My first anxiety attack happened freshman year of college. I laid on the floor in my dorm room and willed myself to breathe, feeling deeply afraid, paralyzed by fear and stress. I was struggling in a few classes, and as the perfect high school student, I wasn’t acquainted with failure in academics. It wasn’t until a few days later that I knew what had happened, after talking to a trusted friend and mentor. I explained what I experienced, and she said, “Oh, you had an anxiety attack.” I consider myself very lucky that she had also experienced issues with anxiety so she gave me concrete suggestions for coping and didn’t brush it off or tell me to “just pray more.”
As it turns out, I switched to a course of study that was more suited for me and ended up thriving throughout college. Of course I had normal stress and worries, and I’m sure bouts of anxiety cropped up, but for the most part, I don’t remember those times specifically. I’ve always been an over-analyzer, but really, what college girl doesn’t stay up late at night going through different scenarios with her roommate?
It wasn’t until I got married and moved across the country that my anxiety came back full-blown. Even in the months leading up to our wedding, my then fiancé told me about a book by a popular Christian author and that I should check it out because the author talked about his battle with anxiety. I remember reading the book, and in my recollection, he basically said something like, “I had anxiety but I prayed, and God took it away.” I remember thinking, WOW that must be nice! Why couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t God do that for me?
The first few months of marriage were tough. I moved across the country and knew almost no one except for my husband. I was lonely, had just started grad school, and was on hormonal birth control. I remember crying for an entire day because I felt bad for asking my husband to miss out on plans with his friends because I didn’t want to be alone. It was that day when I realized that I needed to get off of hormonal birth control. That helped immensely.
However, over the next few years, anxiety felt like a constant companion that I could keep at bay most of the time, but was always ready to swoop in when my defenses were low. Over those years I often would be overcome by a vague sense of foreboding, a crushing weight in my chest, and uncontrollable thoughts spinning through my mind. During these years I developed anxiety-induced acid reflux.
Somewhere in that period, I started to employ deep breathing. Each time I experienced those feelings, I intentionally centered in and began to count my breaths. I found that as I slowed down my breath and focused on that steady inhale and exhale, my mind began to slow down and I was able to relax. But still, I often had that gnawing feeling in my chest as if something was about to grab me by the throat. Throughout these few years I was able to manage my anxiety through managing my stress level, the occasional yoga class, and with the support of my husband and a spiritual director.
I never considered anxiety medication in this season, as it was only occasionally debilitating, and I found that I was able to manage it with lifestyle changes, and noticed that my mental health tended to fluctuate with my hormonal cycle.
Standing here 12 years after that first anxiety attack, I can say that anxiety is no longer a daily struggle for me. The journey of unwinding my anxiety has been long, and it still crops up from time to time. Here are a few of the practices that have served me best in this journey:
- Personal growth: As it turns out, being married is a great way to have your issues mirrored back to you and lifelong patterns questioned. Throughout the first couple years of marriage I had the chance to work through a lot of personal issues and family of origin issues that had never been challenged before. I’m thankful for the growth that my husband helped to reveal and spur me toward.
- Self-discovery: By learning that I am an Enneagram type 1, I’ve come to understand my patterns and reactions in a deeper way. As a 1, my main motivation is to be morally good, or perfect. I’ve always known that I’ve dealt with perfectionism, but being able to put language to the why and recognize it in the moment has helped with letting go of the anxiety of not being able to be perfect all the time.
- Unwinding of spiritual baggage: As I’ve written about in the past, much of the time since I’ve been married and moved away from home has been a journey of inspecting my beliefs and figuring out what is actually authentic to me. Along the way I’ve realized that some of my deeply-held beliefs were rooted in fear, and letting go of those has helped to loosen the grip of anxiety.
- Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness: When I started practicing yoga, I loved it because it was the one hour of the week where I was actually present with my whole self, uniting body with mind. As I’ve gotten deeper into my practice, I’ve realized the importance of that ability and I’ve found that my practice of mindfulness has extended beyond the mat.