Balancing Stones CalmWhen I was younger, I was a softball pitcher.  

I was pretty good at it too. As the pitcher of the varsity softball team my freshman year of high school, I once pitched an (almost) perfect game. The other team got a single hit.

Many long hours were spent honing my pitching skills and techniques. I went to specialized pitching coaches and softball camps. We even had a station set up in my unfinished basement where I could practice pitching by myself against a concrete wall, and the ball would bounce back to me.  

While practicing is important, it’s your mental state that will win or lose the game for your team. I remember that I once walked in the winning run in our high school division’s tournament, which meant that we didn’t get to go to the state tournament. Fortunately, not a single teammate communicated that they thought it was my fault.

I still thought it was.

I spent time honing my visualization skills. I practiced having a positive attitude and believing that the next pitch would be a strike. If I was down on myself, I figured out how to change my attitude. I felt that it was my responsibility to choose a positive attitude. If I did, I could turn everything around for myself and my team.  

This was too much pressure for a 14-year old.  

This focus on choosing and changing my attitude permeated other aspects of my life.  

When I was younger I was regularly injured. I ended up needed to have surgery on my ankle and knee because I played through injuries. I would “choose my attitude” and tell myself that it didn’t actually hurt that bad and that I didn’t deserve special treatment.

After one game where my team committed a number of errors, our coach told us to run until she told us to stop. I literally ran until I was writhing on the ground in pain. Because I “chose my attitude,” I wouldn’t allow myself to stop. I’d wait for something external to stop me. That injury caused me to be out for the rest of the season.

As I became an adult, this misguided perspective continued to haunt me. The biggest issue was that I stayed in jobs where I was miserable for too long. If I could just “change my attitude,” things would get better. I believed the main issue was about me, and I had the power to change my situation by changing my attitude.

Earlier this year, my job got to a point where I could no longer manage the stress and challenges. One day, I had a heated conversation with my boss about how she was asking me to do things that went against my personal values.

That night I woke up at 3 AM having a panic attack.  

It wasn’t a normal panic attack. The best way that I can describe it is that in my mind there was a dam that had been holding all of the stress and anxiety behind it for the last few years (and really my entire life). The dam was cracking and it finally gave way.

Dam Water Mountain

Everything came crashing through at once, and there was no dam left to hold the stress. I could no longer handle it.

A single thought about work would cause me to have a panic attack. Opening my work computer would cause a panic attack. Something as simple as getting an unexpected phone call would cause a panic attack. On a scale of 0 to 100, my stress tolerance was at 0.  

I now see that because I wouldn’t consciously choose to get myself out of a toxic situation, my mind and body finally said, “enough is enough,” and forced me to get out.  

While this situation was extremely challenging for me, I can now look back and realize that this was also a tremendous period of personal growth. I learned a lot and made significant life changes that I will carry forward with me for the rest of my life.  

I hope my story can serve as an inspiration and provide advice or hope for anyone experiencing something similar.

My Treatment Plan

I was very fortunate to have already been going to individual therapy. It can be quite challenging to find a therapist, especially if you are in crisis. Luckily, Imy next appointment with my therapist was already scheduled for the morning of my major panic episode.

If you are in need of a therapist, I recommend the directory on Psychology Today.

Together, my therapist and I decided that I wasn’t going to go to work. Initially, we thought that it might be a few days or weeks.

When we realized how critical the situation was, we submitted the paperwork to the company’s disability insurance and FMLA, so that I could stay out of work for an extended period of time.  

I ended up being out of work on disability for about 4 months.

During this time, I did a lot of treatment:

  • I went to individual therapy 1-2 times/week.
  • I did a 12-week skills-based group therapy (Dialectic Behavioral Therapy) to learn skills to manage the anxiety.
  • I saw a psychiatrist every 2-4 weeks and began taking medication.  
  • Most importantly, I had time for self-care. I had time to read, exercise, walk the dog, write, reflect, meditate, relax, and get better.

I was able to reduce the stress level in my life down to zero (for the most part), so I could begin rebuilding the dam. Just as in a literal dam, if it breaks, you can’t rebuild it if water continues to flow. You must stop the water before you can rebuild the dam. 

Because I was able to give myself the time and space to heal, I learned a lot that has transformed my life since then. Before getting into what I learned, I want to share some of the financial ramifications.

Financial Ramifications

When someone deals with a major health issue, not only do they lose income, they are also burdened with the cost of care.

I am extremely fortunate on both fronts. My company had short- and long-term disability insurance, and I have health insurance that covers mental health.  

On the income side, I was able to get approved for my company’s short-term disability and later long-term disability. This benefit provided me with 60% of my income during the time of my disability. Because I was only losing 40% of my income and the fact that I had F-You Money, I was able to move through this time without feeling stress about money.  

On the expenses side, even with insurance treatment can be expensive. As I said, I was going to individual therapy 1-2 times/week, group therapy once/week, and the psychiatrist every 2-4 weeks. I think it’s safe to say that I had 10+ appointments per month.  

With insurance, I was paying about $250/month for treatment. Without insurance, it would have been closer to $1,000-1,500. Had I not had insurance, this higher cost still would have been worth it.   

I feel so fortunate to be able to have gone through this experience with my finances relatively unscathed.

Critical Lessons Learned about Managing Anxiety

While this time was incredibly challenging, I can now look back and realize that I learned a lot. I will carry forward these learnings with me for the rest of my life. I now believe I am in a better situation, and my life is now better because of what I’ve learned.  

Understanding and Listening to Your Emotions is Vital

This sounds fairly simple and self-explanatory, but it isn’t.

For my entire life, I had been pushing aside negative emotions believing that I could and should choose to have a positive attitude instead.  

