Apologies for the long article.
One thing I found helpful throughout my battle with anxiety was the comfort in knowing that I was not alone in what I was experiencing. Did you know that anxiety has overtaken depression in the most common mental illness in teenagers and young adults? Although I could not bring myself to read about other personal stories, my Mum would read them and tell me about them in a less confronting way. This helped me a lot, as it spared me the that details I did not want to read. No one can truly understand what you are going through when you struggle with anxiety unless you have been in the situation yourself, but it helps if people try to understand or at least respect the situation you are in. Stress is not suffering from anxiety. I struggled with the fact that comments were made like, “oh yeah, I have that sometimes”, or people would try to explain that they too suffered from anxiety; to them, anxiety was feeling stressed when in a tough situation or feeling both stressed and overwhelmed the week or two before exams. They had no idea what Generalised Anxiety Disorder was: a day-to-day struggle. So, here I am sharing my experience of anxiety in the hope that it supports others who are feeling alone in the battle and in the hope that everyone gains a deeper understanding of what Generalised Anxiety Disorder truly is.
I have always been known to be a “worrywart”, yet things started to become more intense when I moved overseas at 17. I had general stresses that built up overtime: being away from home, training 20-hours a week with my sport, working, doing full-time university, and tasks that most 17-year olds don’t have to do (like taxes, visas, buying my own car). However, it wasn’t until last year that I began to struggle more than usual. In July last year, I attended a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course. This course was a huge eyeopener for me, something I would recommend to everyone.
My personal journey of known anxiety began this year, in January, when I had a small car accident on the expressway. I had just been at my internship with an ice hockey team, it was 10.30pm at night in the middle of winter. I had no experience driving in a snow storm. I was on a busy USA expressway when the back of my car slipped, I slammed on the breaks and spun out. This was my turning point; this was when everything started to go down hill. The next night was when I had my first major symptom (known to me) of anxiety. Other people close to me knew I struggled with anxiety for many years before, but it was not until now that I recognised it myself. It was at this time that I also began to develop fears. In January, I was having panic attacks or freak outs almost daily about flying home in April. I had flew that same path so many times, but for some reason my brain chose now to turn it into a phobia. My first irrational thought closely followed this. I remember one day sitting in a lecture and my professor was having a casual conversation about China’s population. For me, this turned into truly believing that Earth was going to drop out of the Solar System. This was a problem. In Mindfulness practice you learn how to tune into your body and Earth to feel grounded in order to calm yourself down. At this moment, I could not tune into Earth – it was going to fall out of the Solar System! I knew what I was thinking was crazy, but at that moment I had no control over what I was feeling. The thing with anxiety and phobias is that although the person suffering may not be thinking rationally, they still have the physical symptoms, which develop from their thoughts, and they are very real.
In the following weeks I noticed myself becoming short of breath just from walking a short distance, my heart was always beating so fast that I thought I was having a heart attack and my mind just would not stop thinking. You know that feeling you get when you’re on the airplane and when there is turbulence and your tummy drops? Well I also had that feeling all day, most days. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t complete my university work and I found it hard to go places. I would carry around a mixture of reading books, sketch books and a pair of headphones in my handbag everywhere I went just in case I needed a distraction. I tried to talk to people about it, however they did not understand nor did they make time to try and understand. I learnt very quickly not to talk about it. Here I was in a foreign country trying to fight this battle with no one who could help me. My parents were amazing and so was the lovely lady I Skyped most weeks to help me with my Mindfulness and Meditation, however both were half way across the world.
Never once did I feel like I had to stay overseas whilst battling anxiety; everyone was telling me I could come home whenever I wanted to, but for some reason I felt like I needed to stay.
At the beginning, I was able to have a couple hours each day with no physical or mental symptoms of anxiety, however, as the semester progressed, things became worse. I felt crazy. I had no break from my anxiety: all day everyday I would be fighting my mind; it was exhausting and scary. I could not even relax to watch a movie. Due to most people not understanding what I was going through, I would have to hold everything in until I were able to Skype my parents that night. Everyone around me was oblivious to my struggle with my mind and physical sensations. I would go to class everyday, or be in the car with people and no one had any idea what was going on. Too many days would I be hanging out for 7pm – the time when I could Skype home and just cry. Even if I was staying at someone’s house I would go upstairs and cry to my parents; I was so scared all the time. A few times I would Skype my parents from 7pm to 2am in the morning, either because I couldn’t relax or I was too scared to sleep. Each week I felt like I was becoming more and more bound by my anxiety.
Throughout all of this, I was lost in who I was as a person; I had always been defined as an athlete or the student you went to when you wanted a study guide. I did not want to be defined as this. A year earlier I quit the sport I was committed to for 10-years. When I saw people on the street they would always ask if I had really stopped, and I felt as if I had to justify why I did. This to me was hard, did they not know I was more than an athlete?
Things became even worse two weeks before finals. I was already in a bad state, my mind was becoming more and more full of non-stop unpleasant thoughts, I had to prepare for exams, I had to pack up my apartment and move. Earlier in the semester I had also committed to a holiday that, despite at the time I felt like I wouldn’t be able to do due to the state I was in, I thought I would do the right thing by the people who kindly asked me. After having a tough four months, and an especially tough two weeks, I started the journey to the holiday destination. I made it to the overnight stop off, however after a day of sitting silently in the car fighting my mind off, I broke down. I was so tired. I was so scared. I needed to come home. It was only one more week until I had planned to head home, but at that moment I knew I couldn’t keep putting my recovery off any longer; things were only getting worse. The next morning, my Mum booked a flight home for me that night. This was going to be a huge challenge for me. After having a phobia of flying all semester and being in the state I was in, I was not sure if I could make the trip home.
On my first flight, I sat next to a man who was explaining to me how to set up my will. So on top of my already struggling state I began to stress. I had to remember what this man was telling me for future reference. I survived the flight. For my next flight I walked to the International Terminal. It was here, when I was in line to go through the passport checkpoint that I felt like I was having a heart attack. In line waiting I was asking everyone around me (including airport security) where the nearest water was, because I thought I was about have a heart attack. I am sure everyone thought I was crazy.
I struggled for four months with anxiety in a foreign country. I have been home for just over a month and I still struggle with it, however it is so much better than it used to be; I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. My Dad always told me that my journey to recovery will be two steps forward and one step back. This has proven to be very true; I had my first week anxiety free a couple of weeks ago, yet the week after I went back to experiencing some anxiety (very minimal). Recently, I was in my sister’s dance class (very hip-hoppy and not my “style”) when I noticed myself starting to cry. I was crying because for the first time in so long, after going through the toughest time in my life so far, I was having fun; I had forgotten what it felt like.
I have learnt so much about myself in the last five months, however I am still finding out who I am and who I want to be. Mindfulness has helped me discover a part of me in which I never knew.
Each day throughout the semester, and still to this day, I practice Mindfulness through Meditation or Yoga; I have gained life long skills and discovered happiness within myself.
I am so proud of myself for surviving last semester; my biggest achievement yet.
This is just a small insight into living with anxiety. I sympathise and hope to be as understanding as I can be towards those who are struggling with so much more.