How Therapy Helped Me Deal with My Debilitating Anxiety

How Therapy Helped Me Deal with My Debilitating Anxiety
Photo: Allison Kahler

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve always had very antiquated views of therapy. I thought it was an expensive health insurance add-on that people only used after going through traumatic experiences. Mental health was rarely brought up in my family of mostly women. We never talked about our problems; we pretended they didn’t exist or just dealt with them on our own. My mother did an excellent job of shielding my siblings and me from any hardships she went through. So, if you’d told me a year ago that therapy would become one of the most important things in my life, I probably would have laughed at you.

For me, 2017 began with a laundry list of resolutions: Find a new job, redecorate my apartment, write a play, read more books, lose 10 pounds, go back to church… the list goes on. I love being busy. For as long as I can remember, idle time equated to laziness. If I slept in one too many hours or couldn’t solve problems on my own, I felt I was falling short of the (unrealistic) expectations I set for myself. But the older I got, the more these ingrained habits and beliefs led to debilitating anxiety attacks and mornings where I could barely peel myself out of bed. I was an overachiever, but incredibly unhappy because the activities I filled my schedule with were the equivalent of empty calories: pointless and harmful.

If you’d told me a year ago that therapy would be one of the most important things in my life, I would have laughed.

I certainly didn’t have some huge epiphany that led me to finally decide to talk to a professional. Going into it, my expectations were pretty low. But it felt like everyone around me had a therapist of their own and my insurance covered it, so I figured, why not?

The first session did nothing to prove to my assumptions wrong. There were a lot of questions and talk about depression, but—true to my overachieving nature—I felt like I couldn’t just quit, and should stick it out for awhile. Plus, my primary physician recommended it as a way to help alleviate some of the physical issues I’d struggled with, like painful migraines and dizzy spells.

I’m glad I did, because although it was a slow burn, therapy eventually forced me to put my big-girl pants on and deal with some deep-rooted issues I’d been in denial about, but needed to face.

My ingrained overachieving habits led to anxiety attacks and mornings where I could barely get out of bed.

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Being the “Strong” One Got Exhausting

If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s being honest and telling it like it is. That’s why my friends have always looked to me for advice—unsolicited or otherwise. I’m the one you call in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep or the person who shows up when no one else does.

Knowing that people put you on a high pedestal is a major ego boost, and I thrived on it. Over time, it somehow became a key part of my identity. I rarely allowed myself to appear weak, vulnerable, or discuss my own problems because I didn’t want to let others down or make them feel as though I didn’t have time or energy to be there for them. Instead, I did what I saw my family do while I grew up: I insisted I was “fine!” or ignored it if anyone noticed I wasn’t doing so hot.

I rarely allowed myself to appear weak or vulnerable because I didn’t want to let others down.

Therapy ultimately helped me break that pattern. My therapist doesn’t talk over me after asking a question. Instead, she sits and stares until I answer it for myself; even if it takes the entire hour for me to do. It was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever experienced (staring contests are awkward), but once you get used to spilling your guts week after week… you start to like it.

One of the most important things I learned through therapy is that flushing out the thoughts you keep trapped inside your head isn’t weak. It’s empowering. I’m still learning to let my guard down with the ones I love most, but until then, I know I have a place where I can do it without squirming. To me, that qualifies as self-care.

Once you get used to spilling your guts week after week, you start to like it.

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Bubble Baths and Candles Don’t Always Cut It

Modifying (and prioritizing) my self-care routine to reflect my emotional needs was another positive change that came about as a result of therapy. As a beauty editor, I’m used to writing about bath bombs, candles, and other soothing products that lend themselves to a relaxing night—but truth be told, none of those things have ever worked for me. They feel good and pack plenty of outward benefits, but my obsession with achievement and strength required a strategy that dug deeper.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as turning off my phone or telling my boss that I need to take a half-day. When an anxiety attack rears its ugly head, I now know it’s easier to simply acknowledge my feelings rather than cover them up with unhealthy habits, like drinking or lashing out.

I now know it’s easier to simply acknowledge my feelings rather than drink or lash out.

Another major game-changer for me was writing out a schedule every week with my therapist. I still find it slightly embarrassing to admit that I need help planning my days out. But after accounting for every hour, I quickly realized that I left no time to even get a decent night’s sleep. It’s no wonder my anxiety was always through the roof—I’d gotten addicted to overbooking myself!

Of course, I’m still a work in progress (and always will be), but I’ve learned that I don’t need to say yes to everything. Sometimes, I need to go home and eat a decent meal. And ironically, I now have more time to sit in a bathtub with a candle or two.

I’m still a work in progress—and always will be—but I’ve learned that I don’t need to say yes to everything.

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Awareness is the First Step

I could write a short novel about all the lightbulb moments and lifestyle changes I’ve made since prioritizing therapy. In short, for all its (significant) benefits, therapy is not a quick fix for anything. Trust me—I questioned why I was even doing it for a full three months. Getting to know yourself takes time; a lifetime for some.

I think the first step is learning to acknowledge the things that stifle you. For me, that was anxiety and random bouts of depression. I didn’t know why either of them kept happening, which made them even more difficult to face. Working with a therapist helped me to discover the habits that were exacerbating them.

Once I could identify my triggers, I was able to test-drive tons of techniques to alleviate them. I’m still figuring it all out, but nothing is more freeing than being able to turn the lights on in my head and take a good look at what’s going on. And once you can see that stuff, it becomes easier to let go of. My only goal for 2018 is to continue this without the distraction of traditional resolutions that I won’t keep anyway.