How Stuffing My Emotions Masked My Anxiety Disorder

By Erica Troiani 11/06/16

Hypervigilance protected me in my alcoholic parents' house, but it's caused me to overread the tiniest changes in others' behavior and have panic attacks.

Person with hands covering face, revealing one eye.

I was standing in my parents’ backyard as my thoughts raced. Imagined scenarios about my friends or my boyfriend were playing out in my head, suddenly becoming true and real to me, although I had no evidence to support my newly jumped-to conclusions. My lungs heaved. I couldn’t get enough air. I wanted desperately to jump out of my skin and run from my own body at top speed. 

I was having a panic attack. 

All because I’d convinced myself my boyfriend was about to break up with me. I was eighteen, and it was the first panic attack I can truly recall having, although I doubt it was the first one I’d experienced. It was terrifying, but in that same moment, I was overwhelmed by the desire to keep it deeply hidden. I’m from an alcoholic family, and even when my father (who was the drinker) wasn’t home, the spectres of both my grandfathers (also drinkers) and their habits loomed over my mom and me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had very much internalized and adhered to the tenets of dysfunction within that sort of house: don’t talk, don’t trust, and—possibly most damaging for me—don’t feel. So I stuffed all my negative emotions into a pillowcase in my gut and insisted to everyone, myself included, that they didn’t exist. Until, of course, I held them in so long that they exploded, usually in the form of crying unexpectedly in public or snapping at someone who didn’t deserve it.

I had embraced hypervigilance as a survival skill in my parents’ house, and in my younger days it had protected me. But as I moved into adolescence and adulthood, it meant I overread the actions of others and interpreted the tiniest changes in behavior as impending abandonment. I was a live wire of anxiety all the time and I didn’t realize it. If anyone brought up my perpetual nervousness, it only served to make me feel damaged and ashamed. It didn’t help that it was usually broached with a judgmental tone.

But back to my panic attack. I moved down the alleyway next to my house toward our front steps to avoid my mother’s gaze from the kitchen. My usual poker face was failing me and I didn’t want to talk about it, fearing she’d minimize and dismiss me. I sat on the steps in the summer humidity, trying to catch my breath and calm my lungs in a ribcage that suddenly felt too small for them. My mother’s face unexpectedly appeared in the front door proclaiming she’d been looking all over for me. I put on my calm face quickly and smiled big for her. “What’s up?” I’d said. My boyfriend was on the phone. This was it, I was sure. I put the receiver to my ear and gulped, awaiting the inevitable news.

He wanted to know if I could go to the movies.

For as long as I can remember, I have been a worst-case-scenario thinker. If I bump into someone in the grocery store, I’ve already pictured a scene wherein I injure them so badly they’re hospitalized, and I’m misunderstood, prosecuted, and in jail for something, I don’t know what, all by the time I’ve said “I’m so sorry” as I reach for my box of Honey Nut Cheerios. 

And that was just with strangers. With people close to me, this train of thought sent me into a panic attack or pushed my anxiety into a place where I could barely eat or sleep for weeks at a time. And if that sounds like co-dependency to you, let me be the first to jump up and say: you. are. correct! My tendency toward codependency fed and exacerbated my anxiety. But of course it would have been hard to see, what with my denying that anxiety’s existence.

I felt rejected, anxious, and needy, and that made me ashamed because, to me, feeling needy confirmed that I deserved abandonment. (Yeah, I know it’s not logical.) The best way I had to describe this to my therapist was that I imagined an invisible streak of tar running through my body that made me unacceptable; that I had been marked. I lived in constant fear that other people would see it and know that I was bad. 

My anxiety created this negative feedback loop where its existence confirmed my fear that I deserved it and any time I felt a negative emotion, there was a nice side dish of that anxiety for a not-remotely-balanced nervousness meal.

