My anxiety came to a head when I tried to finish up the final semester of my Master’s degree program.
Up until that point, I had been able to push down my feelings, keep my cool, and struggle through the heavy course load for my degree. Pushing my emotions deep inside, I thought I could manage my stress like all my other classmates—at a healthy, functional level.
After all, isn’t school about being stressed all the time?
What I have since discovered is that my anxiety wasn’t going away, but rather was building up inside me, getting more and more intense. I was just barely floating on the surface until eventually my emotions broke through like a monster from the depths, trying to pull me down with them.
Suddenly I wasn’t able to cope with bad news, or even small arguments. I was constantly waking up in the middle of the night, my chest gripped with fear of the future. I couldn’t sleep, I lost my appetite, and for the first time in my life experienced fully fledged panic attacks.
My first attack happened the night before a major psychology essay was due. My mind was racing to finish the paper, and without any notice, all my emotions overcame me like a wave. It honestly felt like I was having a heart attack. I couldn’t catch my breath and my chest was unbearably tight—all because of a typical paper!
These attacks increased until they became an everyday occurrence. I slowly realized I needed help to figure out what was happening to me. I needed to find a way out of the hole I was falling into.
Unfortunately, like many people in this situation, I was ashamed of how crazy I felt. After all, women are often labeled as crazy when they experience emotional trauma or mental illness. I couldn’t turn to my friends, and I felt extremely unsupported by my parents, who simply told me to “buckle down to get through it.” It felt like no one understood, or even cared, what was happening to me.
In a moment of desperation, I stumbled upon the mental health resource available through my school. Most colleges provide free counseling and support for exactly this kind of situation and eventually, with a therapist’s help, I was able to improve and see a light at the end of the tunnel.
I came to understand that I was not going crazy, but rather was experiencing severe panic attacks.
My body had maintained constant stress levels for so long that it became my new normal—I could spike into fight-or-flight with hardly any provocation. This evolutionary trait releases chemicals that provide adrenaline and energy to the body, meant to help us survive predatory attacks. Nowadays, there is limited need for this response, but the chemicals are still released and are then left unused. This eventually results in a panic attack when our bodies try to process the chemical build-up in our nervous systems.
To prevent this effect, my therapist introduced me to the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness. Loving-kindness meditation is the practice of selflessly sending thoughts of love and compassion, through visualization, to ourselves and the world at large. We often see the world as a reflection of the emotions that we hold inside, so by building up positivity within ourselves, we are more able to see it in others.
Through my daily practice, I have been slowly able to rewire my neurological pathways from ones that favor fear and anxiety, into positive ones favoring love and kindness. Within a few months of consistent breath work and visualization practice, I was able to overcome my panic attacks completely.
I was surprised how well counseling worked for me. It wasn’t just about talking about my troubled childhood, or discovering some undiagnosed trauma. It was important for me to realize that anxiety doesn’t necessarily stem from a past event. Each of us are susceptible to different types of anxiety, which can be brought on by many different triggers. It was only through working with my therapist that I was able to finally understand the root of my stress.
Therapy offers us a safe place to talk with a professional without fearing judgement or criticism. If you have felt even a few of the things I mentioned, I would highly recommend talking to a therapist before things escalate further. Therapists have a vast array of tools to help us better overcome anxiety in the long run.
My therapist taught me multiple breathing exercises, such as counting my breaths, or focusing on the feeling of the air rushing in and out of my nose. These exercises, which at first seemed silly, eventually helped me overcome my panic disorder. I also learned how to use up the excess panic chemicals through exercise.
The best thing was that these techniques were easy to incorporate into my daily routine.
These days I am still prone to stress, but I feel much more capable of overcoming it. Stress is a natural part of life, but that should not stop us from living our days to their fullest. Although panic can still strike, I now feel like I am ready to face it.
Here are three tools I draw upon to manage my anxiety:
1. I continue my daily meditation practice.
When I feel overwhelmed, I rely on slow breath work and small, in-the-moment meditations to bring my heart rate down and intercept my spiraling thoughts. Breath work and visualization reinforce deep, unconditional love. This has been scientifically proven to rewire anxiety-ridden brains, recreating missing or destroyed pathways for peace and calm.
2. I understand my triggers.
Triggers are different for all of us, but I figured out that what I really needed was some time off every week. I couldn’t continually work without rest. Now I ensure to schedule at least one quiet night at home per week to focus on my mental health. I like to take a steamy bath, read a book for fun, and have a glass of wine. Taking the time to indulge in the things that make us happy, no matter how small, is a huge step toward having a happy and healthy balance.
3. I study Buddhism beyond the practice of meditation.
Being more mindful in my everyday life and developing true compassion for everything around me has dramatically shifted my inner pressure to a larger perspective. We can all be selfish sometimes, but for us to appreciate the people and opportunities in our lives we have to start thinking beyond ourselves.
Life can seem overwhelming for many of us, which is why I wanted to share my story. Maybe you recognize a few of these symptoms in yourself or maybe you see someone close to you going through their own struggle with anxiety. The best advice I can offer is to take action as soon as you notice the changes. The universal truth is that the happier we are with ourselves, the happier we are with the world around us. That is my wish for you.
Author: Jilian Woods
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Danielle Beutell