I am the proud owner of an anxiety disorder. A diagnosis has never been nailed down, like most of us, because there is a lot of overlap when it comes to mental illness. All I know is my current state which I usually describe as a panic disorder with OCD.

I rarely talk about my triggers because I feel embarrassed that something so dumb can have such an impact on my life. It’s funny how something that is so horrifying and oppressive can look so stupid in hindsight. But I have learned they’re not dumb and my body’s reaction isn’t anything to be embarrassed by. My triggers have also changed a lot over the years.

Elementary Rituals

As a kid, maybe 7 or 8, I had a lot of rituals. Everything was done in even numbers (and still are to a point). Whenever I went to turn off the tv or radio I had to wait for a good word to end on because if the last word I heard was bad something terrible would happen. I had to check door and window locks numerous times before leaving the house or going to sleep and I couldn’t use the bathroom before checking behind the shower curtain.

The most memorable is my bedtime routine. Every night before bed I would complete a long series of tasks like touching the window a number of times, opening the blinds, checking in the closet all in a specific sequence. If the sequence was not done to satisfaction I would do it over and over again, sometimes for hours. I am not sure what disaster I was averting by doing these things but I remember it being extremely important.

I am not sure my OCD was triggered by anything other than biology but it certainly hit its peak when we moved to the suburbs in the late 90s. Like most with OCD the biggest trigger is a classic lack of control.

Existential Crisis (Literally)

When I was a teenager I struggled with the meaning of life, death and what we are in the universe. Usually those things make for nice conversation but rarely do people become entirely consumed by them.

My OCD had shifted from physical rituals to obsessive thoughts so my fixation became an obsession and propelled me into a serious depression. My grades tanked, I stayed awake for days at a time, I was too afraid to get in a car and I spent hours thinking about ending my life.

I can vividly remember sitting in class, exhausted from being awake for a few days looking at the clock thinking about the seconds and how we are all getting closer to death with every movement. It was very morbid. I would worry myself to hysterics trying to figure out if our world is real and what we are in relation to the universe. It was essentially: are we in the Matrix?

My teenage triggers were those unknowable things about life we all live with. I specifically think the music and literature I was into at the time was the trigger of it. I loved meaning and deep philosophical questioning, which I still do. A worsening mental state is searching for something to grab onto and for me it happened to be that. A simple song about the meaning of life was the seed my brain needed to grow something suffocating.

Aches & Pains & Panic Attacks

In my adulthood depression has faded and made room for health anxiety also known as hypochondria.

No, I don’t go to the doctor constantly, I just have spells where I worry that I have some horrible ailment.

The ailments change constantly depending on what’s in the news, on tv, in the books I am reading or what I am feeling physically. If I am suddenly aware of my heartbeat I become fixated on ailments of the heart, if I have a headache it’s the brain and so on. 98% of the time I am fine and not hyper-fixated on anything specific but it can change on a dime.

The biggest obstacle in this cycle is my OCD. Because I have problems controlling obsessive thoughts once something gets in my brain it burrows in and grows. Once it escalates the anxiety gets worse presenting a lot of the physical symptoms of the ailment I am worried about, which makes the worrying worse…and so on. A vicious cycle that starts in the brain but spreads to the body.

This entire fixation was triggered by a series of major abdominal pain episodes (likely gallstones) after losing 50 pounds in 2012. It scared me putting me on alert — and I haven’t been able to lower my guard since. In the 7 or so years since I have had more than 100 panic attacks triggered by health, anxiety itself or nothing at all.

The path to healing is accepting our triggers and not feeling bad about them. You can’t get over something if you can’t talk about it.

Now that I’ve shared, what are yours?

Former journalist, current marketer from Boston, Mass. www.brittburrows.com

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