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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