps. If it all gets to be too much, leave. It's alright. The fact that you made the effort is a victory in itself. Know that you are in charge of your actions and your body, so if you need to leave, if you need to take your time, then you are allowed to do that.
The thing about anxiety is that it can be paralyzing. It takes on every irrational fear you have and makes you believe that it is real. The best thing you can do is be logical. Ask yourself, "What's the worst thing that can happen? And realistically, what are the odds of that actually happening?" You’ll find yourself weeding out the probable from the improbable. That was the biggest tool I developed in managing my anxiety—to challenge the dark thoughts and make myself understand that they're not real. It's not easy, and it's an endless battle, but you deserve happiness and a full life, so you need to fight for it, because no one else can do it for you. All that matters is that you keep trying. You're not successful on a certain occasion? That's fine. You try again. You take baby steps and learn how to forgive yourself for not being able to get it done this time. You stop being so hard on yourself. You keep trying, one day at a time. You are worthy of all the happiness in the world, and all you need to do is not give up.