4 Things I’ve Learned About My Anxiety Disorder

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1. Anxiety can be ambiguous.

What does the word “anxiety” make you think of? What about the terms “anxiety disorder” or “socially anxious?” For people who may not understand what it’s like to live with ongoing anxiety, these words and phrases may evoke the image of someone who is nervous a lot, someone who “worries too much” or someone who is very shy. However, those who struggle on a daily basis know having anxiety means more than worrying and being shy or nervous. In my own experience, I’ve learned that living with ongoing anxiety or having an anxiety disorder looks different for different people. I remember college days like they were yesterday because it was a span of time when I met other people who had anxiety in one form or another. Most of them identified as socially anxious whether or not they had an anxiety disorder. As I came to know them as friends, I realized my experiences with anxiety were different from theirs, depending on the situation.

For example, one of my friends found it significantly difficult to eat in the college dining halls; instead, she chose to eat the majority of meals in her room. I, on the other hand, found eating in the dining hall relatively easy to do, as long as I was able to quickly find a place to sit. This same friend had almost no fear of driving a car, which was something I was unable to do due to the amount of physical and mental anxiety it caused anytime I sat behind the wheel.

During the past years I’ve tried to figure out my own anxiety, and I’ve discovered there is no “one way” people experience anxiety. Situations which are completely non-threatening to some people can be terribly anxiety-provoking for others. There is also no sure way to know whether or not a person struggles with anxiety unless they tell you. These days, I’m not entirely sure whether or not it’s obvious I’m a person who struggles with anxiety. My guess is, most of the time I appear to others as shy (and probably a bit bashful), but nowhere near as anxious as I truly feel. I have also learned how to cope with what felt like irrational fears (such as making telephone calls, speaking in small groups or taking public transportation), which has led me to feeling fundamentally different from my “old” self. There are days when I almost feel like I don’t have an anxiety disorder anymore, and there are days when my anxiety seems to affect me more than usual or where my symptoms seem to double in intensity. Because there is no sure way for me to predict how anxious I will feel on any given day — and because most of the time I try to hide my anxiety from others — there are times I feel my symptoms are too ambiguous or inconsistent to thoroughly explain.

2. Anxiety and confidence don’t always mix.

I feel people, no matter who they are or what relation they have to me,  seem surprised to learn my confidence and self-esteem levels are not very high. But, to me, it makes a lot of sense that someone with social anxiety might have a hard time cultivating a sense of true confidence in themselves. Because one of the most common symptoms of social anxiety disorder is “an overwhelming fear of being judged by others in social situations,” it’s no surprise my social anxiety disorder manifests itself as preoccupation about how others may perceive me. For some people, these preoccupations could be intense and debilitating. For me, these preoccupations sound like, “What if I sounded stupid when I said that?” “Did that person notice the way I slightly tripped while I was walking?” “Did my eyes dart to the ground too quickly when I tried to make eye contact with that person?” “Do I look weird sitting over here in the corner by myself?” Even with friends, I have similar thoughts, such as, “Why did I mention that to them?” or “Why am I still so awkward with them, even though I trust them?”

A fear of being judged by others is not exactly a hallmark of confidence. For me, growing up with social anxiety meant metaphorically walking on eggshells to avoid being negatively judged by others. It also meant not making eye contact, being sure not to show too much emotion in public, speaking only when spoken to, spending as little time as possible making it from point A to point B (to avoid being noticed), and being generally hesitant and submissive. From early on, it was probably painfully obvious to others it was difficult for me to even exist in public. Friends, family, teachers, classmates, acquaintances, and even strangers would ask me why I was so quiet, or tell me I needed to speak up. The advice I was given about needing to be assertive increased as I got older and people grew more frustrated with my unassertiveness.

Growing up as an anxious person definitely had an impact on me. By the age of 10 or 11, I had internalized a number of negative beliefs about myself. I blamed myself for my anxieties and my social awkwardness. With each passing year I grew to dislike myself more and feel more inferior to others, which then led to depression by my mid-teens. Depression and anxiety definitely did not translate into any sort of confidence or self-assurance, despite my parents’ efforts to try to instill that in me. These days I still struggle to conduct myself with the confidence I feel is required of me.

