Anxiety can be a really hard thing to explain to people. A lot of people just don’t get it, and don’t want to try to understand. Even though those people are generally not the kind of people I spend time around, it sucks a lot that they exist. It’s hard to blame them, though – invisible illnesses can be really hard to understand if you haven’t experienced one firsthand. And in today’s society, where mental illness is largely swept under the rug and not talked about, it might be more constructive to say that this unwillingness to understand is a societal problem, not simply a characteristic of individual assholes.
All that said, it still sucks really bad when people just don’t get it – when they don’t understand why you can’t just come out with them that night, for example. And when you suffer from an anxiety disorder, it can be really fucking hard to explain why it’s not a case of not wanting to go out with them, but rather a case of literally not being able to leave the house. Or maybe even your room, or your bed, or wherever it is you’ve found that feels safe. It’s hard to explain why you have to leave something early, or why you can’t be around people that night, or why you need reassurance about the silliest little things. In the past, I’ve passed all of these things off under the generic answer of “I’m not feeling well”.
Nowadays, I’m trying to be more open and honest about the real reasons why I sometimes can’t make commitments or seem under the weather. I don’t always manage it, but I’m making an effort. As part of that effort, I’m going to attempt to explain, as best I can, what living with an anxiety disorder feels like. (Disclaimer: I don’t want to seem like I’m generalising, so please bear in mind that I’m drawing largely from my own experiences with anxiety here, and different people with anxiety disorders might experience them differently.) I hope you’ll take the time to read this, even if it’s not the most pleasant of subjects. The more mental illnesses are understood and accepted as legit, the easier it will be for mentally ill people to feel safe speaking up about their experiences and getting the help they need.
So without further ado, here are some of the things that someone with an anxiety disorder experiences.
Constant worry that the worst will happen. No matter the scenario, someone with anxiety can always envision the worst possible outcome being the one that is most likely to happen. We become fixated on this outcome, and can’t stop playing it over and over in our heads. We’re usually aware of how irrational this way of thinking is, which makes it all the more upsetting, because we know this, and yet we can’t stop. Often this fear can lead to inertia: not doing anything is safer than doing something and risking the worst.
Low sense of self-worth. Anxiety really brings your self-perception down some pegs. Like, a lot of pegs. I’ve never been a particularly secure person, but when my anxiety got really bad in 2013, my self-esteem plummeted to an all-time low. I couldn’t understand why I felt so sick and scared all the time – why I couldn’t do the things all my friends were doing so easily. It made me feel like a shitty excuse for a person. Self-hatred can, as it did for me, wind up trapping you in an awful self-perpetuating downward spiral. Thankfully I’m out of that now, but for the better part of two years I really struggled to find a single thing to like about myself.
Lightheadedness/shortness of breath. A common misconception of mental illnesses is that they’re “all in your head”, as it were. This isn’t true. Anxiety can manifest itself in physical symptoms as well as thought processes, and this is one I experienced most often. When my anxiety was really bad, a lot of the time I felt like I couldn’t quite get enough air into my lungs, and I also felt vaguely dizzy, like I might pass out. I later learned that this was because I was constantly on the verge of a panic attack, but at the time I thought it was because I had brain cancer or some other awful disease and was on the brink of death. 0% fun.
Trouble falling asleep. For an anxious person, the worst time of day is often right before sleep, when it’s quiet and you’re on your own in the dark and there’s nothing to distract you from the worries you’ve been pushing to the back of your mind all day. Especially when you know you have to be up at a certain time, the knowledge that you only have x hours to do your sleeping in can make your mind go crazy with worries about what will happen if you don’t get that rest. Consequently, this makes it impossible to sleep. And when you do get to sleep, it’s hard to stay that way. The constant fear of sleeping through my alarm and missing classes meant that most nights I’d be waking up several times to check my clock. As a result, I almost never got the rest I needed.
Hypochondria. I talked a bit about this on Facebook this week. It’s better than it was, but my anxiety has led me to develop a crippling fear of getting ill. Whenever I have some minor symptoms, like a cough or a sore throat, I’m convinced I’m getting the flu and am going to get so behind on my work. I was also terrified that anything I was going to eat would give me food poisoning, which made meals a source of constant anxiety.
