Facing My Fears Finally Helped Me Overcome My Crippling Anxiety
I started saying yes to things that I feared for so long—and realized that facing the unknown was less intimidating than staying scared.
If you suffer from anxiety, you probably already know that saying yes to spontaneity isn't really an option. For me, the mere idea of an adventure went straight out the window the second it popped up. By the time my inner dialogue is done ranting, there is no yes. There are no words. Just a feeling of debilitating fear based on hypotheticals.
My anxiety has dragged me through the mud so many times, but I've found that talking about it (or in this case, writing about it) helps both me-and potentially helps someone else reading it who's struggling.
Whether it's been a conversation with my family, a series of artwork depicting anxiety, or even Kendall Jenner and Kim Kardashian opening up about mental health problems, I know I'm not alone in this. "You literally feel like you are never going to get out of it," I remember Kendall saying on one episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and I couldn't have understood her more.
My History with Anxiety
The first time I realized I had anxiety was in junior high. I went through a phase where I was so afraid I was going to throw up, I would wake up in the middle of the night convinced that I was going to be sick. I'd race downstairs to my parents' room and they'd make a bed for me on the floor. I would only be able to fall back asleep to the sound of my mother's voice and back rubs.
I remember having to flick the light switch on and off in the hallway, and then in my bedroom, and drinking a certain sip of waters before allowing my brain to let me fall to sleep. These OCD tendencies were my way of saying, "If I do this, I won't throw up." (Related: Why You Should Stop Saying You Have Anxiety If You Really Don't)
Then, in high school, I had such bad heart palpitations that it felt like I was going to have a heart attack. My chest was constantly sore, and my breathing felt permanently shallow. That was the first time I confided in my primary care doctor about my anxiety. He put me on an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), which are used to treat depression and anxiety disorders.
When I went off to college, I decided to go off the medication. I spent my freshman year a three-hour plane ride from my home in Maine to my new world in Florida-doing normal dumb college things: drinking too much, pulling all-nighters, eating terrible food. But I was having a blast.
While working at a restaurant the summer following my freshman year, I would experience this tingly sensation in my hands and feet. I felt like the walls were closing in and that I was going to faint. I would run out of work, throw myself into bed, and just sleep for hours until it passed. I didn't know then that these were panic attacks. I went back on the medication and slowly returned to my normal self again.
I was on medication up until I was 23, at which point I was spending my post-grad days frolicking around figuring out life and my next plan. I had never felt so fearless. I had been on the medication for years, and I felt certain that I didn't need it anymore. So I weaned myself off of it like I had once before, and I didn't think much of it.
When Things Took a Turn for the Worse
Looking back, I should have seen the warning signs building over the next three years. It wasn't until things got worse that I recognized that things needed to get better. I had begun to develop phobias. I didn't like to drive anymore, at least not on the highway, or in unfamiliar towns. When I did, I felt like I would lose control of the wheel and get in a horrific accident.
That fear turned into my not even wanting to be a passenger in a car for more than an hour, which turned into a fear of being on a plane. Eventually, I didn't want to travel anywhere unless I could be in my own bed that night. Next, when I was hiking on New Year's Day 2016, and felt a sudden and crippling fear of heights. Leading up to the peak of the mountain, I constantly thought I was going to trip and fall to my death. At one point, I just stopped and sat down, grasping the surrounding rocks for stability. Little kids were passing me, mothers were asking if I was OK, and my boyfriend was actually laughing because he thought it was a joke.
Still, I didn't recognize there was something truly wrong until the next month when I woke up in the middle of the night, shivering and struggling to breathe. The next morning, I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't taste anything. It felt like my anxiety would never go away-like it was a death sentence. I resisted for months, but after years of being medication-free, I went back on medication.
I know the back-and-forth habit with my meds might seem controversial, so it's important to explain that drugs weren't my only attempt at treatment-I tried essential oils, meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, and positive affirmations. Some things didn't help, but those that did are a part of my life. (Related: Can Reiki Help with Anxiety?)
