Breathe, It's Just Anxiety
I wake up every morning and ask myself the same question: Am I okay? Ultimately, I know I am, but some days I wake up feeling paralyzed. The sun is up, the city is stirring, and I am stuck under my covers.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is easily defined as excessive worrying, but every anxiety sufferer defines it differently based on individual experience.
I was diagnosed with GAD and Panic Disorder when I was 11 years old. Under my psychiatrist’s advisement, I treated it with the same medication for eight years, until my life came to a halt in December 2014.
I woke up suddenly at 7 a.m. on a day when I was able to sleep in with tense muscles and a familiar pit in my stomach. It was as if a switch had flipped in my head overnight and panic had set in. I went to sleep a healthy college student and woke up an anxious wreck.
I changed medications as soon as I went home on winter break, but the holidays flew by and I still was not healthy when the residence halls reopened. Home being just outside of the city, I was able to go back and forth while rewiring my brain.
During this time, I could barely recognize myself. My appetite dramatically decreased, I vomited many mornings because of my empty stomach and newly sensitive gag reflex, classes became hard to sit through, and I felt emotionally drained all the time. Navigating college while bouncing from campus to home and from calm to panicky proved nearly impossible, and my self-esteem plummeted when I sacrificed org meetings for anxious nights huddled in my room.
Many students grapple with the same pressure to prioritize fully booked schedules over mental health. We have an innate responsibility to soldier on even when our minds scream at us to get the hell out of a stressful situation.
“My breathing is usually the give-away and I know I need to get out of a situation fast,” says Ashley Dunn, ‘18. “I've had to leave class, leave the tap desk in the Little Building, and even leave my shared double to find a more private space to freak out.” Dunn, diagnosed with an anxiety disorder nearly 10 years ago, describes panic attacks as terrifying. “The actual experience of a panic attack for me feels a little bit like drowning without the water. I cry every time and my throat closes up. My breathing is very labored and sharp and it's hard for me to talk.”
Panic Disorder sufferers often worry so much about the next attack that living in the moment becomes difficult. My own anxiety causes me to feel like my world is imploding and I spend my energy worrying about this improbable event rather than living.
Dunn’s anxiety has limited her in everyday activities, “My anxiety always has to arrive uninvited to events like open mics or parties or even just in class. I used to be unable to speak and contribute in some classes because my anxiety held me back.”
Crippling anxiety can be conquered by constantly pursuing the things that scare you. “I still make myself do things I don't want to do,” says Alyssa Perkins, ‘19, another student affected by anxiety. “I wanted to be an Orientation Leader (OL) since before I got to Emerson, before I had anxiety, and I didn't let the anxiety stop me from doing that. And even though some moments were really awful, a lot of moments were well worth it.” Knowing that regret follows after every missed opportunity, Perkins won’t let anxiety rob her of experiences. “As my therapist encouraged me to, I can draw on the strength of knowing I did something once and got through it, so I'll be okay if I do another similar thing.”
Opportunities to power through anxiety do present themselves, but it’s important to recognize when outside help is needed.
For Meghan Corless, ‘18, that realization came during a rocky semester last fall, “I just realized that I seriously needed help and if I didn’t get it, I was going to run myself off a cliff.” Corless, diagnosed with anxiety at age eight, missed a month of school to receive help at home in Long Island. “I did fall behind, but I wound up making a class up in the summer so I'm fine now,” Corless says.The decision to go home was a difficult, but necessary one for her, “Once you realize you deserve help, that's like the greatest feeling in the whole world.”
Whether it’s at a downtown hospital or on campus, working with a professional to treat anxiety is immensely helpful. Perkins finds support in her friends and boyfriend while also working with professionals, “I went to ECAPS for a bit last year, and had a therapist over the summer,” she says.
Dunn also seeks comfort in friendships, “My friends have all experienced the same anxiety at one point or another and I have a very supportive community around me,” she says. She also uses her anxiety as a source of inspiration, “Poetry is my biggest form of therapy and I often write about my mental illness, work that I then share at open mics,” she says. “Despite the anxiety and worry I often get before performing, I feel a lot better after sharing my work because I know others can relate.”
Corless feels similarly about sharing her struggle. “Something that makes me feel stronger is telling my story,” she says. “I don't ever want people to get to the place I was at last year, and if I help even one person with their own struggles, I will have done my job.”
I have recuperated from the anxiety flare up I had freshman year, but traces of it linger in my every move. It’s in my shaky legs during class, my blank stares during conversations, and my shifty jaw during work. I worry constantly about falling back into that frantic state. I agonize over the finicky switch triggering another anxiety attack.
Similar to Dunn and Corless, I feel that reflecting on my experience by sharing it with others helps me grow. I’ve learned to cope with my anxiety by anticipating it and breaking overwhelming tasks like traveling into smaller steps. I feel stronger with each completed step and suddenly the process of flying to a new location isn’t daunting, it’s doable.
The fear of my world imploding has ceased. I’ve stopped seeing my anxiety as destructive and started seeing it as a lesson in resilience. As my mom always says, anxiety cannot kill you.