So, you really don’t need a “why” to feel anxious. I’ve struggled with that idea sometimes because as an analytical person I always want to know the reasons behind what I’m feeling, but I also know that sometimes searching for the “why” can add even more stress to whatever you’re feeling, especially when it’s not an obvious “why”. Sometimes it’s helpful to know why you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms/feelings/sensations, and sometimes it’s best to just passively accept them and wait them out. This is one of the many things I’m learning.
Searching for the reasons can quickly turn into trying to “solve” the anxiety you feel, and sometimes that’s counterproductive. When the reason isn’t easy to find, we can go down a rabbit hole that quickly leads to thoughts like, “there must be something wrong with me”, or “why can’t I just get over this”, or “I must have a brain tumor or a severe psychological problem because this isn’t normal”, or “why am I so weak”, etc. etc. etc.
But, for me, it was at least important to look back at my specific contributing factors in order to understand the reason for some of my automatic thoughts and behaviors. I had never done this before I went to therapy for the first time and it was pretty eye opening. I didn’t even realize I had automatic thought patterns that needed to be challenged until my Therapist pointed one of them out and then I realized just how often that thought was causing me to feel anxious. Recognizing and understanding underlying and contributing factors can be an important part of healing and recovery.
Anxiety is super complex. Though the “chemical imbalance” theory has been largely debunked, there are most likely some biological factors at play, as well as environmental factors, social factors, life experiences, our behaviors and beliefs, and our unique personality traits that all contribute to a struggle with anxiety. And, our biology is often influenced by our behaviors and environment. So, it’s hard to say which causes which. In my own research, I’ve found that most reputable studies show that our own experiences and interpretation of those experiences can cause changes in our biology. After all, the brain is malleable, and when we think things over and over again, thanks to neuroplasticity, our brain has the capability to change. So, I tend to land more in the camp of nurture over nature when it comes to anxiety. We are largely shaped by our life experiences and our learned behaviors.
So, that’s my disclaimer. That being said, here are a few of my own personal contributing factors:
- My personality. I happen to be a sensitive person. I always have been. I was a very happy baby, according to my parents, but when I did something wrong, all my dad had to do was give me a look and I would burst into tears. My brothers were completely different. It took a lot more than a stern look to get them to change a behavior. I hate violence and cruelty. I cannot watch horror movies and I’m often hiding behind a pillow or blanket whenever we watch anything remotely scary or violent. I can sense other people’s moods and emotions, which can really tire me out. I’ve been called perceptive and intuitive. I overanalyze and think deeply about things. I hate conflict and criticism. I’m imaginative and deeply moved by music and beauty and often get overly emotionally involved with fictional characters in books and movies. This isn’t to say that all sensitive people are anxious, but I think my sensitivity to stimuli and the way I interpret things has definitely contributed to my own struggle. There’s plenty of upsides to being highly sensitive as well, but that’s for another post.
- My genetics. This could also be considered learned behavior, although my mom did a pretty good job of showing us how to face our fears. She’s afraid of stuff, but she does it anyway. However, both my mom and Grandma had fears/anxieties. They were wonderful examples of faith over fear, but it’s something I know they both struggled with. So, maybe a propensity towards anxiety is inherited to a degree.
- My environment. I grew up in Thailand, in a culture very different than “my own”. I had a very unique and happy childhood. I got to travel all over the world and experience all sorts of different cultures, but I’ve also experienced the downside of what it means to be a “third culture kid”. David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken wrote a book on this very subject, and they describe home for third culture kids as “everywhere and nowhere”. The constant “losses” and changes of moving across the globe over and over again did take its toll on me. I wouldn’t trade my unique upbringing, but it’s no wonder I developed some anxiety issues, especially surrounding life changes. When I moved to the US, people didn’t “get” me. I didn’t dress like them, I didn’t understand basic things like the way Townships and Counties worked. American money confused me. I was amazed at the deer walking around. Little did I know deer are common sightings in NJ, and kids thought I was pretty weird for getting excited when I saw one.
