I have anxiety.
I have for a long time. I would guess I’ve had it as far back as third grade. Generally speaking, I’ve been able to manage it pretty well. I remove myself from the situation. I take a quick walk. I cancel my evening plans and disconnect on the couch with Netflix. I move around a heavy barbell. I journal. Whatever I feel like I need in the moment.
But in the last few months, it got a little too much to handle on my own.
COVID was already pushing my buttons. I was all in on the whole “stay at home” thing at first. I had been running at max capacity for months and I saw it as a couple of weeks, three max, to check out a bit, hang out around my house, and have the chance to truly slow down for the first time in a while.
A couple of weeks turned into a month. A month turned into two and then three. And now here we are, five months into this thing with no real end in sight. I’ve gone from finding the idea of staying home novel to beginning to recognize just how much I miss people, community. I’ve been quarantined alone and as the days tick by, I miss life more and more.
For the last two months, I’ve also coped with a stubborn kidney stone. That damned stone that just won’t seem to make its entrance into this world was the final straw. Because of that stone, my anxiety not only peaked, but took on a new look.
I’ve lost hours filling googling medical symptoms. I’ve had a CT scan, an ultrasound, and chest and abdominal x-rays at this point, all clear minus this “tiny” 2mm stone of mine. I’ve been to the doctor more times than I care to count, called their office even more to ask this question, check this symptom, just to make sure it’s a kidney stone. And did I mention I googled medical symptoms?
I know better than to turn to Google, but in my anxiety-induced state, I’ve spent a lot of time self-diagnosing. Was it REALLY a kidney stone? Are they certain it wasn’t cancer? An aneurysm? I read kidney stones are misdiagnosed as aneurysms… Maybe it’s really an ovarian cyst? On and on it went.
But then things got real fun.
“Shortness of breath.”
I use quotes because I can, in fact, take a full breath. But I found myself yawning to get a deep breath, and then that breath was unsatisfying and next thing you know, it felt like there was a knot in my chest and oh, hey, my left hand is tingling…
I’m obviously having a heart attack. Or heart failure. Maybe there’s a pulmonary embolism. COPD looks like it could be an option, too.
The kidney stone debacle got me to do something I’d been considering for a while: returning to therapy. It had been more than 10 years since I last spoke to a therapist and that was a brief couple of visits in the aftermath of a bad breakup.
I freaking love therapy.
Where I grew up, therapy is often viewed as “airing your dirty laundry.” You’re supposed to hide your dirty laundry, not put it on display. It would be unbecoming for company to see it, you see, so you tuck those baskets of laundry away where no one can see them and you certainly don’t bring them up in conversation. Except hi, I’ve got anxiety. And something causes that anxiety. Therapy is helping me get to the root of what triggers it. There is no such thing as dirty laundry in therapy.
Therapy is also giving me techniques to deal with these anxiety spirals. Because of the tools I’ve been given, I was able – after a few wild days last week – to realize the shortness of breath I was experiencing disappeared when I was distracted. It seemed to go away when I was wrapped up in writing a story or in the midst of a CrossFit class. It hit me that if it was truly shortness of breath, I probably wouldn’t be able to go hard in these CrossFit classes the way I have. I also happened to have had a clear chest x-ray just a week earlier when the symptoms first began. #kidneystone problems.
And then it hit me – anxiety.
Anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms. It’s not just sitting around worrying and waiting for the world to end. It can be shortness of breath, chest tightness, tingling sensations in limbs, nausea, headaches, difficulty swallowing, digestive issues… Mine is currently manifesting as perceived air hunger and chest tightness.
Interestingly, a couple of months ago, I couldn’t swallow. I mean, I could, but it felt like there was a big lump in my throat. The more I thought about it, the worse it got. Again, I’d been to the doctor recently (the beginning of the kidney stone saga) and she had felt my lymph nodes and looked down my throat. A quick Google search, a moment of being sure I had throat cancer, (I know) and I realized it was likely anxiety.
It disappeared after a few days.
When people think of anxiety attacks, they tend to think of short lived, intense episodes that are actually panic attacks. The phrase “anxiety attack” isn’t clinical, I’m told, but the prolonged episodes are “anxiety exacerbations” and can last for days. My therapist uses the analogy of riding a wave. Anxiety goes up and up and up and then it finally peaks and ebbs back down. Sometimes the waves are calm and gentle. Other times, the water is choppy.
I’ve actually had this “shortness of breath” before where I catch myself yawning to try to catch my breath. I was less aware of my anxiety at that point, but now, I can see clearly that it has affected me in other ways for a long while. Some days I’ll find it really hard to concentrate or my mind will feel blank. I’ve had the telltale signs, too, of just flat out worrying. I’ll be convinced the world is going to end or that something bad is going to happen and as someone who is highly empathic and intuitive, that can really send me in a spiral. Imagine having a track record of “knowing” things somehow and then having a day where you’re sitting around, waiting for something horrible to happen and not being able to tell if it’s an actual gut instinct or anxiety. It’s fun, I tell you.
Anxiety is very real. It’s not just “you worry too much” or “you’re too sensitive.” I’ve had both of those phrases fired my way and it didn’t feel great. “It’s in your head” came from my mom when I was younger. She, too, suffered from (undiagnosed) mental health issues and I think she really did think that it was as simple as dismissing it. Ignoring it.
Hiding those baskets of dirty laundry in the way back of the closet.
It’s not that simple.
I tend to “fight” my anxiety. I have the ability to step outside of myself and analyze what’s going on. I’ll know my symptoms are being caused by anxiety, but I’ll also get annoyed because I want to control it – tell it to just “stop” so I can get on with my life. My therapist has been great about not only giving me techniques to cope, but also encouraging me to acknowledge it, sit with it, and let myself feel the feels rather than attempt to stop it in its tracks. I’m only storing it up for later by doing that.
I’m not great at sitting with it and feeling the feels, but I’m working on it. He also likes to remind me that I didn’t go into the gym and instantly start lifting a ton of weight. I had to build up my strength. Navigating my anxiety is the same concept – I have to find what works and practice it often.
Part of me navigating my anxiety – of feeling the feels – is sharing it. I’m not ashamed to “air my dirty laundry.” I know what it’s like to feel a sense of dread so intense you are just certain that log truck scene from Final Destination is going to happen while driving to the gym. I know what it’s like to wonder if your symptoms are anxiety or something worse. I know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever feel “good” again and to know your anxiety is in full effect but have no choice but to wait it out.
I also know what it’s like to have anxiety dismissed as not a real disorder.
If you suffer from anxiety, know you’re not alone. There are so many of us that suffer, often in silence. There are resources available to you. Therapy is worth every penny. While I’m not on medication, it might be the right treatment option for you. There are lots of tools and techniques for coping. It’s a matter of finding what works for you.
I have anxiety.
It’s a part of my life.
But it doesn’t have to control it.