Why I'm Not Just 'Nervous' as Someone With an Anxiety Disorder

In a society where words like nervous, anxious, worried and stressed are used interchangeably, differentiating them all can be like deciphering the Starbucks menu — frustrating, and seemingly impossible. But it is important to understand that having an anxiety disorder is not the same thing as “being nervous” or “worrying too much” or having a lot of “stress.” Although all of those can contribute to anxiety, the disorder itself revolves around excessive irrational fears and concerns.

Being uncomfortable eating around other people might mean you stick to places you know, and dine with people you are close to. Having an anxiety disorder means sweating and shaking as you go through the cafeteria line, mentally rehearsing your order — then sitting down with your salad only to realize you forgot a fork, so you just eat it with a plastic spoon that you did manage to get, because you are less mortified to be eating salad with a spoon than you would be to actually stand up and find a fork.

Being nervous about driving to another city might include worrying about where to park, or traffic. Having an anxiety disorder means worrying about parking — and using Google Maps to view the parking, and spending two hours plotting exactly which routes will get you to that parking, and then another hour planning a back up parking option in case the first one doesn’t work for some reason.

Being stressed about a new job might include wondering if you will get along with co-workers and fit in to the new environment. With an anxiety disorder, you can spend  hours debating between the black suit and the blue suit, because black might seem too harsh, but the blue one might look like faded black in the wrong light, and that will make you look sloppy and cheap, and that is worse than looking too harsh — but you don’t want to look too harsh either, so you end up awake at 4 a.m. the night before your first day crying because you don’t have anything to wear, and knowing now you’ll be sleep deprived and that will make you look bad — and you haven’t even gotten around to planning where to park yet.

When anxiety takes over, rational thought ceases to exist. It’s a spiral into a black hole. It pulls you in with absurd thoughts— but very real feelings — most of which would seem completely ridiculous to any “normal” person. Ultimately, I’m not nervous, worried or stressed — any more than anyone else is. I have an anxiety disorder. My brain doesn’t process things the same way as other people, and therefore I have to battle to keep my head on straight.

It’s not easy, and I don’t always win. But I constantly remind myself that being nervous is normal, worrying is normal, having stress is normal. And differentiating between those things, and the anxiety, is extremely important. Because clearly identifying the thoughts and feelings which go beyond the scope of “normal,” is the first step to dealing with them, and loosening their vice grip on life.

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