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The Hurdles of Being a 21-Year-Old With Generalized Anxiety Disorder


Hi, I’m Sara. I’m a graduating senior at my university now, which means it’s been almost two years since I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, and depression. I’ve been privileged in the realm of depression; it came as an aftershock of the anxiety and left me swiftly after seeking help — I haven’t dealt with it since. The anxiety, however…

Anxiety comes in different shades and depths. At my age, the term is thrown around a lot. Some are anxious about tests, others about bills and loans, others about finding post-graduate work, and a lot of students are anxious about some combination of said stresses. While not at all trivial, those anxieties are not what I mean when I say, “I have anxiety.” Thus, I’d like to share some of the ways standard 20-something activities may feel like for a person with severe, clinical anxiety.

College

Moving away into a dorm room the size of Harry Potter’s closet is typically uncomfortable enough. Regardless of excitement, there are nerves with moving off to college and adjusting to classes, a new social sphere, and different lifestyle. Mix some GAD in there and it feels as though your world has been flipped upside down. There’s the normal realm of fear, and then there is the incessant concern that something could happen to your family or friends back home and you may not be there. It took me two years to adjust because it was two years into college before I got help and was able to better manage and control my disorder. I don’t regret any of it, but if you can learn from it, learn there is no such thing as “not sick enough” to seek help. If you think something is wrong, trust your intuition. No one can perform an x-ray to evaluate your mental health.

Just like many students, you can bet my heart is racing and my hands are sweaty before an exam. At least for once I don’t feel “crazy” for feeling that way. It’s the days nobody else feels that way, when I still do. The days when I feel like I’m either going to pass out, throw up, or lose control of my bladder if I don’t get up to leave the classroom (all very attractive functions, I know). The days I have to put lavender essential oil on my nose and focus on deep breathing more than on my professor’s lecture just to make it through class. It’s the days I sometimes can’t push through and have to leave early — my friends know I’m struggling, but my peers surely view it as lazy. It’s the days when my friend tries to comfort me by asking what’s rolling through my head, but I can’t come up with a response. Nothing — I have nothing to be anxious about. I just am.

Sex and Dating

For me, this has gotten substantially easier as I’ve gained more experience — otherwise I would probably be forever celibate and single. I was a late bloomer in this category to begin with, largely because I was too anxious, and probably insecure and immature, to even imagine something of a romance. However, a year into my recovery, I felt like I had gotten there; I was far more independent, secure, and confident. I wasn’t looking to date, but I was open to it and found myself in a somewhat mature relationship shortly thereafter. To be candid, skydiving, bungee jumping, and shark diving, done all in one day seem less terrifying to me than the start of that relationship. I think dating, especially in the beginning, is terrifying for everyone — to be emotionally and physically vulnerable — but for those of us with anxiety, it can be petrifying. And that’s exactly what it was. I liked him, but I was also scared to be around him. I was scared to be intimate with him. Being with him meant feeling nauseous, completely lacking a sex drive despite being attracted to him, being excessively body conscious, and losing all train of thought. At the same time, more than anything, I wanted to do all of those things — to spend time with him, to be open with him, to be intimate with him. My anxiety made me a hollow shell of myself in that relationship. Even if he was the utmost comforting, safe and secure soul in the world, I doubt it would have changed.

We ended for reasons other than just my anxiety, but I’m sure it played a role in our lack of connection after several months. Since then, I’ve become better at recognizing when my symptoms can become toxic to my love life; I work through them on my own, with my therapist, and with whomever I’m dating. The more I’ve dated, the easier it’s gotten — just like those without anxiety, repeatedly facing the fear is the best way to desensitize myself to it. I sometimes worry that my anxiety medication — an SSRI — is still hindering my libido, but it’s quite possible it is more of a side effect in my head than it is physically. Regardless, being intimate with others has gotten significantly less petrifying. The more open I’ve been about my struggle, the less power it has had over me.

Alcohol

If you think headaches, nausea, light sensitivity, and the spins make for a rough hangover… just imagine the addition of irrational racing thoughts, night sweats, and a pounding heart. By irrational thoughts I do not solely mean excessive worry — I’m talking fully convinced you or someone you love is going to die, that you have some incurable, devastating disease that will hinder you for the rest of your life. Or even that you could be dangerous and out-of-control. These are the thoughts that can hijack my brain time to time but are almost guaranteed by an anxiety hangover.

As a 21 year-old, of course I’m going to go out with my friends to get drinks every now and then. The difference is I have to pick my “now and then” wisely. Sure, it’s fun for the night, but when my prescription is yielded ineffective the next day (I’m not supposed to drink on it anyways), it makes for a difficult time. Not only does the interaction make me drunk faster, it also makes the medication lose efficacy and increases the risk for alcohol dependence. Fun stuff to worry about, eh? Sure, I’ve learned my limits and coping mechanisms for the following day, but I can forget about partying “without a care in the world.”

These are just a few of the ways life as a young adult with anxiety may be different from one without. I don’t share this to self-pity or complain but rather to acknowledge the differences and assure those with and without the disorder that these differences are not abnormal, nor should they be alienating as I used to believe them to be.

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