I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have anxiety.
As a child, I was painfully shy, and frequent relocations for my parent’s work only brought more unwanted attention upon me. My anxiety manifested itself in the form of hair twirling, nail-biting, and devotion to routine. Routine made it bearable, but any deviation from my planned-out day would send me spiraling down an anxiety-plagued hole and I would struggle to climb back out. Unfortunately, the constantly on-the-go lifestyle of my family meant many unwelcome disruptions to my routine.
Mental health was talked about even less back then. I didn’t understand the feelings I had, and I certainly had never heard anyone mention anxiety. Things that helped me feel like I was “normal” became my saving grace. I joined the school band and found my tribe — I had a safe space where my anxiety retreated for the most part. I made friends and, for the first time, was genuinely happy.
While anxiety was still present in other areas of my life, I would always seek out the other “band kids” and built up my wall to give the anxiety more to have to chip away at before devouring me. As I progressed through school, I noticed my anxiety had become more predictable. Reading aloud in class would always send me into a panic, and Lord forbid if I had to get up and sharpen my pencil. This would break two cardinal rules: (1)Being looked at while I walked to the pencil sharpener; and (2)Making noise when using the pencil sharpener. Anxiety had crept into other areas as well — I came to dread band concerts because we would have to go down the line before they started and play our tuning note. As I waited my turn, I would feel the familiar sensation of my heartbeat pounding in my ears and becoming short of breath.
Perhaps the biggest trigger for my anxiety was church. My parents, both pastors, would often be special guest speakers at other churches. We would go as a family and each time I was introduced, I felt more self-conscious and overwhelmed by the situation. We would often spend the day with the pastors of the church and their families and more often than not, we would return to their home and eat lunch. As a child who was deeply committed to picky eating, this was my own little nightmare. Anxiety was there to remind me not to eat because it might taste bad, but also to caution me if I didn’t eat, it was very possible that I could die of embarrassment if my stomach growled and someone overheard it. On these days especially, there was no winning.
As the years went by, I became more aware of the ways my anxiety pulled the strings on my emotions. Unable to quiet my anxiety, I found myself entering adulthood juggling emotions that I didn’t understand and crippling anxiety and depression that had yet to be diagnosed. My symptoms were showing themselves in a variety of ways at that point in my life. The shortness of breath and pounding heart were joined by difficulty sleeping and concentration deficiencies. At the point in life where I felt like I was supposed to finally have it together, I felt unstable and confused.
There were times I questioned my sanity. In the pre-internet world, why did having to pick up the phone to order a pizza cause me so much distress? Why did I feel everyone I had contact with was watching me and waiting for me to fail? Eventually, I started taking medication, but it would still be years until I got any consistent relief. The medication is just one part of it — it works its magic to balance out the chemicals in my brain, but it didn’t solve everything. There were two other components I needed to add in order to stand up to my anxiety: education and counseling.
For me, pills didn’t help with the looming question of, “Why am I like this?” Fortunately, anxiety and depression were beginning to emerge as conversation starters and I was able to do research to better understand myself. I didn’t need to read about brain chemicals, I needed to read about life events. Over time I learned how trauma and PTSD affect the whole person. I began talking to a counselor who helped me see the ways I was affected. He helped me see the actions and thoughts I had when I began to feel unsafe or my mind was left to wander. He helped me, and continues to help me, identify triggers and my default response, and helps me sit in the discomfort and listen to what my body is trying to tell me.
Sitting in discomfort is absolute torture, but I have learned to use this as a way to speak directly with my anxiety. I’ve stopped viewing my anxiety as a playground bully trying to drag me down, and instead as an overprotective mother who would stop at nothing to keep me safe. Changing how I’ve viewed my anxiety has been life-changing for me. Together we face the unknown as a bigger power. On the days my anxiety is worse than others, I find someplace quiet and sit with it and ask what it is trying to tell me. Is there something that may be triggering PTSD and it is trying to keep me safe? Or is it simply fear of the unknown and we need to grasp hands and run into it together? Learning to listen helps me react the best way. Sometimes I need to go for a quick jog and burn off some energy, sometimes I need to focus on my breathing and become more present, yet other times I just need to remind myself I am not where I once was.
It has taken years to get here, but my anxiety and I have pulled out of the conflict stage and have moved into the adult relationship stage. I look at it with respect and look for opportunities to learn from it. Medication is only one part of the puzzle — education and counseling go hand-in-hand to effectively manage symptoms, understand what causes them, and learn more about why they are triggered.