Over the years, I’d shown signs of panic attacks, too, but none I recognized from what pop culture had taught me about anxiety: that it was a person breathing into a paper bag in an elevator. I didn’t hyperventilate. Or so I thought. Friends often treated me as emotionally fragile, but I saw it as an inherent character flaw within myself. There was the neurologist I saw my sophomore year of college for a strange tingling sensation all over my body, who said I was low-key hyperventilating and sent me on my way without asking what might cause me to do so. I hadn’t even known that was a thing. 

Six years ago, I started recovery as an adult child of an alcoholic, though while that suggests a program and going to meetings, it took me a while to find my way to them. The first couple of years I spent primarily reading a lot of books on ACoAs, going to therapy, and crying a lot. I slowly validated that, yes, I had habits that restrained my life, and that there were words to describe the intense feelings that overwhelmed me. And most importantly, that those feelings were normal and okay.  

But even as I stripped away my workaholism and avoidance of conflict and started feeling my emotions, I still found myself trying to ignore underlying anxieties. In 2015, I went through a transitional period, about to get married and seriously considering a move to a new city to start a new career. My body knew how scared I was much better than my conscious brain did; for months, I could barely sleep or eat and the slightest sudden noise sent me jumping two feet in the air. My chest felt tight all the time, and taking a full breath required conscious thought and effort. My anxiety disorder had surfaced in a way I couldn’t stuff down or deny any longer. 

Then my therapist, for the first time in the five years I had been seeing her, suggested meds might help calm my nervous system and at least allow me to get to a place where things like meditation and nightly readings would actually help me. I’d always avoided taking any kind of drug that might affect me mentally, largely out of fear of developing an addiction. But I knew my therapist didn’t suggest it lightly. I decided to at least talk to a psychiatrist.

I ended up seeing one whose demeanor triggered my anxiety. During our session, he asked if my symptoms were primarily internal, because I didn’t look like I was suffering from anxiety. That was a fun irony, because at that same moment I was holding my breath as I mentally turned back flips while a bright neon sign flashed at me, “Do not let it show! DO. NOT. LET. IT. SHOW!” In classic fashion, I was both freaking out and stuffing it down.

Not much later, my cousin texted me in a crisis. We have remarkably similar thought patterns and turn to each other in our lower moments. I wasn’t able to talk to her right away, but then she sent another text: “I want to jump out of my skin.” I thought, I know exactly what that feels like. So I called and found her in the midst of what was undeniably a panic attack, which at once felt familiar and foreign. Familiar in that everything she described about her thought process sounded utterly like the inside of my own brain. And foreign because I knew she was panicking and I’d never quite framed myself in those terms.

It wasn’t until I saw a second doctor that I understood that feeling of turning circles inside and my desire to run run run—that feeling was my panic attack. I covered the more outward symptoms, but my thoughts were racing, breathing got harder, and having anyone near me—much less touch me—felt like it would make me explode. And that’s what made me realize that my stoic poker face had fooled even me.

For the first time in my life, I decided to go on meds. I can’t quite say that I advocate them; I recognize that each person’s brain is different as well as the insidiousness of Big Pharma telling us everything can be fixed with a pill. But in my case (and in conjunction with therapy), it’s helped. And it’s also allowed me to see who I am without my constant anxiety. On them, the inside of my head felt different. Quieter. Suddenly all the excess static was gone. Was this what life was like without a jumping bean inside my brain frantically telling me every possible thing that could go wrong? 

To be clear, it wasn’t that meds have made all my poor thought habits disappear, but they calmed my nervous system and made those thought patterns easier to break. Not to mention that I’ve gained a greater access to the resilience I’d already learned in years of therapy. I might still immediately jump to the worst possible conclusion, but I can talk myself through that sort of delusion much faster. 

It’d be great to wrap up this essay with a pat little realization I’ve had from this experience, but truthfully, I’m still in the middle of it. Even though it had always been there, I was only able to recognize my anxiety after I dug out most of my emotional muck. I don’t know that it will ever truly be gone, but I don’t have to stuff it down in shame or pretend it isn’t there, either. Accepting it and acknowledging it really does help it pass more quickly. I guess that itself is a sort of realization.

Erica Troiani is a pseudonym for a writer in Austin, Texas.

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