Living with an anxiety disorder is challenging on the easier days and downright terrifying on the more difficult days.
Unfortunately, I know this from firsthand experience. Until recently, I lived with an anxiety disorder that manifested itself with intense physical sensations. I experienced all sorts of scary feelings in my body; panic attacks, upset stomach, shaking, derealization, headaches, weakness, dry mouth, hot flashes and dizziness were just some of the many things I would feel on a day-to-day basis.
These feelings typically came about when I was out in public, like being in a big crowd, or somewhere that it wasn’t easy to escape without being noticed (sitting in class, eating in a restaurant) or in places with a lot of stimulation going on. Loud noises and bright lights really bothered me. There was even a time period where I could not bear to go into grocery stores because of the loud noises and fluorescent lighting. I know it sounds crazy, but it was that bad. It came on fast and intense, and left me feeling terrified to leave the house for fear of what might happen.
Many times I backed out of doing things because I believed I physically couldn’t. I thought surely I was going to faint, throw up, go crazy or die. My body felt weak all the time. Anxiety made me depressed. I isolated myself and so I lost a lot of friends and missed out on many of the typical college experiences because my anxiety always arose while I was out. The craziest part was that all of these symptoms seemed to appear out of nowhere.
I used to have lots of friends, I went out to parties and drank frequently, and never had any issues feeling this way. I would’ve thought someone who couldn’t handle sitting in class or at a restaurant for two hours was a crazy person. So when this became my life so suddenly, I was sure something was wrong. I thought I was really sick. It couldn’t just all be ‘in my mind’.
I went to the doctor (even though that gave me extreme anxiety too) and was told that I was totally fine and healthy. Then I got really depressed because I didn’t feel ‘fine or healthy’ one bit. I wanted an immediate cure to my problem and I wasn’t getting one. I started to think, “So this is going to be my life? I’m going to be isolated from the rest of the world forever? I’ll never have fun or be happy again?” I started to believe that I would be doomed to a life of confinement in my house for all of eternity. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. It wasn’t fair. I was a prisoner in my own mind and I couldn’t escape.
Looking back now, five years later from when it all began, I can see that it was never random. In all actuality, the anxiety disorder I developed should have been expected. The only thing that surprises me now is that it didn’t manifest itself sooner.
My entire life I may not have suffered from a panic disorder, but I always lived anxiously. I had social anxiety growing up, and I always cared way too much about what other people thought about me… I obsessively worried about family, friends, money, school, boys, fitting in, you name it, I worried about it! I listened to negativity and drama from those around me and let it affect me, and I spoke negatively about myself and others. I did nothing to care for my mental health. I did not love myself, and I didn’t do anything I was passionate about. I didn’t have goals or dreams I believed I would accomplish. I didn’t feed myself healthy thoughts or practice self-care, ever. I always played the victim. It was always someone or something else’s fault that I didn’t have a better life. I had done nothing but feed my mind negative, self-sabotaging thoughts my entire life, so, it was no wonder I developed such intense anxiety at the age of 21!
What I didn’t know then that I do now is that your thoughts create your life. The thoughts you think have a DIRECT effect on your health. Your mind, body and soul are all connected and the well-being of one greatly impacts the well-being of the other two.
Think of it this way: Our mind is like a giant computer system and negative thoughts are like bad viruses that get in and infect it. One person says or does something that hurts you, or you listen to/partake in drama, negativity or gossip, then your mind processes it, internalizes it, and keeps it, like a file downloaded on your computer. We usually forget about the negative thought itself, but its’ effects are still there looming in our subconscious for years to come.
And the more we think negatively, gossip, or put ourselves down, the more used to negativity our mind becomes, and because our minds find so much comfort in familiarity, the cycle continues. Thus, the virus just keep getting bigger and bigger, you begin to internalize these thoughts as truth, and then when your mind becomes too full of them, they start to spread to other parts of your body.
Many times, your physical illnesses and pains are literally your mind crying out to you for help! It’s telling you something is not okay in here! The worried thoughts weren’t enough warning for you, so your mind has to get your attention another way. However, typically by the time you realize what’s going on, why your body is acting so strange, it’s too late. You can’t just stop it. You know it’s anxiety, you know it’s ‘all in your head’, but you can’t control the way your body feels. You’re in too deep.
This is what I would call rock bottom. The place where you feel you have no control over your life. You feel trapped in your own mind. In this place, you are always afraid. You never know how you are going to feel, or when the anxiety is going to arise. Life is draining, and it often feels hopeless. I know because I’ve been there.
But even though you can’t escape it, no matter how badly you want to or try to, there is some good news. You will get through it.
Believe me when I say I really believed I would never feel normal again. I begged and pleaded and cried to God to take it away, but he never did. I didn’t understand. I felt like he had abandoned me. I wasn’t hearing anything from him, no guidance toward a way out. I was angry with him for a long time.
