“I never understood how anybody could ever become depressed. I always thought life was too precious and amazing to be upset all the time. But now I get it. And it scares me…I don’t want to get it. I still don’t even know why I have all these feelings. I’m just scared.”
– A letter to myself at 18 years old
I have anxiety.
I’ve lived with anxiety for quite some time now. For years, it completely controlled my life. Panic attacks and worry have held me back and prevented me from accomplishing much in life. Today, I’m in a good place. I will never be completely “cured” and I know it is a part of who I am, but I have learned how to re-gain control of my life.
My Life with Anxiety
Growing up, I was always a very nervous kid. Looking back on my life, I can recall instances when I experienced slight panic attacks, but at the time, I had no idea what they were. My naivety allowed me to move on from these moments and just chalk them up to nerves or illness, nothing more. These nervous moments came and went, and I was able to live a very happy and fulfilling childhood. My High School years were filled with countless laughs, friends, and overall fantastic memories. I loved being the center of attention and at times, I truly felt on top of the world.
I chose to go out of state for college, and within one week of moving in, my entire life was flipped upside down. It was my first time spending a significant amount of time away from home, and after 18 years, my mind decided that I was not safe.
Suddenly, every public situation felt dangerous. I began to constantly feel sick, and any kind of social situation sent me into a full-fledged panic attack.
I couldn’t sit in a classroom unless I was right next to the door. I skipped out on presentations and exams because the thought of being surrounded by people in a classroom scared me to death. My grades suffered immediately. I changed my academic path and dropped out of what could have been the most beneficial classes available just because I knew there would be presentations at the end of the semester.
The only time I felt safe was when I was completely alone in my room.
As a shy introverted person, this was the absolute worst situation for me. I didn’t try to make friends. I missed out on countless concerts, seminars, and parties because I feared the panic attacks. My college experience was completely ruined, just because I was in a constant state of worry over absolutely nothing.
What are you so worried about?
To somebody that has never had a panic attack, it’s nearly impossible to put into words. The physical effects are easy to describe- sweating, heart pounding, shaking, etc. Your mind gets completely engulfed in panic that you have absolutely no idea what’s going on around you.
It’s like having the flu, but there’s absolutely nothing physically wrong with you.
This is the million-dollar question that has no answer.
It’s something that if you’ve never experienced it, you’ll never understand. The “why” is different in every single case, but to somebody deemed “normal”, it will never make sense.
For me, I panicked any time I felt trapped in a social situation. If I were around people, a feeling of nausea would wash over me and I would go into a full-fledged panic attack, awaiting the spontaneous urge to vomit. Needless to say, through my hundreds of thousands of panic attacks, I never once actually got sick. Of course, that never once lessened the severity of my panic attacks. So why did I get so worked up about it? That right there is the question that even I can’t answer.
To some, anxiety may be triggered by public speaking. To others, it could be something as simple as going grocery shopping.
It may sound absolutely crazy to you, and for most of my life, it did for me, too. But when you’re experiencing a panic attack, the danger is very, very real.
Try to explain to your best friends why you can’t go grab dinner at the dining hall and why you’re instead going to eat a bowl of cereal, alone, locked in your dorm room. Again.
The mind-body connection
The mind is a powerful thing. The world teaches you at a very young age that if you believe it, you can achieve it. If you can visualize something strongly enough, then you can turn it into reality. And this is all true, but it does not always work out in your favor.
Your mind can convince you that you are in serious danger, and your body will act on that. I’m sure you remember learning about fight-or-flight reactions at some point in your life. When your mind perceives danger, your body prepares to face it. Adrenaline will pump through your veins, you’ll sweat, start shaking, your heart rate will increase, and your mouth will get really dry.
This, my friends, is a panic attack.
Your mind tells your body that you are in extreme danger, and the body prepares for the worst.
Once you develop a panic attack, it begins the self-fulfilling prophecy of anxiety- a cycle that is never ending.
Suddenly, you anticipate situations that you think will trigger your anxiety. You become anxious just thinking about possibly becoming anxious.
Rinse, lather, repeat.
Exercise. The mind-body reversal.
I firmly believe that if your mind can trick your body into thinking it is in danger, then your body also trick your mind into believing it’s not.
The secret lies within exercise.
At the peak of my anxiety, I developed a very strong relationship with long distance running. When I was feeling less than 100%, getting outside and going for a long run would always make me feel better.
If nothing else, for that one hour, my problems would disappear.
When you run long distances, there’s a “wall” that you will inevitably hit. It could be after one mile or ten miles, but at a certain point, your body slows down and you feel like you can’t go any further. You may cramp up or your legs may turn into jello, and you’ll want to give up.
When you hit the wall, you can lie down and give up, or you can bust right through it.
Your mind tells your body that you cannot run anymore. Deep down, your body knows it is capable of more. When you bust through that wall, your mind is made a liar. Suddenly, it’s no longer the mind-body connection, but rather the body-mind connection.
Your body conquered your mind.
In the gym, your mind will tell your body that you simply cannot do another rep. So, dig deep and rep out two more. If you’r feeling too tired to wake up and workout, roll out of bed and go hit the heavy bag in the basement. Once you begin to sweat, you’ll realize you were never actually too tired to begin with.
Your body conquered your mind.
When we exercise, our bodies are working. If our bodies are working, our minds have no time to work. Don’t believe me? Get on the treadmill and start running. Get up to top speed, and then try to plan out what you’re going to do the rest of the week. I promise, you’re going to have a really difficult time focusing.
If your body is working, your mind cannot.
You don’t need to go to a gym to workout, either. Do yoga, dance, chop some wood, jump rope… it truly does not matter what you do.
What matters is that you exercise, and you give it your all.
Completely lose yourself in the activity, focus on every rep, every breath, every minute, every stretch, and don’t allow your mind to work.
Our minds are strong, but we are stronger.
I still have anxiety, and I’m always going to.
The difference now is that I know how to control it. I wake up early every weekday morning to go to the gym, and then I take the dog for a long walk before my day begins. I know what makes me anxious and I know what stressors will be present throughout the day, so I exercise to put my mind at ease. By starting my mornings exercising, I’m relaxing my mind, and I am proving to myself every single day that I am stronger than my anxiety.
You are stronger.
Whether it is anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or addiction, you are stronger.
Always believe that you are.