The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Alana Saltz, a writer, freelance editor and disability rights activist in Seattle. She is the editor in chief of Blanket Sea, a magazine showcasing work by artists and writers living with chronic illness, mental illness and disability.
My mother says I was born anxious. My heart was beating so fast that they had to put me in an incubator to calm me down. As a child, I remember being afraid of almost everything. I’d wake up every day feeling physically sick, and it took me a long time to realize that the pain was caused by my anxiety. I was worried that something bad might happen to me, and I didn’t know how to handle that fear of the unknown.
People often think of anxiety as being a mental state, but my anxiety manifests physically in many different ways. My muscles are almost always tense, causing back pain, neck pain, headaches and migraines. Sometimes it comes on as nausea or cramping in my stomach. I find myself clenching my teeth or holding my breath. My chest feels tight and I get heart palpitations.
A lot of energy goes into being anxious and trying to fight the anxiety, so anxiety can make me feel fatigued, worn out and exhausted. Despite that exhaustion, it can also cause insomnia. The pain keeps me up even when I’m tired.
A common misconception about anxiety, especially as a disorder, is that it’s just worrying a lot. For many of us, it’s much more complicated than that. At times, my thoughts race through my mind so fast that it can be hard to know what exactly I’m anxious about. I know that I’m anxious because I can feel it in my body, but I’m not always sure what it is I’m worried about, or I’m worried about too many different things to narrow them down. Other times, there’s a single worry or fear that I become fixated on, and I can’t seem to fight it or let it go no matter how irrational it may be.
Anxiety can also cause me to have trouble expressing myself to others. I struggle with social anxiety around people I don’t know well or when speaking in public. I’m caught up in worries that people will misunderstand me or judge me, and that leads to me having trouble communicating. I get quiet or stumble over my words. I have difficulty making eye contact and might appear to be bored or distracted. Once I’m comfortable with someone and feel confident that a mistake won’t lead to rejection, a lot of those anxieties fall away and I start to feel like I can be myself.
When I wake up in the morning, I already have fears and worries taking over my thoughts. There’s a tightness in my chest and a queasiness in my stomach. Seemingly simple tasks suddenly feel impossible. I question everything I’m doing and worry I won’t accomplish whatever it is that I need to do that day. It can be difficult just to leave the house.
Being around other people feels painful when my anxiety is this severe. It’s difficult to navigate social interactions when I’m so consumed with what’s going on in my mind and body.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been the most helpful tool I’ve encountered in my nearly lifelong journey of coping with anxiety. Over the years, with the help of some skilled therapists, I’ve learned how to target my anxious thoughts, see the truth, fallacies and nuances in them, and question whether those anxieties can be challenged. If they can be challenged, I do my best to see the reality of the situation for what it is and use that to reassure or calm myself.
Deep breathing and meditation can have a calming effect on my anxiety, especially when I feel it start to spiral out of control. I also watch ASMR videos on YouTube. ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” and ASMR videos are created with the intention of triggering a pleasant or calming response in the viewer using sound. I think of them as sound therapy.
None of these coping mechanisms eliminate the anxiety completely, but they can help to manage it.
I wish people understood that anxiety isn’t something you can just “get over.” It’s not as simple as a worry or fear that you can tell yourself isn’t worth your time and move on from. Despite years of therapy and treatment, I still can’t control a lot of the anxiety that manifests in my mind and body. It’s something that comes on without warning and can overwhelm me so easily. I can’t always control or even challenge those anxieties even if I’m aware of them and can identify them. Sometimes I can’t find the source of the anxiety, but I feel it physically and I don’t know how to stop it.