Today, I’m ultra upfront about my anxiety. Hell, I’m writing about my experience on the internet! While it’s not always comfortable, per se (this post took me a few weeks to compose), I’m an open book when it comes to my thought processes, and how they may affect my actions. But it wasn’t always this way.
It happened slowly, and then all at once.
First, I began to notice things, (over)think about things, I was certain other people didn’t – harping on an endless stream of what ifs (Do my friends really like me? Literally how is this planet the only one with life and is this all random?) Then, my once out-going self fought to engage in a classroom setting – silent pep talks in my head just to convince my hand to move from its safe place on the desk and into the air, consciously listening to the echo of my own voice (Did I always sound like that?), running out of air, choking on my words. Next, I struggled to eat – feeling like I could no longer swallow after a few bites, craving only “comfort” foods (which happened to be slices of American cheese and chocolate frosted mini donuts). And finally, panic attacks – small ones unnoticed to the untrained eye, physically debilitating ones, hidden ones, public ones.
Before we continue, let me mention that anxiety is a natural human emotion. Job interviews, speaking engagements, major life decisions, even first dates, have the potential to leave even the coolest of cucumbers feeling nervous, stressed, or worrisome. But for some people, anxious thoughts persist until they become the norm. Anxiety evolves from relatively unpleasant emotion to disorder when it appears regularly and consistently.
I can’t pinpoint the exact day – the day I identified as a person living with anxiety, because, despite popular belief, anxiety isn’t always the direct effect of one singular cause. For me, it was a culmination of catalysts that lead to a slow but steady change in my thought patterns.
I was sixteen. I found myself in the wake of back-to-back heavy shit, for lack of a more accurate phrase: two incidences of self-harm among my classmates, an isolated shooting at a neighboring school district, and a peer-related suicide. It felt as if these moments, happening around me but not necessarily to me, split my existence into a very clear before and after. Before: naive, innocent, infinite, blissfully unaware. And After: aware, very overly aware.
The first incident was a seed with the potential to either blow right through my atmosphere, or plant down where it landed. It just so happened that my body and brain were a perfect breeding ground for this foreign specimen. With each subsequent incident, and each thought associated with that incident, the seed was nourished. Digging in, growing roots, and spreading. I actually visualized my anxiety like this. A thick, black wispy weed wrapping around my gut, twisting up through my rib cage, and nesting in the back of my throat.
At it’s root, this gnarled, black weed was, though irrational, a fear of losing control. I could not stop thinking of the varying degrees in which I could potentially lose control of my mental and physical self: getting sick, choking, fainting, harming myself or others. It’s important to note that I didn’t want to do any of these things, I was paralyzed by the idea of them.
There would be one moment in the morning, immediately upon waking up, that I felt nothing, weightless. It was a fleeting second, gone in the literal blink of an eye, where my brain didn’t yet remember it cohabited with this weed. And then it was gone, just like that. And I spent the remaining hours of my day quite literally feeling the weight of the weed in my belly. Either thinking about my fears, or thinking about not thinking about my fears – either way, consumed by them.
As my weed grew up into the back of my mind, getting ahold of my nervous system, my fears manifested in physical symptoms: a racing heart, tingling hands, sweating palms, blurred vision, difficulty breathing, insomnia, exhaustion, muscle tension, light headedness, difficulty swallowing, inability to focus, nausea, vomiting. As you can imagine, this was only more terrifying for a person whose fears stemmed from losing control.
I will never forget sitting in Theology class (aka the study of the nature of God and religious belief, I attended a Catholic high school), taking notes on demonic possession and exorcism in the midst of some of my most intense panic attacks. Since mental health was (and inexplicably, still is) shrouded in stigma, I had never been exposed to it outside of my own experience. I thought to myself – This is it, I’m possessed. I latched onto that idea, in a way where my mind both knew I was most likely not possessed, but also felt temporarily at ease with having some sort of explanation, rational or otherwise. So I kid you not, I hung rosary beads from my bed (still have those, for non-related reasons 😉 ) and slept with a Benedictine charm under my pillow (ditched that). I laugh about it now, but honestly, it’s a striking example of how absolutely absent and absolutely necessary mental health education is in the lives of developing minds.
For months, I’m not sure how many, I bounced between periods of darkness, my mind and perception of the world altered by disordered thoughts, and periods of light, refreshing normality that always, always left me thinking I had escaped my weed for good. Until the next panic attack rolled over me, leaving me more terrified and crippled than the last. Until, eventually, the periods of darkness overshadowed the periods of light.
There were times when my anxiety lead to irritability, tension among my friends, and even intentional isolation, but mostly, I appeared to be the same ol’ me – happy, rebellious, sassy, confident, and funny. Anxiety didn’t change my outward appearance to the rest of the world, because anxiety doesn’t have a face, or any set of physical traits that would identify it. But when I looked in the mirror, all I could see was my weed poking out from beneath my pores – an imposter wearing my skin as a cloak.
