Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Ashlee Zarou, a 23-year-old living in Sacramento. She works for the Yolo County Department of Child Support Services and has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
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My history with anxiety has been 23 years in the making. My parents knew something was wrong with me when I was a baby and couldn’t spend the night at my grandparents house without “freaking out” (a phrase I came to use every time I had a panic attack). When I got to elementary school and couldn’t go to sleepovers with friends, we just thought I was scared of leaving my parents. I thought that I would grow out of these freak outs when I got older, but they just came on stronger throughout middle and high school.
The event that hit the nail on the head for my mom to finally take me to the doctor was when I was 17 and couldn’t go on a school camping trip for three nights because I was having a freak out and didn’t know what was wrong. When I explained to the doctor the history and nature of these freak outs, he said it sounded a lot like anxiety. I knew the word, but had never really known what anxiety was. After lots of doctors appointments and therapy sessions, my doctors concluded that I have four types of anxiety disorders: separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, panic disorder (or “freak outs” to me) and manic depressive disorder. I am now on Lexapro. A tiny white pill that has allowed me to be a functioning human of society instead of constantly anxious.
Anxiety physically manifests itself in my stomach. When I say that, I mean literally in my abdomen. I get nauseous and vomit, but the anxiety is still there. Then come the tears, sweating, shaking, pacing back and forth in my room. I am unable to form sentences as to why this is happening to my body. The worst symptom is the racing heart. It feels like it will push itself through my chest when anxiety is at an all-time high.
Racing thoughts are probably the worst mental game of anxiety. What am I anxious about? Don’t know, my brain won’t tell me what the problem is. I know there is a problem, but my mental state is so panicked and on high alert that nothing makes sense. My brain is going a million miles a minute to try and solve a nonexistent problem. It’s hard to describe the mental aspect of anxiety when your brain is shooting off alarm bells but won’t recognize an actual threat.
Lots of sleep. I’ve come to find that sleep is my best friend. I’m not trying to be lazy or unproductive — I just have trouble staying focused on daily activities when my brain is working overtime and double-shifts. Sometimes I get quiet — that’s how my friends know something is wrong. If I’m not participating in conversation, it’s because I’m so lost in my head that I can’t concentrate on anything other than the racing thoughts. Other days I won’t eat. The nausea is so apparent that anything I eat will just come up later.
Everyone has seen the television show “Friends.” Well, watching this show gives my brain something familiar to focus on. I’m engaged, not thinking about anything else while it is on. It completely takes my brain from panic mode to calm mode. It makes me laugh, which allows my mood to focus on happiness and comfort, rather than anxious and danger. I also talk to my parents. For some reason, their words of encouragement and just hearing their voices immediately calms my nervous system. While talking to them or watching “Friends,” I do some deep breathing exercises. I get all comfy in bed (my safe space) and try to focus on my breathing. This definitely helps when nothing else works.