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How a 5 A.M. Panic Attack Helped Me Understand My Anxiety

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Back in August, I woke up with a panic attack.

Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say the quantity of my worrisome thoughts was so great that my brain forced me into consciousness.

This one was a real doozy. I swore I could feel the neurons morphing into thought after anxious thought before rapid-firing around my skull. I felt the frenzy of brain waves, the “what ifs” colliding with each other and ricocheting off the walls of my mind, the “oughts” and “shoulds” screaming past each other, in a chaos so outstanding that I wondered how I could process anything going on in my own brain.

Last autumn, I hoped I could drop my meds and leave these incidents behind. And for a couple of months, things went pretty well. My anxiety was low, and when I did start worrying, I could calm myself down in a quick and easy fashion.

Four months later, the constant buzz of intrusive thoughts in my head came back, and I found myself once again at the doctor’s office, this time with a request for a different medicine to avoid some not fun side effects from the last drug.

Six months after that, around 5 a.m., this glorious wake-up call rang in with a vengeance.

Some of the thoughts were “normal” enough. Health insurance and wedding planning popped in for a bit, before making leeway for the onslaught of others: the state of my self-esteem and relationships, whether any of the changes that have happened in my life are “the right ones,” how ridiculous I was to even consider going on a different medication because of a stupid side effect.

As I lay curled up in bed with my inner turmoil, my inner pleas rang like silent screams in my head:

“Why, Why,Why?”

“Healthy, happy, ‘better’ people don’t have these anxieties or spend most of their time thinking about such things, so what am I doing that makes me so unhealthy, unhappy and crappy?”

“Why am I such an awful person who only makes silly decisions and cannot be trusted with her own health or happiness?”

“If I’m so loved, why do I have such hateful thoughts about myself?”

After repeating these mantras a few times, my exhausted brain sought numbness and sleep. Adrenal fatigue set in, along with some depression and apathy. And in the midst of the exhaustion, the anxious thoughts continued, because they knew if they ceased, everything they’d predicted would come true.

I convinced myself to get out of bed around 7 a.m. to get ready for work, and in the act of lifting my body out of bed, I felt some of the anxiety dissipate. I texted my fiancé and some friends for prayers for my troubled and weary mind. I made my breakfast, read my meditation and an article about anxiety, talked to my roommate and felt a bit more ready to take on the day. As I continued living into the day, I found myself better able to let go of the thoughts which clung to me in the morning, and I allowed myself to believe I was OK.

This battle between calm and chaos continued from that Thursday morning until the following Monday evening.

During those days, I called my counselor so she could reassure me that my thoughts are just thoughts, and my life is not a terrible mess and I am not a terrible person. I ate meals, played games and laughed with Bryce (my fiancé) and some friends. I spent time in my room by myself reading while he and his friends played video games together. Every now and then, Bryce would step away and check on me to see if I was comfortable (mentally and physically), rub my back, talk things out, give me kisses and try to make me giggle. When our friends returned home, we went on a date in Bridgewater, the college town where we first met. We ate at one of my favorite town restaurants and walked around our old campus hand in hand, nostalgic over our first months and year of dating.

During those days, I also got so overwhelmed that I screamed. I “freaked out” over jokes that normally made me laugh. I snapped at people for being a little too loud or not giving me enough attention. And at the end of our date, I began to have another meltdown.

In short, life did not stop for my worries, and my worries didn’t stop as the world kept turning.

My greatest fears are about life as I know it crashing around me, but life insists on continuing in spite of my anxieties. I keep thinking that because I’m anxious or worried, something in my life must be terribly wrong. I’m not in good enough physical health. My relationships are becoming toxic or distant. Work is too stressful. I’m not taking care of myself.

But even though these are important factors to consider, more often than not I am anxious because… well, I’m anxious. Like my counselor has told me over again, it’s just “that thing” I do.

I’m anxious when I’m on medication and off medication (although I notice a significant difference in how much quieter those thoughts get when I’m on one which works). I was anxious in school, and I continue to be anxious in the workforce. I was an anxious child and I am an anxious adult. I was anxious when Bryce and I started dating, I’m anxious as we plan our wedding and I’m sure I’ll be anxious until the big day finally arrives.

And in all of those worries, life continues to happen.

My anxiety happens to make living daily life a bit more difficult. It makes things like mornings and overstimulation a bit harder to deal with. It also makes going on long runs, practicing daily meditation and calling my doctor to change my medication more necessary.

One of the hardest parts of this journey is acknowledging and accepting myself as an anxious person without demonizing myself. I’m realizing that no matter what happens, no matter how “high” or “low” a particular season in my life is, I will always be at least somewhat anxious during it. The anxiety in and of itself is not bad but simply part of who I am.

In every season of my life, I have been a person with anxiety. It’s part of me and always will be, and for that I will always be a little pissed off.

But I can be anxious and plan our wedding and still look forward to the day. I can be anxious and write, and get flustered about how terrible my writing seems, and continue to put one word after another. I can still go to work, daydream, talk to my friends, read books, worry over bills and live my life while “doing this thing I do.”

It won’t be easy. It definitely won’t be perfect.

But day by day, it can be enough.

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Originally published: March 16, 2017
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