May is Mindfulness Month at HBFIT but it’s also Mental Health Awareness Month in the US. We know your mental health is just as important as your physical health, but sometimes we put more emphasis on the latter. As a part of our quest to bring you guys more relevant content, we want to continue to shine some light on the struggles we go through as women. Mental illness is more common than a lot of people think, more common in younger women especially, and it’s so important to be open and share experiences so that others can get the help they need. This month, Abbey, a twenty-something badass woman who works in marketing in Chicago, has offered to tell us her story of struggling with anxiety. A struggle most of us, unfortunately, know is REAL. We hope you get as much out of her story as we did. Thank you Abbey for opening up with us.
How long have you struggled with anxiety? Have you always had it?
I was formally diagnosed with anxiety in September of 2016, after having my first panic attack. Truthfully, I think I’ve struggled with low-level anxiety for most of my adult life, but was quick to dismiss it as me being irrational or dramatic. I always associated anxiety with panic/anxiety attacks and because I wasn’t experiencing these, I didn’t consider myself as someone suffering from anxiety. I’ve since realized that anxiety takes many forms.
How does it manifest itself?
My anxiety comes about in several ways – the scariest being a full-fledged panic attack. The first one I ever had was extremely terrifying and extremely confusing, primarily because I had never experienced one before. I found myself trying to fall asleep on a Sunday night last September, droplets of sweat forming on my forehead, gripping a pillow in between shaking hands. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath – it was as if an elephant was sitting on my chest and was there to stay. My heart was racing and I found myself asking, “What is happening right now? When will this be over?” Luckily, I haven’t experienced many of these since being formally diagnosed, only a handful or so, but my anxiety does manifest itself in other ways.
I tend to have a heightened sense of nervousness or uneasiness regarding the unknown – when I was applying to colleges and wasn’t sure where I would go, when I was applying for jobs during my senior year of college. The fact that I didn’t know where I would be or what I would be doing in the imminent future really unnerved and overwhelmed me. My mom used to try and ease my mind by telling me, “Abbey – no one never got a job. You will get a job.” It was something I would repeat to myself as I went through the job application process, a mantra of sorts that I used to calm myself down on a particularly bad day.
While college and career are bigger life moments, that unease around the unknown trickles down into life’s smaller moments too. I’ve always considered myself to be a planner and I now realize I’m the one making all of those concert, travel, and party plans with friends because not having those plans makes me nervous they’ll never happen! I just like knowing what’s going to happen and I’ve realized that this is likely due to my anxiety.
It’s as if I’m driving and I get to a red light, which I rationally know means stop, but my foot is all the way down on the gas pedal.
What is the worst part of it?
The worst part of having anxiety is feeling like I don’t have control over my own mind. When my anxiety is at its peak, I feel like there’s nothing that I can do to calm myself down and move forward. I tell myself that everything is going to be fine and things will work themselves out, which I rationally understand and believe, but I’m unable to reconcile it with my emotions. It’s as if I’m driving and I get to a red light, which I rationally know means stop, but my foot is all the way down on the gas pedal.
How do you manage it?
Fortunately, I do move forward and that’s thanks to the tools I implement to do so. The morning after having my first panic attack, I reached out to one of my best friends who also struggles. She recommended that I reach out to my doctor to ensure that the episode was documented should it ever happen again, which led to my doctor requesting that I come in for an actual appointment. I am so happy that I did.
I ended up having a meltdown in her office when I got there, explaining all of the different things that were happening in my life that were causing me anxiety. It was a particularly stressful time at work, a close friend had just gotten deployed to Afghanistan, I had moved in with four friends and was living in a house of five people with no time or space to myself, my sister who I am extremely close with had just broken up with her boyfriend of seven years – there was a LOT going on. As I started to list them all, I started to cry, which turned into me sobbing uncontrollably, red in the face and gasping for air. Let’s just say – I was an easy diagnosis.
She asked if I would be comfortable going to counseling to arm myself with tools and coping mechanisms, which I was. I had seen a therapist in high school while battling an eating disorder, but had not seen one since, not because it didn’t work, but because I didn’t think I needed to. When I first started seeing my current therapist, I was going once a week. As the weeks passed and progress was made, that cadence slowed to the point where I am now, which is going as needed. I strongly believe in the benefits of therapy – sometimes you just need to work through your issues with someone who doesn’t know the situation or the people.
