Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.

This week, we hear from journalist and 25-year-old María Esther Abissi, who is from Venezuela but has been living in Costa Rica for the past eight years.

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My history with anxiety

When I was 5 or 6 years old, I started developing compulsive behaviors, like washing my hands every time someone touched me, blinking hard and in pair numbers, touching things with both hands, and opening and closing my bedroom closet until somehow my brain told me it was okay to stop.

It was normal for me and it was okay. Something in my brain just knew when it was time to stop. There were good and bad days but in general, I thought it was something everyone did.

I had my first anxiety crisis at 7 years old and it got worse when people started realizing that I kept repeating this conduct.

Later my compulsions developed and rather than materializing into actions, they became thoughts. That’s when things got ugly and I realized it was a problem.

It was tiring and devastating. Something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what to do or whom to talk to.

Anxiety didn’t let me sleep properly, either. I had panic attacks during the night and my brain created this not-so-healthy nightly routine that consisted of me waking me up every night for about one or two hours.

I prayed. I breathed. I repeated positive sentences. I watched TV. I watched videos. I did homework. I made myself tea. I tried it all during those times.

Things got worse when I was diagnosed with a spine disc disease that had me in terrible pain. Pain always makes anxiety worst, so when I was having a rough time with pain, I knew anxiety was coming. The pain in my body combined with the pain in my mind was too much to handle.

I’ve had anxiety as long I can remember, but it wasn’t until I accepted it and made peace with it and made peace with myself that I really started to learn from it.

How anxiety presents itself physically

I’ve been in treatment for a year now and the compulsions are almost gone, in contrast to the past 20 years when I had them all the time.

However, I still sometimes have the need to touch things with both hands and I have a hard time breathing when I’m going through a bad time with anxiety.

When I’m going through a bad day, it’s hard to keep things in order, such as my room or my desk. However, in my case, it’s hard for people to notice it since my symptoms are more mental than physical.

I’m still trying not to do thing in pair numbers, like eating two tablespoons of chocolate and not one, or counting the sips as I am drinking from a cup. Sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not.

How anxiety presents itself mentally

In my case this is the hardest part about anxiety. I literally can’t stop thinking. I think about things I don’t like and things that scare me all the time.

When I’m going through a bad moment, I have this mechanism that my brain wants me to believe in something and I don’t want to. My brain gives me the reasons why something is true and I give it reasons about why it isn’t.

There are occasions where I must stop and think about it for a while so that my mind will let me go on with the day.

What a day when my anxiety is at my worst looks like

I haven’t had a terrible day since I started my treatment. Before that, I would have three or four anxiety episodes during the year, lasting anywhere from a month to three months.

During these periods, I have panic attacks mostly during the night. I wake up in the middle of the night feeling like an elephant was sitting in my chest. I try to breathe but I just can’t make it. My body feels heavy and at the same time without strength so I can barely move. I have cramps in my legs and arms.

If I can make it to sleep again, I wake up in the morning disoriented, with lots of ideas and thoughts wandering inside my head.

It’s hard for me to make my bed and to keep things in place. I cannot concentrate and I cannot stop thinking.

It’s even hard to listen to music. I cannot enjoy things. I cannot rest. I’m sinking inside my own mind with no escape.

I cannot breathe during the day either, so most of the times I must stop and take deep breaths in order to keep going.

Everything is hard and everything seems confusing. Sometimes it feels like I’m never getting out of it (the good thing is I always do). A curious thing is that even though I’ve had this crisis my whole life before the treatment, it never stopped me from working or going to the gym or doing my things. I later realized that it’s a condition called high-functioning anxiety: Even when I feel like drowning, I keep doing things as usual.

My go-to coping mechanism

The one that has helped me the most is thinking that I’ve gone through this before and I will make it again and that I’m stronger than it.

One important thing to know (based on my experience) is that you must keep doing the things that help you even if you feel okay, because anxiety is a snowball: Maybe you don’t feel it right now but surely it is there.

I meditate and do breathing exercises every day, even when I feel good. If there’s something I’ve learned through these years is that everything counts in anxiety.

I try to sleep well. If I wake up during the night, I use essential oils and try to do breathing exercises or put on white noise.

Something that helps a lot when I’m going through a crisis is to read a list of positive affirmations. It might sound silly, but they do help.

Being more aware of the things that make me feel anxious and the things that liberate me is another coping mechanism that has helped me a lot.

Another one is to do things even if I don’t feel like doing them: waking up and going to swim, making my own food, making my bed. It feels like small things but believe me, in this process, everything counts.

I recently discovered that swimming is such a good practice for my mind. The pool and the sea are the only places where I can stop thinking, since I’m focused on other things like breathing or developing a great technique. While swimming, anxiety has no space in the room.

What I wish people knew about anxiety

I wish people knew that everyone has a bit of anxiety in them and that there are ways to face it rather than to avoid it.

It’s a hard and painful process but at the end it leads us to discover more about ourselves.

Anxiety can be annoying, and it can feel we can’t escape from it, but if we think about it as something to learn from and an issue that will be with us probably our whole life, we start seeing it in a different way.

Its okay to look for some help if you feel like it. Anxiety is different for everyone and everyone has their own ways to handle it.

It’s also totally okay if you must medicate. Diabetics medicate and no one seems to have a problem with that, right?

One last thing: You are not your anxiety.

‘It’s as if I’m possessed by doubt and fear’: This is how I experience anxiety

‘I feel trapped inside my restless mind’

It’s ‘like a persistent, shady and unwelcome guest’: This is how I experience anxiety

‘Anxiety tends to just drift and settle in unannounced’

‘Pushing myself too hard has permanent consequences’: This is how I experience anxiety

‘Taking care of myself means putting some of my ambitions away’