“Let me introduce you to a remarkable person with an amazing life story. When Tessa Zimmerman was a young teenager, she was told she’d never be able to lead a normal life –– due to her severe anxiety disorders. Rather than surrender to her illness, this determined young lady confronted her adversary –– and won, against all odds. Tessa graduated from college with high honors, founded a nonprofit (to help high school kids manage stress and anxiety), and wrote a book, I Am Tessa, which was launched this month. (Proceeds are being donated to charity.) I applaud Tessa for her courage, determination, and commitment to make a difference. It is important to mention that I do not accept, nor did I receive, any benefit for my endorsement. My sole purpose for publishing this piece is to share a valuable resource with you.” –– Frank Sonnenberg
A Remarkable Story About Overcoming Severe Anxiety
By Tessa Zimmerman
I am not supposed to be a joy-filled person. I am supposed to be an anxiety-ridden 21-year-old hiding under the covers of my bed, watching the world pass me by.
When I was 13, a therapist told me I’d never go to college and would live at home for the rest of my life because I have multiple severe anxiety disorders.
I’m proud to say that the therapist was absolutely wrong.
That particular therapist didn’t believe I had any choice but to be anxious. But the truth is we all have a choice in how our story unfolds, anxiety disorder or not.
The ability to choose has taught me the difference between reacting and responding, specifically how those directly correlate to the joy I experience in my life.
When I react, I choose anxiety. I don’t think, but instead I go into the autopilot fight-or-flight response. This response was successful for my ancestors, but now I have the same response to a misread email that they had to a wild animal attacking them.
Usually these fight-or-flight decisions turn out okay. No one gets hurt, except for myself. I’m the one who feels like I just fled a wild herd of elephants about to stampede.
When I respond, I give myself the space to act from a place that feels good, rather than from a state of fear. Then the happiness is unbounded because these decisions and actions feel good. I’ll be honest; I do not magically wake up and feel like this. I have to rely on daily tools to keep choosing joy and stop myself from reacting with anxiety.
5 Tools to Ditch Anxiety, Respond Effectively, and Unlock Joy
These are tools that I use to ditch anxiety, respond effectively, and unlock joy.
- Write daily gratitude letters. I call these my “letters to the universe.” Each night (or morning), depending on what my day is like, I write one thing I am grateful for, one thing I am looking forward to, and one thing I need help with. Before I write each letter, I take a moment to connect to my breath, soften my body, and check in with myself. Anxiety likes to focus on what’s going wrong; these letters have helped my brain rewire itself to focusing on what’s going right.
- Set calendar reminders to breathe. In every moment, I find there is an opportunity to connect to my breath and body (some moments are a bit more difficult than others). I put reminders on my iPhone calendar to breathe. It keeps me accountable and provides ample opportunities to respond, not react.
- Build your tribe. I’m a big believer that it takes a village especially when it comes to ditching anxiety. I’ve built a community of people around me who serve different purposes in my life. I’ve got the friend who will go to meditations with me, while I have a different friend who I can run emails by before I send them. Ditching anxiety is a whole lot more powerful when you consciously do it with others around you (and it’s a lot more fun that way too).
- Create personal mantras. I’m a big believer in the one-liners of positivity that provide little boosts throughout the day. These can be simple statements of “I am,” such as “I am supported” or “I am capable of handling whatever comes my way.” My favorite mantra right now is “I shift myself to uplift others.” I find this mantra to be powerful because often I find people won’t necessarily do things for themselves, but they’ll be motivated to make a change if it’s for someone else.
- Listen to your body. In the New Year, everyone is obsessed with what the latest health trends are and how to drop the pounds gained during the holiday season. Don’t get me wrong — I love that in the New Year, people start to pay better attention to their bodies. But instead of taking someone else’s advice, take your own: Listen to your body and pay attention to how different foods make you feel. This is a practice of learning to respond to what your body needs, instead of what your mind thinks.
Ditching anxiety for joy is not about big, radical life changes because those tend to be unsustainable.
Where the real magic lies is in the small, consistent changes — that’s how I’ve built up the ability to respond and unlock the joy. These 5 tools lay the foundation to create ripples of change and positivity.
How Will You Say “Goodbye” to Anxiety in 2017 for a Year of Unbounded Joy?
This post is adapted from I Am Tessa by Tessa Zimmerman, © 2017 Tessa Zimmerman. All rights reserved.
Tessa Zimmerman is the founder of ASSET Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching students how to mitigate stress in the present so they can build resilience for the future. In her debut book, I AM TESSA, she shares her story of growing up with anxiety and tools to help young people thrive. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with a B.S. in Entrepreneurship from Watson University and Lynn University. Tessa is also a 200-hour certified Strala Yoga Guide. To learn more about Tessa, follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.
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