While therapy helps to work through that uneasiness I explained, panic attacks can unfortunately still happen. For this, my doctor also prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication that helps alleviate the onset of a panic attack and calms the mind. I take it as soon as I feel my breath start to shorten and my heart start to quicken. About ten minutes later, I am calm and relaxed, but still functional and alert.
Lastly, I work hard to keep stress at bay and I do that predominantly by working out, whether that means going for a run, hitting the gym or taking a workout class. I’ve always been active but now I make it a non-negotiable part of my routine, working out no less than five times a week. Working out not only releases any negative energy I may be harboring, but also allows me to clear my head and think more rationally.
There’s an unfortunate stigma surrounding anxiety, people tend to think those struggling with it just overthink things and need to “calm down,” but it’s a very real and debilitating thing. What is your response to this thinking?
The morning after I had my first panic attack, I was convincing myself that I was just being irrational and even a little dramatic. When my best friend told me she thought I had experienced a panic attack, it felt like I had been validated in some way – that what I was feeling was normal. I wasn’t being irrational and dramatic, I had had a panic attack – why should I convince myself otherwise?
I’ve had friends who say, “I just don’t get ‘anxiety,” with the word anxiety in quotes, as if it’s this social construct. This attitude makes me feel like what I’m feeling isn’t justified and I’m silly for feeling it, which is hurtful and upsetting. Yes, there are a lot of Instagram posts making light of anxiety, a lot of talk about the “Sunday Scaries,” but for those people struggling with anxiety, it’s not a joke or a trend, it’s a real disorder and something that can be extremely scary.
Are you open about it?
I am fairly open about it. It wouldn’t be something I would choose to hide, but it won’t be the first thing you find out about me. My family, close friends, boss, and boyfriend all are aware of it and are supportive, which is amazing.
I was FaceTiming with my boyfriend after a panic attack recently and found myself apologizing for how I was acting. His response was, “Don’t apologize and don’t downplay what you’re feeling – it’s real and it’s also okay that it’s happening.” I truly can’t put into words how much that meant to me to hear, knowing that it’s something I can talk about with him without fear of judgement is something I am extremely grateful for.
I was FaceTiming with my boyfriend after a panic attack recently and found myself apologizing for how I was acting. His response was, “Don’t apologize and don’t downplay what you’re feeling – it’s real and it’s also okay that it’s happening.”
Do you have any advice for women also struggling with anxiety?
I am so thankful to my best friend who advised me to see my doctor, so I’ll pass that along as my main advice. If you think you are or are struggling with anxiety – go to your doctor! He or she will hopefully have the resources that will arm you with tools to better manage it, whether that be medication, holistic practices, or access to therapy and counseling.
Therapy and counseling, I think though, are paramount. All of the anti-anxiety medication in the world can’t account for the help that therapy and counseling gives me and I truly think everyone should go.
Self-care is so important not only for our bodies and our minds. How do you look out for #1?
I’ve realized more and more since getting diagnosed with anxiety how important self-care really is. I mentioned earlier that I’ve made working out a priority and why, but beyond that I also make sure that I’m taking time for myself.
I’m an extremely social person and because I’m a planner, I tend to have a lot going on. In the months leading up to that first panic attack, I was insanely busy. I was traveling both for work and for fun, so wasn’t in Chicago (where I live) a lot and when I was there, I was trying to catch up on not being there by filling my calendar with plans. I was in two softball leagues and a beach volleyball league, grabbing dinner or drinks with friends I hadn’t seen since being out of town, going to concerts or Cubs games. I was burning the candle at both ends. I’ve realized that that lifestyle is unsustainable and also that it’s okay when the only plans I have are the ones I make with myself.
I’ve also started keeping a journal, which allows me to both let out anything I need to and to also develop my self-awareness. If I know what triggers or heightens my anxiety, I’m able to better control and manage it. Journaling enables me to do this by creating a daily space for self-reflection, something I find to be incredibly important.
Anxiety is incredibly difficult to deal with and yes, at times, even debilitating, but it’s also something that can be managed. If you feel as though you’re struggling with anxiety, don’t dismiss it as you being dramatic and tell yourself you’re fine. You may not be fine and you know what? That’s okay.