3. Anxiety can be hard to justify to other people.

With every year I get older, I find it harder to justify my anxiety to other people — specifically to those who don’t understand what it’s like to have an anxiety disorder. Some of us who have anxiety problems or anxiety disorders may be plagued by fears others deem irrational. Actually, I would venture to say most of us with anxiety know our fears are irrational, but often feel incapable of overcoming those fears. From an early age, I have encountered people who have a difficult time understanding why I would be afraid of things such as making phone calls, speaking in a class or a meeting, or driving a car. As I’ve gotten older, I feel people understand less and less why these issues would affect someone my age.

When I think about it, it makes sense why people wouldn’t understand why such simple tasks make me feel anxious or fearful. If there is one thing I’ve experienced over the years, it’s that with getting older expectations about being assertive, speaking up and being independent increase. A 20-something who has trouble doing all of these things may not be received well by many people. In the past, when I have admitted to being insecure or fearful about small things, I’ve been advised, told or scolded about needing to “get over” those fears. Submissiveness and lack of confidence seems to be something looked down upon especially in adults. It may be because of my own insecurities, but I feel less comfortable with admitting I struggle with anxiety because of what I feel is my inability to justify it to anyone outside of people who already understand what it’s like to struggle with it. Even though I don’t blame others for their lack of understanding, it can still be frustrating when others don’t understand why I struggle to change my anxious thoughts and behaviors.

4. Anxiety is pervasive.

It took me a long time to realize anxiety affects every area and aspect of my life for my entire life. My first memories of any type of anxiety begin at age 4, long before I understood what anxiety was and how it made me feel. However, it took me years to realize how pervasive my anxiety truly was. Social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and later on depression, have had an impact on my entire life experience and created a lens through which I experience the world. Many of my characteristics can be explained by my anxiety – my nervous habits (such as hair twisting, fidgeting and lip biting), my constant racing thoughts that make it hard for me to concentrate and never seem to stop, any number of physical symptoms (sweating, blushing, racing heart, nausea, etc.), my eating habits and my frequent use of food for comfort, my perfectionism and simultaneous procrastination on projects and assignments that I care about, the interactions I have with other people, the depressive episodes I repeatedly struggle with, and so on. I’m going through a phase where I’m stating to realize all the opportunities I turned down throughout my life and the hobbies I didn’t pursue as a direct result of my anxiety. I often have regrets about the way I’ve lived my life and the person I have turned out to be.

But, for me, there is another side to this pervasiveness. Having anxiety has undeniably informed my entire life experience, so it’s only fair to highlight the ways in which it has positively impacted me. Having anxiety has taught me how to act with more compassion, patience, kindness and understanding. I have learned from an early age what it’s like to need these things from other people. Being quiet and reluctant to speak has also allowed me to learn to become a good listener. Being hyper-aware of what others might be thinking or feeling has helped me to recognize anxiety in other people and — hopefully —  be a source of comfort to others, simply by relating to and empathizing with them.

Living with an anxiety disorder is a struggle, and it could be easy to feel overwhelmed, exhausted, isolated and misunderstood. This is certainly the impact it has had on me, but I’m also fortunate to have learned about my anxiety disorders over the years. I still have a lot to learn, and I’m still faced with the challenges of managing and living with anxiety on a day-to-day basis. However, I also feel more able to speak about it and share my experience with others. I’ve found sharing my experience is the most productive way for me to combat any feelings of worthlessness that my anxiety may bring on.

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When Anxiety Takes the Steering Wheel

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We all have this monster somewhere inside of us. Those of us living with anxiety know how hard it can be to control. There are days when it is manageable and we can go about our daily lives and not have to worry about having an anxiety attack. Then there are days when it is so hard to pull yourself out of bed and even get yourself to eat something.

Those days are the days where I don’t feel in control of myself. These are the days when anxiety takes the steering wheel and knocks me in the backseat to just be along for the ride. It is as if I cease to exist and anxiety takes control of the functions and tells my brain what body what to do. It’s like going on autopilot and it’s supposed to be smooth sailing, but when you go back to manual control you find yourself with more problems than when you started.

From what I’ve experienced, those problems can range from a pile up of responsibilities from work or school to problems in my relationships. Many of these problems you don’t intentionally want to happen. If you’re like me, you feel frustrated. You want to do your best to be in the present moment, but you find anxiety rears its head and knocks you back. I describe it as going into an emotional high and the only way to come down is to come crashing down. To have this happen every time is so exhausting and puts a toll on you.

