Speaking from experience, anxiety is not something you just “put a band-aid on” and goes away because it never really does. There is always that part of your mind whispering the anxiety back in control.
I can’t say exactly when my anxiety started— I’ve had subtle behaviors from early childhood, but the first panic attack that I remember was in seventh grade. I was preparing for a short presentation or skit when I started gagging and feeling like my throat was swelling. Embarrassed, I ran to the bathroom to calm down my racing heart and trembling hands, and it worked, temporarily. After that, it only got worse. I’d have the same feeling every time I went to a restaurant with my family, and soon after, it happened in the movie theater, escalating to the point where I had trouble sitting in the back seat of the car. I started avoiding as much as I could that I thought would trigger it, but I still didn’t know what was happening or why.
Freshman year the panic attacks became more frequent and more intense. They would happen at the end of lunch, then before lunch began, then throughout my entire day, every day. There was one morning I remember when I couldn’t even get out of the door to go to school, and I NEVER missed school. This is when my parents knew that something was wrong.
I tried so hard to resist going to see a therapist admittedly because I thought that it meant “there was something wrong with me,” and it scared me. The stigma about what it meant to go to therapy nearly stopped me from getting help— yes, you read that right, help. I refused to get in the car until my parents agreed I didn’t have to talk. I sat in the back seat, tears streaming down my face while my throat felt like it was closing in and my heart beating out of my chest.
There were so many times I tried to communicate how I was feeling, but I never had the right words to do it. I described what I was feeling to my friends, but they thought I was being overdramatic about not wanting to go back to class. When I texted them I needed help, that I was nearly throwing up in the bathroom and I was terrified, one texted back that she was already in class and didn’t want to leave, and the other left me on read.
After years of going through panic attacks and social avoidance on my own, I finally got help, and it was the best thing for me. The biggest help for me was being able to talk about it with a stranger willing to listen, which is why going through it alone at first probably worsened my condition.
A lot of people, including myself, choose to avoid situations that can trigger anxiety, which is the worst thing for one to do. Years of avoiding as much as I could still left me in situations where a panic attack would sneak up, or I’d have a presentation in class, or I’d have to do something on my own, and I had no way of managing it because I never learned to control it.
The solution was that I had to challenge my anxiety, in small steps of course.
During my freshman year of high school, if you told me I would be in college and doing everything on my own, grocery shopping, going to club meetings, living on my own, driving everywhere and enjoying it, going to the movie theater and restaurants, and calling people on the phone, I would have never believed you. I probably would have had a panic attack just thinking about all of that. I couldn’t do any of that or anything like it, let alone even think about it until I learned to push myself. Some people don’t even think twice about doing those things all the while I didn’t think I could ever.
Anxiety is different for everyone. Some people can get on stage and give a presentation, others can call people no problem, and some can go to restaurants without having any symptoms. For that reason, I can’t generalize anxiety and say that this is what it looks like for everyone or that a specific coping mechanism can help. I can say this is how it was and is for me, and this is how I coped—even though I didn’t really cope.
I was taught several different coping mechanisms like controlling my breathing, changing my scenery, changing my thoughts, and focusing on the physical environment around me. But the one behavior that really let me control my anxiety, was challenging it. I couldn’t go to a movie theater, so I went to the movie theater. I picked a seat where I thought I would be okay, controlled my breathing and repeated in my head “I’m going to be okay” until I was. But eventually, I picked a seat I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in, that would trigger my anxiety, more so than the movie theater already did, and pushed through. Slowly, I did more that would trigger my anxiety and challenged my “limits” until it no longer made my heart beat rapidly or my hands violently shake.
There’s plenty of things I still have left to do, but I’ve learned how to do it. Sometimes I need someone to go with me, other times I have to “baby step” my way there—do little things to make the next step easier.
Challenging and living through my anxiety was and still is the hardest thing I’ve had to do but believe me, it’s worth it.
So, I challenge you to challenge your anxiety, whatever that means for you.