Y’all might have noticed that I haven’t been posting as much – my blogs have been inconsistent and I haven’t been as present. It’s not because I don’t love you guys- it’s because I’ve been on my own healing journey with anxiety.
Spoiler alert: the last 7-8 months I’ve been able to find a lot of healing and am excited to share with you guys things I’ve found helpful, but first I am going to talk a little bit about what my anxiety looked like.
This blog post will probably be one of the hardest I will ever publish. One, because it’s somewhat difficult to put into words the thoughts that have been living inside of my head for the last 20 something years and two, because vulnerability is hard y’all.
I’ve received so many messages on Instagram about how people have struggled with generalized anxiety disorder and how hard it’s been for them. My hope is that sharing my journey will help people feel not so alone and maybe discover some new things they haven’t tried for healing. For the sake of length, I’m going to share this in two parts. This post will be my story of dealing with anxiety and the second part will be how I’ve been able to heal some of the symptoms.
First, let’s talk about the different types of anxiety. I’ve taken all of these from The Anxiety and Phobia workbook, a book that’s been vital to helping me understand and heal my anxiety.
Situational anxiety is anxiety in response to a certain situation. i.e. you don’t like elevators – anxiety strikes – you get off and it’s better.
Phobic anxiety is when you start to avoid the situation – i.e. you always take the stairs because the anxiety of getting on the elevator is too much.
Anticipatory anxiety – anxiety brought on by thinking of a situation. If it’s not an intense worrying – it’s just worrying. If it’s intense enough, it’s classified as anticipatory anxiety. This varies from the below spontaneous anxiety in that it comes on gradually and is in response to having to face one of your phobic situations.
Spontaneous anxiety – comes out of nowhere, peaks rapidly, then goes away.
Panic disorder – intense fear that comes out of the blue, and then goes away. Some of the symptoms are shortness of breath, accelerated heart rate, dizziness, trembling, feeling of choking, sweating, nausea, hot and cold flashes, chest pain, fear of dying.
You might be wondering- how does having an anxiety disorder differ from normal, daily anxiety? Here are a few ways – 1) It’s really intense – think frequent panic attacks. 2) lasts longer – lasts longer than a few months or past the time that the stressful situation that occurred 3) leads to phobias that interfere with your life in some way.
To give you an idea of the intensity of my anxiety – I have suffered from all of the above with the addition of several phobias.
My anxiety started at a very young age. So young, that I actually can’t remember the first time I experienced it, but if I had to guess it was around 5-6 years old. The first signs of my anxiety that I remember are waking up in the middle of the night, shaking, unable to catch my breath, heart racing, sweating and thinking something is definitely wrong with me. This would happen a few times a week at random times and random places. I never told anyone because what do you say? I feel like I’m going to die at random times in the middle of the night. I didn’t know I had anxiety at this point, but I also didn’t see this happening to either of my brothers so I knew it wasn’t normal.
Then came swimming. I started competitively swimming when I was 4, more intensely when I was 5-6. This is when my panic attacks started. At the time, I was going some nights with only 2-3 hours a sleep from the panic, I barely ate anything because when you’re under that much stress you aren’t hungry and when I would eat, it would some microwavable meal that had zero nutritional value. I was severely under weight, doing intense training, and under pressure from my parents and coaches to perform well. Let me say, the pressure was not that intense at this point – but for a child with severe anxiety, any pressure to perform is too much.
I remember my first panic attack in the pool very vividly. I was swimming the 100 freestyle and halfway through I started feeling like I was choking. I hadn’t swallowed any water, but my throat felt like it was closing and I couldn’t catch my breath. I tried to keep swimming, but the intensity of the choking was so bad that I had to stop in the middle of my race. I doggy paddled to the side of the pool, embarrassed, and laid on the side of the pool deck. Of course, everyone was panicking and running over to me – only to make the panic attack worse. Once I caught my breath, I told my coach and family that I couldn’t breathe – that it felt like my throat was closing and I was rushed to the ER.
At the time, I also had terrible sinus issues, allergies to everything, so when they diagnosed me with exercise induced asthma we all thought it made sense. They prescribed me a plethora of medicines – including an inhaler and sent me on my way. In case you guys haven’t taken an inhaler before – it increases your heart rate, a lot. The next swim meet, I took my inhaler before my race and yep, you guessed it, the same thing happened. I was so embarrassed – what was happening to me? Why could other people finish their races without something bad happening? After that second panic attack, I hated swimming, but I was good and I wasn’t given much of a choice to do it or not, so I continued. The panic attacks would happen frequently, sometimes I would be able to push through, sometimes I would have to stop. Since I was so confused and embarrassed about what was going on inside my head, I just stuck with the asthma excuse. It was easier to explain a sickness that people understood than trying to explain that it was actually some sort of panic going on inside my head. Plus, at such a young age, I wasn’t really sure what was happening either.
This continued for years until finally in middle school I told my mom I couldn’t swim anymore and explained to her that I thought I was having some sort of panic attack (though I didn’t know what that was). She doesn’t have anxiety so she didn’t fully understand what I was going through, but she found me places to go for therapy and we went and saw a doctor. My family does not talk about anything, so it was something I kind of explained to my mom once, then it was never brought up again. I was put on medication for anxiety and started seeing a therapist, but neither of these things were working. The medicine made me feel like complete crap and the therapist was very one track and that track was not working for me. The night before swim meets I would try to stay awake all night because I thought if I was tired enough I wouldn’t have the energy to be anxious (if I only knew what I do now lol). Loaded up on instant breakfast, donuts and gatorade and no sleep, I would get to my swim meet already on the verge of a panic attack.