There are days when I find it hard to do all the things on my plate so I have to dial back and do what I can and not expect so much from myself. It is very hard to do, but sometimes when anxiety takes your car and insists on driving, you have to let yourself do what you can and not expect perfection until you are given the wheel back.

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The Importance of Learning to Be Patient With Myself With Anxiety

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Ever go into a therapy session feeling on top of the world, like the sun is smiling down on you and you’re thinking, “life is pretty darn great,” only to come out of it feeling on the brink of a panic attack because some drudged-up memory just triggered the anxiety monster in your brain?

My anxiety comes in phases. Sometimes the phases last from a couple of days, to months at a time. Some phases are more severe than others, ranging from nervous jitters waiting in line somewhere, to can’t even leave the house to go to the grocery store.

I’ve been in a good phase the last couple of months and I chalked it up to regularly working with a therapist, completing my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) workbooks, meditating and practicing mindfulness.

But then as I was in therapy, something triggered the darkness hiding deep in my brain, and I realized it would never go away. This thing will always be lying dormant there, even when I’m feeling “normal” and like my best self.

I am an extremely impatient person… just ask my husband when we order pizza and I ask him to check what time he called over and over, waiting for the delivery man to arrive. I wasn’t expecting a quick fix for my anxiety disorder. I guess I had hoped it might go away with time and I could remember it like, “Hey remember that 28-year phase I struggled with anxiety? Man, that was tough. Glad that’s over!”

I’m learning to be patient with myself and I’ll always have to practice my mindfulness and other techniques that help. I’ve realized I need to exercise my brain and my emotional health just as much as physical health.

For me it’s been 20 years of living with generalized panic disorder, and only two years of actually learning behaviors that will help me to develop techniques to be able to live with it and get through the bad phases. You need to be kind and patient to yourself, because it will always be a learning process.

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Anxiety Makes It Hard to Know if I'll Be an 'Introvert' or 'Extrovert' Today

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Sometimes I struggle to make sense of the love of being alone but also the fear of being alone. To an introvert, being alone can be a favorite pastime and to an extrovert, they can often want nothing more than to be around people. But what if I don’t fit in these categories? What if I don’t want to label myself because neither of these titles make any sense to who I am?

With anxiety, it is impossible to guess how I am going to feel each day. Do I want to be alone or do I need the distraction of the people I care about? After a long day, there is nothing more I want then to sit alone and process my day. The last thing I can imagine is socializing with friends or having to go out in public. My day was exhausting and my thoughts drained all my energy. All I want to do is sleep and prepare myself for the next day. I cannot even imagine holding a conversation and I seem reserved and standoffish.  

A week later, I can feel the exact same way but the last thing I can imagine is being alone. My thoughts become too strong to push away by myself. I have to put the television on and put the volume up to drown out the thoughts I can no longer control. I get up and start to pace the floor trying to find something to do or even start cleaning to distract myself. I start texting my boyfriend and friends to think of something else while I try to push away the nauseous feeling creeping up my throat. I start doing homework that might not be due for another two weeks just so I can keep myself busy. I start making lists of anything I can think of or start organizing my room to keep myself calm. I count down the minutes until my boyfriend is out of work just so I can have someone next to me, someone I can have a conversation with.

I wish I was able to know which way I was going to feel each day. Whether I should plan to meet up with friends or know not to make any plans altogether. I know it is hard for many people to understand how I can seem like an introvert one day and an extrovert the next day, but I have learned I need to adjust my surroundings with the way I am feeling each day.

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How to Love Someone With 'High-Functioning' Anxiety

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This piece was written by Lauren Jarvis-Gibson, a Thought Catalog contributor.

When someone has “high-functioning” anxiety, they’re probably skilled at hiding it. I know I’m a master at concealing and covering up my anxiety, but it does come out of hiding when trying to be “OK” becomes too difficult.

That’s when I need you to be there for me.

Someone who has high-functioning anxiety is someone who looks fine on the outside. This person may seem like they have it all. They may look like they take care of themselves, and seem like they have an all-together great life. But you have to uncover that facade if you want this person to heal and to truly open up to you.

I know that for me, first I fool you. But as time passes, you’ll see me biting my nails, the times I want to be alone, the days I put myself down when I have no reason to, the times when I get a stomachache out of nowhere, the weeks I am convinced I am going to get fired and the months spent freaking out over the tiniest of things.

