I first started experiencing what I will call 'real' anxiety when I was in college. All anxiety is real of course, but what I mean by this is that many people experience stress and anxious feelings during times in our lives that warrant it. However, for some of us it's much more than that. For a lot of people this anxiety goes away when the trigger leaves and does not cause lasting physical and emotional symptoms. Most people feel anxious before giving a speech, competing in an event, meeting new people, starting a new job, moving to a new place, etc. It usually subsides, you get distracted, you move on and it never becomes more than butterflies. For the rest of us anxiety becomes a cloud that hovers over us and we try 24 hours a day to keep it from opening up and drowning us.
In my early days of experiencing anxiety I thought I was crazy. I would look around and see all of these 'normal' people and think what in the world is wrong with me. My first panic attack I actually thought I was going to die. I left in the middle of a physics lecture and practically ran home and called my mom. For those of you that know me, you know I probably wouldn't leave a lecture for anything other than a true emergency. I eventually calmed down with the help of my mom. She had experienced many panic attacks and knew exactly what had happened. When I revealed I had been drinking a coffee before class I learned that caffeine was not my friend.
That could have been the end of my anxiety. A caffeine induced panic attack, no big deal, move on, but that wasn't the case. My anxiety only worsened from that point forward. College continued to get more challenging and real responsibility started to pile up. I was constantly trying to prove myself. I could write a book on all the ways I was trying to do this, but it doesn't matter anymore. At the time I did it all and I met all my goals, I got into physical therapy school and I thought I was home free. My senior year of college began a host of physical symptoms, story for another day, but I truly thought now that I had achieved what I had been working on for 4 years that everything was going to be okay.
Professional school completely knocked me on my ass. College felt like a dream comparatively. I had no break between college and physical therapy school and after only the first semester I was afraid I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. Of course we all have other real life shit happening on top of these programs, which are completely ignored so it makes for a recipe for disaster. I had too much riding on the program and I had put in way too much work to walk away with no alternate option. I pushed through at the cost of my health and sanity. It was during this 3 year doctorate program that I found a therapist that I liked and had my first group session.
I had made huge progress with my therapist who was actually a psychology Ph.D student and truly amazing, but the group aspect taught me even more. What I learned from opening up about anxiety in a group was that how you see yourself is rarely how others see you. We didn't have anything in common other than anxiety and being in doctorate programs. We were all studying in different fields, coming from very different backgrounds, and honestly wouldn't have associated otherwise. To this day, I use advice from that group to get me through tough situations. Their honesty and reflection of my own thoughts was crucial in my journey to get where I am today. It took years before I made the big changes I needed to, but I'll always remember that I was not alone. I'm still not alone and neither are you.
If you experience anxiety and feel like you shouldn't because you 'don't have it that bad' then just know that anxiety does not discriminate.
It doesn't matter where you live, how much money you make, what you look like, or what your past holds. Our nervous system reacts to our environment the same way whether we are stressed about a deadline, a relationship, getting our next meal, or escaping a predator. Trying to hide our feelings because we don't think we should be having them only makes it worse. Seeking healthy outlets for our anxiety and sharing our experience can be incredibly life changing. This might look like counseling or maybe it is just sharing with a friend, it could be working with a coach, or even just opening up in a safe group.