Did you know May is Mental Health Awareness month? I think it’s amazing that an entire month is dedicated to bringing awareness to something many of us struggle with. However, mental health is something I am aware of on a more daily basis.
My Anxiety Backstory
10 years ago, I went to see a therapist for the first time. I was in college and in a horribly toxic relationship. The stress of the relationship, and of college in general, started affecting my mental well being. I couldn’t sleep, my appetite had disappeared, and my world seemed to be literally crumbling around me. After several sessions and tests, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I had always known I was a “thinker”, but I didn’t realize that everyone didn’t think as much as I did. I learned that my norm, is not everyone’s norm.
When I talk about my anxiety, I know not everyone understands what that means. Nowadays, it seems like everyone has “anxiety” and I honestly think the term has been minimized. There’s a big difference between having occasional, normal anxiety and having a diagnosed anxiety disorder. What people don’t realize is the struggle that people go through who have an anxiety disorder. Simple tasks are difficult. Everything is overanalyzed. In general, anxiety makes life more difficult.
To better help people understand what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder, I wanted to share with you how my own anxiety feels and how it tends to manifest. I also wanted to share my experience to connect with those who can relate. I think the more we talk about this very serious matter, the more understanding will come of it.
Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder – it’s not easy!
As I mentioned, living with an anxiety disorder is a daily struggle. The difference between having “normal” anxiety and having GAD is that my anxiety is around 98% of the time. I live day in and day out with anxiety lingering. There are times when I’m totally fine, because I have been to several therapists and have the tools to manage it. But more often than not, I am living in an anxious state and the anxiety is excessive.
When you have a generalized anxiety disorder, it’s hard to know what will trigger your anxiety. You could be having a great, regular ole’ day and then all of a sudden anxiety rushes over you. You overanalyze every. single. thing. Every thought, every word, every situation, every detail – all overanalyzed. It’s a never ending cycle of racing thoughts.
Physically, anxiety raises your body temperature, causes your heart to race, and can even make you feel nauseous. The worst of the worst would be a panic attack. It’s hard to describe what a panic attack feels like. For me, the best way to describe it, is that it feels like someone has removed all oxygen from my body – I can’t catch my breath. It feels like my heart might burst out of my chest and my head hurts so bad it might explode. Sounds fun, right?
So the question is: what does anxiety look like? While I can’t speak for everyone who has an anxiety disorder, I can try to paint a picture to give you an idea of what my life is like with GAD on a daily basis. (PS- please keep in mind that this is a very difficult thing to write about and put into words, but I’ll do my best!)
What does my anxiety look like?
1. My brain is thinking 98% of the time.
When you have a generalized anxiety disorder, your brain is on overdrive almost all of the time. I wake up with thoughts, I have thoughts all day, I go to bed with thoughts. My first therapist described this as “spiderwebbing”. One thought connects to the next which connects to the next. You get to a point where you don’t even know how you got to the thought you’re currently on. If it were a drawing, it’d look like a huge spiderweb.
2. Overthinking and overanalyzing are my specialties.
My brain automatically thinks about something over and over and over. My thought processes often don’t have an end goal in mind. It’s often difficult to come to a conclusion or a decision, and if I do, it’s only after I’ve spent a considerable amount of time and energy overthinking the situation. Overthinking also leads to reading into things that aren’t actually there. One word or one action can lead my brain down a wormhole of overthinking – it’s exhausting!
3. I usually feel like I’ve said the wrong thing.
This ties back to overthinking: I usually feel like I’ve done or said the wrong thing. “Did I say something the right way?” “I should have mentioned this other thing.” “I should have waited until later to bring it up.” “Did I wait too long to bring it up?” The hard part about this is it can be difficult to just be yourself because you’re constantly adjusting your words and actions based upon how you think someone might/might not react.
4. I’m always expecting the worst possible outcome.
My best friend didn’t text me back? She’s probably hates me. I forgot to turn off my curling iron before leaving for work? I’ll probably burn the whole building down. Every scenario that plays out in my head goes this way. And when I’m assuming the worst, there are instances where I know better, but the lingering ‘what if’ makes it difficult to snap out of.
