6 Ways My Anxiety Disguised Itself for Years
I’ve always considered myself a mildly anxious person — not someone with anxiety, just someone who’s always a little more stressed than necessary. But right now, I’m searching for a diagnosis that covers some of the mental health troubles I’ve been having the last few years, and in my first meetings with my new therapist and new psychiatrist, they both said “Well, we won’t make any diagnoses right away, but it’s clear to me that you have anxiety.”
I was floored. I mean, I’m an anxious person, I guess, but clinical anxiety? It just never seemed to fit me. Consider, for a moment, the nine main symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD):
1. Excessive anxiety and worry about multiple things, more days than not for at least six months.
2. Worry is difficult to control.
3. Restlessness/feeling keyed up or on edge.
4. Being easily fatigued.
5. Difficulty concentrating, or mind going blank.
6. Muscle tension.
8. Difficulty falling asleep due to incessant worry.
9. Symptoms significantly impair social, occupational or personal functioning.
What I’ve discovered in the months since I was told I “clearly” have anxiety is that my understanding of these symptoms was incredibly limited. We are given one generic profile of an anxious person: a general worrier, someone who’s always thinking of the worst possible scenario, or a person who is always overprepared. I don’t see myself as fitting that profile, so I never thought I could have “real” anxiety. I didn’t think my symptoms matched how I thought anxiety looked. It turns out a lot of my mental health issues actually involve those nine symptoms up above. My anxiety was just disguising itself as unpredictable moods, awful boredom and other seemingly random symptoms.
Looking back, this should have been fairly obvious from a very young age, but I didn’t recognize it for the same reason I didn’t recognize my anxiety for what it was. We have a very limited view of what low self-esteem looks like, a view that is often sexist and incredibly judgmental. Low self-esteem is often seen as a personal failing, and I’ve always been a high-achiever. Of course I couldn’t have low self-esteem, let alone self-loathing. But oh, how I hate myself.
I am anxious about who I am as a person, certain I am inherently “wrong” or broken. I’m anxious others will discover this in me; I’m anxious I’ll never overcome it; I’m anxious about why I even feel this way in the first place; I’m anxious about passing this feeling down to my children; I’m anxious about existing as myself. I find these feelings very difficult to control (GAD symptom #2) and when they swirl into an awful, self-destructive mass, I’ve often called that feeling “restlessness” (GAD symptom #3). My self-loathing is a major sign of anxiety — it just took me a long time to see it that way.
2. Mood disturbances.
I was originally diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I first sought help for my mental health. I was very depressed, seemingly out of nowhere, and in the following months, my mood would continue to swing wildly, for no apparent reason. Sounds like textbook bipolar, right? Except, the common trope that people with bipolar have a mood swing every other day is actually inaccurate. For a bipolar diagnosis, you have to experience depressive episodes lasting at least two weeks, and at least one manic or hypomanic (less severe mania) episode lasting at least four days. Some people experience rapid cycling, but that is typically classified as four or more episodes in one year. I was having four episodes a week — a completely different mood at the drop of a hat.
Now, I see my moods aren’t really “at the drop of a hat.” They are inherently tied to my anxiety. Until recently, I thought my moods were random because I didn’t see the little things that upset me as valid things to be upset about. Now I know that even the smallest screw-ups, invalidations or decisions can send me spiraling into depression or boost me up to a state of intense busyness and distraction because of my anxiety.
3. Difficulty getting up in the morning.
You hear about difficulty falling asleep all the time in discussions about anxiety, but it rarely takes me more than five minutes to fall asleep. No, my anxiety shows itself after I sleep. Getting out of bed is truly terrible for me. I lie in bed and think, “Just get up. Get up. Why aren’t we getting up? What are you doing? No, don’t open Tumblr — why, why would you do that, now we’ll be on here for the next hour. We’re wasting time, we have so much to do, you always do this, why are you like this? If [husband] saw you, he would be so frustrated and disappointed in how you spend your time. He doesn’t see you because he’s, y’know, at work, making money, being productive. Meanwhile, you’re just here reblogging self-indulgent sad things and snickering at stupid puns. Seriously, just get up. Please get up. What are we doing?”
Writing that out, it’s painfully clear to me that those are very anxious thoughts. But I was always taught that if you just got up, you wouldn’t have to think those things. But that just doubles down the pressure. Then, if I still struggle to get up, it makes me even more of a bad person because I “should” be able to do this.
4. Constant daydreaming.
I’ve always had a very active imagination, and I never want to attribute my positive qualities to my mental illness, but my imagination and my anxiety may have been in cahoots back when I was constantly daydreaming. This doesn’t happen very often for me anymore, but from elementary school through my first few years of college, I was always daydreaming. Usually about horrible things happening to me or my family, but they weren’t anxious daydreams. They were like young adult books, where something tragic happens and we follow the main character’s journey to recover and whatnot. It felt like a story; that’s all, just with characters I knew.
I started to realize this was maybe a little abnormal when I learned the term dissociation: a state of being where you distance yourself from your body in some way. Because you’re not in your body, you often have trouble concentrating, or when you’re pulled back to reality, your mind might be blank (GAD symptom #5). Dissociation is pretty common in people with anxiety because it’s a way to escape the anxious feelings. When I daydreamed, I simply disengaged from the world around me. It placed me in a world where I had control, where I could literally write what happened.
In place of the daydreaming, I’ve recently developed a new symptom: boredom. Oh my goodness, do I get bored. In grad school, I had several classes that were three hours long, and more than once, simply being there made me suicidal. Without stimulation, my mind has nowhere to go but back down to everything I hate about myself, which quickly leads to despair that I’m a worthless person who should not exist.
You might think a good way to combat this boredom would be to actively engage in the activities around me, in order to keep my mind occupied. You would be absolutely right, but most of the time, that would make me anxious. Really paying attention to things means committing to accomplishing something — but what if I don’t accomplish it? A common symptom of anxiety not listed above is avoidance of instances where you might fail, and I’ve never thought of myself that way. I didn’t avoid college or grad school or a bunch of other rather important situations where failure was a distinct possibility. But I constantly avoid the possibilities for daily failure. It takes me hours to work up the concentration and focus to do my freelance writing most days, and even then I am tense (GAD symptom #6) and constantly checking the clock to see if I’ll finish by the time my husband gets home, so he doesn’t see how I wasted my day.
This might seem like an obvious anxiety symptom, but it never occurred to me that my obsessiveness could be classified as “worry.” To me, worrying always felt like something you actively do. It’s a type of thought. Obsessiveness is a way of thinking.
It almost feels like part of who I am, so even when I started becoming so obsessed with my mental health that it absolutely got in the way of my social, occupational and personal functioning (GAD symptom #9), I didn’t recognize it as anxiety, per se. It seemed like a problem, but a personal problem. A failing on my part, rather than any kind of symptom, especially because my obsessiveness is so pervasive. I obsess about everything from my relationships to the way I write to minor decisions like what to have for lunch (GAD symptom #1). And this obsession doesn’t always present in a terribly problematic way. Sometimes, I get obsessed with TV shows to the point where, when I’m on long car drives, I’ll simply replay an episode in my head. This is pretty harmless, although it does take my mind off the road. But I also get so obsessed with the characters in those TV shows that I can dissociate or go nonverbal when I realize we aren’t as similar as I’d originally thought, or when someone points out they have flaws or are poorly written in some way.
My obsessiveness plays a part in all of the above symptoms. It heightens and exacerbates them, transforming them from proverbial molehills into black holes, all-consuming.
Photo by John Noonan on Unsplash