Entering my senior year of college, I thought I had the world in my hands. I was doing great in school, I recently bought a new dirt bike, and I had just begun a new relationship. Every aspect of my life was planned out, everything was under control—until this happened. This series of events, this magic equation, caused me to develop the A word: anxiety. An anxiety disorder, AKA the first time in my life I was unable to control what was happening to my body.
Every morning I was afraid to wake up. Afraid of what? I will never know. I lived in constant fear of the unknown. I felt so afraid and didn’t know who or what I was afraid of. My severe anxiety led to many health problems, both emotional and physical. As for my body, my heart was constantly racing; I would shake uncontrollably and would often lose feeling in my limbs. And as for my mind, I became so depressed because I could not function like I used to. Sometimes I would sleep for 15 hours a day. I was so preoccupied by this constant fear that I was never present in real life. I was always thinking and playing out possible scenarios in my head, which led to horrible memory loss. There is a whole chapter of my life I barely remember because I was never mentally present for it. Even though my body was there, my mind was not. My brother once joked to me, “When you get upset you just decide to leave. You go somewhere else in your mind.” If only he knew how right he was.
After months of existing day-by-day and no longer engaging with life, I had a panic attack in a crowded train station, hiding myself away in a dark stairwell. This was my rock bottom, and I realized something was really wrong with me. I decided that enough was enough, and I needed to take back control over my world. I could no longer allow this force, this anxiety, to dictate every aspect of my life. I needed to find my love for life again, but more importantly I needed to find the strength to get there.
After realizing something was seriously “wrong with me,” I did what any 21-year-old would do: I called my mom. After months of hiding my feelings from family and friends, she was the first person I confided in. And she said what any mom would say: “Call the doctor.” This led me to the first of oh so many doctors appointments.
The first doctor told me I was too stressed. “Try working out.”
The second doctor told me I was too stressed. “Try eating better.”
The third doctor told me I was too stressed. “Try yoga.”
None of this worked. It was senior year of college, so of course I was stressed. But because I was so focused on making all that stress go away that very second, I never actually took the time to rebuild a healthy way of living. I just wanted to feel better, immediately. I was unaware how much anxiety had actually altered my life, and that I needed to change my entire lifestyle in order to conquer it. Quick fixes—one long run or relaxing yoga session—weren’t going to “cure” my anxiety, just like one long run or yoga session can’t rid you of a hundred pounds. Anxiety was my extra hundred pounds of weight, except this weight was in my head; it would take time and dedication to shed off.
Anxiety is a disease, and it affects everyone around those suffering from it. My anxiety and depression interfered in the relationships I had with everyone I loved, and it buried what love I had left for myself. After I hit rock bottom, I found the strength to stand back up and retake control of my life. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
I found myself a doctor. A good doctor. One who truly cared about me. She prescribed me a medication that was “only for emergencies.” I could handle that. But most importantly, she put me in touch with a therapist.
Seeing my therapist every week was the best thing I have ever done for myself. She helped me love myself again by teaching me that I am not my anxiety—that there is nothing wrong with me. The A word is just something I have, something I can manage. I don’t feel like it even deserves to be its own word anymore. It’s just something that’s there, that I am able to overlook because I have the tools and strength to overcome it.
Reflecting on my experiences, there is a lot of advice I wish I could have given myself, and that I hope can now help some of you. Please note that this isn’t medical advice, and shouldn’t be taken as such—these are simply lessons I learned from my own journey that I’m hoping to share.
1. Love yourself.
To some, this comes easily. To others, it seems impossible. But you are given only one body, only one life. Make yourself a priority. Love yourself enough to put yourself before others. Nothing should be more important than your health and wellbeing, which has taken me years of ups and downs to realize. Now that I apply this to my life, I am the happiest and healthiest I have ever been.
One of the ways I practice self-love is through fitness. It’s not vain for you to love the way you look, as long as you are being healthy about it. Fitness taught me how to love myself when anxiety and depression told me not to. I love when my hard work at the gym shows (literally, in the mirror). I like to think of outer strength as a reflection of inner strength. If nothing can stop me physically, then nothing can stop me mentally.
2. Run away from your problems. Literally.
Running is my favorite stress reliever of all time. I know, when you’re having a rough day, the last thing you want to do is put physical strain on your body. But don’t knock it ‘til you try it! There is something so freeing about physically running away from your problems. Trust me, if you run fast enough you will leave those problems in the dust. And the endorphins won’t hurt either.
3. Listen to your body.
Treat your body like it’s your best friend. If you think you should go for a run or a workout but your body says no, the answer is no! Never push yourself beyond your body’s physical or mental limits. Some say that there are no limits to what the human body can achieve. This could be true, but it is definitely NOT true for someone who suffers any form of anxiety or depression. You do have limits, and that is okay! One of the biggest things I wish I knew is that it’s okay if I don’t feel like pushing myself. That it doesn’t make me weak, it makes me self aware. Listen to your body and what those limits are, and your body will thank you later.
4. Something about Rome.
Someone once said (and many have since) that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Well, I’m not talking about Rome. I’m talking about your lifestyle, your health, and how you view yourself. You don’t need to take the bull by the horns, you need to take life one day at a time. Try and incorporate small changes into each day. As weeks and months go by, you will slowly build up a healthier lifestyle. I started by eliminating anxiety inducing habits, like drinking coffee every morning, going out drinking with friends, and not getting enough sleep. I replaced these bad habits with healthier alternatives like drinking my all time favorite “calming” tea instead of coffee, suggesting other things to do with my friends that didn’t include drinking, and getting eight hours of sleep every night. If you replace one bad habit with a healthier alternative every week, you will develop a new lifestyle in no time! (Disclaimer: that was an exaggeration. Changing habits is difficult, and will take time.)
5. Be selfish.
Like I said before, nothing and no one should come before you. You need to make time for yourself. For me, I like to dedicate an hour each night for “me time.” This time is devoted to anything from running to getting my nails done, or just relaxing and reading. I made a promise to myself that I would not break “me time” for anything or anyone (except maybe my cat). Maybe one hour a night is too extreme. Start small. But don’t skip gym sessions to drink and listen to your friend’s problems. Tell your friend to go for a run and run away from her own problems (see tip #2).
I apply these five points to my everyday life and I am happier and healthier than ever. I used to have panic attacks three to four times a day. Now, I haven’t had one in over five months, and I have not taken any form of medication to relieve anxiety symptoms in over eight months. I am no longer afraid to do things on my own. I no longer live in fear. The last time I was afraid of anything was in a haunted spook walk, and I knew those ghosts couldn’t hurt me. I can live my life again, but most importantly, I love my life again.
Now the A word for me is just a little reminder in the back of my head to work on that project for an extra hour so I know it’s perfect, or to get to the train in the morning a little early so I don’t miss it. The A word helps me get work in a little before deadlines so I have time to breath afterwards. It helps me plan my week out in advance so I have extra “me time” every night. It means I won’t ever run out of anything in my fridge because I ran through the shopping list that one extra time. The A word isn’t me, but it’s a part of me—a part that I have learned to use to my advantage, because I will never lose control of my life again.