Wellness: On My Mind
Wellness is a special blog series that aims to promote an honest, open, and supportive culture of physical and mental health on campus.
In this installment, Graphic Design student Lauren Allen shares her struggle with overcoming anxiety.
I’ll admit it…I’m a bit of a hypochondriac.
I have WebMD bookmarked on my laptop under “Most Frequently Visited Sites.” And sure, I’ve convinced myself of having Lymphoma before, but really, who hasn’t?
So one night two years ago, my face aglow from my laptop screen, I told my roommates that I thought I had a brain tumor. They told me to close my laptop and get some sleep.
I had been having this unsettling feeling in my head that was both heavy and light at the same time. I had mentioned it to doctors but they mostly told me to drink more water. No one was concerned. Except for me.
“Concerned” is actually an understatement. I had chronic anxiety, which led to daily panic attacks. I felt off and everyone told me I was fine; test after test came up negative, which might sound great but it just fueled my anxiety. I’d wake up every morning and plan my day around the panic attack that I knew would strike at some point. I started going out less because driving was an anxiety trigger for me. Canceling plans became my signature move.
My panic attacks would probably be considered mild in comparison to others, but anyone who’s had one knows there’s really no such thing. I’d feel my heart rate speed up in my throat to the point where I felt like I could almost taste my pulse. I’d shake so intensely that my arms were essentially useless. And, the really fun part, was when I’d get tunnel vision. I noticed that after a panic attack passed, I’d be energizer bunny-esque. I found out later that it was from the insane amounts of adrenaline my body had produced in the moment.
So after a meeting with a lot of doctors over a long period of time, and trying to cure my anxiety through natural remedies (ie. vitamins, breathing techniques, listening to my “Feel Good” playlist on repeat), a neurologist ordered a CT of my head as a way to calm me down. A week later the scan results were in. Turns out I really did have a brain tumor.
My first reaction was relief. Something was wrong with me and they could point at it on a screen. Praise the lord, I wasn’t crazy.
That being said, lying in an MRI machine for my follow-up appointment brought on a whole new set of anxieties. If you've ever had an MRI, you know the drill: lie still for about an hour and listen to the machine screech around your body. It gives you time to think. It was then that I realized the magnitude of what my life could turn into - there was a very real possibility that I would need major brain surgery.
I received MRI’s every three months for a year. And like clockwork, every two and a half months after my last appointment, I’d be anxiety-stricken all over again. I told my doctor about this cycle I found myself in. He sat me down and gave me a list of warning signs that I needed to be on the lookout for. Rather than wondering if every headache was a sign that the tumor was growing, I now had a checklist that I could use to reassure myself that my headaches were just headaches.
For a long time, I didn’t talk about what was happening to me. I was embarrassed about being anxious for no apparent reason, and then when there was a reason, it was simply overwhelming. But here I am, two years after diagnosis, learning how to cope with anxiety, brain tumors, and scary MRI appointments.
I’ve found that learning about my personal triggers was a major step in helping overcome them. When I find my mind dabbling in the scary realms of “what if,” I revert back to what I know. I reference my list of warning signs and I ground myself back in reality. I have learned to give myself more credit; I don’t let myself be victim to impending panic attacks anymore. Instead, I acknowledge the fact that my train of thought is what starts them, so changing my train of thought is what will stop them.
It was always the moment my pulse picked up that I knew what was about to happen. My real recovery began when instead of giving into it, I started fighting it. I was sick of feeling weak and I was scared to death that my anxiety would begin taking over my life any more than it already had. I remembered a phrase that I learned years prior in an introduction to philosophy class. Descartes said, “I think therefore I am.” He came to the conclusion that being able to think is essentially how we know we exist. I couldn’t help but feel that if my thoughts were powerful enough to prove my existence, they could probably stop a panic attack.
“I think therefore I am” became a bit of a mantra for me and it helps me to this day. Even though I haven’t had a panic attack in two years, I know I’m not immune to them. I still have anxiety, and I still work at fighting off my demons on a daily basis. About a year ago, I got my mantra tattooed on my arm. To most people who see it, it’s a nice phrase that shows I’m a philosophy nerd. But to me, it reminds me of the strength I have - the strength we all have - in our minds.