You’ll notice this is more than me just being a perfectionist. I’m not just a people pleaser. This habit of nail biting and pulling out my eyebrow hairs isn’t just a temporary thing. You’ll come to realize, that anxiety is manifesting itself onto me — this person you love.

Don’t act like it doesn’t matter. Don’t ignore it like it’s going to go away. Talk to me about it. Tell me you’re concerned and try to encourage me to acknowledge that it’s not just “stress” or that it’s “no big deal.” Let me talk to you, but don’t pressure me to do it when I’m not ready.

Listen. Listen to me when I come home crying and ranting about a co-worker. Listen to me when I list my worries to you at midnight while I think you are asleep. Listen to what goes on in my mind, and let me know you are there for me.

Don’t brush it off. Don’t nod your head in agreement when I tell you it’s nothing. Don’t kick this to the curb. Don’t act like it’s not important.

Be patient with me. If I need to cancel plans with you last minute, don’t overreact. Realize I didn’t mean to hurt you, it’s just the anxiety taking over. Be understanding in how I deal with the anxiety, and please, don’t judge me. For a second.

Encourage me. Lift me up, instead of picking on me. Tell me why I matter to you. Don’t undermine my thoughts and feelings. Don’t downplay this, please. Know that it takes a lot of courage to let you into my inner world.

Don’t try to play mind games with me and say that it’s all about my “outlook on life.” Validate how I’m feeling  and don’t give me a reason to hide this from you.

Don’t give me a reason not to trust you with my whole heart. Don’t give me a reason to run.

Know feeling like this doesn’t make me weak. Know it doesn’t make me crazy or unstable. Please just love me for who I am, and that includes the bad parts too. Just love me as I am. Don’t try to change me.

For others who love someone with high-functioning anxiety, know they deserve someone like you, but most importantly, you deserve someone like them.

This story is brought to you by Thought Catalog and Quote Catalog.

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To the Person I'm Dating: Let Me Introduce You to My Depression and Anxiety

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Hi there,

If you’re reading this, it means I like you. We’ve probably been on a few dates during which I questioned you about your hopes and dreams and your views on cats. You patiently listened to my awkward ramblings and may have even found it adorable. I enjoy spending time with you and would like to continue getting to know you, so I think it’s necessary to disclose I come as a package deal. Anxiety and Depression like to tag along from time to time.

Anxiety likes to stop me mid-story to proclaim I’m being weird and no one really cares about the books I find inspiring or that time I jumped out of a plane. She’ll point out that I’m not interesting on my own and tells me I should order another cocktail, even if I think I’ve had enough. Sometimes Anxiety waits for me to get home then grills me about our date. She likes to hear the play-by-play, making me explain the details. All the while she becomes certain I messed everything up and describes what I should have done instead. Anxiety insists on seeing all of your text messages and makes me rewrite my responses so as not to scare you away by seeming overly eager. She positively can’t understand why you wanted to see me again.

Depression is a bit quieter. He doesn’t particularly like following me around and instead begs me to blow off our plans. Depression doesn’t see the point. He thinks I’m just going to let you down eventually so why lead you on? He can be pretty convincing. His favorite tactic — bringing up all of my failed relationships to prove that I’m really no good at this. Sometimes he will drag himself out of the house but he’s never on time. He’ll show up late, usually while the party is in full swing and just linger in the corner letting his presence dampen the mood. No matter what you suggest, Depression won’t want to do it. He likes to whisper in my ear, telling me you haven’t contacted me today because you think I’m boring.

Sometimes Anxiety and Depression work together. While Depression insists you aren’t interested in me Anxiety rattles of all the worst-case-scenarios. No matter how many possibilities Anxiety makes me consider, Depression always chimes in with the same response, “Why even bother?” Anxiety will wake me up with a bucket of ice water, screaming I’m wasting my life away while Depression sits on my chest, refusing to let me up.

I’m telling you this because even though they are a part of my life they don’t define who I am. I’ve gotten better at standing up for myself and they know they aren’t welcome. But they are persistent. I know, deep down that I’m the same, fun-loving girl who showed up on our first date but occasionally they do get under my skin. I won’t let them scare you away, I’ve gotten pretty good at showing them who’s boss. But still, they do like to show up now and then.

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