May 25, 2016

Anxiety: my story



May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so I thought it would be a good time to push myself out of my comfort zone and share some vulnerability about my struggles and triumphs with anxiety.

Anxiety looks and feels different for every person. For me, the best way to explain it would be to tell you to think back to a time you were under water. Remember the moment you realized you were running out of breath, panicked a little,  and had to quickly swim up to the surface to take a deep breath? That moment is stretched out into minutes and sometimes hours for me as my body feels like it is reaching for a deep enough breath to calm my racing heart. Sometimes my thoughts are involved: I worry, I overanalyze, I assume the worst possible scenario will occur, I listen to lies in my mind about my worth and feel insecure that I will be 'found out' for what I am feeling and looked upon as weak. But most often, my anxiety has psychosomatic symptoms, which means that there are physical symptoms (for me, these include: feeling out of breath, heart racing, lightheadedness, nausea) that are a result from a mental and emotional factors.

I started noticing symptoms that appeared to be anxiety-related around three years ago when I started working as a pediatric nurse practitioner in a primary care clinic that had a large population of medicaid insured children and families. The perfectionist and people-pleaser in me wanted to give excellent care to each child and family I worked with, which was a good goal, but this put a lot of pressure on me as a new NP in my first job. I ended up having a lot of teenage patients who were being seen for various mental health issues, many of which were contemplating suicide. There were also neglected and abused kids that walked through the doors of our clinic. I would walk out the clinic each evening and take home a lot of the emotional burden of seeing children and teens who were in heart-wrenching situations. I wanted to fix their brokenness and stitch up the holes in their hearts from being hurt, feeling unsafe, or not feeling loved. Over time, I started having moments during appointments with patients that I would have trouble breathing and would try to concentrate on what the patient was telling me at the same time as figuring out how I can act like I was totally fine and not pass out in front of them. I would take walks around the clinic between scheduled patient visits and pray, "Jesus, I cannot go back in there unless You are going to come in there with me and help me get through my day. I have no more strength. Give me the ability to speak and show love because I feel so empty and hopeless for them".

I struggled to understand how to deal with the heavy burden of working with kids and teens in high-risk situations and somewhere along the way, forgot about taking care of myself. I ignored the symptoms and as I gained experience at my job, I felt like the moments of anxiety decreased, so I didn't address it then. But about a year later, I started seeing more teens with mental health issues and I was having lots of changes in my personal life. I started dating the man who is now my husband and even though this was an exciting and beautiful change, it also came with increased anxiety because I was unearthing different communication struggles and patterns of isolation and avoidance whenever hard topics were brought up. Carefully built walls of self-protection were finally being toppled over as I was learning to communicate my emotions and fears more effectively and opening up my heart to a man who loved me in a way that reflected Jesus' love for me. Greg's love wrecked me and healed me at the same time. But all the unearthed emotions on top of already stressful situations increased the episodes of anxiety where they were happening several times a week, lasting longer than before, and becoming more debilitating because I would feel like I would faint if I didn't get out of the room I was in.

Throughout the years of experiencing these emotions, I had difficulty admitting that my symptoms resembled anxiety. Here I was, a PNP who was diagnosing anxiety in teens, having the same symptoms they were having, but wanting desperately to hide this because I thought it would lessen my credibility as a professional as well as a Christian. I was supposed to have it all together because I was a medical provider, right? And I was a Christian, so was I sinning for feeling anxious? I struggled with questions like these and hoped silence and avoidance would make them go away. On the outside, I appeared to have it all together. I would have anxiety attacks in front of people but since they were physical symptoms (heart racing, trouble breathing, feeling lightheaded), they were easily missed by people around me, and I hoped to keep it that way. But on the inside, I was struggling and knew I would need to deal with this because it was stealing my joy and peace. I was masking the pain, confusion, and fears of anxiety, but at the expense of also masking any positive feelings. My emotions would seem stunted and when I was in a season of recurrent anxiety, I tended to look aloof, disinterested, and even cold. I didn't even realize this until Greg lovingly pointed it out. We would FaceTime while dating and he'd mention my flat affect and I wouldn't even realize because I was getting used to living with some degree of anxiety almost daily.

