Fight or Flight

Have you ever almost been hit by a car?

Maybe you’ve been attempting to cross the road and out of the corner of your eye, you realize the approaching car isn’t slowing down. Before you know it, breaks are squealing as the driver spots you but maybe it’s close enough to reach out and touch the hood before the car finally comes to a halt.

Remember that moment? In those few seconds, as the car is getting closer and closer, what happens? What do you feel?

Most likely, you freeze. Your mind races as it tries to grasp a course of action: do I need to jump out of the way? Will the driver see me in time? Your heart leaps into your throat and you can feels its pulse as it rapidly thumps in your chest, echoing in your ears, pounding through your body.

As your mind processes the danger, perhaps you break out into a sweat and your breathing quickens. The hair on your head and arms may stand on end. Your muscles tense, preparing your body to leap out of the path of the speeding car in order to save your life.

This is what’s known as fight or flight response. It’s a primordial physiological response that prepares your body to fight an imminent danger or flee from potential harm. It’s what our early ancestors used to stay alive.

It’s also what anyone who has an anxiety disorder lives with day in, day out, every day of their lives.

I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in the summer of 2015, which means I had lived most of my then-35 years undiagnosed and in this constant state of fight or flight.

I’ll get into the whys of my diagnosis and other related topics (I think I have elements of social anxiety as well, for example) in subsequent blog posts but today I want to talk about the physical reality of living with this mental illness.

One of the biggest misconceptions about mental illnesses is that because it originates in your brain, that’s where it stays.

This is simply not true.

Think about it: as you’re reading this, your mind is directing your eyes to follow these words from left to right. Maybe your neck is stiff so your brain instructs your arm to reach up and your fingers to massage the tender spot. These are physical responses to neurological directions, and mental illnesses work the same way.

I’m here to tell you that anxiety BEGINS in your brain but it manifests throughout your entire body.

I only began to understand the physical symptoms in the weeks leading up to my diagnosis. I was attempting to wean myself off anti-depressants (read more about why I was on them here) but what I didn’t understand was that these tiny pills that had helped me climb out of a dark place were also treating my anxiety disorder.

So as I began taking less medication, the symptoms starting coming back.

The first thing I noticed was the tension. The muscles throughout my body were clenched all the time. Even when I tried relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing, my body still remained in a state of tension.

Then my heart rate sped up until it was racing all the time. When it wasn’t trying to pound itself out of my chest, it skipped beats, making me realize that I hadn’t felt this fluttering sensation in my chest for a couple of years.

I became really physically exhausted and mentally drained at all times.

I feel compelled to point out that these physical responses were not in response to any discernible threat. My life was never in danger and my stress levels hadn’t noticeably changed.

Then, I started to get angry.

I lost my temper when I didn’t understand a play at a Frisbee practice and yelled at my captain. I wanted to throttle the cashier at the supermarket who had to look up the code for every vegetable I placed on the conveyer belt. I restrained myself from flipping off the driver who cut me off in traffic.

I was over-reacting to everyday situations that normally I would shrug off.

Then I began to withdraw. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t want to talk about it. I made excuses not to see people. When I was in a social situation, I felt like I was hiding. I lied to my dad on his birthday when he asked how I was and I answered, “I’m fine.” I felt horrible but I had no idea where to begin and, in my head, burdening him with my troubles on a day that was supposed to be about him would have made me selfish, perhaps even a bad daughter.

It culminated when, after a football game in which I played about two minutes, I walked home, crawled into bed still in uniform, and couldn’t get out.

Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot in the past few years and have developed some strong relationships in my life. I knew that something was happening to me that wasn’t normal, and that people loved me in spite of my brain telling me that my troubles were burdensome.

So even though I didn’t want to, even though I was scared, and even though I felt like a burden to everyone around me, I forced myself to reach out. I texted a friend three words: “I need help.”

The next day, I called a counsellor and made an appointment.

It took the positive experience of being on medication for a few years to realize that something was seriously wrong when my body wasn’t getting what it needed to function properly.

The result was that, for the first time, I was able to identify physical symptoms of depression (and eventually, when I received a proper diagnosis, of anxiety) and it shocked me. Now, it astounds me that I lived like that for so long, thinking it was normal.

I’m beyond grateful to have had this experience of living with a managed anxiety disorder so that, when it became unmanageable again, I was able to remember that there is another way and I don’t have to live like that.