“Chill out!” “Just calm down!” “Relax.” “You’re crazy.”
Odds are, if you suffer from anxiety, you’ve heard one (if not all) of the above.
An anxiety diagnosis is becoming more mainstream, but is still greatly misunderstood by those who don’t experience it. It’s incredibly hard for someone with a “normal” thought process to understand how someone with anxiety gets stuck on a thought, an idea, a memory. Someone with anxiety can pick out a memory and harp on it, overanalyze it, beat themselves up for not saying or doing the right thing, and wondering could have been done differently.
I can never go back and alter the day my husband Kenny first told me that he had a “weird panic attack” at work (later to be diagnosed as a seizure.) I can’t respond with a better comeback to the girl who accused me of stuffing my bra in seventh grade. These memories creep in, and I get stuck on what I said or didn’t say, or what I should have done. Sometimes I obsessively check myself for lumps, bumps, lesions, hair or weight loss, etc. That’s when my anxiety hits “next level.”
I’m honest about my anxiety, but my actions often dictate that I’m more courageous than I feel. I was the caregiving wife who advocated for her husband on his brain cancer journey, I was the widow who bravely moved her kids with the hope of a better future, I am the mom of three who’s pressing forward with new career ventures.
I was also the caregiver who didn’t sleep for a year after Kenny had a grand Mal seizure. I was the wife who picked at her skin and would sob whenever she was alone from the daily worry. I was the widow who felt like she couldn’t breathe for the first six months living on her own in a new state. I am the mom of three who constantly hits plateaus when it comes to her future; fear of failing, fear of succeeding, fear of embarrassing herself, fear of judgement, fear of standing still, fear of moving forward. It’s always there.
My tug of war with anxiety didn’t just begin when my husband got sick. I was always plagued by thoughts of feeling “less than,” feeling nervous that people didn’t like me, that my friends were going to drop me, that I didn’t deserve the good things that came to me. As a young adult it morphed into career woes. Was I going to get fired tomorrow? Was I sucking the big one? Did my coworkers roll their eyes when they saw me coming? It was a never ending cycle.
Anxiety is a liar. When it isn’t lying, its exaggerating. It tells you that your fears are fact based when most aren’t. If you have a minor medical issue, it will urge you to research your symptoms until you find the worst case scenario, to prove it right. It whispers in your ear that you’ve offended everyone in the room, and no one will invite you anywhere anymore. It prays on your worst fears, your biggest insecurities, and your largest self- perceived flaws to convince you that the sky is falling. It all boils down to one thing: the negative loop inside your head.
That’s not to diminish the severity of anxiety. It’s not so simple as “okay, change the loop!” Anxiety is as much chemical inside the brain as it is an emotional response (which is why many require medication: I’m currently on a low dose of Zoloft). The longer you are anxious, the more stressors that occur in your life that exacerbate your disorder, the more difficult it can be to get it under control.
About three years ago, I was in a really desperate place. My youngest baby was seven months old. My husband had finished radiation on his brain a few months prior, was mid-way through a one year schedule of chemo, and had just been laid off by the only company he’d ever worked for. Fear wasn’t a thing I felt sometimes, it was a way of life.
I asked my doctor to put me on anxiety medication, but I was breastfeeding so he suggested finding an alternative option. I’d heard about the benefits of exercise, but surely no amount of jumping jacks was going to fix my life. Yet my hopelessness was drowning me, so anything was worth a try. I joined a local gym that had daily group classes and amazing trainers who reminded me to push myself. I went five days a week for ten weeks. I don’t know if I lost a ton of weight, or dropped five dress sizes but I know how ten weeks of taking care of myself felt.
I was right. No amount of planks, jumping jacks, Russian twists or triceps push backs could fix my life; but helped in other ways. Every time I went to the gym, I came home with a clearer head, a boosted sense of accomplishment, and a smidge of hope that I could get through that day. It didn’t make my husband not sick. It didn’t give either of us a job. It didn’t give me answers I desperately needed, but it did help me better sort out my options, gave me energy to keep up with my children and take care of my guy, and sleep better at night.
My tolerance of fitness grew into admiration; and admiration grew into unbridled love. Yes, I LOVE it. When I’m having a spiral, the only thing that is sure to help me is a great workout, a run, a long walk; anything to get those endorphins flowing, and my mind OUT of that negative loop.
Sadly, our story didn’t have a happy ending. My husband lost his battle with brain cancer at the age of thirty five, nearly two years ago. It would have been easy, after that experience; that long, awful, dreadful experience, to let it just run me over. To succumb to every negative thought my grief addled brain could muster, but one thing kept me sane: my workouts.
I still have my days. Being a solo parent of three young kids is a marathon that never ends; they have their own trauma they need me to help them work through, their own fears. I still have my moments where I will overthink social situations; wondering if I offended people or if I’ve misread cues. I worry about my kids’ health, I worry that the trauma they’ve endured makes them unlike all the other kids, and that they won’t be “okay” in the long run. I get anxious about nearly every decision that I make on their behalf, since I no longer have my voice of reason to balance me out. It’s all me, all the time.
But on the hard days, I mean the REALLY hard days; the ones where my toddler asks why we can’t find Daddy (because he doesn’t remember), the days that my older son asks when he’s getting a stepdad because he feels left out, or my daughter tells me she “just knows” she has cancer (she’s nine, by the way), all I can do is my best; and my best is a workout long enough to get out of my own head before I help them.
When you’re on a plane, one of the first things they tell you to do is to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Anxiety is no different. I can’t cure it, it will always be there, but if I help myself first, I can help others, too.
Megan Courtney is a widowed mom of three young wildlings, ages eight, six, and three, and dog mom to two goofy black lab mutts. She writes about her journey through widowhood and single parenthood on her blog (http://mom-entum.co/), and continues passionate work as an advocate and fundraiser for the National Brain Tumor Society. She is also a fitness enthusiast and health and wellness coach, who’s training for a half marathon and working toward earning her CPT certificate. Megan holds a BA in English Literature and always finds inspiration in the little things: her favorite song, a new book or planner, or a fresh set of pens. You can find her on Instagram as @megs_momentum.