Breaking Through Despair

Last fall, I went through a time of debilitating anxiety that was difficult to recuperate from. I lost weight. I lost confidence. I lost hope. I even felt like I lost myself.

The thing about being in the dark for so long is that, when you do finally come outside and open your eyes, everything is so much brighter. Now, months later, I am living out the future I feared, and there has been so much unexpected joy.

For a while, I have wanted to share some of the things that I found helpful during that time. It has taken me some time to decide what to include, but my hope is that the following will be an encouragement to you.

First, I kept moving. Having had anxiety for so long, I knew that the best way to get rid of it is to get out of the house and have little victories. I would have to do something somewhat hard in order to relax afterwards. If I stayed at home where my family knew what I was going through, I would just sit in my condition. But if I went out where nobody knew, I could at least pretend that I was normal. Which brings me to the second thing.

I pretended I was normal. This was something my dad helped me with. He would say, “You have to act normal to feel normal.” I have learned again and again how true this is. Sometimes this meant doing something as simple as taking a shower in the morning and fixing myself up. Sometimes it meant walking with good posture instead of hunching over. Sometimes it meant forcing myself to smile or laugh. The amazing thing is, these simple actions really did make me feel more normal. The true “me” was able to show her face for an instant, and I remembered who I really was. I was able to separate myself from the anxiety and feel like myself. So I tried to fill my life with normal moments, spending somevtime with people who made me laugh and remembering how I would normally be and trusting that k would be like that again.

I didn’t worry about food. Actually, I did. I worried about it a lot. But, over time, I learned that I didn’t need to. When I’m anxious, I can’t eat, and I don’t truly feel normal until I can eat solid food. For most of the week, I was obsessing about getting that solid food. But I couldn’t, and I was losing hope. Then I remembered. First of all, I have never starved to death. I am always able to eat something eventually. Second, people live on liquid diets all the time. Just because it’s liquid doesn’t mean it’s not nutritious. So I swallowed down some liquids every day, trusting that was okay and that one day I would eat solid food again. What helped was to not worry so much about it.

When I was really struggling to get something down, I tried distracting myself. I’d play a video game and take a sip whenever I lost or beat a level. I took a sip during commercial breaks or at the red light. One of the most successful things I tried was thinking of a person I loved and taking a sip in their honor, a kind of toast. It reminded me what I was doing all of this for, and it reminded me, again, that I was someone with friends and family who loved me a lot. I was able to look at myself from their point of view and see how much they cared and how much they would want to see me well again.

I kept a happy journal. Every day, I would write down at least three things I was grateful for or that made me happy and at least three things I was looking forward to. I just focused on the beautiful things in life. For instance, I would write something like, “Today I am grateful for sunshine, for the color green, and for the smell of rain. I am looking forward to soaking in the sun in the summer, to taking a walk today, and to going to church on Sunday.”

I chose joy. There is a quote by Elizabeth Eliot: “You have to choose joy and keep choosing it.” To me, this looked like filling my life with good things. If I watched a movie or something on television, I chose something positive and feel-good. This also went for music, books, articles, etc. Psychologically, we can train our minds to think negatively or positively. It’s like walking in one direction for so long that it digs a rut in the ground. You want to break out of the rut and start a path in new territory. Switch your thoughts to positive things. Don’t think of this as pouring out the bad as much as just flooding in the good so that it washes away the bad as a result. Talk about your joys. Find something to laugh at. Go outside. Read the Bible. Whatever gives you joy, seek it out.

I didn’t fight bad thoughts. This may sound counterintuitive, but I knew that I was not in the mental condition to argue myself out of negativity. I knew that I had things I needed to figure out, but that was a fight that needed to happen when I was stronger. For now, I just needed to get through the day one step at a time. So I let myself hold off on those thoughts and learned how to post-pone worry for a better time. This is something I still do sometimes, and it has been extremely helpful and effective. No fears or worries or obsessive thoughts have to be dealt with right now. So relax and wait until you’re ready.

I focused on one moment at a time. This is so important, and it is also something that takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I literally had to close off my “peripheral” vision of past and future and narrow my vision to the present. This allowed me to deal with one thing at a time and not worry about tomorrow.

I slept. Sometimes catching up on sleep is all you need. It certainly doesn’t hurt.

I exercised. When I was feeling better and getting more calories in, I tried some exercises like running and yoga. Not only did it help by calming my mind and releasing endorphins, but it also reminded me that I was strong and had some control over my body.

I saw my counselor. Seeing a counselor can be hard, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. The important thing is to come with an open mind and with a desire to get better. Listen. Take notes. Try new things.

I prayed. Prayer at this time was hard. I was grateful to have others praying prayers for me that I couldn’t pray for myself. Often, my prayers were as simple as stating to God that I trusted Him, even if I didn’t feel that I did. I practiced His presence. Like positive thoughts, a relationship with God is something that takes time and practice. Now is the time to create good habits. I don’t want to treat God like a quick fix or a medication, but I also knew at that time that I needed Him  badly, and there is no shame in admitting that to Him and asking for His help. And He certainly did help. It was by His strength and by the hope of His goodness that I kept moving forward. I knew that, while I didn’t understand Him or why some things happened, I knew from my past, from scripture, and from the testimonies of others that He was good, and that He would not leave me alone.

I took mental breaks. Sometimes I just needed to give myself a rest, so I would read a book (or listen to an audio book) and just shut off everything else. I would color and watch a movie. I would listen to music with some rain sounds in the background (using the RainRain app). I would do anything to just turn off for a while, building up my physical and emotional strength.

I changed my diet. Again, I wasn’t able to do this until I was feeling well enough to focus on what I was eating. I cut out sugar and started introducing a lot more nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and lean meats. Like exercising, this made me feel strong and in control. Feeling healthy in itself is a great way to feel better emotionally.

Finally, I tried. Not all of these things will work for you. The important thing is to try. You have to want to get better and keep trying things until you find something that works. Know that you will get better. Know that you are loved and that there are people who want you to get better. Talk to people and let them pray for you. Have someone who can encourage you along the way, even if it’s just a text message every once in a while. You can’t fight all the time, and that’s okay. Curl up in a ball on the couch when you need to, but don’t stay there.

Lastly, if prescribed medication gives you comfort and you notice results, go for it. I increased my medication at this time, and I think that it was helpful for me. But don’t rely on medications alone. Diet is a huge factor, as well as negative thoughts and an unhealthy lifestyle. Think of healing as a holistic approach. It requires everything from food to exercise to positive thinking to prayer. Again, the important thing is to try—to choose joy, and to keep choosing it.

PS. I took a picture of the flower above with a  camera I got as a graduation gift. Art, or anything that reminds you of the beauty in the world, is great therepy as well, especially in the winter when things are looking grey.


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