Anxiety sucks, a lot.
I’m not a mental health professional, I’m just a girl who seriously struggled with anxiety and depression and through several different methods, found her way to a joyful life.
I used to have such severe panic attacks that I could barely leave the house. Every day was a struggle. I had a very deep belief that I was constantly in a state of imminent death. I went to the emergency room more times than I care to count.
I had this vision of my throat closing up in some sort of anaphylactic shock. I was terrified to eat. What if I had become allergic to whatever it was that I was about to put in my mouth? What if there was an ingredient in the food that I had never tried before, and it caused my throat to swell and leave me in a state of complete panic until death surely ensued.
I’ve never even been truly allergic to anything. I didn’t have a doctor prescribed EpiPen for some crazy peanut allergy. I had never experience someone else go through a similar scenario. I honestly don’t even know where this belief came from.
I can still remember my first panic attack like it’s happening right now. I was sitting in church with my mom and sister. The music was loud, the lights were glaring, and honestly, I didn’t want to be there from the start. I suddenly got a strong whiff of someone’s perfume. I then felt my heart rate start to rise. It was like inside of me there was a girl running a million miles an hour, itching to get out of her own skin. I could feel the pit of anxiety growing rapidly in my stomach. I started to sweat. I was looking all around for some sort of escape or some sign of reassurance.
I’d never felt like this before.
I started to get short of breath. I started to feel faint. My limbs were getting tingly and there was a tightness in my chest that I was sure was a heart attack. If health class had taught me anything it’s that if you ever have so much as a ping in your chest, you are certainly having a heart attack.
I tried to calm myself down to no avail. I had no other option; I was going to have to let this out or I was sure I would collapse on that church floor with no chance of survival.
I told my mom that I felt off. I felt like I was having an allergic reaction. We quickly got up and started heading towards home.
I can remember my sister doing her best to calm me down. Telling me to take deep breaths and counting them out for me. I can remember so clearly my mom saying we would be at the ER by home in about 30 minutes.
30 minutes? I didn’t even think I had 30 seconds left to live.
The panic took a strong hold of me and I gasped to say we needed to get to the ER immediately or I would certainly die. My lips were numb at this point and I assumed my tongue and throat were swelling to a point of no return.
I burst into the ER, still certain that death was imminent for me. The receptionist said, “Oh my gosh her face is red and her lips look swollen, she must be having an allergic reaction!”
Boom. In that moment my heart sank. It was like all my greatest fears were being realized in one very short moment. I was too young to die though, I was only 19. I had so much life ahead of me. What about college? What about Bobby? What about the future I had planned for myself?
They escorted me back to a room and the nurse saw me immediately. They checked my oxygen levels which were much to my surprise, c o m p l e t e l y n o r m a l.
What? How could that be? Surely my throat is swelling so much that I’m only gasping air through a coffee stirrer right now. How could my body be getting enough oxygen?
After checking all my vitals, the nurse’s assessment was that I was truly ok. But honestly, I felt no sense of relief from this.
Then the doctor entered the room and casually said, “you’re having a panic attack, not an allergic reaction. This is just anxiety.”
What? Anxiety? No, anxiety is when you get a little nervous before a test, what I was experiencing was my body failing me. I’d never even had anxiety so how could I all of a sudden be laying on a hospital bed experiencing an epic panic attack?
That’s the thing about anxiety though, it doesn’t gradually work its way into your life in an obvious way, it’s just there one day, making you want to fall to your knees and pray to God that you can live for just one more day.
Anxiety can take over your life quicker than ants on a piece of fallen watermelon.
I was not the same from that day forward, and honestly, I will never be the girl I was before I had that panic attack.
The weeks after that initial attack were grim. I so vividly remember laying in my bed at home wondering how I would even make it to class. What if that happened at school? I would be so ashamed if any of my classmates knew that I was struggling with the imaginary thought that my throat might close up at any moment, despite the fact that I have no actual allergies. I was a perfectionist and my outward appearance of being the perfect student, girlfriend, daughter, human was making hiding my anxiety of utmost importance in my mind. People would laugh at me if they knew how much I was struggling. How could I have the respect of my peers if I couldn’t even gain control of my own thoughts?
The doctor at the ER didn’t really have recommendations for me other than a prescription drug and the reassurance that if I did pass out from a panic attack, my body would take over and I would breath normal and be completely fine. He didn’t tell me I should consider going to therapy, get exercise daily, or question what I was eating on a daily basis.
I had pretty severe panic attacks for the next 5 years. I cautiously planned my days around my panic attacks so I could avoid telling anyone how much I was truly suffering.
I was depressed. Really depressed. I would wake up in the middle of the night hysterically crying and gasping for air because my life felt so unsure and terrifying. My thoughts would race constantly, nagging me like a middle school bully.
When I look back on it now, I want to give my younger self a reassuring hug and say, “it’s all truly going to be ok and you will make it out of this a much stronger person.”
I wish I knew what I know now during those endless sleepless nights. I wish I knew that I was the one in control of my thoughts.
