Most people who know me know that I struggle with anxiety and depression. What most friends and acquaintances are unaware of is that I had struggled with a crippling phobia. From around the ages of ten and twelve, I couldn’t go to certain stores or see certain commercials. It was the worst around one infamous holiday: Halloween. For the whole month of October, I could not set foot in stores like Walgreens or Party City, for fear of being bombarded by leering masks and macabre decorations lining the walls from every side.
Whenever I would a genuinely frightening Halloween decoration at proximity, most often, my vision would swim and my stomach would drop to the soles of my feet. I would have a panic attack right there, often trying to get as far away from the area as possible, or when I couldn’t, squeezing my eyes shut until my mom led me out of that area. The rest of the day would be spent trying to flush what I had seen out of my brain, even losing my appetite at dinner and seeing the scary decorations when I was trying to drift off to sleep.
Whenever one of my parents informed me that we needed to go to the store, my thoughts would race. I knew which stores had the most realistic and terrifying decorations and which ones I could get through with minimal trauma. I would plead to go to those stores instead, trying to convince them that whatever they needed they could also get at the stores I knew to be safer for me. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
It also happened whenever the TV was playing absentmindedly in the background of restaurants, doctor’s offices, or during a casual viewing of a football game. A commercial for The Walking Dead would come on, or a horror movie preview would flash across the screen, and I would instinctively run out of the room, pressing the palms of my hands over my ears and clenching my teeth, willing myself to not hear or think about what I had just witnessed.
As most people with severe phobia can testify that the more you try to not let yourself think of something, the more it will dominate your mind, both in your waking and sleeping hours. I remember having many nightmares that echoed whatever terrifying thing had accosted me most recently, whether it was a mechanical Grim Reaper at Walgreens or a 20-second preview for the most recent slasher flick.
After this affliction tormented me for at least three years, my mother took me to see a children’s therapist, a women I fondly referred to as “Miss Lily”, who possessed all of the beauty and kindness that her name would imply. I was wary at first, my eager-to-please brain assuming that I was here for some trouble I had caused. Most children associate having a serious talk with an adult with being in some kind of deep, deep trouble.
However, Miss Lily’s gentle demeanor quelled the apprehensive, wary thoughts in my head and I soon considered her to be a mentor rather than a disciplinarian. She first asked me to rate “levels” of my fears; like which scary stuff triggered the biggest gut-reaction. I was intrigued and puzzled by the concept. Kids don’t rate their fear. They just know what stuff they really don’t like and try to avoid it the best they can. This was my first experience in the difference between nervousness and anxiety.
Next, based on the the levels of fear I had established, we moved on to exposure therapy. My overactive imagination made this out to be a sort of brainwashing-torture scenario, like the kind where they tape your eyes open and force you to stare at a screen full of subliminal messages. However, as you could imagine, this was the exact opposite of the truth. The process occurred over a series of sessions over a series of months.
Miss Lily started by bringing in a small plastic skeleton, about the size of my forearm with a non-threatening appearance. I was fine with this. This wasn’t what I was afraid of. It was the big, terrifying monstrosities that haunted my dreams.
Next, we moved on to a more realistic plastic skull, similar to something you might see in a science classroom. She told me to name it to make it less intimidating, and the name I chose was Sofia, demonstrating that my ironic humor was already exceptional at such a young age. She sat on top of my school shelf for a long time, a reminder of how far I have come.
Next, she introduced me to a standard grotesque monster mask, the kind that sadistic teenagers wear on Halloween to scare the daylights out of unsuspecting little princesses and cowboys. She had me look at it, touch it, when I was comfortable enough, she put it on herself and then let me put it on as well. The whole process was slightly uncomfortable, but nowhere near the terror I had come to associate with the macabre and the sinister.
I was probably introduced to more things after that, even if I don’t exactly remember them. I just remember the immense pride I felt every time I held or touched something that previously would have frozen me in fear. Miss Lily had taught me that some reactions your brain has in certain circumstances, like fear, is irrational and undeserved.
Now, I even enjoy scary movies, with only a spine-tingling adrenaline rush or a flash of surprise at jump-scares. I can barely believe that I once was unable to enter specific stores close to October. I can barely believe that I used to bolt out of the room every time a Walking Dead commercial popped on the TV.
I now realize that what I was suffering from was a phobia. Something I could identify, address, and overcome with time and work. However, I returned to Miss Lily in later years for guidance in dealing with my heavy anxiety. I expected this time to be like the last. Some exposure treatment and I would be on my merry way. I soon learned, however, anxiety is not something that can be vanquished. It can only be managed.
Anxiety is like having a phobia of the most random things, normal things, or characteristically enjoyable things. And you never know what you will be anxious about. As soon as you figure out one thing that triggers your anxiety and try to avoid it, something else will pop up that might trigger it even more.
“Facing your fears” is never really an option when you could be scared of anything at any time. It is more accurate to say “Acknowledge your fears”. Ignoring things that make you anxious is the worst and most common way of coping with anxiety. However, by acknowledging that something makes you nervous and worried provides you with an opportunity to step back and examine how to react. This allows you to be more in control of your reaction, as you are less likely to lash out or snap at someone nearby when you realize how little of your life has to be affected by this current problem.
Sometimes, we determine how much this thing has to change our lives. If we stop doing what we enjoy, push our family and friends away, and become hyper-focused on this one thing, then the anxiety has won. You gave it the power to not only affect your mind, but your wellbeing and your relationships with those around you. It is ok to be nervous and worried about something. It happens to everyone. Giving voice to your worry is one of the simplest and most vital ways to address your anxiety. It makes others aware of your emotional state, and in turn, helps you to feel less alone since those around you will naturally want to help you with what you are feeling.
However, for those of us who actively struggle with anxiety, we have to be conscious of how much control we give our anxiety by either ignoring it or internalizing it. It loses its power on you when you address it as what it is: a condition that people all over the world struggle with.
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Until next time!