Stefania has grown a large community of followers with her account @dearmyanxiety by sharing her mental health journey. She was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at 20 years old. After being advised to try writing and journaling by her therapist, as a coping tool, she started addressing her writing directly to her anxiety.
Today, her account connects with hundreds of thousands of followers—one way of showing people with anxiety that they are not alone. Here’s what she had to tell us about her journey.
Where would you say your mental health journey began?
I started to have anxiety when I was a young girl, around 5 years old. At the time, I didn't know it was anxiety. I didn't know how to put what I was feeling into words. Now that I'm older I can look back on it and see that it was anxiety that I was experiencing and all through my childhood.
I was an anxious child, always feeling anxious at school. When I would have to present–there's obviously normal nervousness–but I would feel so sick that I would vomit, and it would be so debilitating for me. As I got older and entered high school, that's when I started to face new obstacles.
I had my first boyfriend, and I started experiencing more things in the ‘real world’. When you're a kid, you don't know too much, and as you grow up, you experience all these new and different things. That's where my anxiety really escalated, and it became hard for me to ignore. I knew that it was something that I needed to start paying attention to.
It got really bad. I was constantly vomiting. I was having a lot of physical symptoms, and I didn't know where they were coming from. I'm like, “What's happening? I'm shaking all the time. My chest is hurting. I’m vomiting.” I was having that, accompanied by anxious and intrusive thoughts. I was also in a relationship that wasn't the healthiest either. I think that took my anxiety to a whole new level. At 19 years old, I knew I needed to figure this out and reach out for help. I need to talk to people about it.
I went to my doctor, and I said, “Look, I'm having a really hard time. I'm feeling all these things,” and I just explained to her what I was feeling. She recommended that I talk to a professional [therapist] about it—someone who could help me through all these feelings and experiences.
And so my search for a therapist began, and that’s when my anxiety started to get better. It's a process, and it was definitely a hard one. It was hard to go through it and not know where all those feelings were coming from, and navigating everything was tough. I'm really lucky that I reached out and had a good support system, and that things got better for me.
You mentioned your specific diagnoses. What effect did receiving a diagnosis have?
On the one hand, it was a relief, because I was going through all this for a long time, and I didn't know. When you don't know what's going on, you feel like you're the only person in the world who's experiencing it. I thought I was the only person and that I was crazy or something was wrong with me.
I didn't realize how many other people were going through the same thing. I didn't realize that it was a real disorder and that a lot of other people knew what it was like. Having that was the beginning of my healing journey. There's also a lot of fear associated with it too. It's scary, and I know that a lot of people can relate. Having to navigate it, figuring out, knowing what your next steps are, it’s a scary process.
You’ve been on this mental health journey for several years. At this point, does anxiety feel like a permanent part of your life?
Through my Instagram @dearmyanxiety, I try to separate myself and my anxiety. I used to say, “It's my anxiety,” but my therapist said, “Let's try and make anxiety a separate entity to yourself. It's not you; it’s the disorder. The anxiety is separate from you.”
So I try to look at it like anxiety doesn't define my life. It's a significant part of my life, and I would be lying if I said that it's not a huge part of my life, but at the same time, I'm so much more. I have so many other qualities. I have so much to offer despite my anxiety.
I concentrate on all the other things that I am and that I can offer, and spin it into a positive whenever I can. I know it's hard to do that sometimes. And I know people with anxiety will understand it can be very debilitating. It can be difficult to see beyond that, but it's something that I try to do.
Could you tell us a bit about when you started going to therapy?
I started looking around 19. I did go through a fair share of therapists. I think the reason for that is wanting to find the right one.
When I first started therapy, I was paired with an older man. He was in his seventies, and he was wonderful, but I just didn't feel that connection with him, and it was super important for me to be 100% open and get help to the full capacity that I was looking for. So I stuck with him for a bit because it was my first experience. I thought, I'll give this a shot, not knowing what to expect.
Then I saw somebody else that I liked, but again, it lacked something. That connection wasn't there, and I felt like I couldn't be one hundred percent comfortable.
Then I finally found someone that I resonated with and was comfortable with. And from there, it got a lot easier because I had that close connection and consistency. That’s when things started getting a lot easier for me, because that comfort is really important—being able to connect with that person and not feel like they are judging you.
It was what I was looking for, but I didn't know that's what I was looking for. I needed to have that experience to realize what I needed. It was a journey. I think people who are in therapy or who have been through multiple therapists will say the same. Sometimes you just need to search and find the right match for you. It doesn't always work the first time. Sometimes it takes time.
How did you make that decision to keep searching? Did it take you a while to realize maybe there's something better?
Yeah, it did. It took me a while. I didn't know what to expect. I thought, “I'm going to stick with this and hope that it gets better or that I'll get more comfortable,” or, “I'll get what I'm paying for.” I was there for a few months before I made the switch.
I talked to my dad about it because my dad has been through therapy before. I said, “I don't know. I don't feel 100% comfortable. Something doesn't feel right about it,” and he said, “Okay. Do you want to try seeing a woman? Maybe you need to see someone that is relatable. Maybe younger, maybe in their thirties.” That made sense to me, so I decided to give it a shot.
