Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Emily Jennings, a recent graduate of George Washington University currently working as a marketing assistant for a non-profit marketing agency.
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It really got bad around 7 or 8 years old. My memories from elementary school have a general overtone of constant panic, usually regarding death or dying in various contexts I fear such as being choked, poisoned or experiencing a natural disaster. The nights were the worst because every time the sun went down it felt like the apocalypse was just around the corner. I remember after a few years of this daily torture, my heart actually began to physically hurt from beating so fast. I would lie awake at night thinking the slightest muscle twinge was a sign of cancer or that every plane passing overhead was carrying a bomb. I developed certain obsessive compulsive habits such as washing my hands four times after handling household chemicals or chewing my food to the point of liquid before swallowing.
As I got older, my anxiety became less external. Starting when I was 14, I began experiencing depressive episodes, depersonalization and chronic fatigue and pain. The panic has become much more manageable after six years of therapy and proper medication, but I don’t think it will ever fully go away.
Fatigue and physical pain have developed over the years, I imagine as a result of the constant stress my body is under. When my anxiety skyrockets, I begin to sleep an average of 14 hours a day. Peeling myself away from my bed makes me feel sick, but staying in bed usually sends me into a depressive spiral. The chronic pain also flares up during times of extreme stress. The pain starts in my upper back, shoulders and neck; if left untreated it will travel up into my jaw and even cause migraines. I think of it as a domino effect because once the anxiety sets in, the physical malfunctions are quick to follow.
When I was younger, my anxiety would manifest in paralyzing fear. I couldn’t talk, move or think about anything except the thing that was causing me so much panic. Now, it’s evolved into depression and depersonalization. If I get too stressed, my mind shuts down.
I feel hopeless and lifeless. This is usually when the mental fatigue hits.
At its worst, my anxiety becomes so overwhelming that I completely turn off. I can’t feel any kind of emotion or sense of self. I can only really tell that I’m breathing. Usually, this is when the self-harm and suicidal ideations come creeping in. If it gets really bad and I feel like I’m in danger, I’ll go into a physical panic: heart racing, difficulty breathing, crying and screaming for what feels like no reason. These kinds of episodes usually take about 12 to 48 hours to fully recover from. I’ll sometimes be in the mindset for days.
I like to keep busy. I run and do yoga, watch funny shows and movies, talk to friends or treat myself to something small like a fancy coffee or a new pair of shoes. For the physical pain I see a chiropractor, sometimes three times a week. On the really bad days though, it’s the opposite: I have to cancel most plans, call my therapist and really focus on the root of the issue to prevent my anxiety from spiraling any further. I guess my coping mechanisms really depend on my daily mindset.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to accept as a high-functioning person with anxiety and depression is that my ambition is too big for my reality. You see ads or read books that say things such as: “The sky’s the limit! You can do whatever you want because this is your life.” But when you share that life with your anxiety, there is a limit. You have to live with that limit. It’s frustrating because you can’t necessarily do everything and anything you want because you’re being held down by something that isn’t always in your control. In a way, it’s heartbreaking.
I can’t work as hard or as fast as I need in order to accomplish these goals. Of course, this hasn’t stopped me from trying, but after years of trial and error, I learned that pushing myself too hard has permanent consequences. Taking care of myself means putting some of my ambitions away, and people might view this as lazy, or giving up. This is completely untrue. I’ve had to grieve the loss of something that I never thought I, a 22-year-old college graduate, would have to grieve: my goals.