The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Amanda Rosenberg, a British writer based in San Francisco. Her work as appeared in Vox, McSweeney’s, The Establishment, Anxy Magazine and Guardian US. Her first book, “That’s Mental,” a collection of confessional essays on her experience with mental illness will be out in November 2019.
I had my first panic attack at age 13. At the time, I didn’t know it was a panic attack; I just thought I was dying. Since then, not a day has gone by where I haven’t experienced some form of anxiety. I take medication which helps day-to-day but having an attack doesn’t get any easier.
I had an anxiety attack three days ago, and it felt just like the first one I had at 13 — like drowning on dry land.
It depends on the type of anxiety. If it’s an attack then yes, I’m hyperventilating, crying, and heaving all at the same time. But, when it’s not an attack, anxiety can be flexible and nuanced.
If I’m at a party, or a dinner, or, god help me, a “small gathering of friends”, you wouldn’t know by looking that I was imploding with anxiety. I can be smiling, nodding, and looking “normal” all while quietly freaking out.
You can’t see the beads of sweat seeping out of my neck. You can’t hear my heart charging against my chest like a battering ram. And you can’t feel the nausea tumbling in my stomach like a washing machine with a heavy load. Because most of the time, anxiety is neither seen nor heard, it’s felt.
Mentally, anxiety feels like everything.
It’s relentless and tiring, like sprinting a marathon with no finish line.
Imagine your mind is a blender, but instead of pouring in fruits and vegetables, it’s every thought you’ve ever had. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, banal thoughts, they’re all there, and then you hit the pulse button. Thoughts whip through your head so fast it makes you dizzy. Now and then a traumatic memory bubbles up to the top like a toxic froth. Before long the anxiety begins to morph, going from a silent thought to a vocal decree; its voice loud and its message constant: “you ain’t s---, and everyone hates you.”
When my anxiety is at its worst, a day looks like a lifetime. Like many mental disorders, it feels heavy and all-consuming. When it’s this bad, I’m not able to work or be productive in any way. I’ll hole myself up in my apartment and wrap myself in anxiety. This may sound weird, but it’s often more comfortable for me to sit in it, rather than try to “power through.” I’ve tried pushing through many times, but it only made things worse.
I don’t have good ones for daily anxiety, but here are some for attacks:
Deep breathing: a classic.
Breathing into a paper bag: old school, but there’s something about the ridiculousness of how it looks that often helps.
Holding an ice cube: a safe, yet shocking physical distraction, which helps slow down racing thoughts, because your mind will suddenly be like “f---, that’s cold.”
Crying: Some people do cardio, I cry. I bottle s--- up all the time and crying is one of the few things that gives me an emotional and physical release. Every time I cry, it relieves a little bit of pressure that’s been building up for days, maybe weeks.
Whatever works for you: If you need step back from people, do it. If you need to cancel plans to look after yourself, do it, and don’t feel bad. As we all know, plans are the cause of all anxiety ever, so you’d be doing yourself a favor. As long as it’s safe, do what you need to do to feel better.
Anxiety does not have one “look.” It’s not always hyperventilation or hugging knees and rocking back and forth. Anxiety can look like joy, boredom, anger or disgust. It manifests itself in many different ways depending on the person, the environment, and, of course, the anxiety. So, don’t ever assume you know when someone is suffering from anxiety just by looking at them.