The first hurdle I crossed with anxiety was figuring out what it was. I was nineteen years old and a freshmen in college. My mind would constantly race with negative thoughts. It was a like a radio playing at the highest volume. The thoughts would swirl around as I drifted off to the sleep and start up again as I woke the following morning. Day to day activities like eating meals in the dining hall and going to the Sunday evening worship services on campus were terrifying. Special outings I used to love like going out for coffee with friends or ice skating at the hockey rink were draining. My mind would race the entire time. The happy, upbeat, social “Amy” was fading away. I had become a clingy, emotional person who was sabotaging the few friendships I had left.
I did not know how far from “normal” I strayed. I once told someone about my mental health struggles and he right away asked, “Were you bedridden or were you hospitalized.” I never reached that point. I got out of bed every morning. I went to class. I was getting decent grades. I often had people to hang out with. My family was supportive. I went to dorm events and even served on floor leadership. I held down a part time job at a nursing home. Yet I was not OK. My emotions were always on edge, I was afraid of too many things, and my appetite was almost non-existent.
Had it not been for “open hours” at the campus counseling center on campus, I would have waited much longer to seek help. I rushed quickly to the counselors on a cold January morning praying I would not run into anyone I knew. I was ashamed of how clingy, emotional, and insecure I had become. After some testing and a few sessions, I was relieved to know those thoughts were anxiety. That’s what it was. I could identify it.
For a few years I walked around with a label: “anxiety disorder.” I told people I had one almost I like I was proud of it. I was pretty outspoken about my struggles. It might have been a coping mechanism or a need for attention. Years later, I realized that I did not want to be known as someone with an anxiety disorder, but rather someone who sometimes struggles with and has a better understanding of anxiety.
My husband is gluten intolerant. He often says, “I am not my disease.” I could not agree more. After another setback my junior year, I sought more counseling and later a cognitive therapy class (which I highly recommend for those struggling with anxiety), I realized anxiety is a part of who I am. It is not all of me. It does not have to control me.
There are many of us who struggle with anxiety and depression. What we actually struggle with is complex and different for many of us. Some have severe symptoms while others experience it mildly. Family crises, moving to a new city, deaths in the family can escalate it. Normal hormonal changes from pregnancy to breastfeeding to menstrual cycles affect it. Some people choose medication, counseling, or require hospitalization. I have been blessed over the past fifteen years to find positive ways to deal with my anxiety. Exercise helps tremendously. I can feel on “edge” all morning. Then I will go for a run in the afternoon and I can think clearly and feel at peace. Even breathing outside air and walking around the neighborhood (even when it is raining as it often does in Oregon) can help clear my head. Another thing that helps me is having special projects to work on such as scrapbook pages, blog posts, youth ministry meetings, or volunteering. It is not an escape, but it helps divert my attention to something I am passionate about and can take pride in.
My anxiety as a mom is somewhat different from what I struggled with as a single person in my 20’s. In many ways, it is not as intense. But it still is a hurdle I have to face. Most of my fears in college were related to being alone, fitting into the social scene, and boyfriend issues. As a mom, the constant noise in the house and the kids asking question after question makes my brain over stimulated and it turns into anxiety. The messes all over the house are another cause. Sometimes sleep issues or big social events are the cause. People would never guess I would be anxious about social gatherings as I am very extroverted and quite social. Never think you fully know someone.
Since I first started dealing with my anxiety almost fifteen years ago, I have made much progress. Most of the time I know when I am getting anxious and I can usually identify what triggered it. Fifteen years ago I could not do this. I would be trapped in racing thoughts for days or even longer. Most of the time I know when I need a break. I know how to communicate that I am struggling without letting emotions overwhelm the people around me. Most of the time, I know how to lean on others for support without suffocating them. Yet I still have anxious moments and bad days. But I am grateful for this journey God led me on. I am thankful I walked to that counseling center that morning and dealt with these issues while I was still young—two years before I met my husband and long before I had children.
It is never too late to get help. Sometimes it is hard not to feel like a “problem,” or “a complete mess.” In my most recent struggle with anxiety, I was reminded how God accepts us in our messy and problematic state. He renews and offers healing. Looking back on the last fifteen years, He did provide me with listening ears, support, patient people, and hope. I see a bright future ahead.