I went to class today with a stomach ache, deep in my gut. A stomach ache I recognized from countless nights and mornings before. Times of nervousness. Times of change. A stomach ache, that no matter how much I try, I can’t seem to ignore. While it goes away at times, it likes to hang around for entire days at a time. Today was one of those days. That pain in the core of my stomach has a name. It’s not the flu. It’s not digestive problems.
That stomach ache is called anxiety.
My earliest memories of this pain are from third grade. Almost every single night I experienced some sort of stomach pain. The pain made it difficult to sleep, and I woke up exhausted almost every morning. At the time, I thought I was sick. I thought I had some sort of terrible illness that was slowly killing me. I couldn’t figure out why I felt sick all the time. This continued intermittently through elementary and middle school.
Two years ago, it was awful. Stress doesn’t always cause anxiety, but it certainly makes it worse. And junior year, I was under a lot of stress. I got those same stomach aches as the earlier years of my life. But I didn’t know what they were. I thought that coffee was eroding my stomach lining (I used to drink up to 4 cups a day). I tried to think of physical excuses for the daily stomach aches that plagued me constantly. I knew I was stressed, but I had no idea that anxiety could cause physical symptoms. Even panic attacks, when I felt like my heart was exploding out of my chest and I couldn’t breathe; when all of my regrets and responsibilities flooded my mind without ceasing. Even with these, which I experienced several times a week, I had no idea I had anxiety.
Now, I know. Sometime in the past year, I started learning about anxiety. I started reading about it. The increased heart rate, the sweating, the stomach pains, the exhaustion at the end of every day: it all sounded familiar to me. Now, with a doctor’s diagnosis under my belt and regular counseling, I’m starting to learn to deal with my anxiety. I’ve been able to control a lot of it recently. I’ve become skilled at stopping panic attacks in their tracks. I’ve learned coping mechanisms to work through my general anxiety. And I’ve gotten a lot better.
But some days, like today, I feel it all again. I feel the pain deep in my gut, my heart beats faster and harder than usual, and by the end of the school day I’m completely exhausted. I can’t tell you what brought on my anxiety today. But I can tell you that after a nap after classes and avoiding people at all costs, I’m feeling a lot better. I can’t tell you how I’ll feel tomorrow. But I can tell you that I’ll survive.
So what does anxiety look like? It looks like a girl. A girl who probably looks pretty normal on the outside. A girl who attends school, gets her work done, and survives. But to her, it looks like pain, fear and self-hatred. And sometimes, it looks like hopelessness. Because all she can do is live day to day, and hope and pray anxiety doesn’t attack again.