‘When I have a panic attack, I feel like I’m literally dying’: This is how I experience anxiety’

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Ashley Abramson from The Lily explains the agonising torture of living with anxiety as today’s Guest Blogger.

My anxiety is lifelong and probably stems equally from nature and nurture. My mom struggled with chronic illness, mental illness and addiction tied to childhood trauma, so though I always knew she loved me, her instability created an early foundation of anxiety for me, which manifested in panic attacks and an obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis when I was 9-years-old. I’ve been on an SSRI medication since then, and I’m almost 30 now.

For me, in addition to the chemical imbalance I was born with, anxiety has been a coping mechanism when I don’t feel safe or secure in my own body. Since I was in elementary school, I’ve struggled with hypochondria alongside my general anxiety. Watching my mom suffer so much — really, seeing her fade away before my eyes — instilled a deep fear of sickness in me, like a constant hypervigilance about any symptom that could be something more serious. That’s led to trouble sleeping and tension headaches, which only make the fear of having cancer or some other illness worse. It’s a horrible cycle. I guess in the end my anxiety comes from a fear that I’ll end up like my mom: sick or dead.

How anxiety presents itself physically

Lately, my anxiety primarily manifests physically. Even if my mind is in a good place and I’m not obsessively Googling symptoms, I feel like my body is a vessel for a trauma that I haven’t fully processed yet. I experience two kinds of anxiety physically: low-level, everyday symptoms and acute, situational panic symptoms.

Anxiety and stress in my everyday life cause severe neck pain and the occasional debilitating migraine. I also have a lot of jaw pain regularly. Sometimes I also feel nauseous, and when it’s bad, I throw up.

 

Panic symptoms are a whole separate category, and I’ve always tried to avoid them because when I have a panic attack, I feel like I’m literally dying. Having a panic attack feels like being swallowed by something so much bigger than me. When I’m panicking, I feel like I’m about to faint: dizzy, sweaty, racing heart, short of breath, my vision starts to fade, my legs shake violently. They’re all symptoms that trigger my anxiety even more.

How anxiety presents itself mentally

Usually, the physical symptoms start first and catapult me into a mental battle that’s really hard to escape. Because most of my anxiety surrounds health, the mental manifestation is usually obsessive, racing thoughts. Am I okay? Am I dying? Do I need to see a doctor or go to the emergency room? If I don’t figure out a way to calm my body down or alleviate the stress I’m experiencing physically, the mental part grows and grows, feeding the physical symptoms. At that point, I usually have to intervene with something like Xanax to reset and regain control of my body and mind. When I can calm myself down, I can reason and remind myself that chances are, I’m not actually dying.

What a day when my anxiety is at its worst looks like

There have been periods in my life when I went days without leaving the house because I was afraid I’d have a panic attack in public. When my anxiety is at its worst, I am isolated and unable to take care of myself, let alone my two sons. I spend all my mental and physical energy on trying to convince myself I’m okay.

My go-to coping mechanism

I have several. The main thing when I’m having a panic attack is finding a way to calm my body down so I can reason mentally. It’s like putting on a life jacket when you’re struggling to stay afloat in turbulent water. Sometimes I’ll take a Xanax to bring my body to a place where I can logically tell myself the truth about what’s happening. I also go to a chiropractor regularly to reduce my neck pain and headaches, which has surprisingly helped with my anxiety.

 

But in my everyday life, even when I’m feeling stable, I try to address the root of my anxiety instead of covering it up with numbing agents all the time, which I’m tempted to do. I want to give my body and mind the tools they need to function healthily. That’s why I take medicine daily and go to therapy. I also use prayer and mindfulness to help my brain embrace the reality that, even though I’ll die one day, I’m alive right now. Finally, EMDR therapy, a type of therapy that moves traumatic memories to a different part of your brain, has also reduce my panic attacks and general anxiety immensely.

One thing I wish people understood about anxiety

Most of my friends and loved ones are really understanding, empathetic and helpful with my anxiety. The main thing I wish society understood is that it’s not something I can turn on and off, and there’s not always a logical “reason” for it. When I’m having a panic attack, the least helpful thing is to be asked what it’s about. What I need is empathy in those moments, not a well-meaning attempt to fix it.

I would love to hear from you so please leave a comment. All feedback is much appreciated. Thank you. Erin