Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Elizabeth Planert, who is from Phoenix and has found herself living in a remote part of Montana. She is a stay-at-home mom studying to become a psychologist. Her passions in life involve being a mental health advocate, helping others and traveling the world.
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Growing up, I loved going to school and I was an excellent student. Then, something changed the summer before sixth grade. I felt horribly sick. I won the battle to stay home so many times that the school threatened to call the police. If I did make it to class, it wouldn’t be long before I was sitting in the nurse’s office with her accusing me of faking illness. I saw countless doctors, trying to find the cause of my stomachache. My parents took me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. I was 10 years old when I was first prescribed Xanax to treat my panic attacks. Often, these attacks kept my whole family up until 4 a.m. For more than a decade, my anxiety disorder wreaked havoc on my home life, personal life, academic life and even professional life. I was able to gain the ability to better manage my anxiety in my early 20s. However, because of the pandemic, I relapsed back to the beginning and have since had to fast-track a recovery approach for myself so that I am able to show up each morning for my husband and our daughter.
I like to put my anxiety into three categories: general anxiety, an anxiety attack and a panic attack. I do this to not only communicate what is happening with my husband, but as a way for me to more easily recognize what I need to do for myself.
General anxiety presents itself as sweaty palms, shortened breaths, an elevated heart rate and every part of my body becoming tense. An anxiety attack presents itself with hyperventilating, rocking back and forth, and repeated hand gestures in addition to the previous symptoms. Panic attacks start and end more quickly; however, these are accompanied by a sense that someone is choking me, nausea and chest pain.
The presence of anxiety is a constant in my life. On a normal day, it manifests in my mind as negative self-talk, wondering what my husband thinks of me and whether my 1-year-old genuinely likes me. It can gain in intensity depending on external situations. A lot of people are familiar with the catastrophic thinking that comes with flying in a plane. That thinking happens in almost every circumstance for me.
For anxiety attacks, my thought process is what suffers the greatest. I stop being able to think in complete sentences. I have been told I act like a child during these attacks. This is probably because that is the state my mind reverts to. As far as panic attacks go, I begin to believe that I am sick and dying. Confusion and fear are often present throughout the entirety of both kinds of attacks.
Physically, I look like I am suffering from a horrible illness. I walk around hunched over with my right hand doing repeated movements. If I have the luxury of being able to nap, then that is what I do all day. Typically, it is best for everyone involved if I sleep away the anxiety. Otherwise, I cry my way through caring for my daughter and accomplishing my responsibilities for the day. Arguments tend to occur more frequently with my family on days when my anxiety is high. I am struggling so much to keep myself somewhat held together that I don’t have the capacity to think of others’ feelings. I can be short-tempered and blunt on these days. I don’t leave the house and I hide away from the world. Tacos are usually for dinner on these nights because they remind me of home. Familiarity and distractions go a long way on tough days.
My healthy go-to coping mechanism is to repeatedly play games of solitaire on my phone. I have done this since I had my first iPod Touch at 13 years old. Keeping distracted and keeping my hands busy is especially helpful at night when I’m having trouble calming down for sleep.
For the majority of my time dealing with anxiety, I have often looked to others to help me. I don’t recommend this because not only is it unfair to the other people in your life, it is unfair to yourself. Not everyone is going to be helpful, and even if they are, there is no guarantee they will be perfect at it every time. Recently, I began putting more of a focus on helping myself. I have started to tell myself the things I wish others would say, and I have a few positive affirmations that I tell myself. I will share the most important one: “I am safe.”
Anxiety is real and it can be terrifying. In its simplest form, its worrisome that you’re constantly worried while others are able to enjoy their lives. In more severe forms, it’s downright terrifying to experience a sudden shift in your thoughts. When anxiety manifests itself in a physical way, it can often feel like you’re having a heart attack. Anxiety and panic attacks can leave a person feeling out of control and it can feel like you’ll never be in control again. The most painful part of my experience with anxiety is others’ lack of knowledge. Experiencing anxiety can be devastating and embarrassing.
There is hope. By learning what I prioritize in daily life, I was able to begin finding healthy coping mechanisms that match with my personality.