‘My arms are tingling!’ The wind knocked out of me. ‘Um, are you having a heart attack?’ My anxiety went from zero to a million.’: Woman with Generalized Anxiety, Panic Disorder declares anxiety ‘can’t take away my strength’

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Hi! I’m Nicole, but my friends call me Nic. You can too!

I have this idea that I want to positively live my best life and, you know what they say, extraordinary outcomes come with extraordinary problems.

*Insert anxiety*

I have anxiety. The mental health conversation is starting, but in my opinion, I feel like anxiety is left out of the party. Yet, so many of us struggle with it in different ways. Everyone gets stressed, but people with generalized anxiety disorders worry on average five times more a day than those who are situationally stressed.

If you knew other people were experiencing what you were, would you feel more normal? I know I would. So, let’s talk about it, shall we?

I’ll start…

Anxiety is a pretty general term. Most mental health professionals categorize five types of anxiety: General, OCD, Panic Disorder, Social, and PTSD. I’m involuntarily signed up for the first and third – woo! My earliest memories of general anxiety begin around age 10. My panic disorder is a more recent development, starting when I was 31.  

I grew up in a really small town in Iowa—I’m talking 1 stop light small. Looking back, I realize my anxiety symptoms were rather typical, manifesting physically before my brain could catch up. This still happens today. While there is still a lack of awareness about anxiety today, back in 1995 no one had a clue. Here was little Nic freaking out – heart racing, hands tingling, trouble breathing, lump in her throat – and even doctors were like ‘there’s nothing wrong.’ I mean, okay, thanks!

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

After experiencing the undiagnosed symptoms long enough, I had to learn to deal with them on my own. I eventually realized they in fact weren’t really leading to anything life threatening, and so I just learned to accept them and not give the symptoms the power that they wanted.  

After I graduated from The University of Iowa, I moved to LA to pursue a career in fashion. I remember one specific time when I was living in LA, I was riding in a car with my friend Brandon. I told him that suddenly ‘my arms are tingling and my hands are numb.’ He doesn’t have anxiety, so his response was, ‘Um, are you having a heart attack?’ (Wrong thing to say to the anxious, by the way.) I knew it was anxiety deciding to be annoying AF, and I endured. I recently reminded him of this story and he said he didn’t realize I had such bad anxiety – because I didn’t talk about it! He also said, ‘Well, thank god we had an earthquake survival plan then!’ My idea, of course.

After six years in LA, I moved to Chicago and now call the Windy City home. In 2016, around my 31st birthday, things really got interesting. Over the course of two months, I went through a bad breakup, experienced an unexpected job change, and was hit by a car while crossing the street (I mean, seriously).  As I worked to physically recover from my accident and emotionally take stock of so many life changes, my anxiety went from zero to a million. I developed a full panic disorder and—for a period of time—agoraphobia. There was a 2 month period where I struggled to even leave my home. Good times.  

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

All it took was one massive panic attack, and it was actually about a week before the car scenario. I had minor ones before, so minor that I wasn’t even sure they were panic attacks. This one had me damn close to calling myself a nice little ambulance ride to the ER.

I was at lunch with friends, light on sleep, and full on caffeine. I was already wildly anxious with all my life changes, and then out of nowhere, I felt like the wind was taken out of me and I couldn’t breathe. I hyperventilated. I was so nauseous I thought I was going to get sick, and was profusely sweating. At this point, I was only taking anti-anxiety medication for flying. I knew I had some at home, so my wonderfully supportive friends took me home and stayed with me until I calmed. It was so terrifying that I started to live in constant fear of another panic attack. Insert panic disorder and agoraphobia. Thinking about that experience is even starting to give me anxiety, so let’s move on!

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

In addition to the mindfulness practices I already had in place, I decided medication was the best route for me when the panic disorder and agoraphobia joined the party. I just could not control the fear of the panic attacks on my own, and while I was hard on myself at the time, I’ve completely accepted that medication is a healthy option now.

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

My panic attacks tend to only happen when my generalized anxiety is heightened. I learned my panic attacks are triggered by feeling trapped, real or perceived. Certain things that used to be no-brainers for me, take practice now.  Sometimes, in trigger situations, I fear the panic attacks so much that it sets one off. Yup, I can think them into existence. Other times they just come, for example, when I’m dead asleep. Anxiety is weird.

My anxiety has changed, but I’ve changed with it. I proactively work really hard at my mental health now. I continue to rely on medication, but I also utilize a lot of other tactics to keep myself at a hundred percent.  A few of them include:

Boundary setting.

This is a big one and was very challenging for me. I want to be everything to everyone. Because of this, it’s hard for me to turn down social, personal, or professional requests out of fear of letting people down. Now, I’m not saying I’ve turned into a jerk, but I’ve learned to politely tell people ‘no’ when something isn’t the right fit for me. And I have ultimately learned to feel confident in that decision. If an explanation is required, don’t feel like you have to give one! Honesty is the best policy in my book.

Self care is #1.

I’ve learned to listen to my body and give it what it needs, instead of pushing it or ignoring signs of anxiety. If I am feeling run down, I pump the breaks in every way so that I can fully recover, rather than running myself into the ground. I’ve also come up with a pretty rad self care regimen that includes working out, baths, massages, and an ample amount of sleep. If I don’t take care of myself, my anxiety shows up in a big way and I cannot show up fully for others.

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

Be gentle on myself.

I can be a perfectionist. It’s a strength, but it can also be quite the weakness. There are a lot of aspects of anxiety that are out of my control and when it gets bad, I tend to analyze every single thing I did wrong to get to that point. But guess what? That doesn’t help. Shocking! What does help is being gentle with myself and acknowledging what is happening, but not casting any judgement on it while I move through it.

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

Practice gratitude.

Every night before I go to bed, I review my day and write down ten things that happened that I’m grateful for. Since I do this every day, I have to get really granular — and on the days where I’m really lazy, I’m thankful for the pizza that I ordered and a roof over my head. This level of positivity helps my anxiety greatly, and if I fall out of practice (which definitely happens), boy do I feel it.

Proactive practice.

This one is hard, because being reactive to your body is just so much easier. Life gets busy, and sometimes I forget. But, I try my hardest to proactively practice all things that keep my anxiety at bay: schedule regular therapy appointments, consistently workout, and meditate for ten minutes every night, to name a few. I’d rather be ahead of the game than behind!

My struggles with panic and anxiety have forced me to become comfortable and confident with who I am. I am 34 and have never been happier. Do I have it all together? No. But, I am less of a control freak. I talk about my feelings. I am a better leader in my work life. I am extremely social. I show up more fully in relationships. Generally, I give way fewer f*cks. Doesn’t mean that all comes easily – in fact, I practice really hard at it. I always have my helpful coping tools nearby, and oftentimes, an emergency Xanax just incase.

I can confidently say that I’m stronger because of my anxiety, and that’s something anxiety can’t take away from me.”

Courtesy of Nicole Webber

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nicole Webber of Chicago, Illinois. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here.

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