Last week, I was triggered. It was a phone/email spat with extended family, but boy, did it send me right to that downward spiral of anxiety that I know all too well. I am a lifelong anxiety sufferer, but for the past year, I have been in a pretty good place. I have been able to stop my panic attacks before they pull me under, and I have been making self-care a must, while also trying to make life choices that are compatible with my temperament and tendency toward overstimulation (and general freaking out).
So I noticed with fresh eyes what happened when my anxiety button was pushed last week. Besides the panicky feelings themselves, I saw how my body reacted. First, the rapid heartbeat — what felt like a million beats per minute, that loud pounding in my ear. Then the sweating and the feeling like my heart was literally pushing its way up my throat. My breath was caught, tight, labored. Soon after that, the telltale tummy issues (I have IBS on top of anxiety, so stress sends me straight to the bathroom. Fun times).
Even after I was able to calm down and the initial panic attack symptoms abated, it took me an entire week to feel normal again. My muscles were sore everywhere, and I was so incredibly thirsty. It took several days for my tummy issues to settle. Three days after the panic attack, I got a migraine — the kind with an aura.
Oh, and the insomnia was also a blast, and totally helped me calm down and feel better.
Usually, when we feel anxious or are in the midst of a panic attack, all we’re thinking about is the panic itself or the trigger that sent us into panic in the first place. We don’t always realize how much it wreaks havoc on our bodies. But it really does. WebMd explains it like this: Excessive worry triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response, which “causes the body’s sympathetic nervous system to release stress hormones such as cortisol.”
It’s the hormones released by our flight-or-flight response that can cause these sucky bodily reactions. Besides the annoying (but potentially debilitating) reactions like rapid heartbeat, headache, trembling, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath, the stress hormones can trigger very serious health conditions. Immune system repression, short-term memory loss, premature coronary artery disease, and heart attacks are just a few to top the list. (And with anxiety sufferers, this is just another thing for us to worry about, right? We will worry about the effects of our worrying.)
Dang it to hell, if those aren’t reasons to take care of your anxiety, I don’t know what is.
When I saw so clearly what my anxiety was doing to my body last week, I felt fortunate that I was in a place in life where this sort of thing doesn’t happen too often anymore. But I also felt very clear with myself that there is no way in hell I’m going to put myself in situations that do that to me — at least whenever I can. And because I experience anxiety as a lifelong mental illness, I’m going to continue to do whatever I need to do to manage it.
For me, that includes daily exercise, mediation, psychotherapy, and prescription medication. These are non-negotiable and are as important as eating, drinking, and being able to pay my rent.
I know very well that it can feel impossible to tackle anxiety. In fact, one of the hardest things about anxiety is that it likes to convince you that you have no hope. It’s right there, whispering in your ear that you are totally trapped in its claws and that nothing will set you free. You panic about the panic itself. You start to believe you are doomed to a life of hellish thoughts.
But that’s just your anxiety talking. Please remember that. It is not you. You are not your anxiety; you are a person who suffers from an anxiety disorder.
Each and every one of us deserves to feel better, and there is almost always an option out there for you to help manage your symptoms, whether it’s therapy, medication, or something else. There are professionals out there who have your back, who will help you figure it out in your own ways, on your own terms.
Please, please, please — whatever your mental health issue is, take it seriously. I feel like part of the reason why anxiety wreaks havoc on our bodies the way it does is a kind of protective defense. It’s nature’s way of telling us: This is not normal. You are not supposed to be feeling sick (or worse) on a daily basis. We need to listen to our bodies.
There are real consequences to not addressing your anxiety. None of them are selfish, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. So take care of your anxiety. Make that call. Make that appointment. Do it now, and don’t let yourself make up excuses to wait until next week or next month.
Once you start feeling better, you’ll wish you’d gotten help even sooner. I promise.