Before I even knew what anxiety was, before I could even spell it, I was suffering from its horrors. Stomachaches and feelings of dread were as common to me as an eight-year-old as chest pains and forgetfulness were to an eighty-year-old. Going to school in the morning instilled in me a feeling of fear and panic normally reserved for those being sent off to war against their will.
By the time I reached the fifth grade, I began obsessively counting. I’d have to silently count to three three times in a precise rhythm before I’d feel comfortable enough to stop counting – until the urge to count again crept up. The compulsion to check things – doors, faucets, stoves, lights – to make sure they were closed or off soon followed. Obsessive hand washing, two-hour showers, and irrational fears of germs were not far behind. Junior high school and high school were a lonely blur of self-imposed isolation brought about by social anxiety so severe I only felt comfortable hiding in my room with TV characters from eighties sitcoms as my sole companions.
My late teens and early twenties brought the types of panic attacks that once forced me to pull off to the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, trembling and drenched in sweat, wondering why I couldn’t just be normal like everyone else in the cars zooming past me. A cacophony of “what ifs?” incessantly cluttered my thoughts – what if I have a panic attack? what if I lose control? what if I die? The terrifying idea of leaving the safety of my home, being thrust out of my cocoon into a world of people and situations I couldn’t control, ultimately led to crippling anxiety that prevented me from living life with even an ounce of joy or peace.
My search for salvation began with two-hundred dollar a session Manhattan psychiatrists, who seemed to lack compassion for the abject pain I was in, and who believed the solution to my problem could be found only in prescription bottles. Having grown tired of the debilitating side effects of the half-dozen or so different medications I had been prescribed over around a ten-year period, and seeing the size of my bank account diminish more quickly than my anxiety, I came across a late night infomercial, offering an audio-cassette program to help relieve anxiety. The experiences shared by other anxiety sufferers on the cassettes, along with the insistence of the program creator, herself a former sufferer, that anxiety and panic were completely controllable given the right tools, instilled in me a sense of hope I never imagined was possible.
My search for relief continued on the Internet and in the self-help sections of book stores throughout New York City. The guided meditations, the breathing exercises and the seemingly endless pages of material about the causes and remedies for panic and anxiety were all immeasurably more helpful than all the psychiatrists I encountered combined. But the most valuable piece of information I learned during my search for answers was the completely alien concept that I could end my panic attacks and anxiety by assuming responsibility for them. In understanding that panic and anxiety were the results of my own thoughts – thoughts that I alone chose to have – and not horrific burdens I was condemned to carry with me till the end of my days without possibility of reprieve, my liberation began.
Beating anxiety requires tenacious resolve to constantly be in control of your thoughts before those thoughts spiral out of control and lead to the sweaty, dizzy, heart racing, weak in the knees feelings that we interpret as panic attacks. The vicious cycle of anxious thoughts leading to anxious feelings, leading to more anxious thoughts and feelings can only be stopped where it begins – in the mind. How you choose to control your thoughts is a matter of preference. There is no one size fits all remedy. For some, meditation will work, for others, breathing exercises might be more suitable. But regardless of the method used, the end result must be the same – to empower yourself by disempowering the anxious thoughts.
No matter how low you think you’ve sunk, no matter how hopeless you believe your life has become, your potential to relieve your anxiety and ultimately rid yourself of its dreadfulness entirely is unlimited. You need only take the first step, which is to dedicate yourself to beating the thing that has caused you so much unnecessary unhappiness. You must have faith that within you exists the ability to control your thoughts without letting them control you.