Willa Bennett on anxiety and its relation to being a woman.
When I was a child, I always had to check that all my doors were locked before I would let myself fall into a deep slumber. Until I knew everything in my room was secure, I had this perpetual fear of someone kidnapping me. You must also understand that I was growing up in America in an era where George Bush was president, and I was perhaps constantly aware that he had won the election by arguably cheating Al Gore out of the victory. This perhaps heightened my lack of trust for authoritative figures, and therefore even when my mother promised me she was asleep in the room adjacent to mine, I believed someone could still successfully kidnap me.
Each day I awoke with a grumbling pain in my lower abdomen. I was an anxious child. I would stare aimlessly at the map of my country. I ran my fingers over the states pinned up on my bedroom wall. I felt powerless. What if my mother was asleep and did not notice that I was taken? I could foresee it all in my mind. By the time the morning came and my mother could see I was gone, my kidnapper could have me hidden in another state. The United States is so vast; my perpetrator did not even need to find my passport. All my imagined kidnapper would need was my limbs and long hair, and I would never see my childhood bedroom again.
As I got older, I wish I could say that my anxiety disappeared. However, I can confirm that I no longer have a perpetual fear being kidnapped. During my time abroad, I have had moments traveling alone with my best friend to a multiplicity of foreign countries. We have been both lost and without phone service numerous times, and I am endlessly proud of myself for being able to constantly breathe hundreds of miles away from home. However, just because I have grown out of this deep anxiousness associated with being abducted in my sleep, this does not mean that my anxiety has not manifested itself in new ways.
Anxiety is a silly thing.
I can be lost and physically alone in France on a metro, and find my way without my stomach even flinching. However, days later, I will be standing in Sainsbury’s trying to decide what vegetable to buy, and anxiety will reverberate throughout my entire body. My hands will get sweaty, and my hair will feel physically heavy dangling down my back. My thoughts will turn dark, and I most likely will not remember most of the day when I finally arrive home.
I think this is part of the problem that arises when many people talk about anxiety. According to The Mental Health Foundation, in England, anxiety is one of the most common mental disorders reported. Additionally, women are far more likely than men to report mental health challenges in their lifetime. Anxiety is clearly an omnipresent battle for many women, yet for some reason, this peculiar emotion still feels incommunicable.
Some are under the impression that anxiety only occurs when there is something concrete to stress out about, perhaps an event in the future, a foreseeable breakup, or a big presentation. These types of events of course provoke anxious thoughts in many people, and make logical sense to elicit a peculiar bodily response. However, at least for me, it is often the smaller moments that arrive unexpectedly that can be more confusing and harder to articulate.
It is when I have nothing concrete on which to blame my irrational fears that I am most scared. I am left alone with my precious and vulnerable limbs and long hair. I am forced to stop and listen to precisely what my body is telling me. Most of the time, there is almost always more going on than just a tangible event or expected examination result that is making my body physically react a certain way. I just need to remind myself to breathe.
I think traveling in foreign countries has helped me find some solace with my anxiety. Just knowing that there are millions of people each individually waking up in their respective beds and going about their individual lives has provided me with a less myopic view of the world. It is similar to reading alluring literature. When comparable adversity happens to you, it feels less personal and not completely unbearable. You have the stories of others to remind you that you are not completely alone. Besides, most of the time, you just really need to remember to breathe.
Photo by Willa Bennett