Thankfully, God is a good, good Father who sees His hurting kids. And in His perfect ways, He provides healing and redemption. He shows us the deep pit we've been lying in and then provides a way out to see the light and hope  He perfectly provides through Jesus. He brings hope where there was hopelessness.

I started opening up to close friends and to Greg about these moments of panic and labeled it what it was: anxiety attacks. It was freeing and surprising to see the love I received in return when I was vulnerable and honest about what was going on. For years, I felt embarrassed about feeling this way, and I was starting to feel hope that my anxiety did not have to define or control me.  I eventually started seeing a Christian counselor near my apartment in Vancouver, Washington, who helped me process different root problems that caused anxiety in that season of my life. Soon, I felt better equipped to recognize and work through my anxiety. I started to feel less ashamed and instead, began to see more clearly how God can use something like anxiety in my life to help me focus on His goodness and love. I was able to better empathize with friends and patients who experienced different mental health issues and struggles. And I was able to understand God's love in a deeper way because of my experiences of feeling His love and care in times when I was shaking from fears and anxious thoughts.

I was also able to see how different areas of my overall health were impacted by my anxiety and vice versa. I focused on improving my sleep to help increase my capacity to process emotions during the day, re-started jogging a few days a week, studied and prayed through specific Psalms that were vulnerable and honest (Psalm 130 is one of my favorites), journaled my emotions to process them before I tried explaining them to Greg or my counselor, treated myself to monthly massages and weekly fresh flowers in my apartment (because flowers bring a smile to my face), and invested time in close friendships whether through coffee dates or FaceTime for faraway friends. I worked through (and am still working through) issues like letting go of the need to strive for perfection, giving myself grace because I was putting too much pressure on myself, naming emotions rather than stuffing them down and ignoring them, and seeing who I am as God's beloved child and finding my worth and identity from that truth. I was very blessed and fortunate to work at a clinic where my colleagues and supervisors were supportive and I was able to drop to part-time and have extra breaks between my patients to help with work stress, which helped tremendously while I was at work.

Now, a few years later, part of me would love to say that I have not struggled with anxiety at all recently. But that would be a lie. Instead, I want to say that God has been so faithful in providing for me in the big changes that have occurred the past seven months. I married the man of my dreams, moved 2,000 miles away to live with that man, started looking for a new job (and now in the process of starting a new job), and got plugged into a new church community. There have been days when my anxiety has resurfaced and that familiar dread rises in me. But I am becoming more alert and intentional, and, for the girl who used to ignore tell-tale signs until they practically smacked her in the face, that is a good place to be in. I am continuing a lot of the aforementioned practices to help me with my overall health: mind (praying, journaling), body (eating healthy, working out), heart (counseling to help process emotions), soul (studying the Bible to helps me better understand God and who I am as His child). I am talking through all these changes with a wonderful, wise Christian woman who provides free counseling at our church, getting more plugged into our church community so that I don't feel like a stranger, making friends in our Young Marrieds group at church, and enjoying the big and little joys about being a newlywed. Some days and weeks are excellent and others are hard as I have to choose to fight anxious thoughts rather than being conquered by them. Through it all, I am seeing God's love, faithfulness, and redemption over my story as He helps me to surrender and trust that when I am weak, He is the strong One that is capable of holding my trembling self. And that makes it worth the fight.

If you have felt anxiety, depression, or any other emotional struggles that you haven't really dealt with yet, I would encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and ask for help. Reach out to trustworthy friends who can remind you of the truth when you are overwhelmed with lies about your identity and worth. Look into counseling services at your church or in the community. For me, it was very beneficial to search for Christian counselors who could bring Biblical truths in with contemporary psychology. Write down what you are feeling, which can help you explain these things to people you reach out to. Pay attention to your mind and body: are there any habits you are willing to work on to see if they give your body more rest and energy to deal with emotions (exercising, getting enough sleep, eating healthier foods, decreasing social media, journaling were all very helpful habits for me). Pray for guidance in how to start battling anxiety so that its grip can loosen and you can rediscover the joy and peace that God desires for us.

""Lord, help!" they cried in their trouble, and He saved them from their distress. He led them from darkness and deepest gloom; He snapped their chains"
(Psalm 107:13-14)




10 comments:

  1. Beautiful insights! This is powerful.

    Anxiety issues are so overlooked/misunderstood within the church.
    I suffered debilitating anxiety attacks for a couple of years after I was hit by a drunk driver. My brother was in the same accident and was hospitalized in a coma for 4 months- his injuries were physical and very obvious, my injuries were mental and emotional and took years for God to heal.

