Having It All — Even Anxiety
Written by Kate Lewis
[Editor’s note: Today’s article recounts one author’s experience with anxiety, and the tools she’s used to combat the problems anxiety causes in her life. The content below is the opinion only of the author, and does not represent the opinions of Babes Who Hustle or its partners. This article does not (and is not meant to) dispense medical advice. If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another form of mental illness, talk to someone today—ideally, a medical professional.]
I never considered I might not be able to “have it all” until my first year of college. I sat in a small, bricked-off courtyard outside my biology classroom (the only place I could find any privacy) shaking more with each unanswered ring that droned like a deadly bee in my ear. I secretly prayed my university’s Counseling and Psychological Services department just wouldn’t pick up; that I could go back to pretending I was fine. But they did pick up, and I had to confess everything.
My grades had begun to slip because of concentration issues. I’d started showing up late to my research laboratory because of the chronic fatigue and insomnia, and I’d grown increasingly scared and isolated because of my social anxiety. It was humiliating to admit this to anyone, much less a complete stranger, but at the time, it seemed easier to tell a therapist than my parents.
My first session didn’t help, but I kept going. I felt like all my dreams were slowly slipping through my fingers, and I didn’t know who else to turn to. As the weeks went by, my therapist didn’t cure me, but he did help me cope. It was up to me to recover the ground I’d lost while he made sure I didn’t lose any more.
We all feel anxious when we’re scared or stressed. But excessive anxiety—anxiety without direct cause, or other abnormalities can lead to a clinical diagnosis. According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the adult population every year. It’s even worse for women; up to age 50, women are almost twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder as men, and nearly 24 percent of women experience some kind of anxiety disorder.
I’m part of that 24 percent. While I don’t take “having it all” for granted anymore, my mental health issues have changed what “having it all” means to me. Traditionally, “having it all” means juggling a successful career with a happy home and children. Almost any book or article about “having it all” will tell you the key is balance. In a country with no mandatory paid child leave and little institutional support for working moms, “having it all” is still daunting for hustling moms. But the key to “having it all” isn’t balance—it’s a healthy mind and a healthy body, and balance is only one tool of many you can use to get there.
Kids were never part of my “having it all”, and I’ll happily rebuff anyone who tells me they should be. I have plenty of other dreams—professional and personal—to balance. These dreams (successful journalism career, loving spouse, a home with a garden, lots of books, lots of dogs) haven’t changed since recognizing and treating my mental health issues. But getting there has gotten harder, and I’ve had to accept certain limitations. I know I’m easily overwhelmed by crowds and loud noise, and do best in smaller cities. I know I need a job with medical insurance that covers psychological services. I know I need a partner who can help me through panic attacks.
But that’s all a long way down the road. Juggling work as a digital marketer with the craziness of launching my own journalism newsletter is overwhelming enough without the task of constantly managing my anxiety. Many of you are accomplishing tremendous firsts as women and as entrepreneurs, and whether you’re in sight of the finish line or still defining what your finish line looks like, a lot of you have to deal with anxiety or other mental health issues, too.
I haven’t “beaten” my anxiety; it’s not something I can cure. But I’ve learned to manage it, while balancing the rest of my life, through planning, confidence and support. Here are some of the things that have helped me.
Make a plan—even if you don’t stick to it
My mom always told me not to bite off more than I could chew. Drawing up an outline of how I want my day and week to go lets me identify reasonable goals for my time, versus what’s going to loom over my head and stress me out.
Either mentally or in the notes app on my phone, I make a plan before I get out of bed each morning. On days when my anxiety is particularly bad and getting out from my sheets seems particularly terrifying, this is how I get out of bed in the morning.
The things I say I’ll do in the morning rarely all happen by nightfall. I may need to respond to an emergency, or I may get hit by a sudden inspiration for a great new idea I just have to pursue. I can be calm and flexible, because I have my plan as a framework and can jump off in whatever direction becomes most productive.
Nurture your confidence
I know all too well that if this is a sore spot for you, the worst thing to hear is simply, “be confident.” It’s OK if you haven’t figured out how to do that yet–I didn’t figure it out until college. I realized the only person I could count on to always be my cheerleader was myself, and that it wasn’t benefiting anyone for me to be bad at that. I didn’t start calling myself “beautiful” in the mirror or whispering affirmative mantras before bed, but I did start giving myself the same pep talks I’d given countless times to my friends when they felt scared, or disappointed or worthless. Over time, I grew to believe in myself as much as my loved ones do.
Self-confidence takes practice. It’s not believing you’re infallible or that the world owes you anything. You will make mistakes, and you will face both just and unjust criticism. Confidence is taking those mistakes in stride, because you know you will learn from them and they will only help you grow.
Keep your support network close
When you get overwhelmed—truly overwhelmed, to the point of immobility—is not when you want to reach out to your friends or your family for the very first time. A lot of the obstacles I could be overwhelmed by are manageable because I check in with the people I love regularly, and they check in with me. Maybe a small hurdle seems too insignificant to bring up to your friends or partner—but it keeps the little things that dig at the back of your mind from building up and weighing you down.
If you don’t feel like you have a support network you can rely on, start building one today. You don’t have to be an extrovert to draw strength from human connection; we all need people in our lives to love and to love us. It’s easy to let these connections slide when you feel overwhelmed or busy, but they are more essential to your mental health than almost anything else in this list.
I’m not here to tell you how to balance your life, but I will tell you that balance is a daily battle from your first breath of morning until your mind finally falls asleep. These are a few of the weapons I’ve found most effective, and I hope you can use some of them to have it all—your way.
A longtime resident of the 904, Kate Lewis teaches piano by day and writes by night. Her writing, featured in HuffPost, Whalebone Magazine and elsewhere, is inspired by both her love of music and her background in science. She is the creator and editor of Powerhouse, a newsletter and independent publication designed to bring science-based reporting to the public and highlight curious people with something to tell us about the world. You can subscribe to Powerhouse and follow @NewsPowerhouse and @kateolewis on Twitter.