I wish I knew that anxiety and depression don’t have to be a death sentence that lead to an inevitable life of struggle and sadness only to be cured by medication.
I hesitated to go to therapy for a few years. I told myself that a therapist would simply tell me I needed to take a prescription drug, or this would be my reality for the rest of my life. My family has a history of addiction so the thought of signing up for a prescription drug to alter my state of mind sounded somehow worse than the suffocating feeling of my anxiety and depression.
I had probably gotten a total of 5 hours of sleep in 10 days when I decided I had to talk to someone about this who could help, or my life would not be a long one.
I tried to find a therapist in my area, but even that felt so overwhelming that I sat down on the ground in tears when I couldn’t seem to find who I thought was the perfect person to help me through this. I think a tiny part of me was afraid of what a therapist would have to say to me. What if they said there was truly nothing they could do? What if this was just genetic and my only choices would either be complete panic all the time or numbed by anti-depressants?
I finally scheduled an appointment with a therapist. The appointment was only a few days away and I was feeling hopeful that maybe someone out there could help me. Then, I get a dreaded call. My insurance was not accepted at their office so they would have to bill me for the full amount.
Devastated. That’s how I felt in the moment. It felt like I was on a hamster wheel and I didn’t know how to get off.
I truly believe everything happens for a reason and in the moment, we don’t see where the path is taking us. I didn’t know it in that moment, but the therapist that it led me to ended up being the perfect person to start me on my journey to a healthy mind and body.
I went to therapy for a full year. It was rocky and there were days it felt like it wasn’t working at all.
My therapist happened to have a daughter who suffered from panic attacks almost exactly like I did, so she was well versed in handling my situation. She gave me the building blocks to start putting my life back together. She was the first person who told me that we don’t have to think every thought that comes into our head. She taught me to think logically in what would otherwise be a frantic and terrifying situation. She taught me to think about previous incidences that were similar. Had I died then? Had there even truly been a medical emergency? The answer was always no. If I had felt this way time and time again and the cause was always my anxiety, then why would THIS be the incident that was really going to be my cause of death.
She also taught me that I don’t have to be perfect and that being vulnerable is ok. This might have been one of the biggest keys to my successful recovery from anxiety and depression.
When you call something out, it loses its power.
I told everyone I could that I have anxiety and panic attacks. I would joke about previous ER visits and they truly did seem comical looking back on them. It was like with every new person I told that I have anxiety, a little bit of its grip on me was released. It was like I was having heavy shackles taking off of me, one step at a time.
I was still anxious and still depressed, buy my panic attacks lessened in their severity significantly. I had gotten to the point where I almost didn’t need to go to the ER at all.
The next big step in my recovery was when my incredibly supportive husband told me that my activity level desperately needed to be increased if I ever wanted to feel good again. I hated him for telling me this, because the last thing you feel like doing when you’re depressed is exercising.
I could barely muster up the courage to get out of bed or eat a meal, let alone go for a run or lift a weight. But that man is truly a saint and works every day to make sure I get to live this life to the fullest. It’s like his mission in life is to make sure mine is amazing. That’s the kind of love we all deserve.
Bobby would make up workouts for me and be my personal trainer and cheerleader. I remember feeling angry and resentful towards him for making me complete a workout. I remember feeling like it was pure torture and that it wasn’t effective so I may as well give up.
But I didn’t.
I truly think lifting weights saved my life. There’s something about overcoming a struggle that the human brain needs. Lifting a really heavy weight is a struggle. Getting to overcome that struggle hundreds of times during a single workout is an experience that I can’t explain. I had tried running before but it didn’t reduce my anxiety at all. I tried high intensity workouts, but they didn’t do much for me.
Then, I did bench press for the first time.
There was something about moving the weight that was empowering in a way that I had only previously gotten from getting the approval of others.
I would finish a workout and feel like I could conquer the world. The more consistent my workouts got, the more consistently I felt at ease. The better I felt from working out, the more motivated I got to fix other areas of my life, namely, my diet.
I started to learn about the effects different foods and substances had on our body. Now, I was truly a hypochondriac in no funny meaning of the word. The more I learned about diet, the more I realized my health was much more in my control than I had previously been led to believe. When I learned about the brain-gut connection, I got really dedicated to nurturing my body properly.
The thing about anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc. is that there isn’t one quick fix. There isn’t a magic button you press and you can feel like you’re living on a cloud. And the hardest part is taking that first step. When you truly feel hopeless, it’s hard to feel like changing anything is worth the effort, but I can promise you it is.
Take the first step. There is a light at the end of the tunnel and you will be so much stronger once you get to the other side.
I’m not here to tell you how to cure your anxiety, because that’s not anything I’m qualified to do. I’m just here to tell you, you’re not alone and there is always hope. I'm here to tell you I made it to the other side, and I believe you can too.
Going to therapy, lifting weights 5-6 days every week, being opened about my mental health issues, eating a vegetarian diet, and filling my mind with positive information in the form of podcasts, videos, and books has truly change my life. I can honestly say that I don’t live in fear anymore. All those years of struggling would be a waste if I wasn’t opened with others who are currently suffering.