Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Aisha Springer, who is a nonprofit fundraising professional based in Baltimore, Md. In her free time, she is a freelance writer, blogger and makeup artist.
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As a child, I had a social anxiety disorder called selective mutism, although I didn’t know there was a name for it until I was 29. In this disorder, people aren’t able to speak in specific situations when they’re experiencing anxiety. Childhood and adolescence was a difficult time for me. I hated myself for being the way I was and dealt with it by further isolating myself, which eventually led to self-harm. Every day was a struggle.
The disorder gradually lessened over the years, but I still deal with social anxiety and the resulting depression. I still become terrified of social interaction on a regular basis, but crave it at the same time, because that deep feeling of loneliness never really left my body. And although I’m now able to speak when anxious, I’m still finding my voice.
My heart races with panic, I start sweating, my muscles tighten, my breath becomes shallow and my brain goes blank — leaving room only for the amygdala-induced urge to flee. This urge feels as if it’s crawling under my skin, and will only stop once I’m away from the situation and in solitude.
In a large crowd or on the street, I may urgently pick up my pace and weave my way around people in an effort to get out of there as quickly as I can. When I’m experiencing anxiety that’s caused by the anticipation of future anxiety, my stomach turns and I feel physically sick.
I am often mentally exhausted. Fighting against the negative self-talk that has been hard-wired in my brain since childhood is a constant challenge, but with the help of therapy, I can sometimes overcome it. I’ve learned that many of my patterns of thinking contribute to my anxiety — they’re called cognitive distortions. Some of my brain’s favorites include jumping to conclusions, trying to read minds, cycling through “should” statements and labeling myself.
It goes like this: When I flub my speech, I think I’m inarticulate and an embarrassment. When someone doesn’t want to have a relationship with me, of course it’s because they believe I’m completely unworthy. It’s tiring to constantly fight these thoughts when they arise, as they often do.
When my anxiety is at its worst, I can barely breathe. I feel sheer panic, as if I’m in a life-or-death situation. All I want to do is stay home, preferably in bed, and hide from the world for as long as possible. The feeling of needing to escape is intense; that fight-or-flight response kicks into action. Depression goes hand in hand with the anxiety, because my thoughts spiral and hopelessness and self-hate resurface. At my worst, I feel hysterical and out of control and can’t stop the urge to cut, slipping back into dangerous habits from adolescence.
Remembering to breathe always helps to some degree in calming me down. It sounds simple, but when anxiety hits, it’s anything but simple to achieve. After I take some deep breaths, the anxiety doesn’t go away completely, but it gives my mind the chance to slow down and focus on being present. When that happens, I have the opportunity to practice strategies I learned from my therapist that help to fix cognitive distortions and lessen anxiety over time. I might try to identify the cognitive distortion that’s taking hold in my mind at the moment — that gives me something to focus on correcting. I often fail at this strategy, but it’s something to work on and aspire to.
I wish people knew that anxiety isn’t just feeling nervous. It can feel all-consuming and have serious effects on your career and personal life. Plus, it takes a lot of hard work to manage. I’m not exaggerating when I say I’d make more money and have more friends if it weren’t for my social anxiety. This wasn’t something I asked for or made up; I just went to my first day of school, and there it was. Since then, anxiety has formed who I am as a person and determined the trajectory of my life. Only now as an adult am I slowly gaining the tools to proactively manage it and not allow it to control me.