Breaking Free of the Cycle of Anxiety: My Story

Cycle of Anxiety
March 9, 2022
Breaking free of the Cycle of Anxiety: Step One
March 23, 2022

Breaking Free of the Cycle of Anxiety: My Story

***The content in this post is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for professional mental health treatment.*** 


This is part of a blog series on Maintaining Resilience During Anxious Times. This post tells my story in relation to anxiety. The next three posts will cover ways to break out of the cycle of anxiety. Every emotion has a purpose in keeping us alive and thriving. But when emotions blossom out of control, they interfere with our ability to be resilient. What role does anxiety play in your life? Here is my story: 

Early Experience

I come from a line of anxious folks and yet I don’t recall using the word anxiety until I was in graduate school. “Anxiety” was a mental health word; it was not a polite way to describe someone. My grandmother was “nervous”. She did not like commotion. We children were to play quietly. Other family members were described as “high strung”, “not to be bothered”, or “overwrought.” They had headaches, muscle tension, or stomach pains but they kept on going.  

I remember being overwhelmed in 5th grade. My teacher told me to go wash my face. Anytime anyone had strong feelings they were sent to the bathroom to wash their face. Life could be difficult, that was to be expected; you identified then tackled the problem. And to be fair, problems were more local. Pre-internet distant problems were, well – distant.  

Panic Attacks

I had my first panic attack in my late 20’s. I was working, married, and in graduate school. I probably had more than one big assignment overdue. I was home by myself and feeling overwhelmed. My mind swirled through all the things I was not doing right and I imagined multiple forms of failure. I felt sick. My stomach hurt; my chest was gripped by pain. I wondered if I was having a heart attack and then told myself that I was stupid to think that. I didn’t feel good. I sat down where I was and leaned against the bed. My vision was weird; I couldn’t see the whole room. I ducked my head and just looked at my feet. I sat curled up in a ball and wondered if this was where I would die.  

I don’t know how long I sat there. I didn’t die. Instead, I realized I was uncomfortable all cramped up. Shakily, I stood up and went to take a shower. I vowed to never tell anyone. Secretly I worried that I had something terribly wrong with me. I kept an eye on myself for weird heart or neurological symptoms. I wondered if it was a seizure of some sort. It happened a few more times until one day it happened at work. I don’t know what other people saw but my co-worker insisted that I go to the ER when I described chest pain. I tried to object but didn’t have the mental energy.   

As I left for the emergency room, I grabbed a book out of the trunk of my car expecting a long wait. I had never before walked into an ER complaining of chest pains. I didn’t have to wait; I quickly found myself lying on a bed hooked up to monitors. There was a flurry of activity then someone said, “we will let her rest”. Everyone left the room. I felt disoriented but could see my heartbeat steady on the monitor.

I read my book. Two hours later, a doctor sat down and explained that my heart seemed healthy, and that I had done the right thing by coming in. He said that I seemed stressed and that I should talk to someone. Then I went back to work.  

My co-worker asked if I was ok. I laughed and said that I clearly needed more time to read because now I felt fine. She agreed that we both needed time in our busy days to read. We dove back into the endless to-do list that was our job. I don’t remember having any more panic attacks after that. I also didn’t think of my “stress” as anxiety. I was a firm believer in therapy – that was my career goal. I just didn’t think that I needed it. In fact, I was “fine.”  

Working as a Therapist

A few years later, I joined a counseling practice as a child and adolescent therapist. In supervision, someone helped me recognize my own anxiety. I knew that I needed to care for my anxiety, though I still felt that this was for me to do on my own. A few years after that, I opened my private practice specializing in anxiety disorders in children. I recognize anxiety from miles away. It operates on the same frequency as mine. As a self-employed therapist I began to reach out to others for support. After decades of staying strong and not sharing my concerns, I realized that asking for help was a far healthier solution. I now ask for help, see a therapist as needed, and practice shrinking anxiety often.

The next three posts will each explain one of the three steps in getting out of the cycle of anxiety. Those steps are: 1. Identify your pattern, 2. Reality Check, 3. Strategies to shrink Anxiety 

Full disclosure: writing this post escalated my anxiety. The messages I grew up with are: “You are fine. Wash your face and solve the problem. Certainly, don’t air your concerns publicly.” Having launched this into the world, I will now do some journaling and take a few (or many) slow breaths. 


Laura A. Gaines

To learn more, explore