- My experiences. Boarding school, typhoid, moving across the globe multiple times, culture shock, bullying, embarrassment/public humiliation. I believe all of these contributed to my struggle with problematic anxiety.
- Boarding school & Bullying. I was seven. I was excited to go with my best friends to boarding school in Malaysia. I loved it at first, but then things started to change. First, my dorm parents were on the cusp of retirement. I think they were tired and a little burned out. Dealing with a bunch of 6-8 year olds adjusting to being away from home isn’t an easy job. They tried their best and they were kind people for the most part, but I believe they were “checked out”. Second, kids deal with grief and pain in different ways. There were many kids who fell apart and acted out. I wasn’t one of them. But, when my roommates, my closest friends, started to turn on me, because they were dealing with their own issues, I was shaken. Three’s a crowd and I was on the outs suddenly. They hid my things and left me out and made me feel inferior and alone.
- This had been going on for some time when my dad visited me for a few days. When he left, something inside me broke. I couldn’t stop crying. I remember being in the shower, sobbing. I remember my dorm parents telling me to calm down and I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe and my stomach hurt. I didn’t know how to verbalize what was going on. The dorm parents did eventually switch me to a different room, but there was a girl in that room who wound up having to leave early because of how distressed she was. Again, as a sensitive person, I think I internalized this. I saw a lot of kids in pain and I didn’t know how to process it. The rest of the year was rough. I made it through, but something inside me had shifted.
- The next year, I didn’t go back to boarding school. My parents originally didn’t have the money to send me to the international school in Bangkok, but God provided, and eventually they got the funds needed to keep me home with them. New school, new kids, new problems. One of those problems, was a pretty traumatic bout with Typhoid fever. Yup. Who gets Typhoid these days, right? Well, me. I got really sick. I ran a fever and my mom kept me home for a few days. When the fever broke, she sent me to school, even though I wasn’t feeling 100% yet. In the middle of class, I felt like I couldn’t breathe suddenly. It caused a scene, and they rushed me to the nurse. My mom came and picked me up, took me to the emergency room, where the Doctor told me I probably had asthma. But in the cab, on the way home, I had another “episode” and my fever spiked again. My mom took me to our regular Doctor and asked them to please check me for Typhoid (my mom is a nurse and knew something wasn’t right). Sure enough, I had it. I was admitted to the hospital. The experience stuck with me and even though I was sick, I was embarrassed by the whole thing and all the attention it brought.
- Fast forward a few years and I had finally adjusted to my new school and made some wonderful, international friends, and I was happy. It was short-lived because we were due to return to the States and my dad was going to pursue his Doctorate so we wouldn’t be returning to Thailand for a few years. Adjusting to America was way more difficult than I thought it would be. See #3 above. I basically fell apart. This was a massive catalyst for my struggle with anxiety. I didn’t fit in, and it took me a long time to find good friends.
- I also began to hate figure skating. I had loved it at one point, but I began to dread it. My self esteem had taken a massive hit and I just didn’t have the confidence to compete. Even though I was told how talented I was, I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t handle the pressure. I wouldn’t eat before competitions and I would get sick and lose sleep for days. I began to fear throwing up in public, because my anxiety was causing me so much stomach distress. Then, one time, it happened. My worst fear. I was in the middle of a figure skating test in order to move on to the next level, and I had gotten so stressed prior to the event, and my coach told me to keep drinking water to keep myself hydrated, that in the middle of the test I had to ask the judges to pause the music and I skated over to the edge of the rink, and vomited. In front of everyone. After that, I finished the test and I passed, but I was absolutely mortified. I was publicly humiliated and never wanted to show my face to any of those people ever again. Truthfully, everyone was pretty kind about it. I was the one being unkind to myself. I felt their judgement, even if it wasn’t there. The embarrassment and humiliation of this event stuck with me. I still cringe when I think about it sometimes.