Once I was back on medication, the crippling anxiety eventually faded, and the spiraling thoughts went away. But I was left with this sort of PTSD of how awful recent months had been for my mental health-and the fear of experiencing it again. I wondered if I would ever escape this limbo where I was simply waiting for my anxiety to come back. Then, I had this sort of epiphany: What if, rather than running from the fear of being in a bad mental state again, I embraced the phobias that triggered my panic attacks? What if I just said yes to everything?
Saying Yes to Things That Scared Me
So toward the end of 2016, I made a decision to say yes. I said yes to car rides (and drives), hikes, flights, camping, and lots of other travel that took me away from my bed. But as anyone who has experienced the highs and lows of anxiety knows, it's never that simple. (Related: How Clean Eating Helped Me Cope with Anxiety)
When I started to feel more comfortable with myself, I decided to take baby steps to reintroduce things I loved that anxiety previously kept me from enjoying. I started by booking road trips up the California coast. My boyfriend would drive the majority of the way, and I would offer to take the wheel for a couple hours here and there. I remember thinking, Oh no-I just offered to drive right before we have to go through downtown San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge. My breathing would become shallow and my hands numb in moments like these, but I felt really empowered when I accomplished what once felt so unattainable. This empowerment had me looking to take on bigger tasks. I remember thinking, If I can travel this far now, how much farther can I go? (Related: 8 Tips for Supporting a Partner with Anxiety)
Staying away from home presented its own issue. What will my friends think when I freak out in the middle of the night from a panic attack? Is there a decent hospital in the area? And while such questions still lurked, I had already proven I could travel with those what-ifs unanswered. So I made a bigger leap and booked a trip to Mexico to meet a girlfriend-it was only a four-hour flight, and I could handle that, right? But I remember being in the airport security line, feeling faint, thinking, Can I really do this? Will I actually get on the plane?
I breathed deeply as I went through that airport security line. Palms sweating, I used positive affirmations, which included a whole lot of you can't turn back now, you've gone this far pep talks. I remember meeting a wonderful couple as I was sitting at a bar before getting on the plane. We ended up talking and eating and drinking together for an hour before it was time for me to board my flight, and just that distraction helped me to transition peacefully onto the plane.
When I did get there and I met my friend, I was so proud of myself. While I'll admit that each day I had to do little pep talks during shallow breathing and moments of spiraling thoughts, I was able to spend a whole six days in a foreign country. And I wasn't just stifling my anxiety but actually enjoying my time there.
Coming back from that trip felt like a real step forward. I made myself get on planes alone and go to another country. Yes, I had my friend when I arrived, but it was having to be in control of my actions with no one to lean on that was really transformational for me. My next trip would be not just a four-hour plane ride, but a 15-hour plane ride to Italy. I kept looking for that panicked feeling, but it wasn't there. I had gone from dipping my toe in the water, to getting up to my knees, and now I was adjusted enough to take the plunge. (Related: How a Fitness Retreat Helped Me Get Out of My Wellness Rut)
In Italy, I found myself excitedly jumping off cliffs into the Mediterranean. And for someone who went through a period of fearing heights, this felt like such a milestone. Ultimately, I found that travel made me better able to accept the unknown (which is really tough for anxiety sufferers).
It would be a lie to say the shackles of anxiety have been fully released for me, but after one of the worst years of my life, I spent 2017 feeling pretty free. I felt like I could breathe, see, do, and just live without the fear of what would happen.
My anxiety made being trapped in small spaces like a car or an airplane frightening. It made it scary to be away from home, where you don't have your doctor nearby or a bedroom door you can lock. But what's even scarier is feeling as if you have no control over your own well-being.
While it might sound like I just dove right in, it was a slow and progressive jump-a short drive, a short plane ride, a destination farther than I expected to go. And each time I found myself feeling a little more like the person I knew I was deep down: open-minded, excited, and adventurous.