I remember my first time with the same vibrancy of feeling that I had when I first experienced it.
I was in my first year of graduate school and back home for my Christmas break.
Changing states, adjusting to a more competitive and advanced academic environment than I’d had in my previous university, a troublesome romantic relationship, I carried all of these worries with me back home, snuggled in every crevice of my mind.
My family and I were out grocery shopping at Sam’s Club (similar to Costco for those not familiar with Sam’s Club) and though it’s a large store, it was crowded due to the holiday season.
As I walked around with my family, there was laughter, conversation surrounded us, a bustle of activity, but the loudest activity was that going on inside of my head.
I could not quiet my thoughts.
I worried about failing at grad school. I worried that the papers that I’d turned in, the analysis that I’d spent hours contemplating, the writing that I’d dedicated so much effort and energy to: that none of it was good enough.
I worried about the future of my relationship.
I worried about the possibility of never again remembering what it felt like to be at peace, not to feel claustrophobic.
I’d been worried for months and the worrying along with the studying had affected both the quantity and the quality of my sleep.
But, this time as I stood in the middle of Sam’s club at what was presumably a time of repose, of being among family that I’d missed, of feeling the comfort of the environment in which I’d been raised, I literally felt like I couldn’t breathe.
My heart was beating at a faster rate than my thoughts were pounding inside my head, and that was saying a lot.
I felt like the shelves in the store were compressing against me. There were too many people, I couldn’t stop thinking, and couldn’t begin to breathe.
Of course, I was breathing, but it felt like each breath was as difficult as lifting eighty pounds with one arm.
I had no idea what was happening. I turned to my mom and told her that I didn’t feel well, that I needed air. I walked outside, away from the external chaos, but still in the midst of the internal one.
And so it was that Sam’s Club became the facility that hosted my very first anxiety attack, also known as panic attacks.
Even now, as I write this post, I can feel how overwhelmed I was in having no sense of control over what was happening with my body.
I can still taste the fear of not being in enough power to make the thoughts stop.
Anxiety feels like you are going down a super fast slide with all of your thoughts. You keep sliding until you reach a wide ocean, where your thoughts spread into a vastness so deep that it seems almost impossible for you to resurface.
At the time I did not realize that I was having an anxiety attack. I thought that I was having a heart attack.
That was over 7 years ago.
Since then, I have become much better acquainted with anxiety, I know what triggers it, I have worked on understanding my anxiety.
I have also learned how to cope with it and have adopted tools that have been tremendous help.
But what hasn’t changed since my first anxiety attack is our perception that anxiety is trivial.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. It affects 40 million adults age 18 or older in the United States.
40 million adults.
Everyone has stressful days.
Anxiety is not the act of feeling stress.
Anxiety is compulsive, excessive, unrealistic worrying.
Those of us who have anxiety recognize that the worry is exaggerated, but we can’t ‘just stop worrying’ about it. In fact, that’s the worst thing that you can tell someone dealing with anxiety.
It is like asking someone with two broken legs to stop whining and go for a run.
It is common for people who have anxiety to suffer from depression and vice versa. We are finally coming around to honoring what it means to deal with depression, but we need to start recognizing that anxiety is also a disorder that is very real and challenging.
It takes much effort from someone with anxiety not to let our thoughts drag us down a rabbit hole.
There are several methods that can be used to manage anxiety.
I manage mine through exercise and meditation. Both of these methods have helped alleviate my anxiety and it is rare that I have anxiety attacks anymore.
But, there are many others who are dealing with anxiety and are being told to stop being silly and that their worrying is nonsensical. We need to educate ourselves on anxiety disorder and learn how to be compassionate.
If you have anxiety and are having trouble managing your anxiety, please know that there are resources. You are not alone, you are not damaged, there is no shame.
I hope that sharing my story will inspire you to share yours with someone with whom you feel comfortable.
I leave you with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website: http://www.adaa.org/
Much love to you all.