The Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Keri Wiginton, a writer who focuses on mental health and women’s wellness. Wiginton has worked in the news industry for almost 15 years, including for the Chicago Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. She has written previously for The Washington Post about her journey with mindfulness and depression and is based in Madison, Wis.
I’ve always been an overachiever, and my anxiety is no different. I’ve tried ignoring my worries when they are no longer helpful, but resistance is futile. Instead, I try to decipher what my anxious feelings are telling me. After I listen, I let them go.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
I’ve had a persistent sense of impending doom since I was a child. I remember going on vacation in elementary school and calling our landline to see if the answering machine would pick up. When the tape clicked on, that meant the house hadn’t burned down. I don’t know why I thought something bad would happen, but I was sure I needed to be worried about it.
Chronic anxiety led to irritable bowel syndrome and depression in high school. I anguished over proving myself as a journalist after college. Ironically, my anxiety became more pervasive the greater my success.
I never appeared disorganized or untethered. Friends, family and doctors all told me I didn’t seem like I had anxiety, so whatever was going on would probably pass. Eventually, it took walking into an urgent care clinic in the middle of a panic attack to get my symptoms taken seriously.
It is constricting and crushing, a feeling common among those perpetually on edge. It’s like a boulder is sitting on my chest and something else is squeezing my heart with one hand and my throat with the other. My head throbs, my stomach clenches and my heart beats so hard and fast it hurts. When my heart rate gets too high, it’s game over. My body thinks I’m in danger. And before medication and meditation, it could take days or weeks to calm down.
Although rarely, sometimes my fingers go numb. This started in my mid-30s during a particularly challenging time at work. My chiropractor told me it was because stress causes muscles to tighten. This made my back clamp down on the nerve supplying blood to my digits. This tell-tale sign was actually pretty helpful. It couldn’t be ignored and forced me to pay attention to why I was so tense, ultimately leading to an overdue job change.
On a light anxiety day, it feels like maybe there’s something I forgot to do. It’s akin to the buzzing of a mosquito I can’t see. But when anxiety percolates and boils over, I become uncomfortable in my own skin. And the hold on the calm version of myself is tenuous, like one sudden move and I’ll scare it away.
Rationally, I know I feel anxious because my physical body is experiencing symptoms that signal danger. Modern fears like impending deadlines aren’t life or death. But to my old brain, it still feels like I’m running from a lion who might eat me. My thinking mind knows the fear is overblown, but the instinctual part vital to my survival does not.
My bad days have always looked, on the outside, like any other day. But to me, it feels like the world is both speeding up and slowing down. I’m good under pressure, so anxiety in the short term is actually helpful. That’s probably why I cling to it for too long, which can interfere with my focus, making it feel like my thoughts are stuck in gum. Sometimes I become dizzy and my ears dampen the noise around me.
I’m guessing it is similar to the anxiety hangover our ancestors may have felt after they thwarted a bear attack, but they exhaustively kept looking over their shoulders fearing its return.
It used to be wine, which is a terrible long-term solution for someone with a mood disorder. Alcohol only made my anxiety and depression worse, so I quit drinking a year ago. Instead, I started meditating and processing my unease with the Unwinding Anxiety and Headspace apps. They help me identify and pinpoint the physical warning signs of panic. If I feel my chest tightening — the first thing that always happens — I know I need to take a step back.
Practicing mindfulness daily is the most important way I prevent anxiety overload. It helps curtail my moment-to-moment rumination so that I experience worries less often. I also take a few slow breaths throughout the day to check in. Walking in the woods always makes me feel better, so I take a lot of forest baths. If I can’t stroll amongst the trees, I take my shoes off and walk around in the grass. And I make sure to exercise.
If none of that works, I have a prescription for Xanax.
Anxiety is an experience, not a fundamental state of being. It is the body’s physical and mental response to fear. Whether you’re afraid of getting attacked by a mountain lion or that you won’t do well at your job, the same parts of the body’s nervous system light up.
For whatever reason, some of us are more sensitive to life’s stressors. I use that to my advantage. Anxiety may seem like it comes out of nowhere, but for me, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong — I’m overworked, I’m caught in an unhelpful worry loop, I haven’t meditated for a few days. So if you’re feeling anxious, pay attention to where it’s coming from. Stopping and listening to my anxiety — and then loosening my grip on it — is the key to keeping it under control.