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05/03/2018 12:25 EDT | Updated 05/03/2018 12:31 EDT

Anxiety Is A Monster, And It's Been One Step Behind Me For Years

It starts with a tightness in my chest — like a rope that is being pulled from both ends around my lungs and heart.

"It" comes from out of nowhere.

It starts with a tightness in my chest — like a rope that is being pulled from both ends around my lungs and heart. I become hyperaware of everything going on around me, a "spidey sense" of sorts. "Why is everyone so loud?" I think to myself as my hearing sharpens. (They're just speaking normally, of course.) I start to breathe rapidly. My eyes move around the room searching for threats that aren't there, my legs turn to mush — I can barely walk without falling to the ground like a tree felled by an axe.

"I have to go," I say to whoever I'm with. "Go where?" Anywhere.

And that's when it wins — anxiety wins — when I'm lost in my own body, with nowhere to go.

Natalie Harris

I was on vacation at a resort when anxiety decided to rear its ugly head — in paradise, of all places. I should have known it would appear, because it happened as I was waiting to watch a live show that would be loud — and noise is a definite trigger for my anxiety. Crowded places, sounds of sirens and confined spaces are also common triggers for me (and many others). Knowing that a trigger can appear at any moment feels like I am walking around with a dark monster one step behind me, waiting to scare me when I least expect it. It's not fun — the monster sure thinks it's hilarious, though.

"I will play the normal person role... I got this," I think to myself. Trying to appear normal (whatever that is) is a common coping mechanism for anxiety sufferers, albeit fleeting, as the monster will inevitably win nine times out of 10. I have found that being honest with myself and others as soon as a trigger appears is the best way to combat it. People often can't see how my anxiety feels (at first), so being forthright can help to educate them on what may potentially manifest in me.

I find a seat nicely tucked away in a corner and try to focus my attention on the minty flavour of my virgin mojito, but it doesn't take long for the stage lights to start shining. Blue, red, blue, red — just like the lights of my ambulance when I was a paramedic for 11 years. Flashing lights have triggered my anxiety since I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress in 2012.

"You got this Natalie. Don't be such a big baby," I remind myself.

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I can hear each number of the mic check ("uno, dos, tres") vibrate through the floor, into my legs, and then land on a tightness mounting in my chest.

"I'm not sure I can stay here," I say to my friend. He looks at me, confused. "I'm really being triggered by everything," I continue on saying.

And then "the look" I fear will emerge, slowly drains into his face — disappointment. The worst thing to make a person feel. At that moment, I HATE my anxiety so much that I want to scream louder than the performers who are taking the stage.

"Just close your eyes when the lights shine," he says.

I know he's trying his best to help, but that's like telling to a vegetarian to just pick the bacon off of the pizza and eat it. You might not see it anymore, but you know that it is still lingering there. Tears well up in my eyes. My chest gets even tighter and my legs start to shake. Sigh... I wish he would just acknowledge my feelings and hold my hand.

You might not see it anymore, but you know that it is still lingering there.

"I have to go!" I now say sternly, frustrated with myself that I let my anxiety get this far, and even more frustrated that I have it at all.

I rip off my high-heeled shoes and walk briskly to the hotel stairs.

When I get there, I fall to my knees. Like I had just ran a marathon (with no medal in sight... ever). I am out of breath and sweating.

I catch my breath. I sit on the stairs.

"I can do this." I say over and over again.

I breathe deeply from my belly and I inhale the smell of sea air. Then I exhale and feel the warmth exiting my nostrils. I do this a few times, building up enough energy to crawl up another step. Deep breathing helps to activate my parasympathetic system — in other words, my relaxed state of mind and body. It takes practice to be able to steer my focus away from the extremely apparent tightness in my chest to my breathing, but the practice is worth it.

tapui via Getty Images

I finally make it to my hotel room, and with shaking hands insert the key card into the slot. I open the door to find my quiet oasis waiting for me. I still can't make it to my bed, though, so I slide my back down the door and sit on the floor, sighing loudly as I look up at the ceiling.

"Think of five things I can see... that always distracts me from my anxiety."

I do the exercise and feel my breathing start to regulate. Distraction exercises are a great way to trick the monster into thinking that you can't feel him. By concentrating on my surroundings, I have no remaining attention for the darkness that wants to take over my body.

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Then guilt takes over — I can't help but think how I have ruined the night for my friend; sadly, guilt and anxiety go together like Thelma and Louise. I am happy my friend stayed to watch the show, but feel embarrassed and ashamed that I couldn't perform the same seemingly simple task.

This entire event takes all of 20 minutes — but feels like an eternity.

The "marathon" is over... this time. Will I get another anxiety attack? I can pretty much bank on it. Will I survive? Yes. Does it suck? Absolutely. Will I be stronger for it in the end? I know so. And you know what? I do deserve a medal for making it through anxiety in paradise.

Now where's my virgin mojito?

Natalie Harris

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