Convinced others think you’re worthless, lazy, unreliable, and a downer. Anxiety lowers your perception of yourself, and it also makes you think everyone you care about also shares these negative opinions. Talking about your anxiety makes you feel annoying, whiny, pathetic, useless, and so on ad infinitum. This is one of the reasons I wasn’t very vocal about my anxiety for the longest time – I felt like a massive douche every time I talked about it, because I felt like I was complaining over nothing. Every time I had an anxiety attack or a panic attack, and one of my friends was with me, I just felt like absolute shit because I thought I’d ruined their day and there’d be nothing in the world they’d want to do less than sit with me while I was an anxious mess.
Fear of social outings and making plans. For the longest time, I was terrified of making plans with friends because once the date was set, all I could think about was, what if something goes wrong? What if I got ill, or I had too much work on, or what if I had a panic attack, what if I went along and ended up ruining the whole occasion for everyone else? Spontaneous social events were my favourite, because I was left with no time to agonize about possible disasters happening. Even now, I worry that once I’ve made plans with someone, I might have an anxiety attack and have to cancel on them. Sometimes I do. One thing I’ve learned is that the people I want for my friends are the ones who are going to understand when I explain to them why I sometimes can’t make commitments. It’s nothing personal. It’s just that my brain sometimes stops me from doing things, no matter how much I might want to do them.
Wrapped up in your own experiences. Sometimes someone with anxiety might come across as selfish and uncaring, especially if they’re not open about their disorder. This is often not the truth. We do care (well, I do – I don’t know, some people with anxiety might also be real assholes and I don’t want to generalize here, but you get the point). It’s just that anxiety takes up so much energy and is constantly affecting us, and sometimes an anxious person is so focused on coping with their anxiety that they simply don’t have room to show how much they care. They might not always be able to help others with their problems either. This isn’t a personal failing on their part. Think of it like this: you wouldn’t expect someone with a chronic physical illness to be able to be there for you all the time. You just wouldn’t. And that’s okay, it doesn’t mean they’re a shitty person, it just means they’re sick. The same goes for people with mental disorders. We do still want to help and be there for you. And when we can be, we will be.
Difficulty performing regular, everyday tasks. Heightened anxiety can make everything scary. Like, everything. Anything can make anxiety worse, from school work and job pressures to things that to everyone else are pretty innocuous and mundane, such as doing the housework or even getting out of bed in the morning. Doing the dishes used to be a particularly bad one for me. The thought of dirty dishes piling up and knowing I would have to do them often made me extremely anxious and, on more than one occasion, triggered a panic attack. Writing this now, I realise how ridiculous it sounds – and how hard it is to imagine living life like this. But for people with anxiety, that fear associated with the smallest little things is real and consuming. Sometimes it’s debilitating. And it’s not a case of them being pathetic or useless or trying to shirk responsibilities (at least, I hope not – those people who use “anxiety” to get out of doing stuff make me mad, but that’s a story for another time). It’s legit.
I don’t know if I actually managed to explain anxiety in a way that makes sense to people who haven’t suffered from it. I guess the quickest, easiest way to explain the whole shebang is this: we’ve all felt anxious at one time or another, usually in relation to serious challenging life events such as a job interview or exam. In order to understand what someone with an anxiety disorder experiences, imagine that feeling being a constant factor in your life, and associated with things that shouldn’t be at all scary – and you just can’t rationalize yourself out of it.
I apologise if this post is a bit rambly; I’m still feeling pretty under the weather from my shingles and I’ve spent a lot of time over the past week getting much-needed rest and recuperation.
However, I have also been managing to get some study in. And, because I’m in Hawke’s Bay for the break, I’ve been back at the winery for a few hours of work, which made me very happy.
But I’m still recovering, hence the lack of photos and the thrown-together feel of this post. At the moment, the general trend seems to be for every couple of good, productive days I have, I then get one where I feel completely low and ill and lacking in energy. So I’m trying not to push myself, even if it means things like my work on this blog take a hit as a result. So just bear with me while I get better (shingles does not fuck around, let me tell you).
I hope you all are well, and hopefully next week’s post will at least have more pictures for you to look at.