First, I needed to be able to identify the emotions that I was experiencing. Since I had compartmentalized negative emotions for so long, I often didn’t know what I was feeling. I only knew I was feeling bad.

Mindfulness helped a lot with this. Starting a daily mindfulness practice using the headspace app has been life-changing for me.

I can now easily identify when I’m experiencing an emotion, positive or negative, what emotion it is (fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, etc.), and can usually identify its cause. That was the first step.  

Sad face mask

Another important learning was to see both positive and negative emotions as nothing more than tools that are telling me something important.

  • Positive emotions tell me that something is going well in my life, and I should continue to invest my time and energy there.
  • Negative emotions are red flags telling me that something isn’t quite right. If I understand the cause of the emotion and know that its intensity matches the situation, it’s a message that there’s something in my life that needs to change. 

Building Skills to Manage Intense Anxiety

I also learned strategies and techniques for managing intense emotions as they were happening. First, it’s important to not try to solve your problem when you are experiencing emotional distress.

It’s most important to first accept what you are feeling and then do something that will decrease the intensity. When you are feeling somewhat better, you can turn your focus to solving the problem.  

Some strategies that I learned to manage and get through negative emotions include:

  • Meditation or simply intentionally slowing down my breathing
  • Taking a walk or doing something active
  • Removing myself from a situation that is too stressful, at least for a time
  • Grounding myself through the use of the senses, such as essential oils, peppermint tea, spicy candy
  • Doing something comforting or enjoyable, such as watching a show, reading a book, or drinking a cup of coffee to get my mind off it until I felt better.

All of these strategies can help to ground and comfort you. Once you are back to a place where you can think clearly, that’s when you can best figure out a solution. Trying to find a solution at the moment might only make it worse. 

Be kind to yourself.  

Decreasing Emotional Vulnerability through Self-care

There are days when something simple will set me off. There are also days where I feel like I can handle anything that comes my way. There’s usually a lot of other things going on behind my reactions.

We all have a harder time managing difficult situations when we are tired, hungry, sick, or feeling overwhelmed.

I’ve focused on self-care to decrease this vulnerability. I’ve focused on:

  • Sleeping enough. My goal is to get 8 hours of sleep/night. Because I hit that pretty consistently, on weekends, I even wake up early on my own.
  • Eating healthy (and enough). I don’t just get hungry; I get hangry. I’ve been focusing on eating healthy foods and ensuring that I’m eating enough, so I don’t get hangry.  
  • Exercise. While I haven’t gone crazy with this, especially with my recent foot surgery, I have been walking more and lifting weights.  
  • Taking medication. For me, medication is vital to managing my anxiety, so ensuring that I’m taking it consistently is a form of self-care.  
  • Avoiding alcohol. While I haven’t been avoiding alcohol completely, I do notice a difference when I drink. I tend to be more irritable and in a worse mood. I’ve been limiting alcohol intake significantly.
  • Seeking out positive experiences. I’ve been spending time with friends, walking the dog, relaxing, blogging, etc.  

All of these things help me to better handle the things that come my way.  

Setting Myself up for Long-term Happiness

For me, this period of learning was focused on going beyond my previous baseline, which was actually much closer to survival mode. I’m not okay with living my life in survival mode.

I want to be thriving, pursuing things that I’m passionate about and working toward my ideal life.  

Looking back, I am now very thankful that this major depressive episode happened right after our Maine retreat over the summer where Corey and I had decided to pursue financial independence (FI). When we made this decision, we made a commitment that the journey was as important as the destination.  

To us, this means that we aren’t willing to put off our happiness until we reach FI. We believe that financial independence should be a process of discovery that allows us to take steps now to work toward our ideal life.  

Fall Foliage Winding Path

Because of this belief and the incredible content and encouragement from many members of the FI community, I ended up making significant shifts in my life.  

  1. I quit the job in the toxic work environment that was making me miserable.
  2. I started this blog because I believe it will help me work toward my ideal life of eventually having location independence.
  3. I decided to accept a part-time job in a nonprofit organization whose mission I believe in.

Working 3 days/week enables me to work, spend time on my blog, pursue my passions, and still feel like I have balance in my life.  

Learning my Limits and Setting Boundaries

I am at my best when I feel balanced and relaxed. I used to be constantly on the go and would say “yes” to everything. The constant overwhelm caused a lot of stress.

Instead of saying “yes” to everything, I now thoughtfully consider what saying “yes” would mean for my time and my energy. I’m even pushing back at work when there’s something I don’t want to do or if a timeline feels unrealistic.

In the last several months, I’ve said no to a lot of things. I quit volunteer opportunities. I said no to get-togethers that I didn’t want to attend. I only committed to big work projects after my boss agreed that I could deprioritize other things.  

I am learning to put myself first when I need to. I’m limiting the things in my life that I don’t want or need to do.  

From Disabling Anxiety to Thriving in 6 months

The last six months have been the most challenging in my life. At the same time, I learned a lot and feel like I am in a much better place because of this experience.  

This experience gave me the time and space to reflect on what I wanted in life, both now and in the future. It gave me the conviction that focusing on happiness in my life now is as important as focusing on the future.

I’ve spent time rediscovering my passions and explored what my ideal life looks like. Even though I haven’t yet reached Financial Independence, I’ve determined how I can live a life where I have the opportunity to work toward those things now.

The emotion that I feel as I write this is gratitude. Gratitude for the support from family, friends, and treatment providers. Gratitude for the things that I learned. Gratitude that I have the opportunity to pursue a life now that better aligns with my ideal life.  

While I still have bad moments and days, I can say that overall, I am happy with the life I’ve built for myself.  

What challenges have you experienced in your life that led to personal transformation and learning?  

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