The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Shelly Lyons, who lives in southern New Hampshire with her supportive wife and (somewhat) supportive cat, and works in higher education. She would love to write a children’s book someday and is currently working on choosing curiosity over fear, self-compassion over self-criticism, and mindfulness over monkey mind. She is inspired by those who share their experiences because, she believes, it is through this storytelling that change and connection become possible.
Excessive worry and fear, an overly cautious approach to life, stomach pain, nausea, and so many other common symptoms of anxiety have been a part of my story since I was little. This played out in school, social settings and athletics. I’m pretty certain I’ve been viewed as intimidating, unapproachable, incompetent, rude and awkward at various times when really, I’ve been incredibly anxious. As an adult, my anxiety has impacted me in graduate school, at work and with some friendships.
I wasn’t able to recognize many of these life experiences as “anxiety” until recently though and as I write this, there is some shame present – How could I not know? This new and surprisingly empowering perspective was triggered by an incident in which I was so overcome with anxiety (I didn’t call it that) that my wife suggested it might be time to speak with my doctor. I was hesitant at first, but knew she was right, and I am forever grateful to her for this gentle nudge. My anxiety has resulted in a lot of missed opportunities but I’ve also built up resiliency, compassion, and fortunately, a little more self-awareness.
There are constant knots and an uneasiness in my stomach. I take very shallow breaths. Sometimes I can’t relax or sit still. My heart races and I can feel nauseous and lightheaded. At times there is a tightness in my chest or throughout my body. These physical symptoms combined with irrational fear can prevent me from finding my voice, authentically showing up and “leaning in.” I am frequently silent, unfortunately sweaty (so fun) and ready to find cover as soon as possible.
In hindsight, I can now replay too many times my anxiety has held me back. This realization is sad and painful and yet I am full of hope, excitement and energy for what’s next now that I’m more capable of naming what I’m experiencing for what it is and am learning more about what helps — and what doesn’t.
Most people would have no idea when I’m experiencing anxiety. I am seemingly quiet and calm but the mental noise is turned up to the highest volume. I worry about everything. I can’t concentrate, listen or think clearly. I miss out on what’s going on around me because I can’t focus on the present moment, only what’s running through my mind at the time. My thoughts are either scattered all over the place or hyper-focused on some possible scenario, conversation, or event in the future. Self-doubt often accompanies my anxiety and an overwhelming sense of “Nope, no way, can’t do it.” Feelings of “not being ready” or “not being good enough” overtake the rational mind. I try to remind myself of a phrase someone close to me has said for a long time, “Feelings are not facts.”
Constant worrying. Trembling. Nausea. Tears. Avoidance. Disappointment. Regret for not being able to “push through” my anxiety. Feeling like an incompetent failure. I can’t relax or sit still. I’m unable to enjoy the people around me and be in the moment. Everything fades into the background while I’m consumed by what I should be doing and how I’m not doing it or what might happen in the future (note: it never does).
There are times my anxiety is so paralyzing that I can’t go anywhere. If I’m at home, I retreat and am usually so exhausted that I’ll fall asleep. On these days, especially, I try my best to practice self-compassion. Self-criticism never seems to help.
The days that I can show up in an authentic way and find my voice despite my anxiety are some of the best days. I try to pause and recognize these wins. All of these days, both retreating and showing up, are a part of my story and experience with anxiety.
As of very recently, the daily go-to is “Relaxation Station.” This is how we jokingly and appreciatively refer to anxiety medication in our house. I had no interest in taking medication and felt ashamed at first that I had to even contemplate this reality (I would think, “I have a great life. There is absolutely nothing wrong. Why can’t I just get this under control?”) but I had to try something different. What I was doing just wasn’t working. It hadn’t been for a long time. I don’t want anyone else to feel ashamed or alone in this. You’re not.
Recently I’ve begun to realize there is a different way to experience the world and people around me — and so far, it’s awesome. I still worry and fear too much for my own good and still have anxiety, without question, but it is dialed way down. I feel much more at ease within my own skin and according to my wife, there is a lightness about me that wasn’t there before.
I’m hopeful that “Relaxation Station” combined with my other go-to coping mechanisms such as therapy, grounding, practicing mindfulness throughout the day, exercise, laughing with people, coloring and coaching could be a game-changer for me.
I wish people knew more about people with anxiety — their experiences, their pain, their resilience. I wish there wasn’t so much shame and stigma associated with something incredibly common in this “age of anxiety.” So many of us experience it to some degree and we aren’t failures, incompetent, or “less than” because we experience anxiety. We’re human.
“Managing anxiety” is also not as simple as forcing yourself to show up or having a toolbox of solutions at the ready. Showing up is important and those tools have their place, without question, and I hope everyone struggling with anxiety learns what works best for them. Sometimes though, anxiety is too overpowering to deal with quietly on your own. That’s when it helps to have someone who creates the space for you to be exactly as you are and completely accepts you in that moment. I don’t need to be pitied, judged, or told, “Just don’t worry so much” or “Oh, just do it!” In those moments, what’s most helpful is empathy, a reminder to take slow deep breaths and ground myself, maybe a hug, and eventually a good laugh. It helps to have a space created with the intention of allowing me to acknowledge and feel my anxiety so I can then work through it.