It’s 2:00 o’clock in the morning and you’re lying in bed. The faint hum of electricity buzzes through the night air, blending with the rhythmic inhales and exhales of your partner’s breath. The house is otherwise peaceful aside from the occasional “kerplunk” of the ice maker. You lie staring into the pitch-black. Your own pounding heart resonates through the deafening silence like a “Poe-ian” nightmare. Excessive thoughts run through your head like a skipping record, each followed by a sinking feeling in your chest. Your muscles tense and you feel like you can’t get a deep breath. A looming sense of fear comes over you like a dark shadow. You debate whether or not to wake your partner to talk you off the ledge. You choose to suffer in silence, eventually, this will pass. If this sounds familiar to you, you may be dealing with anxiety. Don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Anxiety: And Then It Hit Me
Growing up, my mom always called me a “worry wart”. I never really gave much thought to what those words meant until my mid-twenties. It was about 15 years ago when I experienced my first run-in with anxiety. Looking back, I have to wonder if that day was always inevitable. I remember it like it was yesterday…
My boyfriend, best friend at the time, and I were watching the finale of Six Feet Under, an HBO series about a Los Angeles family that owns and operates a funeral home. The last few minutes of the show (spoiler alert) is a compilation of scenes depicting how each of the main characters dies in the future. It’s a real tear-jerker and it must have struck a chord deep within me.
I remember starting to feel light-headed and a general sense of unease fell over me. Trying not to alarm anyone, I made my way to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet. “Get ahold of yourself, Sarah,” I pleaded with myself. All of a sudden, my heart started racing, adrenaline coursed through my veins, and a sensation of warmth flushed my entire body. Feeling dizzy, shaky, clammy, and faint, I thought, “Welp, this is it!”
After a trip to the ER and days of relentless worry, it was determined I likely experienced a panic attack. While I didn’t die, the switch had most definitely been flipped. The months to follow were rough. I spiraled out of control, experiencing intense anxiety followed by panic attack after panic attack. Numb to the world, intrusive thoughts inhabited my mind all day. No one could relate to what I was going through and everyone looked at me like I had gone off the deep end when I tried to explain it.
I lived in constant fear of having another panic attack. I’d gone crazy, nutso, cuckoo, convincing myself I had some rare disease. Every lump or bump became a cancerous tumor, and impending doom lurked around every corner. My mind was held hostage by worst-case scenarios and what-ifs. My family and friends had no idea how to console me. As supportive as they tried to be, I quickly realized I was on a journey of solitude. I had to find a way to help myself.
Anxiety: The Early Days
If you asked me before what anxiety was, I would have said it was that feeling you get before taking a test or starting a new job. My 25-year-old self had no idea what it truly was, and it wreaked havoc on my body and mind. I found people didn’t understand what I was going through unless they had experienced it themselves, and at the time, those people were few and far between. I can’t begin to tell you how many people told me to “just stop thinking about it” or “try not to worry.” But, it was out of my control, and I couldn’t switch it off. There was no rationalizing.
I sought help, but it felt like I was educating the medical professionals and therapists who were trying to care for me. Had I been armed with the internet of today, “Dr. Google,” Facebook support groups, and the like, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a rough ride for me. Flash forward to present day and I’ve learned to manage it pretty well. It’s very rare that I actually experience any symptoms anymore. My condition can be summed up as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or (GAD) with a history of panic attacks.
Anxiety: What Is It?
Anxiety Disorder is a term that encompasses a wide range of mental illnesses. These include GAD, Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety, OCD, PTSD, as well as a number of phobia-based disorders. These illnesses can vary in severity, and while distinctively different from each other, have a number of symptoms in common. Racing thoughts, heart palpitations, uncontrollable and irrational worry, fatigue, shortness of breath, tension, and stress are to name a few.
In my case, I suffered panic attacks too, which seemingly came on out of the blue. In retrospect, I believe I may have been under more stress than usual at that time in my life. For months I lived in a constant state of anxiety, characterized by episodes of intense fear and worry that became so frequent they interfered with my daily life.
Learning Your Triggers
Learning what triggers anxiety is extremely important in the healing process. Like thousands of other sufferers, health and death are big triggers for me. Over the years I’ve built up an arsenal of coping mechanisms. For a while, I avoided anything that might trigger my anxiety. I steered clear of TV shows like Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy, CSI, and even commercials on the topic of medicine or illness.
Having a medical background and being exposed to a lot of death over the years surely didn’t help my case. I knew too much and I’d seen too much. As morbid as it sounds, I eventually found comfort in coming to terms with my own death. I figured, “If I die, then I’m dead”. Obsessing over it and fearing it wasn’t doing me any good. Why stress over the things I can’t control? That way of thinking sufficed for a while and things became manageable…and then I became a mom.