    The healing process isn't simple- I'm still a work-in-progress too! Love you girl :)
    Thank you for sharing your story so eloquently!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kristin,
      Thank you SO much for your encouraging words as well as sharing some of your own struggles and triumphs with anxiety. I look forward to chatting more in person about this in the future. We should get lunch sometime soon!

      Delete
  2. Elena,

    It's so nice to be able to visit your blog again and read a little bit about how God is working in your life. Thank you for being vulnerable and posting on anxiety- mental health is such an important topic that often doesn't get discussed. You are awesome!!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much! I was scared to post this because it is intimidating to be vulnerable about something that I have struggled with for so long, but I am glad I listened to God's gentle leading to post it and I praise Him for using it to encourage others

      Delete
  3. Wow, I loved reading this - my heart hurts for your struggles but is so, so encouraged by your hopeful message in sharing it all! I've been studying abroad the past few months and finally starting to call anxiety what it really is, and I'll definitely be trying out a few more of your suggestions when I get home. For now, I'm finding that being in the word is simply the best medicine for my heart, like you said! Thank you for sharing your story.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Allie, thank you so much for sharing a bit of your story with me! Yes, I agree… the Word is very good medicine! Isaiah 26:3 has been a huge encouragement to me over the years: "You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You." I have found that my mind is "stayed" (focused) on God when I journal prayers, meditate on His Word, make time for prayer (even if it is short at times when I am at work or driving), and talking to trusted friends about Scripture so I can have a more solid understanding of His promises. I hope and trust that God will continue to love you and provide for all your needs (including emotional) as you work through anxious thoughts.

      Delete
  4. Thank you, first of all for your bravery in sharing your story! But secondly, THANK YOU a hundred times over for acknowledging that anxiety is a MENTAL illness and not just a spiritual struggle. When the church views anxiety as something that's a result of sin or not having enough faith, it makes it a lot more difficult for the sufferer.
    I was happy to see you point out that the symptoms of anxiety and anxiety attacks are the result of mental and emotional issues MANIFESTING themselves physically. That's so important to know, because a lot of people don't understand that or realize that.
    I also liked what you said about Christian counsellors bringing in biblical truths with contemporary psychology! That's a great way to look at it! I'm also seeing a Christian counselor and this is exactly what she does! I love my counselor!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much for the encouragement, Emily! YES, it was a very important thing for me to realize and be vocal about… that anxiety is not just a spiritual battle, it is very much mental/emotional. I used to feel like a sinner and like I didn't have enough faith to battle my anxiety and was even told this by some Christians. I am glad there were other Christians in my life who helped me process and see that this was not the truth and that I am not in sin. I like the Matt Chandler quote that can apply for many things but I use a lot for my anxiety: "It's OK to not be OK. It's not OK to stay there". God is not mad at me for having anxious thoughts, but He is full of love for me and because of that, doesn't want me to be stuck in that anxious state. When I focus on God's love for me even in my most anxious seasons, it allows me to let go of a desire to appear like I have it all together and allows me to be vulnerable and trust that God will hold me through it all.
      I really appreciate your encouraging words! Thank you so much!!!

      Delete
  5. I saw this at my party last week and everytime I sat down to read, I was interrupted. Today I saw it on our Tuesday Talk linkup and finally have had a chance to read it. What a powerful testimony to share with others. I too have struggled with anxiety over the years and still do at times. Call it being a woman!! But, seriously. What I love about your story is your quest to get to the bottom of it and DEAL with it. So many don't until it is too late. Lovely how our God used many people in your life to help you through! Thanks for sharing again today at our link up. Hope to see you back on Thurday for Party at My Place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks you so much, Michelle! Yes, God was so faithful to bring so many wise women into my life during the past few years to help me understand His truths vs the enemy's lies about my worth, identity, and future. I am so thankful! It was scary to post this because I have never been so public with my struggles with anxiety, but it has been both encouraging and humbling to see the response and that readers were encouraged by it. Praise God who works through our insecurities and weaknesses!

      Delete

I love to hear your thoughts!

Elle Alice