Lucky for me, I had a very open and honest relationship with my parents, who did recognize a shift in my personality and were able to identify my symptoms as anxiety and panic. Although I remember feeling scared that my anxiety would burden them with guilt or worry, I recognized that I needed their help, and quite frankly, I felt desperate for it. My mom spent hours with me in Barnes & Noble, kneeling between the shelves, picking out literature that explained anxiety and panic attacks. It’s here that I learned my symptoms were physical reactions to my sympathetic nervous system kicking into overdrive, and not an episode of psychosis (remember, my anxiety was driven by the fear that I did not have authority over my actions). She researched coping mechanisms from breathing techniques and mantras to essential oils and pressure points. It’s through this that I learned anxiety and panic could be managed. My dad sat on the corner of my bed, answering my questions, talking me through a rough night or morning. It’s through this that I learned I was “okay” and “normal.”
High school graduation came and went, and despite my fears, I seemed to thrive in my college campus environment. Every now and then, my anxiety would present itself, but with a little self talk, panic attacks were few and far between. That was, until a trigger event occurred in my community that sent me sliding toward the hole I had fought so hard to crawl out of. I was prepared, I knew the signs, and I decided it would be best to see a counselor. To be honest, I don’t even remember the counselors name, but I remember the day (sunny), the room (small, but bright), the stiff taupe chair (they couldn’t have picked a better chair?), how I felt (scared). It was the first time in almost six years of navigating the world with anxiety and panic, that I heard a professional identify and confirm my symptoms. I went to a follow up appointment, and maybe one more after that. I don’t remember what we talked about in detail, but I remember finally feeling really, truly relieved. Yes, my thought patterns were a breed of their own, but yes – they were just thought patterns, and they did not define me. It was a pivotal moment in how I perceived myself, my body, and my mind.
Years later, with my anxiety managed, though undoubtedly still a part of me, I picked up Turtles All The Way Down, a(nother) beautifully written coming of age story by John Green. The plot centers around Aza, a teenage girl living with anxiety. Throughout the novel, Aza refers to her anxiety as “invasive thoughts.” Never in my 10+ years of researching and explaining what my anxiety feels like, have I read a more accurate description than the words Green wove around his heroin’s thoughts. I have read, and re-read this paragraph upwards of 50 times since finishing the book. I even read it to Moses, to offer him a little glimpse into the way I sometimes see the world:
“Supposedly everyone has them – you look out from over a bridge or whatever and it occurs to you that you could just jump. And then, if you’re most people, you think, Well, that was a weird thought, and move on with your life. But for some people, the invasive can kind of take over, crowding out all the other thoughts until it’s the only one you’re able to have, the thought you’re perpetually either thinking about or distracting yourself from.”
Looking back on a whirlwind of a year – getting engaged, purchasing a home, moving away from my geographical comfort zone, and adopting a puppy that came with an entirely new routine – I truly believe I found health & fitness at the exact right time in my life. There were times, throughout each of these milestones, that I identified as feeling anxious, but never did my thoughts manifest into the physical, visceral reaction of my past. I have to give credit where it’s due – to nutrition for fueling my body and supporting my brain, to fitness for acting as an emotional lightening rod, and to myself for choosing these things, over and over again, especially when it wasn’t familiar or convenient (look for a more specific blog on this soon!).
Thank you for reading my personal experience with anxiety and panic disorder. I hope that my Instagram, my blog, my brand, can be an authentic, vulnerable account of a girl navigating a holistically healthy lifestyle. Yes, this means physical fitness and nutrition, but equally as (if not more) important: social, emotion, and mental well being. If this story was a foreign concept to you, I hope I could shed some light on an all too common silent struggle. And if these words resonate with you in any capacity, I hope that you can find comfort in knowing you are not alone, and guidance from these anecdotal words of wisdom:
Seek Professional Help. As scary as it may be, I encourage you to at least try discussing your symptoms with a professional who can recommend the best treatment method. I’ll admit, when my anxiety first manifested, I was absolutely resistant to professional help and medication. (Only because my mind grasped onto the speed-reading of side effects at the end of anti-depressant commercials, which lead me to associate medication with yet another form of loss of control.) Although seeing a specialist did not become a regular habit for me, it was one of the best things I did along the way!
Talk About It. In as little or as much detail as you’d like, give your friends, family, teachers, and co-workers a heads up that you are a person who manages anxiety levels. On a varying scale of playful to serious, I alert my peers when I am feeling anxious in an effort to help them understand how my outward actions may be directly related to my internal thoughts – maybe I’m moody, disengaged, or overly chatty 😉
Understand Your Symptoms. The single most helpful thing to me when I am feeling particularly anxious, or am in the throws of a panic attack, is to remind myself that my symptoms are merely a biochemical reaction of my nervous system revving up and my adrenaline kicking in and nothing more.
Make a Mantra. Something short and positive that you can repeat to yourself during an anxious time. I typically say things like, “You are okay.” Simple as that.
Get Tactile. If you’re feeling particularly anxious, focusing on concrete, tactile senses can help you feel connected to the rational world. What do you see, what can you physically feel beneath your hands, can you touch something and allow it to hold your energy?
Identify Your Triggers. If your anxiety and panic is induced by specific triggers, it’s important to be able to identify what those are, and when you might be faced with them. This way, you can choose how you feel comfortable interacting with them.