I have struggled with an anxiety disorder for almost three years. I have only told a few people this until now. I have recently started to be more open about my struggles, hoping that more people can understand what anxiety really is and what struggling with it really feels like. The stigma and misunderstandings of mental health disorders are grossly incorrect. I’m going to share some of the biggest highs and lows of my anxiety journey. I hope that you find it enlightening and that it may help you relate to someone you know who struggles with their mental health.
In the summer of 2012 I traveled to Indonesia for a month through a college program. I went with two other girls from my school and lived with native Indonesians in cute little houses above the ocean for most of the month I was there. I learned a lot from this trip, but it was unexpectedly the event that brought about my anxiety disorder.
When I returned home from my trip I complained to my mom about chest pains, shortness of breath, and a strange tenseness. There were a couple of moments where I felt like I couldn’t breath, so I went to the ER. After several tests from basic cardiac tests to a CT scan checking for blood clots from the long flight, the doctors found nothing wrong with me. Now I was embarrassed for dragging my mom to the ER and complaining about symptoms when there was nothing wrong. Being a health major, my brain began thinking about the hundreds of things that could be wrong with me that the hospital did not check. During the rest of the summer the symptoms persisted and I just moved on. I wasn’t exactly sure why this trip triggered my anxiety disorder. I now think that it was the seclusion and distance that caused me to think through several stressful life changes all at once, leaving me overwhelmed and feeling abandoned. From the disorganization along with excessive thinking about things back home, my anxiety began.
I went back to school for my sophomore year that fall and attempted to continue with my studies. I noticed that I didn’t quite seem myself and that things that were normally fun and easy for me like hanging out with friends, being spontaneous, and being in large crowds in general were increasingly difficult. I didn’t know what to think of this new less-fun me, but I did my best to stifle my feelings and keep moving on. Maybe a month or so into the fall semester I was in a study room by myself in the science building and I had my first anxiety attack.
What exactly is an anxiety attack? It is not just a moment of severe nervousness, as most people think. It first feels like you have been shocked in your heart, and then your body starts to shake uncontrollably. Then you begin to sweat as your heart beats faster and faster. You feel lightheaded and your vision changes for a few endless minutes. After these few minutes, you come back from the attack and are completely exhausted from the few minutes of intensity your body just endured.
After this happened I called my mom terrified and told her what happened. She then had an ah-ha moment. She told me that it sounded like I had just had an anxiety attack and that she used to have similar experiences when going on airplanes from having almost crashed in a plane years ago.
Okay, so now everything is making more sense. This explains the symptoms from the summer and my recent change in behavior.
“So, what now?”, I asked her. She wasn’t quite sure. She told me how some people find relief in different ways like yoga, tea, and meditation. Neither of us even had a thought about medication at this point. I began my research and was pretty disappointed with the lack of information that existed to help me.
My first thoughts were that I needed to just relax. “Take it easy, you’re just stressed, you’ll get over it”, I told myself. This was a big mistake. I felt that this is all I needed to do because of the social stigma anxiety has.
Anxiety unfortunately doesn’t just go away without some work. Very rarely is a phase that simply passes within a short amount of time. I continued my fall semester trying to “relax” more and trying not to let stress affect me as much. So because I wasn’t really doing anything that directly could help my anxiety, my symptoms became worse and worse. I had more panic attacks, I stayed home more, and did less of what I enjoyed. My triggers began to become more and more obvious to me as their effect on me grew. Large crowds were and still are a big issue for me. This is for a reason that most people who don’t have anxiety don’t understand. We aren’t afraid of crowds because we are shy, a little more nervous, just want to be left alone, or are just uncomfortable. The reason is much more odd and embarrassing.
For myself, I developed asthenophobia (fear of fainting) and hypochondria (fear of becoming ill). I can’t explain why but this was just part of my disorder and now it was part of me. So, when I would be in large crowds I imagined myself passing out in the middle of everyone and that absolutely terrified me for some reason. And this is one of the worst parts of having anxiety: the Cycle. The more you think and focus about the possibility of something happening the more likely it is to actually happen. So the more I worry about passing out in the middle of a large crowd the more likely it is that I will actually pass out in a large crowd. The more you think about your fears, the more afraid you become, and the more likely it is that these fears will physically affect you.
This is the ugly truth about anxiety. We are afraid and embarrassed about the real reasons behind our fear. We also become ashamed at what silly things we have to do to avoid triggers or deal with stressful moments. For example, for several months I had to leave our school cafeteria by walking only along the wall of the room instead of cutting through the middle of it. There were a few times where I challenged myself, “just do it, you are so weird you can’t just walk through there, just do it” and after reaching the end of the room my heart would be racing, my head would feel light, and I would go home as fast as possible to sit in my desk in a corner.
Okay so at this point I want to be clear that my entire story isn’t scary and sad, it gets better - so stick with me.
I had one of my crowd anxiety attacks in the middle of chapel at school when we all had to stand together to sing a song. Sounds ridiculous, but it was torture to me. I spent those 45 minutes completely overcome by my anxiety. One of the things that I hate most about my anxiety is the voice in my head that I sometimes refer to as the “anxiety monster”. During my anxious moments it’s like someone is talking to me about all of the terrible things that could happen right in that moment.
There were even times when I would just be walking around campus and would begin to cry at some of the absolutely terrible things the monster would tell me. So even though during that chapel service I didn’t have a forty-five minute panic attack, I still was fighting a personal battle. This was new to me and it was just too much.
