There are many things I am proud of in my 22 years of life. Having anxiety and panic attacks doesn’t exactly make the top of the list, but it is what it is. Living with anxiety has been far from easy, but after three years of battling it, I am finally comfortable enough to share my story.
I suffer from GAD – General Anxiety Disorder. While I used to be incredibly embarrassed by that fact, the more research I do, the more I realize that I’m not alone. Most people don’t see this as a big deal because it’s not life threatening, (thank goodness!) but, because it can’t be “seen, it’s hard for people to understand.
Unfortunately there is such an unfair stigma against any mental health condition. There’s so much more to it than what meets the eye, and I’m ready to share that without ANY shame. So, let’s dig just a little bit deeper shall we?
What Does It Mean To Have GAD?
Firstly, what does it mean to have anxiety? Well, to be honest, there’s a different definition for every sufferer out there. For me, having anxiety means chronic worrying, self-doubt, and over exhaustion of nerves. The simplest of tasks are daunting and we simply have no control over those feelings.
What are Panic Attacks?
A panic attack is a sudden surge of overwhelming – and often debilitating, fear and anxiety. Panic attacks occur randomly, without warning, and strike with a force of vengeance. Some of the symptoms include: fast-beating heart, sweating, chills, shaking, nausea, shortness of breath, light-headedness, dizziness, and more. Everybody is different and experiences many types of different symptoms, but these are the general feelings.
How Does Anxiety Start?
There’s really no concrete answer to this. Anxiety can occur at anytime to anyone, for any number of reasons. Sometimes, anxiety is genetically inherited, other times it literally just happens.
I experienced my first panic attack on my 16th birthday in Disney World. I was having a FABULOUS time and my family and I were waiting for dinner at Planet Hollywood, when all of a sudden, this overwhelming sense of terror consumed my body. At the time, I had no idea what was happening. All I knew was that I had to escape, somehow, someway. My aunt, who was with us at the time, went to take a breath of fresh air with me. We talked it out, she prayed with me, and was just there as an incredible support. When it finally passed, I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I hoped to never experience that again.
Flash-forward to a Friday evening in November 2014. My family and I were headed out to dinner to enjoy what was supposed to be a lovely evening with friends. I had been to this restaurant numerous times before and it was one of my favorites. I loved the people I was going to be spending time with. What could go wrong?
We were seated pretty quickly, and as soon as we got to the table, it hit me. A panic attack. I tried to calm myself down, tried to get some air, tried to occupy myself with conversation, but nothing worked. I appeared fine on the outside, but inside? It felt like everything was crashing down on me. I needed to get out of there. I needed to go somewhere. Anywhere. Mainly, a place without food because the sight and smell of it made me physically ill. Panic attacks really play havoc on your stomach, and with your appetite.
I sipped on some ginger ale waiting, and hoping for that feeling to go away, but it didn’t. Instead, it grew worse. The nausea was so overwhelming I felt like I was going to lose it right there at the table, in front of a room filled with people. I felt light-headed, weak, dizzy, and paralyzed. I turned to my mother, who clearly recognized what was happening to me, and told her that we needed to leave, now. Right now.
There was no way I could make it through dinner, so I took the walk of shame out of the restaurant ready for my mom to drive me home. Home was my safe haven. My father, as well as our friends had no clue what was going on – I just passed it off as a stomach bug, but, nevertheless, the embarrassment of leaving my father and our friends in the middle of dinner almost killed me.
Sobbing in the car on the way home, desperately trying to regain my sanity, catch my breath, and keep my heart from beating out of my chest, I was five minutes from home when my mom had to stop the car, pull over to the side of the road, and the intense nausea finally got to me. I don’t remember much after that, but I remember thanking God that there was no one around to witness this spectacle.
The entire attack lasted about two hours. When it ended, I was exhausted. Mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Then came the guilt, shame, embarrassment, and depression. What was wrong with me? Why did I have to have an attack tonight? What is the reasoning for it? What could it POSSIBLY teach me?
