I was around eight years old when something as simple as a Girl Scout campfire made me feel different than other girls. Looking back it was not such a stressful situation, but at the time, it was unbearable. From a very young age I have always had anxiety.
Before the big campfire, the very first time I remember feeling anxious was when I visited a preschool and only knew one girl. We were eating lunch and I accidentally knocked her fork on the floor. To my horror, she started crying and screaming. Everyone was watching me and I felt so nervous and overwhelmed that I had an instant urge to throw up in a garbage can in front of everyone. And when it happened, I felt overwhelmingly embarrassed and ashamed.
Fast forward, as a teenager and I still struggle with my anxiety. It can be triggered from crowds or loud environments, or simply from an entirely new experience when I don’t have a set plan in my mind of what is to come. There are other factors that can cause my anxiety too: if the air smells like food or there are too many people touching me. I also get worried eating breakfast in the morning before school, fearing that I might throw up (just like I did at the preschool many years ago). When I am experiencing an episode, the thought of my inability to control it, can sometimes make my anxiety worse. The lack of control is debilitating.
When my anxiety emerges, I even experience physical side-effects. For example, my hands start to clam up, and my cheeks turn red as if they’re burning up. My stomach also feels knotted and twisted, which increases my urge to throw up, and is challenging for me to control.
Back to the day of the big Girl Scout campfire when I was in second grade. I had been dreading that there were going to be so many girls there I didn’t know. This fact alone was extremely unsettling to me. And so, while the leaders were organizing everyone into cars for the trip, my mind was racing and my stomach was doing backflips — all because I didn’t know the other Girls Scouts. I also felt stressed out because the environment was unfamiliar. What food were we going to eat? Whose tent was I sleeping in? Where was the camp site? When it was finally time to line up outside to pile into the cars, I froze and felt my eyes tear up. I longed for my mom, but she wasn’t a troop leader. Without her I was filled with fear, and those worries and bad feelings took hold of me.
In that moment, I immediately started to feel physically sick and began to gag in front of everyone. I so desperately wanted to control myself, but I mentally and physically couldn’t. As we walked towards the cars, I was so nervous I threw up all my lunch I had eaten that day. In front of everyone. I looked up and saw my friend’s horrified reaction, in addition to the other Girl Scouts. Suddenly, one of my friends started running away from me because she was so grossed out. I started crying and I was taken into the bathroom by one of the troop leaders to get cleaned up. Fortunately for me, after having some water and time to clear my head, I was able to go back outside and feel much better. However, my friend was not ready to act like all was fine. Afterwards, every time I tried to talk to her she ran away from me, saying “Eww, leave me alone.” Her reaction to something I couldn’t control hurt me deeply. I felt immensely upset and alone. I longed desperately to move past the incident, but it felt impossible. Later at the campfire the other girls purposefully ignored me. It was also abundantly clear my friend didn’t want to speak to me or be near me. To make it worse, she influenced the other girls to treat me the same way. I felt very alone.
Because anxiety began to affect my life significantly, my parents decided to take me to a therapist to help learn how to overcome feeling nauseous and have the desire to throw up. I wasn’t sure what could be done, but I was relieved the therapist helped me overcome a lot of my anxiety. She gave me multiple exercises and coping skills to help me so I could get better at controlling myself. I learned to breathe and tell myself there was nothing to be anxious about. She also encouraged me to think of calm places that would put my mind at ease and distract me. These are tools that I still use to this day.
Now I am entering my Junior year of High School, a year that most will agree can be the most overwhelming time of a student’s high school period. And yet, while my anxiety has always been something that I have struggled with, overall it has somewhat improved. I do, however, still experience symptoms pretty often, depending if there is a trigger. While it often delays me from joining activities with my friends, I have never let it hold me back from participating. It has taken me a decent amount of time to be able to fight it and ultimately push through it.
It still can be difficult for me to control, but as long as I have water with me or my mom or a friend to support me, I feel better. Other strategies in managing my anxiety also include taking deep breaths, and purposefully picturing places or situations that make me feel relaxed. Or, sometimes I try to clear my mind and think of nothing by focusing on my breathing. I use these methods to distract me from stressful situations that occur.
Most importantly, throughout the years I have learned that my anxiety doesn’t have to take over my mind when I am feeling nervous. Even though anxiety is still a part of my life, I have learned I can take control of it. I believe with continued focus and effort, I will ultimately be alright. If I could go back in time and speak to my eight- year- old self, who made herself sick over a Girl Scout campfire, I would tell her to take deep breaths, clear her mind and believe in herself…because it will all be ok.