In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I am sharing a little bit of my story. I am not a mental health professional so please read this only as my personal experience. It is not meant to be prescriptive in any way.
I did not know for most of my life that I suffered from chronic anxiety. I thought everyone felt nervous. I thought everyone trembled a little when they first walked into a room of strangers. I thought we all had to intentionally breathe slowly and deeply when on stage or in front of a group of people to keep from hyperventilating.
I did not know that panic attacks where your heart is beating too fast and you feel alternately dizzy and wanting to vomit were abnormal. I did not know that it is rare to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from some nameless illogical fear. I thought we all had to deal with that. I thought everyone lived with a strong internal pressure to perform well in order to feel liked and accepted. I thought everyone immediately imagined the worst possible outcome to every situation in vivid detail. I thought we all expected every good thing to end abruptly and live preparing ourselves for that outcome.
Most people who knew me, even those who knew me best, never realized the anxiety I was living with. I was really good at managing it. Somehow I taught myself all kinds of coping mechanisms so that I had very few external indicators of chronic anxiety. (Actually, many of the coping mechanisms were things that psychologists recommend for healthily managing symptoms.) I was just never dealing with the underlying problem because I did not know it was there. Since I thought this was everyone’s experience, I never even thought to mention it. To me, it would have been like discussing what it feels like to breathe.
I slowly became aware that maybe not everyone lives with anxiety when I was in college. I remember a conversation with a friend where she was describing a panic attack and talking about how bizarre and frightening the experience was. I was confused. Her description sounded fairly commonplace based on my experiences but being the empathetic listener that I am, I didn’t question or challenge her. I just filed it away as interesting that she experienced a panic attack as an unusual event.
Some people close to me started noticing that I would get tense or silent in certain situations and asked if I was afraid. I did not recognize anxiety as fear so I would say no, I was just feeling shy or nervous or something. A few people even closer started asking me about anxiety and “being high strung” but once again, I did not have anything to compare it to so I shrugged them off. And only a couple people very close to me asked me, “What’s wrong? Do you need help?”
But as I very slowly became aware that these feelings and way of living are not the norm or expected, I became more afraid. I was in denial about the anxiety I was living with because I did not know how to address it and I did not know what healthy felt like. For me, being a peaceful person meant being a person who did not fight. I did not realize that peace is something that can permeate your being from the inside out.
Finally, after a series of very personally traumatic events, including betrayal, divorce, abandonment, and many of my worst imagined fears actually becoming reality, my fear and anxiety reached such a high point that managing the external indicators was taking all of the emotional and much of the physical energy I had. I reached a point where I just could not live that way anymore. My years of learned coping mechanisms were not helping anymore.
I knew I needed help and found a therapist and a therapy method that is very effective for me and started working really hard at addressing both the symptoms AND the underlying anxiety and trauma. I brought it all to therapy sessions. I was intentional with the therapy homework every week and I was seeing results. I also spent a lot of time reading, praying, meditating, and introspecting.
But I also just let go. Of a lot of things. I did the hard work but I also trusted God and my community to help me through the process instead of thinking I could handle it all on my own. I was tired of managing the constant anxiety and stress. I was tired of the internal pressure to perform. It was awful to live predicting every possible negative outcome to every situation. I could not keep muscling my way through every new uncomfortable situation ignoring all the warning bells going off in my head. I just could not feel responsible for everything all the time anymore. I lived 1 minute at a time and then 5 minutes and then 10 minutes until I worked my way up to being able to think about my life a month at a time and then a year at a time until I could start to imagine and plan and look forward to a future without fear and anxiety overwhelming me.
Here is the thing about living in anxiety management mode for that many years – you get strong. Some of that strength is good. You learn how to keep working and performing well even when you do not feel like it. You learn to be aware of potential problems and come up with solutions quickly. But much of that “strength” is really just a hardening or calcification of really important emotional needs and indicators. I was so used to being afraid and nervous that in situations where I actually needed to be wary and cautious, I just ignored those feelings. I was so used to being on edge that in situations where I actually could relax and just be present, I did not know how. Externally I appeared to be enjoying myself and often I actually was but almost always with anxiety lurking at the edges ready to spring into action at the slightest indication of problems.
So I let parts of me that were “strong” before, get weak. I let some of my attention to details go. I actually became surprised when problems arose. I stopped feeling personally responsible when people around me are hurting or upset. And in doing that, other parts of me started to strengthen. I am getting better at solving problems in the moment instead of having a myriad of solutions already prepared going into a situation. I am able to be more emotionally present and aware to respond to people and situations. And my “warning bells” are becoming more reliable as I am learning to pay attention to situations and relationships that I may actually need to withdraw from for my own health and safety instead of just sucking it up and suffering through it.
From what I understand, the level of anxiety I was living with was quite minor compared to what many others live with. All I know is that even if it was minor, it was still overwhelming and sapped so much life from me. Sometimes I wish I had known sooner that I did not have to live that way. I wonder how much life I missed out on experiencing just because I was managing situations rather than being fully present in the moment. It is a sobering thought and one that keeps me moving forward toward health and wholeness. I do not want to go back.
About six months ago I experienced my first panic attack in more than a year. Even though the triggers that caused it were pretty predictable, it startled me and caught me off guard. I had become so used to not experiencing panic attacks regularly that as soon as it was over I started crying. (Something I very rarely did after panic attacks in the past.) It was an awful feeling but also an unfamiliar feeling. I was crying for the pain I had lived with for so long and also with relief that it was now an unfamiliar pain. But I was also worried that I had just been set back many months in my healing and recovery. I called my mom and she reassured me, “Don’t worry. You are stronger now. You will probably bounce back much more quickly than you used to.” She was right. The anxiety and fear that lingers after panic attacks receded much more quickly. I was concerned that it would trigger more regular panic attacks again, but thankfully, it has not.
I am thankful for the peace I have already found and I imagine that my healing and recovery from anxiety will continue for many more years. It may be something that I will need to be intentional about for the rest of my life. But I can imagine a future free of fear and anxiety and in all of the outcomes I spent so much time predicting, that is something I never did before.