Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
For me, anxiety is part of my PTSD. It takes many forms, and a lot of the times I’m anxious about the future. But it’s also a lot of regret over trivial things. And it’s a lot of useless thinking. More than the ‘what if’s, it’s the 'shoulds’ or more likely, the 'shouldn’t have’s. It’s the 'If only I hadn’ts.
My first panic attack was when I was seven and I couldn’t stop imagining the world ending. I don’t know if I had watched a movie or something before I went to bed, but I do remember being unable to stop my mind from seeing meteors crashing into the planet and killing everything. Since then, I’ve been terrified of space. And those thoughts have always been recurring in both daydreams and nightmares. It’s one of those things that I can’t just move past because I’m uncomfortable. I need to turn the show off, I need to leave the room, I need to escape the conversation… Otherwise my head starts to spin.
My panic attacks go for my stomach first and foremost, followed closely by shaking my muscles and then stopping my breathing. But no matter what, whenever I get the slightest twinge in my stomach, I start to panic. It’s a vicious cycle where the anxiety caused the twinge (over nothing, I might add), but then the twinge furthered the anxiety. The next thing I know, I’m up all night shaking.
The worst of it happened during high school. I don’t know if it’s because of the trauma I was just coming out of, or hormones, or bad decisions - probably all three - but it happened every night. I remember coming home from time out with friends, or even just an average day, and everything would be fine. But then it would be time to sleep and I’d get this thought in the back of my head, “I’m afraid it’s going to be one of those nights.” I’m still afraid of having those nights.
Those nights are the ones where I won’t sleep - where I will have to shake and let my terrifying thoughts wash over me. They’re nights where I’ll have to see things that frighten me and believe they were real. And they were nights where I’d be pushed to the brink, regretting beyond tears spending time with people, eating a snack, staying up late - anything I could have changed. I was bargaining with my past self, begging it to not make the decisions it did to spare me this anxiety now.
Anxiety is also really dumb in and of itself. Having it isn’t, but just listen to some of the scenes anxiety has made me go through:
Most of my anxiety is about my health and death. I grew up with a psychopathic father who terrorized me in my sleep by literally being the monster under my bed (complete with screaming threats to my life and safety, dragging me under the bed or into the closet in the middle of the night and detailed masks). There was no safe place, so my brain and body adapted to being hyper-vigilant and untrusting. Then at 14, I had to deal with a bout of cancer, which - even though it was handled comparatively quickly and painlessly - shook the youthful sense of invincibility my peers had.
Anxiety isolated me. The people around me were not equipped to handle it, and often lost patience me when I would ramble. If I’m having a panic attack, it’s important for me to talk, repeat information, and most found it too troublesome and tried to stop it. Or they thought that that was what I wanted to stop. For me, talking and communicating is cathartic, and it lets me know I’m still alive.
I’m pretty sure that’s how I got into writing and music - I just happen to be blessed with creativity as a talent as well. But it’s all borne of this drive to constantly communicate with people in order to confirm my reality. Like some kind of existential echolocation. I reach out with words and sounds in hope of them bouncing off something in order to guide me. I cope with my feelings, anxiety included, by turning them into something tangible that I can throw out into the world so I can get an idea of where I’m going. It’s how I get control over my uncertain future.
Anxiety has also taught me some valuable lessons. It’s given me the willpower to live in the present, the way everyone tells you you should. I’m terrified I might not have a tomorrow, simply because of my anxiety, so I live each day to the fullest. It has this silver lining that, when you think death and ruin is right around the corner, you reach a tipping point where you really do live like it’s your last day.
I see so many different futures for myself, a lot of them come in the heat of a panic attack, and I get scared. I’ve had to deal with the frustration of people telling me to ‘simply’ let go, as if relinquishing control is simple for anyone. But after working with anxiety as a part of my life, as a constant, I’ve realized there is still control within the chaos. Anxiety is a nonsensical balance of everything, and simultaneously, nothing. And sometimes during a panic attack my reality of what I think might happen gets so real that is might as well be actually happening.
It’s not that these terrifying futures don’t scare me, it’s that I’ve come to accept them. It takes a lot of mental energy, but I’ve accepted that all of the things I think might happen could happen (even if the cases are incredibly rare). So then I think, “Do I want to spend my last moments huddled away in fear? Or doing something I loved?” And no matter what it is, I go do what I want to do in that moment. I play music, I write, I talk to people, I go outside, anything! And by the time I come back and settle down again, then I can let go of the fears the way people always tell me to. For me, it’s not about giving up the control, it’s about finding a way to control the uncontrollable.
There isn’t a cure for anxiety, it’s all about how you manage to live with it. This is hard to say, and likely even harder to hear, but as much as you might hate this illness, you have to respect it if you want to work with it. Respect that the anxiety is real, and therefore what you feel is real, there is the possibility that it’s not going to go away one day. Respect that anxiety makes certain things hard or impossible for you to do, and accept that no one is good at everything. Allow your inability to do certain things to guide you onto another path that is better suited for you.
Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.