Anxiety: A Whole New Can Of Worms
Now, I realize saying I had nothing to live for before having kids is a bit dramatic. I have an incredibly wonderful husband, loving parents, siblings, and friends. Prior to having kids though, I never had so much to lose. They say a mother’s love trumps all, and those words never rang so true until my son Jameson was born.
The bond between a mother and child is indescribable, forged out of sacrifice and pain. It is selfless and unbreakable, and the mere thought of losing a child, or leaving them motherless, is unimaginable. From the moment I found out I was pregnant, old fears and worries I worked so hard to suppress, began to resurface. What if I miscarry? Will I die giving birth? What if my baby isn’t born healthy?
Motherhood is hard enough. I’m not just talking about dirty diapers, piled up dishes, or lack of sleep. More specifically, I’m speaking of the hormonal and emotional gut-punch that comes with pregnancy, delivery, and the postpartum period. Becoming a mom naturally evokes certain feelings and fears as it is. The anticipation of giving birth is terrifying, and afterward, the constant worry sets in. Are they eating enough? Is this rash serious? Are they breathing? Why the hell am I losing so much hair? It can be extremely stressful. Add constant hormonal fluctuations to the mix, and in my case a traumatic birth experience, and it becomes the perfect recipe for a mental breakdown.
Postpartum Anxiety (PPA)
Most pregnant women are familiar with Postpartum Depression or (PPD). We’re educated about it from day one of our pregnancies and armed with a number of resources on the subject. It’s gained a lot of recognition over the past few decades as mental health awareness becomes less and less taboo to talk about. What we don’t hear much about, however, is Postpartum Anxiety or (PPA). It manifests as intense worry, nervousness, and distress, and affects 10-15% of all new moms (Mazel, 2020).
As more and more moms speak up about their symptoms, it’s become evident that PPA is just as common as PPD…and equally as crippling. Most moms don’t even know it exists until they come face to face with it. While labeled as “postpartum”, it can strike any time from conception to after birth. Women who have a previous history of mental illness are more likely to be affected including those already suffering with PPD. At 13 months postpartum with Jameson, I was no exception.
It had been several years since I experienced an actual panic attack. While enjoying a meal one summer morning with my husband at our favorite breakfast place, my body decided it had been far too long without one. Out of nowhere, I became extremely jittery, my heart began racing, and I felt as if I was going to faint. I was in the process of weaning my son off the teat, and looking back, believe the symptoms I experienced were due to the hormonal shift involved in that process. Being the seasoned veteran that I am now, I recognized immediately what was happening to me. The following Monday, I made an appointment with my doctor.
Since then, I’ve been more or less fine. Sure, I worry like everyone else, but I also work extra hard to manage the everyday stresses that come with life and motherhood. Having a two and a half-year-old and an 8-month-old is a full-time job. The screaming, whining, and temper tantrums can be extremely overwhelming at times. That’s why I’m sure to make time as often as I can for self-care and stress-relief.
Seeking Help And Learning To Cope
For this blog entry, I wanted to write about Anxiety, not only because it’s really common, but it has undeniably made me the person I am today. It can be extremely humbling. I wanted to share my experience in hopes that others who might be going through something similar, can find comfort and solidarity.
In this country, there is such a horrible stigma attached to mental health. It’s always baffled me how unaddressed it is when so many millions of people are affected. It’s not easy to speak up about such vulnerabilities. I wanted to make clear that there is no shame in being sick! If you’re taking the time to read this, it’s important you come away with a few key points.
First and foremost, take care of yourself and seek help if you have to! Treatment can include anything from therapy, medication, meditation, and exercise, to different relaxation techniques. As women, we already experience a roller coaster of monthly hormonal fluctuations. When we become moms, we are put through the wringer. Make it a point not to spread yourself too thin and the take time daily for self-care and relaxation.
Secondly, don’t just see any doctor. There are so many bad doctors out there and it’s incredibly important to find one who is thorough and listens to your concerns. I found this out the hard way. Now, I look at the process of finding a doctor like shopping for a car. Don’t just go with the first one who can get you in. Do your research, read reviews, and take them for a test drive.
Thirdly, take advantage of the resources. There’s a wealth of knowledge out there that I wish I had access to when I was seeking answers. Knowledge really is power. Here’s a great place to start. Do use discretion when googling things though. Too often it can make anxiety worse and end up doing more harm than good! Trust me on this one.
There are also a number of amazing anxiety Facebook groups out there to join for advice and support. They are a great way to connect with people who are going through similar things. Sometimes, just talking about it and hearing other people’s stories helps immensely!
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be nice to people. You never know what someone else is going through. A simple smile or hello can make all the difference for somebody who might be going through a dark time.
Thank you for reading this! If you have any questions or would simply like to leave a comment, please do so below. I always love hearing your feedback and experiences!
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