I assume I do this because I somehow think that if I’m already assuming the worst, I can never feel let down or like I wasn’t prepared for the worst case scenario. Obviously I end up wasting a lot of time assuming and preparing myself for the worst. How many times do you think the worst possible outcome actually happens? (rhetorical question, guys 😉).
5. My anxiety manifests through my dreams.
As mentioned, there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t wake up already thinking about a million things. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t go to bed with a million thoughts. This drastically affects my sleep because anything I’m anxious about (aka everything), usually appears in my dreams as well. I never wake up feeling rested. Again, my brain is constantly thinking – even when I’m sleeping.
6. It’s hard not to feel like I’m being “too much” and I usually feel like I’m not good enough.
I recently shared a blog about how many of us are made to feel like we’re either too much or not enough. While I do my best to not let anyone else make me feel this way, I don’t do a great job of making my own self not feel this way. The overanalyzing leads to drastic thoughts of feeling like I’m not good enough. My anxiety often makes me feel like I’m being too much – too emotional, too angry, too sensitive, too loud. This is something I work on, but it’s not easy!
7. I’m always on time and I like having a set schedule.
Even thinking about being late makes me anxious. If I’m meeting someone, being late drives me straight to thinking of all the worst possible outcomes. I’d rather avoid that scenario altogether, so I am usually very prompt. I also like to have a schedule. While I understand things may not go as planned, I still like to have a plan. In my eyes, when things are planned, there’s less room for things not to go the way you envisioned. Of course, this is not reality. Even when you have a plan, things might not go exactly as you’d hoped. Struggle.
8. It’s extremely hard to concentrate.
My brain is constantly hopping from one thought to another, which makes it very hard to concentrate. I can be working on something and all of a sudden I’m doing something completely different, and often, I’ll have no idea how I got there. Working on one task at a time is hard for me, but multitasking? Not a problem! Goes to show that while anxiety is a tricky thing to manage, it does have it’s benefits!
After trying to think about all of the ways my anxiety looks and feels, it was incredibly difficult to put the symptoms into buckets. And after writing this all out, it’s very clear to me how many of these are connected. Like I said in the beginning, it’s a vicious cycle of thoughts. The gist of it is that my brain is constantly working. So, you might be wondering:
How do you handle your anxiety?
The first step I ever took toward managing my anxiety was going to see a therapist. I’ve been to several therapists and all were helpful in their own way. I now have learned many tools to help manage my symptoms, like mindfulness and meditation. Therapy also gave me the reassurance I needed to know I can live a successful and fulfilling life. I learned that my anxiety does not control my life, but instead I can control my anxiety.
The second step I took was trying different anti-anxiety medications. I was on medication for a few years, but ultimately decided that medication wasn’t in my best interests at that time. Why? There are several reasons, but the main thing I struggled with were the side-effects and the process of finding a medication that could work for me. Finding a medication that works for you (both in the type of medication but also the dosage) is a process. Inevitably, I decided it wasn’t for me and I have since been medication free. With that being said, there have been many times I have strongly considered trying medication again, but I just haven’t crossed that bridge yet. I just want to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being on medication if that is what’s right for you.
Currently, I am not seeing a therapist as over the years I have discovered the things that seem to help me the most with my anxiety. I look back to the person I was 10 years ago and realize that I have come a very long way. I’ll do a follow-up to this blog discussing some of the things that help the most, but two things I would highly recommend are 1) therapy and 2) yoga/meditation. That combo will help put you on the right track to managing your symptoms. Everyone’s journey is different and you’ll need to find what works best for you.
I truly hope this blog was helpful in painting a picture around what anxiety can feel like. Maybe you have a friend or loved one who has mentioned they struggle with anxiety, but you weren’t quite sure what that means. While I know we all experience anxiety differently, perhaps this could give you a better understanding of what that person might be going through.
Do you struggle with anxiety, or know someone who does? How do you manage your anxiety? I would love for you to leave a comment to get a conversation started around this very important topic! Thank you so much for reading 😊