Of course, I never communicated the severity of my anxiety to anyone. I would swim my races, praying that I wouldn’t have a panic attack. The only thing I ever focused on my entire swimming career was not having a panic attack in the middle of the pool. The night before swim meets I would get physically ill thinking about my races. I couldn’t focus in school a few days before big meets because it was the only thing my mind was fixated on. Then add in a stormy night – instant panic attack. Bad dream? Panic attack. I was having so many panic attacks that they started becoming a part of my normal routine.
Through high school, things got better… because hello, avoidance. I avoided anything that made me feel the slightest bit uncomfortable. I became pretty apathetic to everything, including swimming. I continued swimming, but only pushing myself to a point of being slightly uncomfortable in the water. I was continually told I was lazy and wasting my talent, which of course didn’t make my anxiety any better.
Then there was college. I was recruited to swim for the Air Force Academy, so I accepted it because division one swimming sounded fun, NOT. Really, I just didn’t want to pay for college. So off I went. I had intense anxiety in basic training, we were eating the crappiest food and not sleeping for more than 5 hours a night. Plus, you’re pretty much always dehydrated no matter how much water you drink. The thought of having a panic attack in front of anyone was enough to make me crazy. Because of the panic attacks I had in swimming – performing in any way – including running, push-ups, or anything physical was a serious head game for me. Again, the entire time I would just be there hoping that I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack. “You’re a division one swimmer and you can’t run faster than that?” Well, physically I could, but mentally I couldn’t.
I didn’t have any panic attacks from swimming in college, but the panic was still there. I was also really sick all the time from what I know now was gluten – but then I had no idea. I was in and out of the hospital constantly. The gluten was not only making me sick physically, but also severely aggravated my anxiety. Every time I was going to the doctor for anything stomach related, I was usually having a panic attack at the same time. I never talked to anyone about my anxiety in college, and honestly, I think I was in denial that it even existed.
After college came my big girl job and things just got worse, my anxiety was out of control. I started avoiding meetings because I was afraid I would have a panic attack in the small room. I took the stairs more often because I was afraid of having a panic attack in the elevator. My jobs were stressful – the fear of having a panic attack or getting sick at an event would basically always be on my mind. I avoided social situations, meetings, etc. I was also still so sick from the unhealthy food I was eating. In-and-out of hospitals with no diagnosis, I honestly thought I was just going to feel like that forever.
Almost immediately after moving to D.C., I discovered Whole30. Whole30 was something that I had heard of before, but I was too attached to my chick-fil-a 3-4 times a week to ever give it a try. Plus, I didn’t think that food would really be able to help any of the stuff I was going through. Then – I did it, and sure enough, it helped. Then I did it again, and again and I was completely blown away about how good I felt during Whole30!
After doing reintroductions, I realized that gluten was the culprit of most of my stomach issues. The brain/gut connection is real you guys. I won’t go into it in detail here – that’ll be for another post. Anyway, my anxiety was much better and my stomach issues were almost non-existent. The little signs of anxiety that were creeping in, I just ignored it because I was so happy that I could finally live life again without being constantly sick.
Then came 9 months ago when my life took a turn for the worse. I was in a really unhealthy relationship, my family was having a ton of issues with addiction, depression, etc. and I absolutely hated my job. I was working 5 different jobs, 7 days a week and did not give myself time to rest from anything. I thought if I could just save up enough money to live off of, then I could finally quit my full time job. Good intentions, poor execution. I was so anxious, I couldn’t really feel. I became numb to pretty much everything, didn’t want to socialize and was having panic attacks over the smallest things. I was in a constant fight or flight stage. When I did finally go to therapy, they had me do a checklist with symptoms and scored my symptoms out of 20. I was at 18. The only boxes I didn’t check out of the symptoms I didn’t have for anxiety and depressionw were suicide and wanting to hurt others.
My body was so stressed that my stomach issues were starting to come back. You’re probably thinking, well if just quit your jobs you would have felt so much better. True, but I used them as an escape from my family, my relationship, and my job. If I stayed busy enough, I didn’t have to feel. This went on for almost a year, then my body started to shut down.
I was getting sick a lot – I was having panic attacks. I had nothing to give in my relationships. One day I drove into work and had a panic attack in front of someone I worked with. He took me to the ER for some meds, but he also opened up to me about his struggle with anxiety and some of the things he experienced, which were super similar to my experiences. I was so shocked that someone else experienced similar thoughts and feelings. This person being open with me helped me feel a lot less alone. He encouraged me to seek help, which I did, and it completely changed my life. Since he was vulnerable with me, I decided I should return the favor and share my story to help others feel more comfortable opening up about their struggles and possibly even leading them to seek help. It took me 9 months, but here I am, feeling better than I have in my entire life.
Thank you to everyone who has supported me in opening up about my anxiety. It hasn’t been easy, but everyone reaching out to me saying that it’s helped them has made it 1000x worth it.
I’ll be posting a few things that have been vital in helping me heal in a separate blog post. I still have a lot of healing to do – but if you struggle with GAD, I hope you find these things helpful.