For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with anxiety.
I remember being very little, and being one hundred percent convinced that I was going to die nearly all of the time. But more than I remember my tangible proximity to mortality, I remember not being taken seriously. When my parents saw me complaining of a headache, I had a very real fear that it was a serious brain infection. When my nose was stuffed from allergies, I was convinced I would stop breathing at any moment. I also had fears surrounding sleep, resulting in many nights spent crying out of frustration late into the night when rest eluded me, and around the safety of my loved ones. I remember sneaking into my parents' and brother's bedrooms to check on them in the middle of the night, just to make sure they were still breathing.
I lived my life, from as long as I can remember through the majority of middle school, riddled with fear, and it made life extremely difficult.
And although it affected my entire way of life, it wasn't something anyone in my family, myself included, talked about. While at first my parents placated my fears and talked me through them, the constant barrage of "I think I'm dying" quickly numbed them to the urgency that felt so very real to me. Eventually, they stopped heeding my fears, and so I stopped bringing them up. I became labeled a nervous child, a worry-wart, a whiner. No one believed me, and as my anxiety reached its peak, I was certain that I'd cried wolf so many times that when something was really wrong, I'd be doomed.
My fears were solidified towards the end of elementary school. I came home one day with a tightness in my chest that made breathing feel difficult and strenuous. The feeling was so much more real than the partially-mental ones I'd struggled with regularly, and it terrified me. I told me parents that I was afraid "I was going to stop breathing", and they, being used to my complaints and worries, brushed my concerns aside.
Eventually, my tears and panic culminated into a full-blown panic attack, one that caught their attention. I remember being scooped up into my parent's bed, where my dad held my hand and I counted my breaths to be sure I was still breathing. I remember my mom wanting to call and ambulance, and my dad telling her to calm down. I don't remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up the next morning and being told my family was headed to my brother's baseball game, but I was to stay home a get some rest.
Things were fine for a few hours, until I felt that tightness in my chest creep up again. I started gasping for air like a fish out of water, and felt my face grow hot with fear. I scrambled for the phone to call my parents, who rushed home to check on me. A quick trip to Urgent Care revealed my worst fear- something was actually wrong with me. For the first time, the ailments I'd conceived in my head had manifested themselves in my body. I was sick; pneumonia, lung-infection, prescription medicine sick. I remember feeling a horrible combination of "I told you so" and "What if they hadn't believed me?"
My anxiety got worse from there- more panic attacks, more illness obsessions, more sleepless nights. I didn't like being away from home, or being alone, or being around sick people. Things were only magnified when my mother when from being a stay-at-home-mom to working late nights around strangers I didn't know. My mind was constantly preoccupied with a worry of some sort: my safety, my family's safety, unlikely scenarios that felt all too real. The fear started to isolate me, and I felt separated from my seemingly carefree peers. The first time a felt a reprieve from my anxieties was actually at the peak of my eating disorder. I wasn't cured, it was just a result of the numbness many experience at the apex of their struggle. I was so malnourished, so depressed, and so hopeless, I simply didn't have the capacity for fear. In fact, I was fearless. I didn't know just how sick my body was, and I felt like I had it all under control. I knew my food, and thus I felt like I knew myself. But in fact, I was spiraling downward at a startling rate. I felt nothing at all- not hunger, not pain, not even exhaustion. I barely felt present in my own life.
The panic attacks came back once I returned from the hospital. They were violent outbursts of screaming and crying, pulling at my hair and scratching at my skin. The sense of control my disorder had given me, however false, was now gone, and I felt like my body belonged to someone else. I couldn't choose my own food, couldn't choose my meal times, couldn't choose where to go or what to do. I couldn't shower without asking permission or sleep without being watched. My fears no longer centered around my health- I knew I'd done damage, but at this point couldn't sum up the energy to care- but around never being the owner of my own body ever again. My parents were so exhausted from the mental rollercoaster that is aiding a recovery that they couldn't understand my attacks. Out of frustration, they accused me of being manipulative, of lying, of pretending for attention. Perhaps the most hurtful thing that has ever been said to me was by my mother in her panic and exhaustion, "You can control this."
