How I learned to stay ahead of my anxiety disorder.
It’s human nature to worry.
Certain situations — familial, relational, academic, personal — that arise often can cause us to fret. Most of the time, these feelings are perfectly normal. We’ve all heard of “fight-or-flight” — how your body reacts to a perceived threat.
This natural bodily response involves an increase in heart rate, hyperventilation, nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, and all of that body-draining goodness (NOT).
Now, here’s the thing… feeling anxious or suffering from an anxiety disorder are two entirely different conditions. If you are one of the countless people who suffers from an anxiety disorder, A) welcome to the club and B) chances are, you experience these fight-or-flight sensations even when there is no apparent threat.
You may relate to this, if not, I guarantee that there is someone in your life that can. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses, affecting 40 million adults in the United States — 18.1% of the country’s population. In light of the statistic, you’d think more people would be understanding, but that’s not necessarily the case.
I was diagnosed with GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) a few years ago, but I’m pretty sure this “thing” has been living inside me since I was in the womb. This is not an exaggeration, “prone to anxiety” was written on my medical file when I was a kid. It was as if it were stalking my childhood, getting ready to jump my bones the moment puberty hit.
In the beginning, it started off with nervous feelings and overly cautious tendencies. Once I learned that these nervous feelings weren’t supposed to linger when everything was going swell, I realized that something was actually wrong. I would constantly wonder why my friends weren’t feeling the same degree of anxiety as me, or if they were, why they weren’t vocalizing it. This bred a daunting feeling of loneliness and isolation.
I remember missing class trips due to the fear of being struck with homesickness, something fatal happening, or just the plain discomfort of unfamiliarity. I thought, How is everyone okay with doing this?
Of course, my family did their best to teach me that life wasn’t supposed to be a fearless breeze. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why it had to be so fearful. It’s so hard to escape this type of mindset when it is literally your mind whose the one playing tricks on you.
My moments of panic, as if they weren’t horrific enough, were constantly labeled as dramatic, idiotic, foolish, silly, annoying, ridiculous… the list goes on. The worst part is, adults (the people I trusted the most) made a majority of these uneducated presumptions. Can you imagine what this did to my self-esteem?
Not only did these symptoms progress and evolve into the product of self-destruction but also self-estrangement. A couple of years ago, my anxiety drove me to a very dark place. I began questioning life, reality, my existence, everything and anything that I could wrap my head around. I had anxiety about my anxiety! How does it even get to that point? I would ruminate on these thoughts until I was blue in the face, and when there was no energy left in me, I was fueled by my unknown panic.
Panic attacks can feel like death; your heart starts skipping beats, you can’t breathe properly, tunnel vision kicks in, and you lose all sense of reality.
I remember going out with my friends and I started to feel really nauseous and that triggered anxious feelings. My friends couldn’t understand, so I felt alone and scared. My body started to kick into a fight-or-flight state, and I was not close enough to home. I called my mom repeatedly, begging her to pick me up. I ran to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall for a long period of time. Everything felt so foreign, all I could do was cry and hyperventilate. I wanted to be anywhere but there in that moment.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing feelings of depersonalization and de-realization. These are common anxiety symptoms, but unfortunately they’re rarely discussed. Depersonalization and de-realization are mental illnesses of their own and can be experienced without an anxiety disorder to accompany them.
This awful side effect always had me in a daze, completely detached from everyone and everything — including myself. A constant cycle of panic and detachment, I felt as though I was losing my grip on reality, which has always been one of my biggest fears. I cannot emphasize how exhausting it is when you’re trying to run away from your own mind — anxiety disorders are a mental marathon.
Thankfully, my mother was my moral compass and directed me toward seeing a psychiatrist.
After participating in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), I learned several coping mechanisms. My sessions were progressive, but the entire experience naturally opened up some wounds. Metaphorically, it felt like I was wreaking havoc in my room only to rearrange everything again, learning how to Feng-Shui my brain in order to have a new Zen mindset. As much as it was terrifying, I needed to experience it in order to grow.
What has really helped me cope is understanding that a panic attack cannot last for a very long time. Whenever I fear that panic might strike, I remind myself that an anxiety attack has a peak of about 10 minutes, and then you’ll start to calm down.
I’ve also learned that cognitive distortions (distorted ways of thinking, which formulate an altered view of reality) take place when I am anxious. For example, overgeneralizing situations based on a single experience in the past. I also tend to catastrophize every little thing, expecting the worst to happen. Emotional reasoning is something a lot of people do; when we believe things based on how we feel about them.
To combat these distortions, you can…
- Journal your thoughts and moods because when it’s on paper, it’s easier to face and figure out.
- Recognize your distortions and challenge them by restructuring your initial fearful thought into something more positive/realistic.
- Another important technique is exposure, AKA facing your fears. Try to understand the ways anxiety affects your mind, so you can walk yourself through panic attacks, etc.
- Remember to breathe — try closing one nostril and inhaling for seven seconds, then exhaling out of the opposite nostril for seven seconds, and then repeat.
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Over time I have learned to remain civil with my anxiety whenever it tries to surface in my life. It’s important to make the conscious decision to set boundaries with your demons. You can acknowledge them, but don’t invite them over to hang out.
I have learned — and am still learning each day — to let my anxiety tell me what it wants, and then take those thoughts with a grain of salt. There needs to be a distinction between what’s real and what your mental illness is trying to convince you of. It can make you feel unfamiliar with your own life and force you to question what you already know.
My ultimate advice is to not fear it, but get the help you need to defeat it. You are NOT your thoughts. You are NOT your mental illness. Your low points do NOT define you, and most importantly, you are NOT alone.