As I approached yet another one of my high school teachers with the hope of weaseling out of a presentation, I carefully prepared my argument in my mind. By this time I was all too familiar with the incredulous remarks teachers often made when faced with these requests. “Everyone gets nervous about class presentations.” “You’ll be fine.” “You’re just working yourself up about it.” As I pleaded my usual claims of “I have severe anxiety” and “I have passed out before,” I couldn’t find a trace of empathy on her face. My heart filled not with disappointment but with rage – a rage that overflowed and surged into a panic attack.
Nobody understood my anxiety. It was complex, sinister, and in control. I could feel my gut wrenching, my palms tingling. My chest ached, and I gasped for breath between desperate and uncontrollable sobs. My heart raced and filled with worry and fear. I began to shake. My brain reeled with thoughts of things evil and taunting until I thought I might vomit.
These are symptoms of a panic attack, a common sidekick of anxiety. If you’ve never had one, the experience can be described as being held at gunpoint, except your brain is the gun. Your own mind is working against you, threatening to cause you pain until you hand over relief from its oppressor, fear. What is feared is different for each anxiety sufferer; for me it was any social situation, cockroaches, the ocean, needles, heights, the cold, and speaking in front of large groups. My anxiety held me hostage every day. I cowered my way through life, hoping that I wouldn’t cross paths with a trigger that would set my anxiety off.
Despite this disorder’s being very real, the only time my anxiety came off as “plausible” for my teachers was when my doctor wrote a note expressing his concern about me having to make class presentations my senior year of high school. This note was a huge relief for me but also set me up for failure in the future. Once this white flag was taken down as I entered college, my anxiety surged once again when I stepped into my first Human Event class. I saw the circle of desks and immediately remembered the Socratic seminars in high school mythology class. The social anxiety gun was cocked and loaded as my professor talked about participation points and daily discussions in class. Speaking. Out loud. In front of the entire class. Expressing my opinion. The trigger was pulled and all hell broke loose inside of me. The symptoms I was all too familiar with took control of my body once more.
Finally fed up with being a prisoner to my own mind, I found a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with anxiety. Now that the obvious was documented, I really wanted to change. I needed to change. The best treatment was counseling and medication that would alter the way my brain worked. The medication would ultimately replace what I was missing – serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps suppress feelings of fear and anxiety. Ironically, I was terrified to take my first dose; even the idea of taking a pill to help my anxiety made me anxious. After grueling months of weird side effects, I reached the full dosage, and the gunmen in my mind slowly began to surrender.
The first time I remember conquering my anxiety was when I was faced with a group presentation in biology class. Waking at 7 a.m. for the lab period, I could feel the anxiety rising from my stomach. As I sat in class anticipating my group’s turn, I ran through my part of the presentation over and over in my head. When we were called up, my mind flooded with worry, wiping my brain clear of my portion of the presentation. I began applying some relaxation techniques my counselor taught me. I focused my mind on the source of the anxiety instead of fearing it and pretending not to feel its presence. I thought, I am in control. This is my body and I don’t want to feel like this.
At last! I had gained control of my thoughts, and I felt liberated. From then on, whenever I would feel the distant presence of anxiety creep back in for a sneak attack, I employed my new techniques to subdue it. I couldn’t believe the results. This is what normal feels like. This is control.
Anxiety will never be completely absent from my life. I will continue to fight my demons, and I hope to continue improving my skills with the aid of counseling and medication. People who believe that anxiety is not a real and serious problem need to step into the shoes of those of us who constantly suffer from its effects. Only then will they understand the impact it has on lives.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.