It was an unexpected place for my anxiety to inhabit. Inhabit feels too gentle, invasion is more like it. Who would imagine that anxiety could crawl into your vagina and make you miserable for hours on end?
Six months ago, while presenting ideas at an informal work meeting, I felt this uncomfortable sensation in my urethra – an urgent, uncontrollable urge to pee. As words tumbled out of my mouth, I realised that I had no idea what I was saying. Instead, all I could hear was the sound of my pounding heart as I broke into a quiet sweat. Within minutes, I found myself sobbing, unable to breathe. I was frightened and embarrassed. This had never happened to me before.
At the time, I told myself that it was a one-off episode of panic. It had been an overwhelming couple of weeks. I’d had a minor surgery to check if there was a polyp in my uterus. And, I was due to quit my job in a few days. But then, these episodes occurred more frequently. First, every few days. Then, every couple of days. And eventually, daily.
Soon, things started to look bleak and a constant sense of foreboding followed me. And at the centre of all this horror was my unsuspecting vagina, soon to be the bearer of most of my anxiety.
On most mornings, I would wake up with a knot in my chest, my insides filled with a kind of frantic energy. To take the edge off, I’d pace up and down the narrow corridors of my home. I was in constant anticipation of those feelings: a throbbing pain in my vagina and an unending restlessness flowing through my body. And that anticipation, despite my best efforts, often brought on the panic. It was as if my vagina couldn’t breathe and my body was about to explode. Nights meant long hours in bed, fidgeting, listening to theta-waves and the soothing voices of strangers telling me how to calm my racing mind.
On the upside, I was fortunate that this was happening at a time when I had decided to take a sabbatical from work. But then it was also confusing. Why was I anxious when there was nothing to be anxious about?
It took me months to accept that this was an anxiety disorder. And even then, I would worry that it was some sort of physical medical condition, especially because of the discomfort in my vagina. Should I see my gynaecologist again? Should I consult a urologist? Could it be uterine cancer? It didn’t take much for me to slip into this spiral. I wrestled with the idea that anxiety could be so physical.
For weeks, I didn’t have the courage or inclination to meet anyone. Even when I made plans to meet friends—all the mental health podcasts told me to ‘stay connected’—I would eventually cancel. What felt worse was that the panic would spring unexpectedly even in the most unthreatening of circumstances. Like when I was out on a walk just down my street. Or while watching a movie at a theatre. This made me feel terribly fragile and took a real toll on my confidence.
While the rest of the world was climbing mountains in Uttarakhand and eating their way through the bustling streets of Tokyo (thank you, Instagram), here I was, trembling in the comfort of my own bed. I worried that this would be my life from now on— this perpetual fear of anxiety attacks.
I finally began taking therapy, as a sceptic. What therapy nudged me to do was to examine patterns in my own behaviour and become more self-aware. I had always been anxious, so this hadn’t just appeared out of nowhere. Biting my nails, muscle spasms, difficulty with public speaking, frequent urination, intense fear of invasive tests – these were all fairly indicative. But how far back was I to trace it to?
Thinking this through with someone trained, intuitive and neutral was revelatory and deeply reassuring. Even though I had gone into therapy smugly, I realised quickly how insightful and calming it could be. At the peak of my debilitating anxiety, I was able to notice the signs of it building and attempt to counter it. Through therapy, I was also able to identify some of my triggers: commutes, crowded spaces, gatherings, performative situations.
Based on my therapist’s recommendation, I eventually went to see a psychiatrist. Shaky and weepy, I couldn’t sit still for even a minute. And yet, I didn’t take well to her suggestion that medication would better my situation. Feeling despondent, I told her that I would return in a month’s time.
In that month, I tried meditation and exercise, hoping to fix my broken self. Much to my dismay, nothing really changed. I still had excessive physical restlessness, my vagina hurt and I was feeling more hopeless than ever. So, I went back to my psychiatrist, ready to give medication a shot. And while I’m not suggesting that medication is the only way ahead, it made all the difference for me. After two long months of anguish and dread, I felt like myself again. Somewhat whole, somewhat human. The pain in my vagina had disappeared.
This enabled me to focus on the other things that brought calm: long walks in the park, stretching, reading, swimming and breath work. Of course, the anxiety didn’t just vanish altogether. But recognising it and wholly accepting it made it easier for me to manage it. Also, I became less anxious about anxiety, if that makes sense. Known demons and all of that.
Well-meaning friends and family had multiple suggestions for my anxiety disorder: meditation, diet change, exercise, prayer, journaling, yoga and so on. And yes, I tried several of these, until I realised that I had to pay closer attention to what worked for me. I started to trust my own instincts. I must admit that this was a painfully slow process and it continues to be a struggle.
For some reason, there are very few articles that explore the link between anxiety and the vagina, and as a result, I felt awfully alone in what I was experiencing. I tend to still ask both my therapist and psychiatrist if this vagina-centric anxiety isn’t experienced by me alone. Apparently, you don’t hear about it as often as other kinds of anxieties because most women find it uncomfortable to talk about their vagina. Which is partly what motivated me to write this piece.
Oddly enough, while I lost a few months in the fierce grip of anxiety, I also feel that it’s forced me to alter my life for the better. I’m able to see my vulnerabilities in a much more honest way and I no longer beat myself up about it. Through these stormy months, I leaned on a lot of people and I’m glad to say that I experienced nothing but kindness and empathy. And well, a bit of bewilderment. The chances are that these anxieties will never abandon me, but I’m less afraid of the darkness that comes with it. I now know that even when you’re blanketed by thick fog, there’s no need to panic because it eventually dissipates.
Yamini Vijayan is a writer, editor and library-consultant based in Bengaluru.