The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Morgan Ome, a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying creative writing and Italian. She is a poet, an aspiring stand-up comedian and the editor-in-chief of her campus newspaper, The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she now calls Baltimore home.
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As a kid, I was a worrier. I heavily procrastinated or put tasks off when they seemed too stressful. I had a hard time letting my worries go and would rehash conversations about them obsessively. Nightly, I would have vivid nightmares and wake up multiple times.
In high school, I became increasingly more anxious. I was bullied during my freshman year, which made me reluctant to engage with the world. When I transferred schools, I felt isolated. I also was diagnosed with colitis, a chronic inflammatory gut disease, which exacerbated my poor mental health. I started having panic attacks during my junior year and began seeing a therapist at that point.
My anxiety was more manageable in my first two years of college, but became overwhelming during my junior year when the panic attacks returned.
An overall tension pervades my body. My shoulders are raised; my stomach is clenched. My jaw is often tight from pushing my tongue against my teeth and chewing on the inside of my lip. I bite my lip without even thinking about it. I also tend to speak quickly and with urgency; like I need to expel the words from my body forcefully.
During a panic attack, my breath shortens and I feel like all the oxygen has been cut off from my brain. The room starts to spin and it seems like I am not experiencing reality. I may clutch an armrest or a desk to try to center myself. It’s difficult to have panic attacks during class or meetings because I’m unsure if the people around me can notice. I remove myself from rooms so that the claustrophobia does not become too much.
On a daily basis, I feel myself buzzing with a frenetic energy, with occasional spikes of urgency and panic. In milder forms, my anxiety causes me to disassociate from my body. I feel like I am floating above a conversation watching it play out, rather than actively participating in it.
I might become forgetful or I might not be present during conversations. I also tend to fixate on small things. I’ll convince myself that I forgot to turn the stove off, or that I didn’t lock my door, or that I didn’t submit an assignment. Then I’ll repeatedly check that I’ve done all of those things, even though I know that I did.
In the middle of a panic attack, I want to throw myself out of a window or knock myself unconscious. I don’t want to harm myself or experience pain, I just want some reprieve from the flood of adrenaline and fear. In those particularly anxious moments, I feel afraid of the utter lack of control I have over my own body and mind.
At its worst, my anxiety makes me feel unsafe in my own body and mind. It seems like the world and all of my responsibilities are on a train accelerating away from me, and no matter what I do to catch up, I will always be running behind, out of breath. I become extremely controlling and stubborn, since I feel like everything is slipping through the cracks. I try even harder to assert my opinions and ensure that things go my way. Other times, I will shut everyone out: I will ignore text messages, crawl into bed and let the incessant thoughts overtake me. I may have a panic attack, or I may break down in tears. I never know how exactly my anxiety will manifest. This uncertainty only exacerbates my fear.
The first time I went to my college counseling center, the counselor I met with said, “Just by looking at you I can tell that you’re not breathing correctly.” It was a startling observation. She taught me how to practice deep breathing exercises, explaining that it was important to keep oxygen in my body for as long as possible to calm my fight-or-flight response.
If I can, I try to lie down, whether on my bed or in a field, to help me to feel more grounded when my thoughts are spiraling out of control. I also enjoy the scent of lavender, a cup of chamomile tea and a guided meditation to soothe my frazzled mind.
When I feel panicky, going for a quick run can help expel nervous energy. And when my anxiety feels overwhelmingly oppressive, I focus on a simple task like cooking a meal or doing laundry. This makes me feel like I can accomplish something, and may motivate me to do more. I’ve also found that distracting myself with a podcast or TV show can help me to get out of my head momentarily.
I wish people knew that I will always be an anxious person and that I can’t get rid of my mental health problems. Sometimes, when I need to retreat into myself or remove myself from social situations, people will say “I miss the real you.” My anxiety isn’t something I can “cure” or get rid of. It is part of who I am.
In addition, I wish people better understood that anxiety defies logic. It often presents itself as irrational fears and worries. However, I can’t just will myself out of having anxious thoughts. I know deep down that I can overcome a challenging situation and that the panic will pass. But in the moment I certainly don’t feel that way. This split between feeling and fact is frustrating, but a reality that many of us living with anxiety have to grapple with.