This is a guest post by Jessie Chaplain, who submitted the following essay as an assignment in Dr. Chris Patti's course at Appalachian State University.
This essay has been featured on the Optimal Living Daily podcast – Episode 571.
I suffer from anxiety, a term that fails to encompass the whole experience. This anxiety manifests itself in many ways, and a few years ago, it manifested as panic attacks. My freshman year of college, I would wake up at six in the morning to a feeling of absolute terror.
I felt like I was having a heart attack and that I was going to die.
My body shook; my left arm ached; my heart beat 110 beats-per-minute; my palms grew sweaty; and a heavy, invisible weight rested forcefully on my chest. I would ride these tumultuous waves of anxiety by calling my mom and trying to talk with her through it, until finally a semblance of relief hit.
These waves of anxiety surfaced during class, in the middle of the night, and anytime I felt trapped. The increasing frequency of the attacks left me in a state of constant fear of the impending doom that shadowed each waking minute. I slowly started to isolate myself out of a fear of embarrassment, that I would have an attack around others, and that they wouldn’t know how to deal with someone who had such strong anxiety.
Finally, after months of feeling weighed down, stuck in a state of fear, not feeling any appreciation for life, as it had become merely trying to evade the next attack, I sought medical help. After a trip to the ER, where they ran all kinds of tests on my heart, the doctors confirmed the cause of all my physiological symptoms as “just anxiety”, a diagnosis that too failed to encompass the whole experience. The only help they offered was a medicine to mask the symptoms.
I then began reading online about different anxiety disorders and diagnosed myself as having panic disorder, which basically is a strong word that means your sympathetic nervous system, or fight or flight response, constantly tells you that you are in a life-threatening situation. I approached my father about getting professional help, and he responded with familiar language: “You just need a stronger relationship with God.” He couldn’t understand, as no one can until they’ve experienced a panic attack themselves.
One day during Christmas break, I rode home with him and my brother, after visiting family in Johnson City, Tennessee. An attack struck, and I cried my eyes out, begging them to take me to the hospital. In that moment, they witnessed the severity of what I was dealing with. This panic disorder was bigger than me and bigger than anything I had ever dealt with. I couldn’t pray it away, nor could I avoid it. I simply had to ride out the feeling when it came.
As months went by, I researched all the habits that can decrease anxiety. I read online about how changing your diet, cutting out caffeine, exercising, and sleeping better could help, and all of these things I worked to implement. I also finally went to a counselor, who helped me understand how my need for control contributed to this overwhelming anxiety, which led me to try and accept what little control I actually have.
Despite trying all that, I also decided that I wanted to deal with my intense fear of change, which I felt had triggered the onset of the disorder. I chose to take a bunch of risks, at least they were risks to me. I got a scary new job; I took a class I just wanted to take for fun; I joined a bunch of clubs; and I began to put myself in situations that would bring on my paralyzing fear. It’s ironic that to decrease my anxiety, I had to first increase it. I think that just shows how beautifully complex humans are.
As Pema Chödrön says in her book “When Things Fall Apart,” we have to move closer to fear, to learn how to embrace it.
Since I have been putting myself in these situations, I have begun to feel a sense of agency. I have the choice of what to throw myself into.
Today I still have anxiety, and I probably always will. My brain runs through all these situations, overanalyzing everything. I’m still learning how to reign myself in and be mindful of how those patterns of thinking contribute to my fears and need for control. I still have panic attacks, but I’ve become much more familiar with them, and through them, I’ve learned the importance of embracing change.
It seems simple, but I think we hold onto the ways things are a lot more tightly than we realize. As much as it can be boring, we do like a sense of routine and a sense of normalcy. By challenging myself to move out of my comfort zone, into situations that take the floor out from under my feet, I have become much more acquainted with the anxiety that now sits in the background of my life. I am making friends with my anxiety. Every now and then it will move to the center, demanding attention, but I see it more now as a sign of waking up, of realizing the parts of my subconscious that still feel afraid.
We all have our own fears and anxieties. I think, if anything, we can learn how to embrace them, become familiar with them, and realize that they are a chance for us to wake up and listen to ourselves. When a panic attack hits now, a rarer occurrence, I try to remember the famous advice of medical scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, that we only have moments in which to live. In this moment, I may feel the weight of anxiety hit, leaving me grasping for breath, and in the next I may feel the soft tender relief that arises after. I’ve learned to accept each moment for what it is.
Sometimes waves crash and sometimes waves gently approach the shore, but the beauty lies in appreciating how quickly they come and how quickly they go.
Jessie Chaplain is a Communication and English major at Appalachian State. A native to the Appalachian Mountains, originally from Black Mountain, NC, she's a rising senior. Mental illness runs in her family, and she hopes to continue to write and bring awareness to mental health. You can email Jessie at chaplainjl [at] appstate [dot] edu.
Dr. Chris J. Patti (PhD) is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Appalachian State University, nestled in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. As an ethnographic writer, his research highlights intimate, relational processes at the heart of human experience through listening to and richly representing stories of love, loss, and transformation. He has published several peer-reviewed articles and chapters on the theme of suffering and compassion. His other passions are rock climbing, longboard surfing, and intentionally doing nothing with his mindfulness meditation club Zen & the Art of Applied Communication. Follow them on Twitter: https://twitter.com/awarenessbites
You can email Dr. Chris Patti at patticj [at] appstate [dot] edu.