In the Beginning: Stories of Anxiety
One of the most common questions I get about my anxiety is, 'when did it start?' I can honestly say, I do not know. Many with chronic anxiety will agree, the symptoms have always been around in some form or another. As much as I would love to give parents an exact age, I can't. My mom gives a similar answer. When asked she responds with something to the effect of, "you always have been a more anxious person". I can however, describe the first time I remember having a full-blown panic attack. I was six and eating dinner with my family in an Applebees.
My family and myself were sitting at the table eating dinner and an undeniable feeling of dread began to sweep over me. Heat rushed to my cheeks and I felt my heart start to race. Slowly I tapped on my mom and told her she needed to take me to the doctor immediately. The more time that passed the more my impending death seemed a certainty. My dad quickly grabbed the check, paid and we were off to urgent care. I will never forget sitting in that huge, empty waiting room. It was dark outside and the entire place was empty, save for my family. We lived in a suburb of the Twin Cities in Minnesota at the time. There was really only one place to go at that time of night. Terrified, I waiting for my name to be called.
Everything that happened in that doctor's office was a blur. Eventually he told me I would be totally fine and I just got a little bit anxious. How silly of me to make such a big deal out of nothing, right? From that point forward, that mentality would plague me anytime I was sick. It would become increasingly difficult for me to ask for help because I wouldn't want to be burdensome to anyone. I'd become terrified of hospitals, then eventually even doctor's offices. I'd grow up to do everything possible to avoid seeing the doctor. I would do all of this until I inevitably would break, time and time again.
I have learned and will continue to learn that there is nothing to be ashamed of if you have anxiety. We all are born with our own imperfections. This is one of mine and this is my story. Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember and it seems as though it is becoming more and more common in children. I would like to explore how to live with anxiety because though anxiety may never fully go away, there are tools you can learn to live with it. Visit my blog and other pages to read more about how I've learned to live with anxiety.
Depression and Anxiety: A Toxic Relationship
Anxiety has a very pesky sibling, depression. Many times, people with anxiety also suffer from depression and vice versa. The brain chemistry of both anxiety and depression are very similar, it's more so the way the condition manifests itself that warrants different names. Depression is characterized by feelings of hopelessness and unwieldiness to do anything. Anxiety is characterized by fear, dread and more the inability to do anything.
When I was in high school, my anxiety was mainly dormant. It was instead my depression that took center stage. There were times when my anxiety would surface, just like when my anxiety is in full force, my depression sometimes makes an appearance. During my high school years, I struggled the most with depression and suicidal thoughts. It is important to assert that suicidal thoughts and depression do not go hand in hand. The two can occur together, but they don't always have to occur together.
Because of my depression, I decided to start counseling my sophomore year of high school. This is was my first real experience with treatment for my depression or anxiety. It did help, I have no doubts about that, but it also didn't solve the problem completely. The biggest thing with counseling, is you have to want help. If you aren't willing to change yourself, it won't happen. A couple of months into therapy my family decided to move to California, so that was the end of my first stint in therapy. A few years later I would go back for another couple of months.
College Life & the Persistence of Anxiety
College was when my anxiety really started to rear its ugly head. The prospect of poverty and failure became nearly unbearable and my instances of anxiety and panic attacks spiked. The worst of it came at the beginning of my junior year when I had a panic attack so bad my boyfriend at the time almost took me to the ER. I had to spend the rest of the weekend under watchful eye and 'take it easy'. At the time I was working on multiple film projects, taking a full course load and working anywhere from 15-25 hours a week. When I did sleep it was for maybe 3-4 hours at a time. At this point in my life I realized that I needed to learn better time and stress management or my life would become unsustainable.
Time and stress management is key in living with anxiety. You want to find the perfect balance between too much work and not enough work. If you end up working too little you risk feelings of worthlessness which can be lethal when combined with depression and the brain chemistry that is often correlated with anxiety. I've found that it is best to keep to a working schedule of anywhere between 35-50 hours per week. This can be different for everyone, so it's important to find what balance works best for you.
Another key to success when living with anxiety is planning! Whenever you can plan. You'll save yourself time if you have a basic idea of what you need to do and when. For some this might mean doing the laundry and cleaning every Sunday morning. For me, it's more about overall balance. I try to do at least one 'life' to do list item per day. That could mean laundry, washing the car, paying my bills, anything. By doing at least one thing each day, I avoid having it all pile up.
Junior and Senior year of college was a particularly difficult time for time and stress management because of the workload that came along with my degree. But by implementing small tools and creating simple habits I was able to reduce my stress level enough. It does get easier once in the real world. Money struggles can be stressful, but generally there is more time in the day to deal with it all and plan for the future.
My First Experience with PTSD
After college ended I embarked on a 6 week tour around Europe and Northern Africa. I was fortunate enough to visit 5 countries, including Morocco. Overall it was a beautiful experience and I wouldn't change it for the world. However, by week 6 I had entered the hottest and driest climate I had ever experienced. I was in the Sahara desert in Morocco. The landscape was beautiful and the culture eye-opening, but no matter what I could not calm my anxieties. Within a few days of being in the country I was constantly overheated and sick to my stomach. I had convinced myself I had some sort of parasite but was terrified to visit a foreign hospital. Without surprise, my state worsened as the days went by and I eventually ended up in bed for the last few days of the trip. I felt terrible, for myself and the people I had been traveling with, but I was sure something was actually wrong with me.
When I returned stateside I spent two full weeks at home, not even able to walk out on my front porch, until I was eventually able to get to a psychologist's office. He was able to give me a few tools to make leaving the house easier as I practiced. It was another few weeks before I was able to leave for longer than an hour and months before I would be able to leave without a bottle of water. I went to various doctors who did tests and everything was cleared. I was slightly dehydrated but that was to be expected based on where I had been. My worries now had a lot to do with running out of food, water or not having access to a bathroom. This fear became crippling.
Now when I leave the house I usually take food and water with me and I make sure to seek out bathrooms first when I go to new places. Generally these simple strategies do work for me. There is the seldom instance when I start to feel hot too quickly or have to go to the bathroom at a park and I suddenly become overwhelmed with dread. This is my PTSD (or post-traumatic stress disorder). Traveling and being away from home for extended periods of time is difficult, but I am careful to remain prepared. Mostly it is about rewiring your brain to understand that you will be taken care of. For example, if I am out running errands, I know that if I faint someone will likely rush over and get me help.
Again, there is no completely eradicating anxiety, but there is anxiety management. I will always live with my anxiety and certain things will always give me moments of panic, but as long as I practice the tools I've learned, anxiety is much easier to manage and control.