When Anxiety Makes it Difficult to Answer 'How Are You?'
“How are you?” can be a loaded question for someone with anxiety. Sometimes, when asked, I want to say “surviving,” because it’s true. Other days the one thing I need to accomplish is making it to the end of the day in one piece (or at least not too many pieces). Sometimes I’m OK, and sometimes I’m great! Every time I want to respond with “great,” I struggle though.
It’s no secret to my close family and friends that I have anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not even a secret to my co-workers because of the panic attacks I’ve had at work and the time I’ve had to take off work to try to get my anxiety under control. I know that many — in fact, probably most — of these people are rooting for me and recognize I have a legitimate mental health issue that I live with on a daily basis. These are people who genuinely want to know how I am.
I also know there are doubters. There are people who don’t understand anxiety is a real condition. There are people who assume I cry because I don’t get my way or my feelings are hurt and I want attention. There are people who think I wanted to start my summer break early and that’s why I took time off at the end of the school year. There are people who think my anxiety is fake.
When these people ask me how I am doing, I don’t want to answer “great,” even if I am having a great day. I don’t want them to question the validity of my anxiety. If I have anxiety, am I supposed to have it all day, every day? Am I supposed to always be fighting off a panic attack, barely remaining in control? There is a part of me that feels like I should be; otherwise, is my diagnosis real, or am I just looking for attention?
When this happens, I have to remind myself that my diagnosis is real. I am not faking or looking for attention, nor am I a 30-year-old woman who simply needs to grow up and act her age. I am not choosing to act this way. I do not want to cry or have a panic attack in public (or in private). I am doing everything I can to not have anxiety.
I have spent most of my life with anxiety and most of my adult life, once I realized that’s what I had, trying to overcome it. I have accomplished a lot. I went to a college where I knew no one and made good friends. I have two Bachelor’s degrees and a Master’s degree. When I was 27, I moved to a new city where I knew very few people and built a life for myself there. When I was 28, I got a full-time teaching job. I was able to do all these things despite my anxiety, not because I don’t really have anxiety.
I feel like people often confuse the two. “How did you do [whatever it is I did] if you have such bad anxiety?” I can hear the skepticism in their voices, sometimes I doubt it myself. I’ve accomplished the things I have because I fought, because I am stronger than I give myself credit. My anxiety has peaks and valleys, and I’ve had it long enough that I know when to ask for help. I’ve accomplished these things despite my panic attacks, racing thoughts and self-doubt. I did all of this because I am determined to have a successful, happy and meaningful life.
It has taken me a long time to realize that I am allowed to have good (and great) days. I don’t have to struggle every second of every day. I am allowed to be happy, and that does not mean I am faking. Being happy does not mean my anxiety isn’t real. I do not have to let my anxiety dictate every minute of my life and define me for it to be real.
I recently had a panic attack and was devastated with myself because I had worked so hard to get my anxiety under control. I thought I was fine, I thought I was over anxiety. As I sat in tears that day trying to catch my breath, my boyfriend said something to me I have been trying to remind myself of ever since, “Kim, this does not define you. Yes, you have anxiety and panic attacks, but you are so much more than that.” Next time someone asks how I’m doing and I feel like I don’t have the right to say I’m doing great, I will try to remember those wise words.
So, to the world (and to myself) – yes, I have anxiety. But I also have great days, and that does not make my anxiety any less valid or real. It simply means anxiety does not win every day. And that is something to celebrate.