“You have anxiety.”
When I first heard those words, it was safe to say that I was completely caught off guard. I had entered therapy in order to tackle my long-term depression, however, when screened for an anxiety disorder, I was startled by how many of the questions related to my everyday life.
My anxiety can be clinically diagnosed as generalized anxiety disorder. My favourite way to describe it would be over-thinking just about everything. In a way, you feel EVERYTHING.
It is characterized by persistent worry and thus, my mind runs in a million different directions. Constantly, I find myself worrying and obsessing over the smallest, most minimal things. This leads to feelings of restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability and more often than not, insomnia.
Some days, I even find myself getting anxious about getting anxious. Other times, I feel detached from the world as though my mind is trying to tell me it can’t handle much more. And so, I feel empty. My mind goes blank and I no longer feel mentally present. To my friends, I appear unusually quiet and they will question if I’m okay.
One wrong move or unexpected turn in events and ta da, my anxiety comes storming in. Perhaps I am out celebrating with a friend and receive an unwelcoming text message from a friend. Just like that, my anxiety smacks me right in the chest. I become restless, my heart begins to palpate and I feel a shortness in my breath. Evidently, this contributes to a shift in my mood. Hence why clinical depression and anxiety disorders are often co-morbid diseases.
Night time is the worst, as I am left alone - just me and my thoughts. As I try to fall asleep, my mind begins to race.
"What went wrong today? What went wrong yesterday? What could go wrong tomorrow? Remember when that happened?"
Although there are no specific phobias associated with generalized anxiety disorder, it is suggested that the disorder is sustained by “basic fears.” For example, fear of failure or fear of death. Like many who suffer, my anxiety centers around the concept of open-endedness and uncertainty - specifically fear of losing control and fear of the unknown.
"Oh you're running late? Okay, but how long will you be? Do I have to sit here for the next two hours? What if you never show up?"
Yes, this may seem trivial to some, but suffering from anxiety makes one a pro at overanalyzing everyday interactions. My mind is a world class expert at coming up with elaborate worst-case scenarios.
"Why haven't they replied to my text message? They must be mad at me. What did I do to upset them? How am I going to fix this? What if they never talk to me again?"
Living in the 21st century with an abundance of technology, it makes having an anxiety disorder quite difficult. When it comes to our daily interactions, we are able to gage another person’s thoughts and/or feelings. Unfortunately, this privilege does not exist over a text message or any social media platform. Instead one is left to decipher the emotion for themselves. To me, everything is interpreted to the worst degree. For instance, you simply sent me a message to say hi and next thing I know, I am overanalyzing the entire thing, searching for a deeper, hidden meaning.
Making decisions also comes with much difficulty. Instead of focusing on my own feelings, I contemplate the unknown outcome, "what if I make the wrong decision?" I am filled with uncertainty and indecisiveness, which sometimes leaves others frustrated. Yet, all I can focus on are the possible negative outcomes of my choice. This leads to my difficulty concentrating on the present moment, specifically interactions with others, because my mind is too busy focusing on protecting myself from the future.
Many of my friends would label me as a perfectionist. However, few of them realize that such a trait stems directly from my anxiety disorder. With a constant feeling of impending doom, I focus my remaining energy on trying to maintain control of my own life and the current surroundings. This causes me to attempt to control my day to day interactions to ensure I can predict the outcome. Through excessive self-criticism and planning every act down to a tee, I push away the never ending “what-if” scenarios that reside in my brain.
One day my therapist asked to see my weekly schedule. Thinking nothing of it, I handed it over. She looked and me and said, “Where is the free time? Time for yourself?” I laughed to myself and told her about my need to keep busy.
I learned a lot in that session. I mean, I knew my schedule was more than hectic. My friends often joked about my inability to say no to taking on more. Yet, I had never addressed why I behaved this way. Keeping busy kept me distracted. It allowed me to stay occupied by a task, rather than be left alone to become occupied by my own thoughts.
My anxiety disorder is constant. It never goes aways. Sometimes my anxiety may be heightened - more than usual - yet, slowly I am learning how to self-regulate my thoughts. This involves acknowledging my triggers, knowing what scenarios or environments may cause my anxiety or panic to heighten. In my case, all of my triggers stem back to a fear for the unknown - an inability to predict a safe and stable outcome. Therefore, I approach academics, relationships and changes in my environment with caution as they are known to trigger my state of anxiety which results in an all-encompassing panic attack.
Living with anxiety is hard. Yes, I am completely aware my worries are irrational and to many they appear completely trivial. My support system understands that it isn’t just a simple fix, uttering the words “calm down” or, “everything will be alright” unfortunately won’t change how I am feeling.
I remember stumbling across a quote that read “honesty is the highest form of intimacy.” For many suffering from anxiety, this hits the nail on the head.
How can you be there for someone suffering from an anxiety disorder?
Tell them how you feel - this prevents them from contemplating the worst case scenario in their head. If a conflict arises address it. Don’t leave them to foster over open-ended scenarios.
Simply be there - without labeling them as fragile or weak. Remind them that they are not a burden to you. Remember that having a mental illness will never affect someone's ability to listen, if anything it will help them understand the importance of a good listener and will therefore allow them to be more empathetic towards others. Never stop confiding in them, they are always happy to return the favour by being a support system to you.
These simple gestures can make a world of a difference for someone suffering from anxiety.
Be honest. Be open.