I've had anxiety problems for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately for me, mental illness runs in my family. I've always been a time-bomb of anxiety and depression disorders. Lucky for me (or unlucky for me, depending on how you look at it), that bomb went off when I was only in the fourth grade. I say that I'm lucky because that's given me about ten years to learn about and manage my anxiety. Yeah, it sucks to be an elementary-schooler with significant anxiety problems, but it's helped me to grow into the functional 21-year-old college student that I am today. Honestly, if we hadn't caught it so early, I wouldn't be the same person I am now.
In the fourth grade, I had SERIOUS separation anxiety. I would scream and cry and fuss when my parents made me go to school. Sure, no young child really wants to go to school, but my issues were deeper than just wanting to stay home to watch "Ellen" or cartoons. The second that my mom drove away, I would have a meltdown. (Granted, I was already having a meltdown, but I would get even worse.)
There were days that someone had to physically remove me from the car. I know it broke my parents' hearts to leave their nine-year-old with absolute terror in her eyes. There were days that I won the battle and got to stay home with my mom. I would eat pizza and sit next to her while she worked. I just wanted to be near someone safe.
When I didn't win the daily battle and I was forced to go to school, I would lie on the floor and cry. I would get so upset that it would cause physical illness. I always walked around with a trash can because my anxiety caused so much nausea. I'm sure my teachers didn't really know what to do with me. Eventually, everyone got tired of my constant and over-the-top "performances".
DISCLAIMER: My antics weren't "performances" and no one accused me of such. But after a while, I'm sure that's how it seemed.
Finally, I was sent to my guidance counselor. I had to go every single day. I got rewarded for showing up to school and for staying through the entire day. Thanks to some simple positive reinforcement, we managed my anxiety. It even seemed to completely disappear for a while. But anyone with anxiety knows that it doesn't just disappear. It hides in the shadows and waits until the least opportune moment to rear its ugly head.
I cruised through school for a few more years. I was doing really well. Then, all of the sudden, I couldn't breathe. I would lie awake at night and gasp for air. I'd always had insomnia, but it was never due to a physical issue. And now it was. My chest felt too heavy to get a full breath. I felt like I was suffocating. But I didn't hyperventilate. No–instead, I would sigh these HUGE sighs.
Eventually, the breathing issue became a daytime issue. I could be sitting with my parents, just watching TV in the living room, when I'd let out a giant sigh. My parents didn't think anything of it until I literally messed up one of my ribs just trying to breathe. I was trying so hard to breathe that I had slipped one of my ribs out of alignment. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to walk. It hurt to sit–to stand. I didn't know what to do.
So we went to a chiropractor. That worked for me. It treated the most pressing issue: My ribs. But once that was fixed, it was only a matter of time until I hurt myself again. I explained to my parents what was going on. Their seventh grader just couldn't breathe. We thought that maybe it was a buildup of fluid in my lungs. So we went from doctor to doctor–from specialist to specialist–with no solution. Finally, one doctor suggested that maybe it was anxiety.
But what did I have to be anxious about? I was a child. He prescribed me an anxiety medication to relax my muscles and it worked–almost too well. I was always in a fog. I stopped taking it. Now that my breathing was under control, I was fine. Right? Wrong.
My parents made me go see a hypno-therapist. She taught me different coping skills to use when I got anxious and it was helpful. But I was already past the "gasping-for-breath" stage of my anxiety, so I didn't feel like I needed therapy anymore. I stopped going.
I continued to coast through life until my anxiety was left unchecked for too long and got out of hand again. My sophomore year of high school, I started to have panic attacks. I didn't really know why. My heart would race during classes and my breath would catch. It got to the point that I needed to leave the room. I took matters into my own hands and tried to figure out the cause.
Quiet rooms set me off. If I was watching a performance and everyone was quiet, my stomach would twist into knots. It would growl and groan until I got so anxious that I would have a full-blown panic attack. So what did I do in response? You guessed it. I went back to my hypno-therapist.
We worked on more coping mechanisms and treated the symptoms of my anxiety, but never the underlying cause. And that wasn't her fault–I always came in high-strung and focused on my symptoms. I never let her under the surface of my anxiety.
After starting college, I spiraled into a pretty deep depression. I was constantly practicing or working on something. I never had time to focus on myself. I started binge-eating and my self-esteem plummeted with my mood. I knew I was depressed, but I didn't know what to do. So I started therapy again.
Therapy helped me SO MUCH during my bouts of anxiety and again when I realized that I was depressed. I'm a huge proponent of therapy. If you're upset about something, go get some therapy. Even if you think that you're not struggling with any type of mental illness, you could probably benefit from a little therapy.
I've been in therapy consistently since starting college. After hitting my sophomore year, I realized that even though therapy was great, I could probably use some medication. Over winter break, I told my mom that I was really depressed and that I needed something to help climb out of this hole I'd dug for myself. I'm medicated now and it works better than I could have ever imagined (but that's a whole other story).
Here's the moral of this long-winded anecdote: Anxiety doesn't always manifest itself in that "generally understood" fashion. Anxiety attacks don't all look the same. They aren't all tears and hyperventilating. Sometimes they look like a person getting quiet. Sometimes they look like a few big sighs. Sometimes they don't look like anything at all.
Anxiety can look like anything. It can hide. But just because you don't have the "classic anxiety symptoms" doesn't mean that you're not suffering. You're not alone in this. I promise.