- Despite the fact that I was the one judging myself most harshly, one of my friend’s parents used to talk about my “anxiety and adjustment issues” in a negative light. That stuck with me and no doubt contributed to the “something must be wrong with me” thought pattern. It also made me hide my struggle. It made me feel deeply ashamed.
- Also, my dad is a Pastor. I’ve always been in the limelight to a degree. Look at the Pastor’s kids. Look at them misbehave. My brothers and I have often felt that our decisions and life choices, which, to be fair, have not always been good ones, were under a microscope. My parents are respected, intelligent, faithful and kind people in the community. But, we were kids. We made mistakes. Like all kids, we didn’t always do the right thing, but the difference was, when we made a mistake, everyone knew about it and it was judged more harshly, or at least it felt that way.
- My own beliefs/internalizations. Yes, there have been times I’ve been judged for my anxiety, but no one has ever been harder on me than I’ve been on myself. Why couldn’t I be more confident? Why couldn’t I be like everyone else? What was wrong with me? What if I threw up in front of people again? Why did I get so nervous to perform? Why didn’t I fit in? These thoughts. I allowed them to fester. I believed them. Even when things started to get better, even when I felt adjusted to my new home in New Jersey, those thought patterns were there. I just didn’t realize it. I became really good at ignoring them. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but I was. I was simply sweeping my anxiety and all my hurt from these experiences into the corners of my mind, where they weren’t at the forefront. I told myself I was ok. I pressed on, even thriving at points, but that anxiety was there, festering. I thought I had beaten it, but I hadn’t. I thought I had dealt with it, but I hadn’t. I had just pushed it away, trying my best to ignore it, trying my best to ignore the things that had hurt me, scarred me.
Ignoring my anxiety. It’s what I did for 24 years. It worked, for a while. The symptoms disappeared. I didn’t get sick to my stomach anymore. I adjusted to the changes and to my new environment and things stabilized, but those pesky underlying factors and thoughts remained unchallenged. To be fair, I didn’t know there were underlying factors that needed to be challenged. I didn’t know there were lots of unhealthy thought patterns festering. I only realized it after having a breakdown on my honeymoon in Greece, of all places. I was on a beautiful Greek island with my new husband. Things should have been perfect but they weren’t. I had been stressed in the months leading up to our wedding, and that stress was enough to unleash all those festering thoughts I wasn’t aware of. Stress hormones are a powerful thing and so our are thoughts. The combination is what brought my struggle with disabling anxiety back to the surface once again.
And it would take years of battling those thoughts, riding the waves of horrible anxiety symptoms, many sessions with my Therapist, and, yes, eventually medication to get me back to a state of calm.
This struggle with anxiety has been the biggest challenge of my life, especially these last ten years. There have been months I’ve felt like I’d finally beaten it, but then it would rear up again and a new symptom or fear would appear. It’s been a back and forth, often looking like two steps forward, one step back (or even two steps back at points). It’s been slow. It’s been full of trial and error. It’s been so hard.
I’m at a place now, where I wouldn’t say I’m totally anxiety free, but I’m feeling stronger and more capable than I’ve felt in a long time. I’ve faced fears in the last 3 months that I haven’t been able to face for years. I haven’t had to take my emergency anxiety medication for almost 3 months. When anxieties rear up, which, by the way, is inevitable, I haven’t been taking the bait. I haven’t been going down the rabbit hole. I haven’t fed the fear.
I won’t lie, there’s a fear that it will come roaring back, that disabling anxiety, but I think I’m better equipped to deal with it now. My faith has grown immensely from this struggle. I can rest in God’s sovereignty and peace. I can recognize thoughts that need to be challenged, taken captive and made obedient (2 Cor. 10:5).
I don’t want to live in a place where I remember past traumas, or dwell on the many factors that contributed to my anxiety, but I’m grateful to know what they are. I can now leave them, along with the unhealthy thought patterns I’ve created because of them, in the past where they belong.