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Anxiety Vignette


I would characterize myself as... ambitious.

Ever since I was little, I always wanted to be the best... At everything I did.

I originally joined the military to get money for school. So, as soon as I could, I got a degree.

But I realized I really liked what I was doing. The speed and intensity of it was perfect for me, and I had more responsibilities, as a 23-year-old, than anyone I knew outside of the Air Force. So I kept on.

I was involved with professional organizations, I was all over intramurals. I was highly involved in my unit, but I was also developing myself professionally -- I made Tech my first time testing.

Not long after I found myself volunteering to be the acting First Sergeant.

That might have been enough for any sane person. But, I'm me, so I decided to get my masters degree.

To back up a little bit, keeping busy is what makes me happy. I like the pressure and I thrive under stress. I thought I had it under control, because I always do. But it's a fine line.

The next thing I know, these... these stressors, start building up around me. And of course I don't even notice at first. I was doing homework and writing papers in the evenings, taking calls in the middle of the night, putting out fires at work. And then my dad... my dad got really sick and I am the closest child, so then I was a caregiver.

I felt like I was on a boat that kept springing new leaks.

It didn't take long after that until I was waking up in the middle of the night, consistently, with my heart racing, which I had never experienced before.

My life turned into all of these interconnected stressors, where, the shifting or nagging of any one thing would exacerbate the others.

So I started trying to avoid the things that were bothering me, one by one. Which is crazy! I've never avoided a problem before. But, of course that made things worse.

After a couple weeks of that, I started getting these heart palpitations, almost always at night, when I was lying in bed. Then I was really scared. Now it's my physical health on top of everything else. So, I would psych myself out by thinking about my problems, which could make it hard to breathe, and then I was concerned about my health, which made all the symptoms worse.

It's so obvious looking back, what was going on, but in that moment it took this... physiological problem to finally stop and think that maybe I should go to a doctor.

So on one hand I was relieved to hear that there was really nothing wrong with my heart, that it was just stress. But it was a little harder to accept that, for the first time in my life, I wasn't able to manage this juggling act.

So, anyway, my doctor referred me to Mental Health, and I can hardly admit how scared I was to go to that first appointment.

To address my physical symptoms, my therapist had me replicate a racing heart by basically hyperventilating on purpose. Which sounds weird, but  over time it let me disconnect that physical feeling from an anxiety attack, so I was less afraid of what my stress would do to me.

And then it was on to exposure therapy, which is basically facing your fears little by little. It might seem obvious to some people, but I found it really helpful to understand how exposure to certain stressors would affect me and change my thinking from a psychological perspective. Eventually I realized that no one thing in my life was truly insurmountable.

And I was really frustrated with myself for a while, for not being able to do it on my own, which I can't imagine helped at all. But I soon began to realize that I can't be my best self if I'm overextended like that. I can't be there 100 percent for my dad or for an airman who's in trouble if I'm not well.

It's like on flights when they tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. I was holding my breath trying to save everyone around me. I needed to take care of myself at times to have the energy to balance everything