Oh, how I wish I could have. I felt feral, like my body was disconnected from my mind. I wanted nothing more than to feel in control of my life again, but I'd lost the trust of everyone around me to do a good job of caring for myself.
When I started practicing yoga, I started rebuilding the bridges between my mind and my physicality again. The focus on breath, and the linking of movement with it, brought me back in touch with my body. Evolutionarily, anorexia shouldn't exist. It goes against everything our body instinctually wants: survival, nourishment, growth. The disorder shuts down your connection to these instincts and leaves you numb and out of touch with your emotions, feelings, and sensations. Yoga brought me back down to earth, back into a space where I felt grounded, and, for the first time, a bit more in control.
Today, I still suffer from anxiety, and I always will. Much like an eating disorder, there is no cure, only treatment. I feel much more in control of my fear now, and rarely succumb to panic attacks or even the beginning stages of one. Thanks to a solid yoga practice, meditation routine, and dedication to self-exploration, I've been able to bridge the gaps between my racing mind and healing body. But just like any other person, I have some days that are harder than others. I have anxiety around school, friendships, and work. I get sweaty palms teaching in front of my own teachers, or get restless the night before a big test. I left prom early my Junior year because I became overwhelmed to the point of panic. Unlike before, however, I no longer allow the fear to consume me on a daily basis, and instead am able to channel my energy in more positive ways.
I don't think we talk about anxiety enough, and as a result, the average person doesn't know how to deal with either their own anxiety, or the anxiety of others. If you've never experienced true, irrational panic, you won't know how to help someone who's struggling. It's so easy to simply brush it aside; tell them they're fine, or to just "not think about it". But what you're doing is invalidating their emotions, and as a result, making them feel even more alone in their struggle.
My last major panic attack was last November at a concert. It was late at night, the music was loud, and it was the perfect atmosphere to overwhelm me. I started to feel dizzy and began to hyperventilate. Quickly, I grabbed my mom's shoulder and told her I didn't "feel well" (code for: "I'm starting to panic"). But she didn't understand what I meant, and wanted to enjoy the concert. My irrationality kept me from better explaining my emotions and, much to both of our embarrassment, I started to sob and gasp for air in the middle of a crowded concert venue.
Confused and embarrassed, my mother tried to get me to quiet down, and started saying things like, "People are staring." and "Do you want everyone to see you like this?"
What she didn't understand is that I couldn't control my stress response, and the tension she was adding, albeit unintentionally, wasn't helping. The more flustered she got, the more I panicked, and the more I panicked, the more upset she got. At some point, I got so angry at both myself and her reaction that I said through my tears, "I can't control it- I'm having a panic attack and you're hurting me."
And suddenly, it clicked for her. I wasn't just overly tired or overreacting, I was truly struggling with something much greater than my rationality. I remember the way her eyebrows softened and then quickly re-wrinkled with concern and regret as she pulled me into a hug and apologized for not understanding. It was then that I realized the importance of educating people about the realities of anxiety, and how to best aid someone who is struggling with it.
So here's what you should know about anxiety:
We're not always worried about big or tangible things.
Often, we don't understand why we're so upset, either.
We know there's nothing you can do for us, but we want you to be here anyway.
Sometimes we can't put it into words, but the fear still feels real.
We already don't feel normal, we don't need you to remind us of it.
You don't have to understand it, but we'd love it if you'd care anyway.
We have anxiety about bothering you with our anxiety.
We wish we could just "get over it", if only it was that easy.
It means the world to us that you care enough to ask how we are.
It's okay to talk about it, it really helps.
If you struggle with anxiety, you know just how tangible the fear is. If you don't, you might know just how frustrating it can be for everyone involved when an attack sets in. It's emotionally exhausting to help someone who can't pinpoint "their problem", and thus can't find "the solution", but know that your support can make all the difference. It's okay to not understand. We don't really understand, either. But knowing that we're not alone is the only thing we can ask for.