So, is it fair to say that you like the therapist you have now?
Yeah, definitely. It was a journey, but once you find the right one, you're like, ‘Okay, I gotta hold on to this one.’
If you could do it all over again, knowing a bit more about finding a therapist, what would you look for?
It’s a feeling that you have. You feel 100% comfortable. You know it's a judgment-free zone, and you can feel safe in that setting. You just vibe with them. It was intuition, “This feels right.” There wasn't anything super specific, other than the fact that she's a woman and younger. I felt like I could relate to her. There was a comfortability that I lacked in the past. I found a safe space.
How did you get started with @dearmyanxiety? Did it happen before you got a diagnosis or saw a therapist?
It was after that. I didn't think that it was going to grow to this extent. I just wanted an outlet, something where I could talk about my experience. In therapy, I discussed an activity with my therapist, to write to my anxiety, or journal. I've loved writing since I was younger, and I was journaling already. She would give me prompts, like writing a letter, which gave me the inspiration for the name @dearmyanxiety.
I was going to start this Instagram account and talk about my experiences. If someone sees it and resonates with it, that's amazing. But if not, at least I have it as an outlet to talk about whatever's on my mind and what I'm experiencing.
I hoped that somebody would take something from it. I would love to help someone. I'm a very empathetic person, and I care about other people. If I could take my experiences and help someone, that would be amazing. Even if one person saw a post, I think that that would have been enough for me to have helped that one person.
I didn't expect it to get as big as it did. I'm very thankful that it did, because this community has been amazing for me and my process of healing. It's opened up my eyes to a lot of different things that people experience. I'm just really thankful to have this opportunity to be connected on this large a scale. I love the community that I have.
Many of them have been expressing gratitude to you throughout this whole conversation, and it's amazing to see that as well. It sounds like you've been journaling, you've been reading, you've been going to therapy. What sort of progress have you made in understanding anxiety and naming it?
Growing up, I didn't know too much about anxiety or what I was experiencing until I got older. I struggled so much with it. I got to this point where I was like, ‘I don't want this for myself anymore.’
You become sick of it. You don't want to live this life. I want to live life optimally and get better. I want to be able to cope with it. It was hard to take that first step. But once I did, I was more dedicated to finding ways to get better and cope better.
I started reading a lot of self-help books and doing all the coping skills that my therapist recommended. I started journaling every single day and committed to learning about anxiety. I can help my audience, but also I can help myself. I’ve learned so many different ways to cope. I'm committed to [practicing] them for the rest of my life. I am learning as much as I can. I'm not a professional, and I’m not a psychologist. I don't know all the answers, but I know myself, and I know my experience with anxiety. All I can do is share what has worked for me and hope to help other people. I'll read a book, more books. I'll read articles, posts on Instagram.
I'm curious, out of all of those things, is there anything that you've found for yourself that makes a huge difference?
I don't know if there's one major thing. I think it's a bunch of things. As far as coping skills, journaling, writing feelings down is really helpful. Therapy is massive. I am exposing myself to things that make me anxious, that helped me as well.
For a long time, I had terrible driving anxiety. So I would always get other people to drive me places. Even now, I struggle to go on the highway. I used to avoid [driving], but I started taking small steps. I'm going to get in the car today. I'm going to go around the block. I took small steps to expose myself to what was making me anxious. Eventually, I wasn’t that anxious anymore.
I use grounding techniques when I'm feeling anxious—some lifestyle changes, like eliminating some things that trigger my anxiety. I used to have two, three coffees a day, and I noticed that my anxiety was through the roof because it’s a stimulant. My heart was racing, and I was getting the shakes.
It was a bunch of things I started to do in my everyday life that helped me to cope with my anxiety better. I still experience it. I still get those really anxious days. That's normal and part of the process.
What kind of boundaries have you had to set with social media to look after your health? What can you recommend to people who spend a lot of time on social media?
Social media can be a great platform and can be resourceful and informative. But on the flip side, it can be toxic; it can be anxiety-inducing. There are positives... there's a lot of negatives as well.
When my platform started to get larger, I noticed that people would comment mean things and it's disheartening to see that. People will spread hate. But at the same time, I try to focus on the positive aspect over the negative, and just know that there's so much more support and love than hate and anger.
As far as setting boundaries, I think that' it’s really important to do. I try to take weekends for myself. I typically won't post on the weekend. I try to limit how many hours I spend on it.
[During the first lockdown], my screen time was seven or eight hours a day. I was on my phone, and it was too much. I was absorbing too much of what I was seeing. I knew I needed to set boundaries. So now I try to limit the number of hours I'm spending per day, who I follow, whose posts I look at, and how many messages I'll read. Different things work for different people, but I think setting boundaries is hugely important.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm hoping to continue growing @dearmyanxiety and growing the community, and seeing where that takes me. I'm super passionate about mental health. I experience it myself, and I know, right now, more than ever, people need that support. They need to feel like they're not alone. They need to feel seen. They need to feel heard. I want to be able to be that for someone. That’s my purpose in life, and I hope I can help however many people I can. I feel so passionate about this community and so thankful for it.