It starts with a balloon. I guess I’ve probably imagined it as a red one. The red balloon lives in my rib cage. It always starts with the balloon, slowly inflating, pressing up against my lungs preventing them from getting the air they need. Once the balloon inflates, my heart pitter-patters fervently, and with every beat the chords wrapped around my chest and throat are pulled and plucked causing twangs of panic. Next come the vice grips, clamping down on my teeth until they are stuck shut. I wish I could say it stops here but it doesn’t. At this point the ants run rampant through the bone marrow in my fingers and legs, my muscles tighten preparing for an overwhelming blow from a force of emotions, and the only reaction I can muster is tears. I try and fight the brutal attack, but my only defense seems to be holding my breath. And the more I do that, the more I can feel the balloon crowding my insides ready to pop.
This is my life. This is what anxiety feels like for me.
I asked some of my friends who also struggle with anxiety to share in one word what it feels like for them, and while a single word can’t sum up their stories, it speaks volumes about what it feels like to deal with a mental disorder.
If you have anxiety, maybe you can relate and find comfort in some of these words. If you don’t have anxiety, my hope is that you can learn a little bit more about how it feels to struggle with something that’s so common, yet somehow so isolating. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not qualified to diagnose or treat any sort of physical or mental illness, but I feel the topic is relevant to a wellness blog. At the very least it’s worth a few words..
I was recently diagnosed with general anxiety disorder in May 2015, however, the panic attacks started May 2012. It took me three years to reach out for help. The longer I waited, the worse things got. This year my anxiety reached new levels. I was going through some major life changes, and I found myself wishing that I could turn my brain off just so I could get through a day without being overwhelmed into the fetal position choking for air. I knew I needed help when I forgot what it felt like to enjoy silence. I’d grown used to a constant marathon of worrying thoughts screaming at me as they lapped around my brain. My mom was getting more and more phone calls from me crying as I tried to find the words to describe what was wrong. I didn’t want to be alone, but I didn’t want to see anyone or do anything.
For some, anxiety is a fleeting feeling. Something you feel before a test or an interview, but for me anxiety is a constant companion that has planted its roots in nearly every system of my body. At times, it is crippling, but if I had to describe anxiety in one word it would be exhausting. Anxiety is physically and emotionally exhausting. In May, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I reached out for help, I made an appointment, and with the help of medical professionals I am working towards getting healthy and managing my anxiety.
I’m not here to advocate a certain type of treatment because I realize that everyone is different, and it’s not my place to tell you how to deal with something so personal and involved, but here are some things that have helped me change my life:
Talking things out with people who also have anxiety
Luckily I have several people who can help me talk through stuff when I feel close to a panic attack. Sometimes focusing on holding a conversation is enough of a distraction to keep hyperventilation at bay.
I’ve talked to people who think this is a cure-all for anxiety, and maybe for some it is, but for me it’s just a major component of managing stress. I feel better about life in general when I exercise 3-4 times per week.
This isn’t for everyone, but for me medication helps me feel more like the Lowery of four years ago. I can honestly say going to a psychiatrist is one of the best decisions I made in relation to my health. I’m not ashamed to say I take medicine, because life without it was nearly unbearable. Like I said, it’s not for everyone, but I am grateful I took this step.
Next month I start seeing a counselor. I’m nervous, very nervous, but I realize that medication is temporary, and counseling can teach me long-term skills that can help me deal with my anxiety after I am off medication. So even though I’m nervous to talk to someone about the most personal details of my life, the benefits seem overwhelmingly positive and worth the discomfort.
Most of my worrying is about things I cannot control. It takes a conscious effort, but more and more I am trying to remind myself that I can’t change the thoughts, feelings or actions of others. However, I can choose not to let them exhaust me. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Spending time with my family, even when it’s hard
I am blessed to live so close to my mom and stepdad. Their home is an oasis in the middle of my chaos. It’s quiet, safe, and warm. I realize not everyone has a close relationship with their families, so maybe this doesn’t apply to you. But for me, even when my anxiety tells me to stay home and avoid the people who care about me, I never regret spending time in the quiet calm of their company. Seeing my family at least once a week has been an immense help in remembering what my real priorities are in life. If you can’t see your family, call them. You might not want to talk, but do it anyway.
I will most likely always deal with this. I don’t know that I’ll ever be completely symptom free. However, here’s what I do know: it doesn’t always have to be unbearable, I’m not the only one, everything will be O.K. even if I don’t feel like it in the moment, and there are resources available to help.
Here’s to living well and fighting for happiness.