It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and I was a knot of anxiety. My dad and sister had accompanied me to buy a new laptop, a holiday purchase I’d been saving up for all year. It wasn’t even 2 p.m. and I was already exhausted — anxiety can make you feel like you’ve lived a dozen days in one, after all.
And it’s pretty easy for me to believe that this understandable fatigue is actually a sign that my 22-year-old body is failing me.
I had diligently rearranged my savings so that, even after buying this laptop, I could still afford to foot the bill for most small to medium-scale medical emergencies — and then something happened. I felt the warming of my face and the vibration in my ears that accompanies my panic attacks. I started crying, and my dad asked me what was wrong, so I did my best to explain — even though I felt like the Mad Hatter during his tea party with Alice.
My generalized anxiety disorder manifests itself in a variety of ways, but most frequently, it relates to my health.
In 2017 alone, I convinced myself I was dying nearly a dozen times.
Small freckles were deadly melanoma. A persistent sore throat (which, coincidentally, I developed after a week of sleeping less than 10 hours total because of said anxiety) was a sure sign that I had an autoimmune disorder.
My panic attacks started two years ago, right before I moved to Argentina to study abroad for a semester. Since then, my therapist encourages me that this anxiety is something I can overcome. First, I have to retrain my brain to not believe in the most extreme narratives my mind can invent. After practicing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques, I’ve already seen improvements in how my body responds to certain triggers.
But for the better part of two years, I genuinely thought I was dying.
This constant fear made me a lackluster girlfriend and a nervous friend. I’m also positive my family thought I hated them because I sometimes disappeared for days on end to ruminate and search Google alone in my dorm room.
When I moved through life with an anxious mind, my social life was one of the first parts of my wellbeing to suffer. Human interaction felt like a deadly trap, and I deemed spaces frequented by people to be equally as volatile. During particularly extreme panic attacks, I devolved into what I consider to be the worst version of myself. I’d sanitize a dining hall table before sitting down for lunch. I’d toss out an entire tray of food because someone got too close to it. Too frequently, I’d cancel plans at the last minute because going to a cramped college party felt like a death sentence. I’d impulsively (and fastidiously) ask my friends if they also thought I was at risk of dying from whatever fear was trapped in my mind at the moment.
I was fortunate to have friends who sympathized with my anxiety, but I constantly felt as if my mental health was a burden on them.
My physical health usually suffered as a result, too, which, if nothing else, fed my fears of the impending end.
Most of these issues related to sleep. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 54 percent of adults say their stress “increased their anxiety about falling asleep at night.” From personal experience, I can definitely attest to the fact that feeling stressed before falling asleep does not help the body to rest once it is sleeping. Exhaustion made me susceptible to all kinds of colds and flus, which fed the cycle of me believing I had a deeper, more sinister health issue lurking below the surface. Not to mention, the tightness I felt in my chest before, during, and after a panic attack constantly made me think I had a respiratory defect.
But beyond these perceived issues of mine, anxiety and stress is proven to truly take a toll on the body. Anthropologist Robert Sapolsky has thoroughly documented the effects that unnecessarily high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol can take on baboons, and these principles about stress affecting the body can be applied to other primates like humans, too. Prolonged periods of elevated stress levels can lead to chronic issues, and affect high blood pressure and heart health. The ironic thing about my anxiety, though, is that these statistics and proven research don’t send me into a frenzy. Instead, I’m usually more worried about catching cholera from my neighbor or mononucleosis from an unwashed cup than I am about these documented side effects of stress and anxiety.
Thankfully, I’ve learned to manage my anxiety, but it still tries to worm its way into my life by making me doubt the world around me. I don’t think I’ll ever be worry-free, but I’ve certainly found some tips and tricks for making my anxiety more manageable.