I recently had an experience that I haven’t had in quite some time: tremendous and overwhelming anxiety while in a public place. I had been attending a meeting. I left in tears, and without saying goodbye to friends that were also there: highly unusual behavior for me on both counts. In fact, only one clear thought was running through my head: I need to get the hell out of here. That, and an acute awareness that it was hard to breathe.
I’ve debated endlessly about whether this is something I want to share or not, and then I found courage and inspiration from looking at the people around me: people who openly claim their ambiguous (sexual) orientation, recovery from alcoholism, and former abusive relationships. It’s terrifying to share personal stories like these, but sharing in each other’s struggles and triumphs is what makes us human. I feel so much more connected to the authentic people in my life, the ones who speak openly about their past and current challenges, and I look at myself and think “I want people to feel like that about me”. So here it goes.
Anxiety. It can be hard for others to relate to this sensation, as it’s different for everyone. Some folks think it’s just like feeling worried or nervous. I am nervous when I drive somewhere in a blizzard, or when I’m about to go on a first date. I am worried when I get phone call from my mom with a text message follow up saying “call me ASAP”. If you can talk yourself out of a feeling, I am fairly confident that it’s not anxiety, at least not the kind I’m talking about. In fact, if you’ve ever thought to yourself “that person should just try harder/stop worrying/do x, y, or z” I am almost positive that you are incredibly fortunate to have never experienced true anxiety.
Merriam Webster says that synonyms for anxiety include: worry, concern, agitation, and apprehension. Anxiety, for me, doesn’t feel like any of those things.
It doesn’t come from the logical place in my brain, the place where you can deliver facts and information to alleviate unease or tension. Anxiety comes from a different place, it has a voice, a sensation, a texture and being all its own. It cares nothing for logic, disregards reality, and hijacks my nervous system. Thoughts that just moments before were a realistic stream of facts and logical interpretations spiral wildly out of control. Reality literally shifts as my ability to perceive people and events is compromised, and the filter through which all information flows is covered by a screen called anxiety. When it’s particularly heavy, I will feel confused an scared. Physically, scared. Heart racing, hearing diminishing, vision blurring, terrified. And my mind just… goes into survival mode. Nothing matters except getting to a quiet place and trying to breathe.
That’s what full blown anxiety feels like for me. The thing is, that even when I don’t head into the depths of it, anxiety can still be activated. At a low or mid-level, I don’t need to leave a situation, but everything about my ability to perceive reality and react to it is changed. I can feel confused, afraid, illogical, and angry.
This used to happen more frequently than I’d like to admit, or can rightly remember. Truthfully, large blocks of my childhood and adolescence are gone from my memory. Though this might be attributed to the numerous times I’ve undergone deep sedation for oral surgery, I have always attributed my poor memory to anxiety. My brain was often just too preoccupied to actually collect and store information. I won’t detail the number of poor ways that I coped, but there were many.
I am fortunate now to have a host of tools available to help me cope when anxiety comes knocking. In 2009 I took my first yoga class. In 2010 I started seeing a therapist every week (shout out to student mental health services). Over the next few years I overhauled my sleeping scheduled and eating habits. This is a gross oversimplification of the time, trials and errors, and immense support it took for me to become a healthier person. Suffice it say, over the roughly 4 years that I’ve been consciously caring for my mental and physical health, my anxiety issues have abated considerably. There are yoga poses, breathing exercises, mantras, and a fun thing called tapping that I now use to help keep myself in check when things get hairy. In fact, I have come to view bouts of anxiety as a warning sign that I’m not keeping up with my self-care. (Note here: this is my personal experience and certainly does not apply to everyone. I am fortunate to be able to manage my mental health with lifestyle changes and that absolutely does not apply to all situations.)
When I had this experience a couple of weeks ago I was not only shocked, but disappointed, confused, and utterly pissed at myself. I have been feeling a lot of shame around the whole event, which I think is one of the reasons I am compelled to talk about it. The more I think back over the weeks leading up to that day, the more I can see how I was slowly allowing the time I typically dedicate to eating, sleeping, and yoga to be chipped away. As I reexamine my priorities, I see areas where I can improve and where I can take better care of myself. Truly, this wasn’t a failure, but my body’s way of communicating with me to slow down.
I don’t have a neat way to wrap this up and put a bow on it. It kind of sucks. It’s something that’s been a part of my life for a long time and yet something that I always feel the need to hide. Ultimately, I’ve come to think that hiding such things does more harm than good. I want the people in my life to know that sometimes I am a hot mess. Sometimes, I cannot accurately perceive reality and I have to leave public places because I can’t breathe or think or see straight. But those experiences don’t limit or cripple or define me. I am a happy, healthy, optimistic, bubbly, and glittery person and this experience has only strengthened my commitment to taking care of myself. I’ve slowly allowed other perceived responsibilities to take precedence over my time, and this was a wake up call: what’s more important than my own wellbeing and sanity?
I am all I’ve got, day in and day out. This one life, this one incredible body, this one complex mind. It’s a treasure and a gift and ought to be treated as such.