By: Ashley Petty
Frustrating. Aggravating. Constant. Unexplainable. Prevalent. Weird. Annoying. Complicated. Common.
Anxiety is so common in today’s society that I believe everyone, even if it is mild, has some form of it. It can show up without warning and typically at the most inconvenient times. Luckily, it seems the stigma behind mental illness is slowly being broken down - for every gender identity, every race, every sexual orientation and really for every single human.
My personal story is one of many. At the beginning of the year, I made a vow to myself to focus on my mental health and to understand why, over the course of my life, I have always chosen to be insanely busy. My story begins in late elementary to middle school - I first remember jamming my schedule with the school musical, multiple sports, extra-curricular clubs, band and honors courses. I truly think my anxiety stemmed from my need to be a perfectionist and my need to be the exact opposite of my father.
You grow up fast when you’re trying to understand drug addiction and alcoholism in your parent at 9-years-old. I remember growing up never feeling good enough for him, yet wanting to “be better” than what he did to our family. My mom and my brother deserved better than the hands we’d been dealt!
I always felt this weird need to impress him. I felt it was my fault he was addicted to drugs, but I also never wanted to see him. I was too young, and until he passed, I never understood that seeing my brother and I may have helped him more than anything. It had been a decade since we had last seen him.
I felt pressure being the oldest daughter and wanting to do great things for my mom and my brother - despite there being no pressure whatsoever from them – they have always loved me endlessly no matter what! It was the pressure my brain created to perform at such high levels. Constantly running from classes, to community service, or an event, to band, and then musical rehearsal.
My point is - we are not meant to be everyone and do everything.
Anxiety is…the inability to relax.
Today’s society really puts that pressure on us. You’re expected to be a well-functioning human, maintain your friendships, perform well at work (including multiple jobs for some), maintain the place you live in, stay on top of errands and chores, add in dating or a spouse…even kids…and you have a WHOLE LOT of things to consider. It sure isn’t easy. When do you take time to relax?
If you don’t have an answer - this is your sign to find it now!
I continued my insanely busy schedule throughout high school and college. I gained a lot of weight at the end of college and found strength training a few years later as my outlet - not only to release stress, anger and frustration from the day, but to also release endorphins and feel better about my physical health. I wanted to get back to the athlete I was.
I lost 80 lbs and became a natural bodybuilder, competing in eight shows over three seasons. Bodybuilding created a strained relationship with food (which continues to this day and is a constant struggle) and contributed to poor self-image and poor self-confidence at times. Seeing your absolute best body ever and watching it go backwards was anxiety inducing and I would gain 20-50lbs after any of my shows. It was unhealthy and I hated how I looked.
Once my seasons were over, everything made me anxious. Photos made me anxious. Eating made me anxious. Anything slightly off my diet threw my brain into chaos. Planned cheat meals? That’s where binge eating came in. I’d overeat to the point of being sick. In my brain, that was the only time it was okay to because it was a “cheat meal” and my brain thought it was never getting that food again, after being so deprived previously.
After one of my competitions, my anxiety flared up horribly and I had a full blown anxiety attack at work. I had gone on a date with someone I didn’t know a friend was also talking to. That friend came into my workplace to confront me and it threw me in a tailspin. I remember sitting in the work hallway crying - my heart wouldn’t stop racing, I couldn’t calm myself down, I was shaking and my brain was going a million miles a minute. What did I do wrong? How could I be so stupid? I hadn’t seen or talked to her in a few months, so I have no idea what was going on in her life, but why would I be confronted when I truly had no idea.
The next few days I had on and off panic attacks, as I felt the pressure from her. My walls felt closed in. I felt like I couldn’t say the right thing. My body’s fight or flight was heightened. I even left work early a few times because I couldn’t focus. If something similar has happened to you - you’re not alone. And that is OKAY!
Over the years, since then, anxiety attacks only really happen before big events - including Bills games. I’ve learned how to manage it, but I am continuously learning to this day.
Finding the balance.
My balance has become exercising multiple times a week, therapy every other week, regular massages once a month and hot yoga weekly – it’s all changed me for the better. Saturday morning yoga is the ONE TIME each week that I focus on breathing, exhaling the bad stuff from the week and inhaling the good. I’m starting to want more time for meditation and breathing moving forward. It’s a work in progress.
As for therapy, I’m a year in and I’ve just recently started deep trauma work and we are exploring why my brain reacts to certain things the way it does, why I feel certain ways about myself and how it all stems from my childhood. It’s been wild to learn something new about myself every time I go.
Therapy is SCARY.
Therapy is NOT EASY.
Therapy is WORK.
Therapy is WONDERFUL.
The first step to therapy is the hardest one, and I’m here for you. My advice to you is to find something that is a happy distraction – yoga, reading, writing, hiking, anything that calms your soul. It cleanses your mind and improves your mental health.
I told my story in hopes that it can help someone who may be struggling right now. My DMs on Twitter are always open and most importantly, I understand. Follow me to keep up with my personal journey: @ashleypetty_