Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Laura Beth Kujawa, 26, who is an MFA candidate in writing and publishing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Montpelier, Vt., and is working on a novel about plus-sized body dysmorphia, young love and summer camp culture.
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As a person in a larger body, I’ve had anxiety about “feeling my size” ever since my body started to change at puberty. There are very few moments where I’m not worrying about how I look to others, as if by keeping my posture, breathing and gait in check, I’ll somehow convince people I’m a smaller person. This is irrational, I know — but it’s hard to shake. I’m always on edge, physically uncomfortable and often sitting on panic attacks.
I’m also very well-acquainted with performance anxiety. When I was younger, I hoped to make a life around singing, but my anxiety when performing became debilitating. Now, as a writer in a graduate program, there is an expectation that I share my work out loud at public readings. Naturally, this specific spike of anxiety has come flooding back. The trouble is, I really enjoy performing. I love the thrill of making people laugh — and strangely, I love an audience. But it’s accompanied by so much jaw-clenching, sweat-inducing terror that sometimes it’s just too much. Onstage, for a few moments, I can sometimes escape my physical self. I don’t want to lose this freedom to something that I can’t control.
When I feel anxiety, I feel it everywhere. It’s centered most in my core, and I can kind of feel it vibrating out through the rest of me. My pulse races, and often I find myself staring into space just to feel grounded again. It comes on suddenly, grabbing me before I have much time to process it. It’s like turning the cap on a soda that someone’s been shaking — and I’m the bottle. There’s a moment of stillness before I can feel it bubbling up through me. Sometimes I can contain it. Sometimes I can’t.
First there’s extreme doubt. I lose myself in it. For a few moments, I feel both very light and very heavy, like my body can’t be trusted, and my mind is trying to pull itself back together without it. Any positivity, anything optimistic from before is completely out the window; I’m overwhelmed by fear, dread and panic.
I feel no confidence in myself, my ability to handle everyday tasks, or even talk to the people I love about it. My schedule takes a hit, as simple chores seem impossible. Some days I can pry myself out of my pajamas with sheer willpower, somehow muddling through my obligations like a nervous zombie.
On my very best day, I’m still a procrastinator — so you can only imagine what comes out of a bad anxiety day: nothing. I’m so caught up in ever-snowballing negative thoughts that any productivity is out of the question. When I finally surface from my worries, I’m angry that I allowed myself to feel so weak. It all feels so small and so big at the same time.
When I perform with anxiety, my hands and voice shake, and I feel like a different person. Suddenly I’m not certain of the words I’ve worked so hard to put together, or of the story I’m telling. Rather than relish the spotlight or revel in the audience’s reaction, I barrel through.
Doing small things that remind me that I can function. Reminding myself of personal victories — both little and more substantial: “I got up with my alarm this morning, and only hit ‘snooze’ twice. I missed that flight to England, and still got myself there. I got into my graduate program and am writing things I love. I spoke in class yesterday. I handled that time that my car got totaled by that city bus — and I’ll handle this too.”
Taking the time to reframe those all-too-tempting negative thoughts always feels silly in the moment, but it’s worth the effort.
Good dogs and hot chocolate tend to help as well.
Kindness still exists. Even if (especially if) someone seems closed off, or shy, if they stutter or seem nervous or uneasy, or if they remove themselves from a situation entirely for reasons unclear to you — the way to navigate that is through kindness. Just be kind.