I didn’t have any of the answers to those questions, but I did know that I ruined the evening. Forgetting about myself, I felt like I ruined the night for my parents and our friends. I felt like I prevented my mom from relaxing; enjoying what should’ve been a delicious meal, so that she could take care of me. I felt like I upset my father because I kept him from enjoying the night, and I’m sure I confused our friends, too.
There it was. Guilt. Shame. Pure embarrassment. Self-depreciation. Sometimes, I wondered what was worse – the actual attack, or the aftermath of the attack. I beat myself up for months on end after that night. I apologized constantly, explained myself numerous times, and obsessively worried over what our friends thought of me. (Of course, they probably didn’t think twice about what my issue was, but I knew. I knew what happened and I realized that I must’ve looked like a lead actress in a soap opera to them. Surely, they would forever remember that incident, and think of me as a freak show.)
After that night, I became afraid of life. I wasn’t living, but rather, existing. I was simply guiding through life like a ghost. The fear of having another panic attack in public made me queasy. So, I went into hiding.
I distanced myself from my family and friends. I lived in constant shame and self-loathing for having this medical condition. Anxiety was like the big bully on the playground, just lurking around every corner waiting for me. My biggest fear was people finding out what I was going through and judging me. I was too embarrassed to ask for help, and I thought I could handle it on my own.
It took me a while to realize that if I wanted my life to change, I was the one that had to change it. Nobody could do it for me. If I wanted help, I first needed to help myself. Step one was recognizing that GAD was not only hurting my life, but it was starting to affect my health in ways I NEVER expected.
The time came for me to get some help and begin to heal myself. I began to seek counseling and start medication. That moment was the best decision of my life. I now had the power to shift anxiety into my favor. I could make my anxiety disorder work FOR me instead of against me.
The medication helped me and for the first time in the LONGEST time, I could breathe. I could resume a normal, healthy lifestyle again. I could go out with my family and friends. I could do all of the normal things that I wanted to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks; they do not just go away overnight, however; I’ve learned to accept it. Anxiety and I are by no means friends, but we are no longer enemies either. There’s so much more I could say about this illness, but each and every person experiences it differently. I will say this though; the journey I’m on is unique. Anxiety will always be a part of it, but I know I can overcome it. I know I can survive it.
What I Want All Anxiety Sufferers to Know
I’m sharing my story in hopes that it will help others. When I first was diagnosed with GAD, I felt very lonely. I felt like I was the only one in this world going through this. But, I’m not, and you’re not either. And I truly hope that fact brings you as much comfort as it did to me.
Anxiety is just as real as diabetes, or high blood pressure. Don’t let anyone make you feel inferior because they can’t “see” what is going on inside of you. Don’t be afraid to reach out for counseling, or even for medication. Those are tools that can help you establish a better quality of life. At the same time, don’t rely solely on medicine to take your pain away. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone and explore other options that can help you, such as; prayer, meditation, yoga, writing, essential oils, reading, etc. Find something that makes your soul happy.
I want you to know that you are loved by so many people, in so many ways. You are important to someone. You matter to someone. Unburden yourself and open up to someone about what you are struggling with. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed because there’s nothing to be ashamed of! Don’t hide or try to isolate yourself. Don’t be afraid to trust anyone with that information. Opening yourself up takes an incredible amount of courage and bravery.
I want you to know that maybe our anxiety and panic attacks are gifts that will one day show us a clearer purpose. You might not see it now, but someday, you will. Be patient with yourself. Be gentle on yourself. Love yourself and give yourself the compassion that you would give a child. You are worthy of everything good. Anxiety can’t rob you of your joy, unless you let it. Don’t give in and don’t give up.
Lastly, I want to recommend that you stop fighting the anxiety. Let yourself feel the anxiety, fighting it will only make it worse. Let the feeling come, and let it pass. Acknowledge it. Perhaps by becoming more aware of your anxious feelings, you are better able to identify the trigger and move forward.
Prayer: Lord, I ask you to bless all those who are struggling with anxiety, panic attacks, and other mental health conditions. I pray that You walk beside them, showing them the gift of Your light and love. Help them to see the beauty in their pain, the purpose in their struggle. In Jesus’s name, Amen.