I originally was going to write about something else for my second post in this seires, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting over the last week and that has lead to this post.
I have what is known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This means that my symptoms have been assessed by a professional and meet the diagnostic criteria for this category of anxiety disorders. I have a therapist that I’ve seen for a number of years now that has helped me learn a lot of things to help me manage my symptoms when they flare and provide support when those things maybe aren’t working as well. I also take medication to help with the symptoms because it became clear fairly early on that therapy alone was not going to be sufficient to manage my symptoms. I won’t got deep into medication here – I’ll save that for another post – but if you’re thinking “you don’t need medication, that just makes the problems worse”, I’m going to need you to just keep that to yourself. No time for that foolishness today.
What is GAD?
“Generalized anxiety disorder includes persistent and excessive anxiety and worry about activities or events — even ordinary, routine issues. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control and affects how you feel physically. It often occurs along with other anxiety disorders or depression.” (source)
Ok, that gives some basic information.
Now, many people *think* they know what anxiety is. They may use this term to describe the feeling before giving a big speech, taking a test, a job interview, or other things are short-term rises in an emotional response to a specific thing. Yes, you may have sweaty palms, or your stomach may feel uncomfortable, but these reactions go away after the thing happens. I’m going to be clear here – this is not anxiety. This doesn’t mean your feelings and reactions aren’t real or appropriate, it just doesn’t rise to the level of an anxiety disorder. I say this because many people want to empathise with someone suffering from anxiety because they were nervous before a big test and offer some trite suggestions for getting over it, but that doesn’t work for someone with anxiety.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to offer support to a someone with anxiety, but you just need to understand that you likely don’t know the true extent of what someone is going through, and how it overwhelms your mind and your life when it is at its worst. Listen to the person you are trying to support and ask them what they need. Don’t just tell them to do some yoga or get over it. Trust me, if it was that easy, we’d do that.
But, back to the core question, what is anxiety specifically?
Common anxiety signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling nervous, restless or tense
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom
- Having an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation)
- Feeling weak or tired
- Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems
- Having difficulty controlling worry
- Having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety
For me, it’s often all of the above, either alone or mix, from sun up to sun down each day. When I’m on top of my symptoms, I can help keep these symptoms from getting in the way of the day-to-day activities. When I’m not? I basically just want to sleep and be in a space that feels safe. I’ll have problems keeping up with laundry (pretty sure I’ve set the record for re-washing the same load because I keep forgetting to put it in the dryer) and really wish the cats could just feed themselves becuase I don’t have the energy to deal with them. I won’t want to take Scout on walkies. I’ll often also try to “fix” things that aren’t actually the source of my anxiety, but I think are. At these times I’ll often wonder – why can’t I just be a “normal” person? Well, that’s because my brain isn’t normal. It’s got a few differences that make some things more difficult that it is for others without anxiety. Doesn’t make me a bad person, just means I do things differently.
High anxiety will also make me anxiety at people. I’ll do things that I think will help ease the anxiety, or at least it does when my symptoms are under control. It’s like a child that sucks their thumb to soothe themselves. . .doing this every once in awhile can be ok, but doing it too much can really mess up their teeth. When anxiety is high, these actions sometimes end up being more harmful because I’m unable to actually internalize the feedback I recieve. It also means I am often in my head and unable to read people and situations as well as I normally can. This too can lead to issues, because something that I could normally understand seems like the worst thing ever when anxiety is high.
My anxiety makes it seem like everything is much more big and scary than it actually is. It takes things – things that wise mind me knows to be true – and skews them and makes me believe the opposite of what the evidence shows. It is exhausting, frustrating, and something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. Simply stated – anxiety is a dirty liar.
You know how when you have a cold and can’t breathe out of one side of your nose and you can’t remember what is was like to breathe normally and you feel like you’ll never breathe normally again? That’s how I feel when my anxiety is at its peak. I can’t remember things not being clouded by anxiety, and I truly believe that I never again will experience things without being impacted by anxiety.
For me, I also don’t often realize my anxiety is as bad as it actually is. I have so much experience before I got my diagnosed, with using a bunch of poor coping strategies to “hide” (I’m likely not really hiding anything to those who know the signs) how bad things were. This is a place I recently found myself in. I thought that I was on top of everything and bringing my best self to the various parts of my life. However, after some reflection, tears, conversations, and just stepping back a bit, I realized that my anxiety is a bit out of whack right now, and I need to be a bit more deliberate in using the tools I have to get it back under control. All someone in this place is asking for is the space and judgement-free support to sort this out.
I’m also a little angry. I’m angry that I didn’t see this happening. That I let it get in the way of being the kind of person, the kind of friend that I strive to be. I’m angry I let it get to this point. I’m angry that this is a chronic illness that I have to deal with. But anger isn’t a solution. Anger doesn’t get the symptoms under control. Anger doesn’t allow me to bring my best self to all that I’m doing. So I’m working to let that anger go, and instead focus on the fact that this is my reality and I not just let it happen to me and suffer BUT step up and do the things I know I am capable of to manage this.
I’m also thankful for a great support system when I deal with anxiety spikes. I have people who let me ramble for hours to help walk myself through something and work through an anxiety spike. People who send me the reminders that I’m not the worst person ever and that they don’t hate me. I’m also thankful for the people in my life that do things that I may not realize at the time are for my own good, but do it anyways. As I’ve said a few times recently, it may take me a little bit, but I eventually connect the dots and piece together things. Just have a little patience and know that while sometimes I can’t see things unclouded by anxiety, eventually I will find myself in that place and I will keep on doing what I need to do to be the best me I can.
So what does the work to get my symptoms under control look like? It means I need to cut myself some slack. I need to communicate and not assume people can read my mind. I need to make sure I’m eating, drinking water, and sleeping. It means remembering boundaries. It means realizing that short term changes don’t mean forever changes. It’s being open and honest. It means not holding myself to unattainable expectations. It’s taking the time to reflect and try to challenge the whack conclusions that anxiety tries to make me think are going to happen. It’s being patient. It’s trusting – trusting in myself, in others, in my skills.
And I guess now, it means writing things like this.