As much as I wanted to, I knew couldn’t stay in the house forever; it just wasn’t an option for me. I had to force myself to do things like go back to school and work, otherwise I couldn’t survive. But after time and time again of forcing myself to go through class or work and sit through the anxiety, even though I was terrified, shaking, feeling like I was going to vomit, I couldn’t focus and my mind was screaming “Stop, leave, run, don’t go! Stay home where it’s safe!”, after sitting through all of those feelings countless times yet still surviving, I started to realize that anxiety couldn’t kill me. Then I began to see that it couldn’t really hurt me either. If I could just ride the feelings out, they would eventually dissipate. And after four years of feeling like I was going to faint or throw up or go crazy every time I was in a social situation, I began to figure that if it was ever going to happen, surely it would have by now, yet it never had. When I thought about it that way, that my worst fears literally never came to fruition not one single time, I began to call anxiety’s bluff.
Hitting rock bottom was actually a huge blessing in disguise. I had nowhere to go but up. My old life wasn’t coming back, so I had to recreate a whole new life, a whole new me. I was alone most of the time because I had isolated myself from people due to the anxiety. I had nothing else to do, so I started reading and found the love I had for it as a child again. I also studied anxiety and I learned all about it, which was very informative and helpful, but to be completely honest, nothing really changed until I began learning how to love myself and the power behind it. I quit trying to learn ways to stop the anxiety, and instead began retraining my mind toward positive thinking and self-love. Doing this was the catalyst that absolutely changed my life. Believing I am enough, that I can create my life and literally do anything I want to as long as I believe I can and put the effort in, has truly changed everything. It’s incredibly simple, yet incredibly powerful.
But as the title of this post suggests, this change did not happen overnight. It took time, and lots of it. It took hours of reading and self-reflection and forgiving myself. It wasn’t a linear progression, either. Some days I’d feel on top of the world, like I’d finally beaten my demons once and for all, and then something would happen and I’d have a few off days where I felt like I took 100 steps backward. But the key to my change was that I kept pushing forward despite the setbacks. I’m still working on it. I continuously have to replace negative thoughts that come to my mind every single day. I’ve learned that no matter how small or insignificant one negative thought may seem, I must replace it with love and truth so I don’t risk poisoning my mind again.
I will warn you: the anxiety will fight to stay. Our minds long for routine and familiarity, because it’s easy and comfortable. When you try to change your thinking, your mind won’t like it because it hasn’t been wired to think that way. My mind wasn’t used to love and positive thinking, so it felt forced and fake at first. But I kept doing it. I kept practicing it even when it felt phony. I spent time alone with myself, something I used to be afraid to do, and over time I began to enjoy it, then I began to need it. I started listening to inspirational podcasts. I found new people to look up to, people who lived lives similar to the one I wanted. I created a vision board. I started this blog and began writing a book. I began saying yes to things that got me out of my comfort zone. I started praising myself everyday and I’ve never felt better.
My anxiety doesn’t have much room to roam anymore. I’m too busy being productive to worry about most things. I am becoming so filled with love and light that there is nowhere for the negativity to stay. It tries to creep back in every now and then, the only difference is that now I see anxiety exactly for what it is, and therefore it can no longer control me. Anytime I sense anxiety within me now, I immediately capture it and throw it away.
I began to realize that this whole time my anxiety was just the result of my unhealthy mind trying to find some sort of outlet for the negativity. My body was only doing it to try and help me, so I forgave myself. Once I internalized this, I began the process of healing. It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t easy. It’s still ongoing, and I get the feeling that it will be for the rest of my life. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world now. Why? Because I am finally myself. It stripped me of absolutely everything I had, this false outer persona I used to put on for the rest of the world, and forced me to be more me than I have ever been before.
So I want to ask you today, if God isn’t taking something away, could it be for a reason? Is he trying to teach you something? I know that for me personally, I always strayed away from God really easily until my anxiety started getting bad. Anxiety always helped me stay close to him because I knew I couldn’t make it through the day without his divine help. Because of anxiety, our relationship is so much deeper than it was before. I also know that I wouldn’t be doing the things I’m doing now and living a fulfilling life that I love if it weren’t for anxiety taking my old life away and leaving me to start a completely new one from scratch, which ended up being the one I’ve always wanted. And last but certainly not least, because I’ve come so far from where I once was when I began experiencing such bad anxiety, I know without a doubt that I am capable of just about anything! Right now I’m living a life and doing things that I didn’t think were possible just two to three years ago! It truly amazes me every time I think about it.
So if you are in a bad place today, I just want you to know healing is a process. It’s a journey. It’s terrifying at times and amazing at others. You’ll want to give up. But then you’ll do something you never thought you could and you won’t believe how far you’ve come. It takes time, but it is so incredibly worth it.
I challenge you today to start seeing your toughest battles as blessings in disguise. Ask yourself, what can I learn from this? How can I grow and be a better person because of this? If you need someone to talk to or help getting started on your healing journey, don’t hesitate to reach out. As always, please feel free to leave a comment or share this post if it resonated with you!
I leave you with some words of encouragement, and also my all-time favorite bible verse.
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he did in fact was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me, “My grace is enough; it’s all you need. My strength comes into its’ own in your weakness.” Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size — abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.
-2 Corinthians 12:7 MSG