“As I look back on my younger years, I struggled with my anxiety much before I was actually aware I did. I reflect on memories from my childhood and think to myself, ‘Even as a kid with little responsibility, you found so much to worry about!’ and ‘I wish I had put a lot less pressure on myself to be perfect!’
I’ve become aware now.
I know that this perfectionism, expectation, and worry is what helps to feed my anxious mind. But how did I come to this realization?
Well, the day that anxiety finally hit me square in the face was with my first panic attack. Up until this point, I was still naive to the fact my perfectionistic, high achieving personality could actually affect my mental state or cause me physical symptoms.
I was used to balancing a high-stress lifestyle by trying to maintain straight A’s while at the same time being a competitive synchronized skater. But did I struggle with anxiety? Heck no. At least that’s what I thought…
I was traveling downtown on the train to go to nursing school after visiting my parents for the weekend. On this particular day, I was coming down with a bit of a cold. I took an over-the-counter cough medication so I wouldn’t be coughing and disrupting fellow train passengers.
As the train left the station, I realized I had left my phone at my parent’s house. I remember immediately thinking, ‘Oh no! What if I need to get a hold of someone, or if I need help for some reason?’ My stomach sank with fear. Yet somehow, (I think the sedating cough medication helped) I managed to push the thought aside and ended up drifting off to sleep until I arrived at my destination.
Upon waking up, I felt funny. The cough medication had clearly kicked in, and it was making my body feel heavy and my head feel groggy. The anxious thought again flickered in, ‘What if something is really wrong? Without a phone, you have no way to get help!’
The sensations began to worsen. My heart began to thud loudly in my chest. I could feel the blood pumping through my arms and my legs. But the scariest part of it was I felt like I was in a dream world. As I walked through the busy train station, the hustle of hundreds of nine-to-fivers seemed like they were moving in slow motion. The room was spinning. I couldn’t tell if I was walking the right way or if I was about to fall over. Panic ensued.
Luckily, a couple of firefighters happened to cross my path and I mustered up the courage to walk up and tell them I wasn’t feeling well. They helped me sit down and put some oxygen on me as I waited for an ambulance to come and take me to the emergency department.
The funny thing is, as soon as I knew someone was there to help me, the scary physical sensations slowly began to subside. By the time I got to the emergency room, I was feeling like myself again. I was no longer convinced something was wrong with me, and I felt well enough to leave. But before doing this, I spoke to a social worker who kindly suggested that what I had experienced was a panic attack. ‘Me? A panic attack? No way! I mean, yes, I’ve always been a worrier but I don’t have anxiety.’ I pushed her potential diagnoses to the side and left the hospital with the idea all this was caused by the cough medication I would never be taking again.
In the coming days though, this same terrifying feeling and its accompanying sensations would show up unannounced. I began coming around to the idea that maybe this was more than the medication I had been taking. Maybe I was having panic attacks, or even worse, maybe there was something really wrong with me. Every time I experienced this dreadful feeling, it paralyzed me. My house became my ‘safe’ space. In the outside world, this scary feeling could show up anytime just as it had at the train station. I convinced myself that I should stay home as much as possible. My thoughts spiraled, ‘What if I was at school and I had the scary feeling and I fainted? What if I couldn’t find my way home? What if there is something really medically wrong with me?’
Even to this day, the weeks surrounding my initial panic attack were some of the hardest and scariest days in my life. My fear of the unknown, and being so unaware of how my thoughts and sensations were continuously feeding my anxiety, meant the symptoms would come on in full force. In addition to this, I didn’t want anyone besides my parents to know what I was experiencing. I put on a facade to the rest of the world everything was fine because I was too afraid of what people would think of me if I let on I was struggling with my mental health. I felt alone, and like I would never feel like my true self again.
Luckily, things didn’t stay this hard. As a go-getter, this meant I was going to work my absolute hardest to get back to my normal life. I couldn’t stay home forever. I wouldn’t let my anxiety cage me in. While seeing a therapist and undergoing intense cognitive behavioral therapy, I began trusting my body and its sensations, despite how scary they felt. I spent days traveling back to the train station and forcing myself to go inside as a way to show my mind I would be safe there, even if I had a horrible panic attack.
My dad, also eager to get me feeling better, was the one who introduced me to a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. In this program, I would learn how to meditate and be ‘mindful,’ which was proven to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, chronic pain, and even cancer. Prior to this, I believed meditation was some kind of religious activity that was only practiced in the eastern world. I decided to give it a try because, at this point, I had nothing left to lose. I committed myself to practice an hour of meditation every day for 8 weeks. It was intensive, but the results did not disappoint.
In fact, I wasn’t prepared for the transformation that would occur. By sitting down in meditation, I began to look inward and see the stress and anxiety I was unconsciously creating for myself through my thoughts and habits. Upon completion, I was able to fall back into my old life — my life pre-panic attacks. I was brave enough to leave my safe space because my everyday anxiety went from intense and terrifying to a background buzz.
Mindfulness practice became my gateway to feeling calm. By accepting myself, my thoughts and emotions as they were in the moment (without resistance), I was able to create space for my emotions with self-compassion, and then let them pass. I fell in love with mindfulness so much I found other ways to incorporate it into my life as well, through yoga, and through everyday activities like walking and eating.
Unfortunately, my practices fell to the wayside after having my first child in late 2018. My time and attention were now dedicated to keeping my son alive and thriving. I felt myself leaning on old habits as I attempted to be The Perfect Mom. Habits like worry, control, busyness, and comparison made my feelings of anxiety grow stronger. It wasn’t until I told my husband, ‘I don’t feel like myself’ that I knew I had to bring myself back to therapy.
In speaking with her, the therapist was the one who reminded me as little as 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation daily had been proven to reduce anxiety. As a mom, I now had one million things to think about in a day, but I knew I could prioritize 10 minutes of practice for the sake of my mental health. So this is exactly what I did.
As I gained more confidence in my ability to manage my own stress and anxiety, the shame surrounding my diagnosis of generalized anxiety and panic disorder began to lighten. Slowly, I opened up about my anxiety to people I trusted. It’s when they accepted me despite my diagnosis, I began feeling like I didn’t have to hide anymore. I grew brave enough to share my anxiety with the world through social media with the hope I could help others who are on a similar journey.
If I could pass along one piece of advice, it would be to consider looking deep within yourself as a way to help manage your everyday stress and anxiety. You may be unaware, just like I was, but that can change. The stories and habits that we automatically lean on day-in and day-out shape the person we are in the present moment. Mindfulness has allowed me to become aware of that person so I can better help myself and my mental health.
If you are looking for a sustainable and effective way to manage your own stress and anxiety, I would love for you to join in the Just Breathe Mama community so we can help to support you on your mental wellness journey.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Carolyn Williamson from Ontario, Canada. You can follow their journey on Instagram. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
Read more about mental health journeys here:
‘You never leave. You ruin EVERYTHING. To some people, you’re just ‘a feeling.’ But I KNOW you’re the d*mn devil.’: ‘Husband with wife suffering from anxiety says ‘I’ll be there to remind her she ISN’T alone’
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