Working With Anxiety, Not Against It

I thought a little anxiety + stress in life was a good thing. To me, it meant I was working hard, succeeding, earning the perfect grades, being the best leader, + securing a worthy future for myself. In high school, I experienced anxiety when it came to sports + schoolwork, but I never experienced an alarming amount of stress to seek attention from a doctor or psychologist. It wasn’t until I went away to college + took on multiple leadership roles, challenging classes, ++ saw the way my peers handled stress, that I realized that I handle stress *differently.*

I went through three years of college hiding my anxiety from my friends + family. I tried my best to come off as confident, cool, + collected while convincing myself that this behavior was normal. Whenever I developed rashes during periods of intense anxiety, I naturally blamed this on an allergic reaction + took Benadryl to treat it. I ignored all signs of an anxiety disorder + was in denial that I wasn’t *perfect.* I told myself repetitively that my disordered sleeping habits, loss of appetite, + physiological anxiety [racing heartbeat, nausea, weak limbs, shortness of breath] were normal for college students.

We are all busy + have immense pressure to succeed, don’t all students feel this way?

The way I had been living for the past three years came to an abrupt end during my senior year when one of my friends witnessed one of my worst anxiety attacks. I was trembling from head to toe, I had severe chest pains, + I couldn’t breath [I almost felt like I was choking]. Time completely stood still, but I was in this state for around 15 minutes. If she hadn’t walked into the room when she did + calmed me down, I don’t know what I would have done or if I would have ever even sought out help. I knew I had to make a change, but I wasn’t sure how.

In class during one of the weeks following, I felt a rash emerging again. I walked straight out of the class + decided to call CAPS [my university’s counseling center — definitely see if your university offers free sessions for students!] + schedule an appointment. I was terrified — what if there is something “wrong” with me? Or more so, what if there isn’t something wrong with me + I have to go on like this? But, after this anxiety attack, I knew I had to take a step [even just a single step!] in the right direction + to ask for help. I knew there had to be a better way to live + plenty of ways to cope with what I was feeling.

After going to my initial screening + taking multiple tests, the psychologist determined that I have severe anxiety + even symptoms of PTSD [I had recently suffered a loss + this was also amplifying my anxiety]. From here, all I wanted to do was go home to my mom + cry, but I knew that I was stronger than this. I was supposed to move to Chicago + start my post-grad life in three short months + I knew I needed to make progress before then so I could transition smoothly [or as smooth as possible] to a new city, new job, + finish my final semester of school.

For the rest of the semester until I graduated, I started seeing a counselor biweekly. She gave me so many resources that helped me cope with my anxiety + learn to keep it under control. This therapy completely kickstarted my journey towards learning to live with anxiety. She helped me acknowledge + accept that I do, in fact, have high anxiety + this is most likely something that I will experience for the rest of my life. Once I accepted this, it became much easier to live with. I began to put a lot less pressure on myself to always seem calm + collected. Instead, I used the energy previously spent on *hiding* my anxiety to learn to control my physiological symptoms [in my opinion, the worst part of having high anxiety] to prevent myself from getting seriously sick.

Yes, I do still experience some level of anxiety nearly every day. But changing my perception + thought patterns whenever I feel anxiety arising has helped me give grace + kindness to myself whenever I feel the unease + restlessness coming on. I feel more at peace than I have in years.

To anyone who thinks they may be struggling with anxiety, my best advice is this: give yourself grace + remember that some stress//anxiety can be a good thing [it can help us reach new heights!]. However, if stress is making you internally//externally sick + you are experiencing more than three symptoms of anxiety [read about symptoms of anxiety here], it may be time to make a change + take your first step towards learning to work with your anxiety, not against it.

++ SJ

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