I left chapel and went straight to our schools counseling center trying to choke back tears. This was just too much, it’s too hard, I needed help no matter how ashamed I was to ask for it. I went into the counseling center and was immediately greeted with the most kind smiling receptionist in the world, Betsy. I tried to maintain my composure and ask her if I could schedule an appointment. She looked at her screen and sadly told me that they were full but I could be on a cancelation list. I put my name on the list and headed out to the nearest bathroom to let out some tears.
Just as I was entering Betsy chased after me and said, “Oh Marissa! A spot just opened for fifteen minutes from now, would you like to take it?”. “YES”.
I still don’t know what would have happened if I had not been able to get that spot in the counseling center. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That day I started my two year journey with the Wheaton College Counseling Center. I worked with a graduate student for the remainder of the year and she was an absolute angel from God. I told her all of my embarrassing moments and fears and worries and confusion about what was going on. She would then tell me that it was okay and that I wasn’t alone despite what I thought. She never judged me and always knew what to say and what questions to ask.
Over the next few months she worked with me on understanding my triggers and developing coping mechanisms to tackle the difficult moments. One of the more complicated things that she helped me with was stopping the anxiety spiral or the cycle as I referred to it earlier. This was much more challenging than I had anticipated it being. It’s almost like working with yourself in third person as your own coach, “Okay that was good, but let’s try again”.
My therapy continued for several months into the spring semester. As my counselor did help me with my existing challenges new anxiety symptoms were arising left and right. We tackled them as they came but I started to think that I may need more than just counseling to get me through this. This was when I discovered two HUGE things that helped me with my anxiety.
Because of my hypochondria I was often worrying about my health. So I began to think, hmm, I bet if I can run a couple of miles the likelihood of me having this super rare random disease will be lower (I know it sounds silly, but hey, we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do). So I began running. Some were angry runs lashing out against anxiety but they slowly became huge confidence and mood boosters. I began running between three and five miles and day and continued for about a half a year. This had a massive impact on my anxiety and my confidence in my ability to conquer it.
Maybe a month or so after having started seeing my counselor I decided to tell my new boyfriend at the time, Alex, that I had been struggling with anxiety and had sought help with a counselor. I waited so long to tell him because I felt ashamed, and I wanted him to have a “normal” girlfriend not one who had to go see a counselor. But we had been dating for a few months and I felt like I could open up to him. So I sat him down and said that I needed to tell him something and I told him my story. And he reacted in the most perfect way possible, he gave me a long bear hug and said, “How can I help”. Wow. I was not expecting that. His understanding and willingness to learn about something completely new was a testament of his love for me. I told him some of my triggers and asked if he could help me when I am in and stressful situation and we are together. He put in maximum effort to be my “safe person” and still is today. He knows the drill if I give him a nudge and say, “Hey I need your help”. He also went to counseling sessions with me. That was huge. I think that it even made me feel better about going to counseling that he was able to see that it wasn’t me laying on a couch just talking about my relationships with various family members. But it was more of a process of self exploration. He continued to ask me how I was doing and show me how much he cared by asking me questions like, “How was your anxiety today” or “How did you do with _ situation?”. He still does this and he is still my main supporter with my anxiety.
Things stayed about the same until my fall semester the following year. I had a new counselor that year as my prior counselor had moved on in her graduate school program. My new counselor was equally as awesome and was able to help me with a new set of questions. At this point I had been struggling with anxiety for over a year now. But my symptoms still remained. I had a moment where I had to run out of a class where I was demonstrating an anatomy concept because I was closer than I had ever been to actually fainting from a panic attack. My face went white, my knees were shaking and I was going down.
Thankfully I sat down in time - but had never been more embarrassed. So now I was back to the frustrated, angry person mad at the world for giving her anxiety. I felt like I had tried everything. But somehow I had missed the most obviously helpful option of all - medication. I had avoided this because I felt that needing to take a daily medication made me weak, dependent, and proved that I was broken.
Looking back I realize how ridiculous this is. You wouldn’t look down on someone taking daily medication for high blood pressure, right? So why do people look down on needing to take medication for mental health? It is no different that any other physical ailment you can have. When you break your leg you go to the doctor, yet when you have a panic attack, why does it seem intuitive to do nothing and figure it out yourself?
This is because of a mental health stigma that exists in our society that would need a whole additional blog post to talk about. So I began my medication journey which was fairly simple compared to many other stories I have heard. These are intense drugs with some pretty nasty initial side effects so it often takes people a long trial and error process to find the right medication for you. I started out with an “as needed” drug Ativan. I took the smallest half milligram amount whenever I felt like I was about to have an attach. It worked, I would calm down but would feel really sleepy the rest of the day and then have trouble sleeping when it was actually night time. The trick with as needed medications is that they are considered as needed because they can be addictive, or at least I know this to be true with my Ativan. I was needing it more than a few times a week even though I wasn’t craving it so I gave Zoloft a try. This is a daily medication. I was nauseous and had significant vertigo for about two weeks but after that I started to feel more like myself for the first times in almost two years. I had to work a bit with finding the right dose for me but I continued to take it and continued to find significant relief. There is nothing wrong with taking medication to help with mental health issues, rather there is something wrong with being ashamed to try medication to help with mental health issue.
After graduating college and getting married I continued to take my Zoloft but occasionally would take Ativan if I was particularly anxious. Medication isn’t a cure but is a huge step in the direction of being yourself again. I still struggle today. Particularly now because I am off my medication while being pregnant. I think this is why I wanted to write this blog now because I am reminded of how hard living with anxiety really is.
I hope that my story may help you feel like you can relate more to a loved one of your own struggling with a mental health disorder. Patience, love, and lots of questions go a long way. We aren’t crazy, we are just sick, and are trying to get better.