Just leaving this here. My article in The Lily from one year ago! Anxious messes, holler.
August 29, 2019
Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Jess, who was born and raised in northern Illinois. She performed biomedical research for six years before relocating to Atlanta to become involved in the craft beer industry. These days, she also spearheads an online complex trauma community, which you can explore here.
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My history with anxiety
My history with anxiety goes back to early childhood. An unstable household and persistent bullying led me to become nervous and self-doubting. As a little girl, I was anxious about my personal security and fearful of other humans.
By high school, I was growing more aware of my anxiety. I felt terrified of my peers and elders. I never felt accepted or safe. I expected ridicule, rejection or harm.
By college, there was no question that I was regularly experiencing significant anxiety in multiple areas of my life. Always a high-achiever, I worked and studied nonstop during these years. My “functional” anxiety allowed me to live through it for a while. But eventually, my body’s inflammatory response revolted, and I fell into a mysterious illness at 23. Suddenly, I was bedridden. By the time graduation rolled around, my life and body were unrecognizable; my generalized anxiety was nothing short of debilitating.
My anxiety hovered around this cataclysmic level for the next five or six years.
Even after my body healed, my brain didn’t. Anxiety ran my life.
Finally, in 2018 and 2019, I got a grip on my detrimental anxiety, little by little. Part of healing was leaving my emotionally abusive relationship — in which my anxiety was often used against me — and having space for myself. These days, I have had fewer physical and mental anxiety symptoms than I can ever remember.
How anxiety presents itself physically
My anxiety manifests in many physical symptoms. On an acute level, my heart pounds and races, my breathing becomes short and laborious, my chest becomes tight, my entire body tenses, my stomach clenches and my muscles ache. Lights and sounds become overwhelming.
I shake and my fingers tingle; I break out in hives and become dizzy and disoriented.
Over the long term, my heightened anxiety causes long bouts of insomnia, constant agitation, appetite dysregulation (either no appetite or helpless bingeing), muscle loss, “unhealthy” weight gain, acid reflux, chronic migraines, a weakened immune system, exhaustion and dissociation.
I used to suffer so severely from my anxiety symptoms that I lived in continual pain. I built a small fortress with all the bottles of Tums, ibuprofen and sleeping aids I used to take to get through daily life. These days, with my anxiety under control, I live almost entirely free of doctors, discomfort and medication.
How anxiety presents itself mentally
Mentally, my anxiety looks like a deconstructed to-do list that’s 1,000 pages long. However, the points aren’t organized. Instead of appearing complete or chronological, the words and sentence segments whip around like the dollar bills in the tornado chamber at children’s amusement parks. I can’t get through one thought before the next is flying at me, adding chaos and distracting me from my original idea.
All of this culminates in feeling continually overwhelmed, agitated and exhausted. I feel like there’s “never enough time,” and I rush through all my tasks once my eyes open. I rarely feel present, and it’s near-impossible to stop and enjoy anything.
If I do pause, I feel physical annoyance and increasing discomfort. I start to dissociate. My thoughts are so flooded and distant that I have no idea what’s happening around me. I might as well float away. I eventually shut down.
What a day when my anxiety is at its worst looks like
On my worst days, I have trouble performing basic functions. It’s a huge rush to jump out of bed and start moving — but my actions aren’t necessarily productive after that. Sometimes I feel I have so many things to do that I’m completely stagnated by indecision.
Even when I have nothing to do, I sometimes still feel the same sense of panicked urgency. On those days, there’s never relief from the stress response, because there’s no obstacle to overcome.
Instead, there’s an empty, gnawing feeling in my stomach and a generalized sense of doom, of running late to a very important date.
In both cases, I’m prone to having both meltdowns and periods of catatonic states. I snap at people. I break into tears at the slightest difficulty; I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, as if a feather could cripple me. At a certain point, my head is filled with the sensation of being slowly squeezed and inflated with helium gas.
On bad nights, my brain is flooded with critical thoughts as soon as I lay down in bed. I ruminate and have imaginary conversations with my antagonists until morning light. The insomnia increases my anxiety the next day, or until the pattern breaks.
My go-to coping mechanism
My best coping mechanism for anxiety is first taking control of my “time.” It isn’t easy, but I need to see time as a tangible and controllable resource. My time is mine to use; outside of my obligations, I can either optimize my time or waste it.
Giving myself “ownership of time” gives me permission to engage in the self-care and reflection that I need.
With my newfound time, I often turn to writing for processing and coping. Besides being a prolific journaler, I run an online support community and blog for complex trauma warriors. Communicating to strangers about our shared experiences is always helpful to increase my mindfulness.
The other major coping strategy in my life is hiking and running in the woods. Nothing works out my physical and mental anxiety like a long, medium-intensity bout of nature therapy.
Between the sights, sounds and smells of the forest and the feeling of my feet hitting the ground, I can be fully immersed in the moment. I try to hike 3 to 4 times a week for symptom management.
What I wish people knew about anxiety
I wish people who don’t suffer from anxiety knew how all-encompassing, deeply debilitating and disturbing anxiety can be. It shakes you.
Anxiety sufferers feel out of control and terrified most of the time. If your loved one struggles with anxious energy, know that they live in a terrible world. Their diagnoses might complicate your life, but to them, it’s a daily hell.
Try to be patient, comforting and supportive — whatever that looks like for your loved one.
Please don’t lose your temper or ever make them feel like a burden; that’s probably something they’re already anxious about.