My Oldest Friend: A Journey with Anxiety
"The more people talk...
...about their experiences, the less taboo the subject will be"
It’s happening again. My world feels like it’s shattering – everything is spinning for a second, I’m nauseous, now I’m trying to find something to hold onto until everything balances. I can’t find anything so I just grab onto anything on my body. I’m pinching my arms, rubbing my fingers, grabbing my stomach. I don’t know why I do this, but it’s habit. I’m still nauseous. I’m shaking and my heart feels like it’s going to stop, and now I’m trying to breathe but I can’t because my heart is beating too fast or feels like it’s not beating at all and the words in my head are all jumbled and I feel like if I swallow I’ll definitely throw up and, now I’m thinking about if this is ever going to end and I’m worried it’ll never end and now I’m wondering if something bad is going to happen and, great, now I’m convinced something bad is going to happen because the lighting just looks weird, like something bad is going to happen, and…and…and…
Some of you reading this probably figured out I’m talking about a panic attack. Anxiety attack? Panic attack? I don’t know, I’m still learning. All I know is that I feel like shit and I need it to end. Sometimes there’s a trigger (I hate this word), other times I won’t have a single worry and it still happens.
Some of you have anxiety and get panic attacks but have a different experience. That’s fine too. Your experience is just as valid. I’d love to hear about it– let’s talk sometime.
For those of you who are not familiar with this experience, I want you to know that this all sounds a lot more dramatic in writing. In reality, I’m with my friends, someone just told a joke and we’re all laughing. I’m also laughing, until this feeling happens. Well, I’m still laughing so no one asks me what’s wrong, but inside I feel like I’m dying. And I don’t mean the casual “omg I’m dying” we’re all guilty of saying every two seconds when the most minor inconvenience happens, but the literal is-this-going-to-be-my-last-breath “I’m dying.” These attacks (wow! sounds so dramatic!) usually last five to ten minutes. Sometimes they last thirty minutes. At their worst they occur on and off all day. Talk about exhausting!
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Wait, how the hell can light foreshadow something bad? What does that even mean? That literally doesn’t even mean anything. Okay, there’s nothing to worry about. You’re good – everything is good. Wait, but if I let my guard down then something bad is certainly going to happen! I can’t let my guard down. If anything happens, it’s probably because I did something I shouldn’t do. What have I done in the past week? Okay this is literally crazy. Calm down, calm down…
This is the part where I spend an unhealthy amount of time trying to convince myself of the nonsense I just thought up. Obviously I know this doesn’t make sense. But once I think “what if?”, it all goes downhill. I’m now consumed with thoughts of this “bad thing” happening. I’m anticipating the worst. The worst never ends up happening, but the cycle repeats itself regardless.
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Growing up in an Arab community, mental illnesses (can we call this something else?) just meant you had to get closer to God, and if you just pray and drink some tea, you’ll feel better. Well, let me tell you — I tried every kind of tea and every variation of prayer known to man, and still, I would find myself gasping for air during a panic attack at least once a week.
Eventually, anxiety began to impact my physical health in very significant ways. I was constantly sick, lost a tremendous amount of weight, and found out I had multiple ulcers.
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It was my first year of college when I was “diagnosed” — another word I hate.
Me? How could I have anxiety? That psychiatrist has no idea what she’s talking about. She doesn’t know me. Everyone feels this way, this is normal. I’m not “crazy.”
I cried for days, angry at the thought of being “abnormal,” yet I had no idea what anxiety and panic attacks even were. In fact, I’ve been getting panic attacks since kindergarten, and I even remember my first one very distinctly. To highlight how truly unaware I was of mental health, I went my whole life thinking I had something like asthma. My mom would walk me around outside until I could finally breathe normally again, and then I’d continue doing whatever very anxious 5 year olds do.
I was so unaware of anxiety and its affects that one time I experienced a particularly bad panic attack and actually went to the hospital to monitor my heart and make sure it was okay. The tests came back normal, and I was angry. By then, I had seen countless doctors trying to figure out what was wrong with me, and each time my results came back just fine. I felt hopeless. This is not uncommon — many people visit a doctor or go to the hospital when they experience their first panic attack, expecting to hear awful news about their health. The news never comes. They leave frustrated, not knowing what had just happened to them, and continue unaware of their anxiety.
* * *
Anxiety and panic attacks are debilitating. They are costly (Panic attack while eating? Throw away food. Minor cold? Buy the entire medicine section at CVS and then supplements to prevent getting sick again. Read something about how white bread isn’t good for you? Throw away all of your white bread so you don’t die. Do you see what I mean?) And if left for long enough, they can interfere with basic, every day tasks. One can even experience depression caused by anxiety and panic attacks.
* * *
Still, oddly enough, my anxiety has helped me discover my passions. I spend most of my time trying to find ways to heal, and in the process I have found some things that work and many, many things that absolutely do not. I also learned that actively trying to fix my anxiety was actually just making things worse. Trying to stop a panic attack when it’s happening will only make it last longer. I’ve learned to accept my anxiety, and to welcome it when it happens. I wait for smaller attacks to pass, and then I continue about my day.
Weight-lifting, photography, and long walks have helped me tremendously. I also found myself incredibly invested in the fight for universal healthcare within the United States, the only highly developed country that does not guarantee basic health care as a right to all of its citizens. For the millions of Americans who are uninsured, or underinsured, seeking health care services to treat their illnesses can have financially detrimental affects on their life. Treatment for illnesses often results in bankruptcy or tremendous debt. This is an ethical issue that Americans must confront, and it consumes my thoughts every day.
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This is all just to say a few things:
1. Please be kind to those who have anxiety. Believe people when they tell you their experience. Do not brush it off as a “side-effect of college” or accuse people of using it as an excuse. You probably won’t understand their anxiety— it’s often occurs over things you don’t think twice about, if at all.
2. Be sensitive when you’re talking about solutions. Many people cannot afford therapy or medication, and they’re still trying their best with the resources they have available. Even self-therapy can be difficult to start and maintain.
3. The more people talk about their experiences, the less taboo the subject will be. I was ashamed of my anxiety until I read or heard about other’s experiences and realized I was not alone. Hearing my close friends’ experiences was especially transformative. I felt hopeful again.
4. Mental illness should be treated as seriously as physical illnesses. Besides, mental health does impact your physical health. Please don’t shame or scare people out of seeking treatment.
5. Anxiety and other mental illnesses can be very difficult to deal with, but they don’t have to be: guaranteeing health care as a right can relieve a lot of the mental health struggles that so many people endure, despite the existence of effective solutions.