A lot of things scare me. Right now, those things include my first 20-mile run of marathon training that I have this weekend and sharing this post. That’s the thing with fears, though. Embracing them usually makes you stronger.
I grew up with an easy life in the sense that I had a family that loved me and was always taken care of at any expense from my parents. But it definitely wasn’t average and at times wasn’t easy. I was a typical child who loved to roller skate and sing and watch musicals, but I always felt a bit different. I’ve been told that the adults in my life expected me to develop ulcers in third grade because of my constant worry and anxiety. I spent a lot of time in the nurse’s room, lying on a cot with stomachaches. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood why.
My first real panic attack was in college, though I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was in a movie theater and I suddenly got the shakes and felt like I couldn’t breathe. That landed me in urgent care, getting chest X-rays, an EKG, and every other test for chest issues. I thought I was crazy when doctors told me they couldn’t find anything wrong. I felt foolish the second time it happened and different doctors told me I was fine. I felt hopeless the third and final time I went in and they said the same thing.
Luckily for me, I was attending the University of California, San Diego, which offers great services for students. I began seeing a psychologist and learned I was suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Though sometimes I had to leave classes during panic attacks, my psychologist gave me some advice: “Run.” She said that running helps people learn to control breathing, which is very useful in the midst of a panic attack.
Up until a few months ago, my panic attacks mostly happened at night, and I would wake suddenly with one. I had uncontrollable worries — some more dramatic than others — and was constantly tense and high-strung due to constant worrying. They can be different for everyone, but my panic attacks involved my heart racing, the feeling that I couldn’t breathe and my throat was swollen, dizziness, and intense anxiety that often lead to shaking or shivering. They lasted from 5 to 40 minutes.
Now at age 26, I can say that my anxiety disorder is under control, with the help and support of friends and family, running, medication, and health insurance. A lot of people who suffer from an anxiety disorder and depression aren’t as lucky.
I am sharing this story so that you understand what someone with GAD has gone through. In the case of my running, my anxiety has actually proved to be a strength, especially when it comes to controlling my breathing. In other aspects of my life, it was just a giant weight that kept me from living my best life.
People need help. And asking for it isn’t a weakness. Admitting you need help and asking for it? That is acknowledging fear and gaining strength from it. Actually getting the help you need? That is something that not everyone gets. I am running for them just as much – if not more – as I am running for myself.
When I decided to run my first 26.2 miles at the 2013 Los Angeles Marathon, I knew it would be empowering. Trust me, running 18 miles a few weeks ago definitely empowered me. But it is also empowering to be able to use my marathon to raise money for ADAA.
photo credit: AzulOx Photography
Ashley Erickson, a freelance fitness writer and PR Account Manager in Austin, Texas, graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 2008. She trains with Rogue Running and runs for Oiselle.