According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the country — approximately 18 percent of Americans adults have some form of the disorder. Not everyone experiences anxiety in the exact same way and the symptoms may manifest themselves differently depending on the person; like every other mental disorder, cases range from mild to moderate to severe.
I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder in middle school and, although certain periods of my life have been harder than others, I've accepted that the illness will always be a part of my life — and it's up to me to fight it and not let it rob me of amazing opportunities. I should also acknowledge that I'm very lucky — I've received the best treatment available from therapists and psychiatrists, and I have a strong support system amongst my amazing family and friends. I work hard every day to fight the illness, but it's not easy and I've been on the wrong end of plenty of derogatory remarks. I've been called "crazy" for panicking over small mistakes at work and "weak" for taking medication that helps me be a functional, productive human being.
I think the root of these comments is a misunderstanding of what anxiety disorder truly feels like. Although my experience doesn't speak for everyone who suffers from anxiety, this is what it's like for me to live with generalized anxiety disorder.
1. Knowing Your Thoughts Are Irrational Doesn't Change How You Feel
I'm aware that many of my fears are irrational. I know that not everyone in the room is silently judging me, I'm aware that a tiny mistake at work won't get me fired on the spot, and I understand the logic that I'm not going to crash my car if I drive across town. One of the most frustrating things about anxiety disorder is that we intellectually understand that our fears are irrational — but anxiety is a terrible listener and it makes it really hard to apply the logic to our thought processes and emotions. We're keenly aware of this, and we don't need others to point it out to us.
2. There Are Physical Side Effects
Like many people with anxiety disorder, my illness is accompanied by physical symptoms. Common symptoms include a racing heart, headaches, muscle tension, nausea, and shortness of breath. It creates a vicious cycle — my most pronounced physical symptoms are dizziness, trouble breathing, and a racing heart. Needless to say, when you feel as though you might be having a heart attack (and that's not an exaggeration), it makes it way more difficult to calm down. Although I don't constantly experience extreme anxiety like I used to, I'm always operating at a low level of anxiety — so I frequently deal with exhaustion, headaches, and muscle tension, and it can make it hard to live my life.
3. There's Often No Rhyme Or Reason To It
As anyone who knows me will attest, small decisions are the quickest way to send me into a panicked frenzy. I don't want to pick a restaurant, a concert, or a weekend activity because I'm convinced I'll make the wrong choice, everyone will be miserable, and it will all be my fault.
On the other hand, many people who don't know me very well are shocked to learn that I have anxiety because I'm somehow a pro at making major life decisions and venturing into the unknown. Last year, I quit my corporate job and moved across the country to a city I'd only visited once. I didn't know anyone and, although I had a good amount of money saved, I had no job lined up. Somehow, this was easier than making a tiny decision — please don't ask me to explain why, because I can't.
4. Your Mind Is Constantly Racing
Anxiety often intensifies as you're leading up to a stressful event, like a high-pressure work meeting or a tense family gathering. After you've conquered one hurdle, it's time to start worrying about anything and everything that could go wrong within the next 50 years or so. It often feels impossible to control the worrying and this really kicks in it at night when you're trying to get some rest. Insomnia is a diagnostic criteria for most anxiety disorders, because it's so difficult to quiet our minds in order to fall asleep at night.
5. You Often Have To Challenge Yourself To Face The World
On my bad days, there's nothing I want more than to stay in bed and remain in the safe space of my apartment. But I know that doing so would be a disservice to myself and it would be letting the disorder "win." On these days, it can take a herculean effort to simply get dressed, out the door, engage in everyday life, and fulfill my obligations. And, no, I don't usually feel "better" once I've gotten out the door — these days tend to be really tough and draining. However, I have professional, personal, and volunteer responsibilities that I take seriously and, at the end of the day, I can at least be proud of myself that I didn't bail on my commitments.
6. But You Need To Be Gentle With Yourself, Too
There was a time in my life when I quickly and easily gave in to the urge to simply stay inside on my worst days. Today, I've found a happy medium. If I wake up and sense it's going to be a rough day, I don't isolate — but I also don't push myself into a situation that could lead to a panic attack. For example, on a high-anxiety day, it's probably not the best idea to go to a crowded and loud concert or gathering.
But that doesn't mean I have to isolate and be antisocial — I have a group of amazing friends and I call them and ask if we can spend time together doing something low-key, like watching a movie at one of our apartments, going for a quiet walk, or enjoying a meal out. If you push yourself too hard, it can backfire and make you more fearful of pushing yourself in the future.
7. Living With Anxiety Is Exhausting
Feeling anxious all the time takes a toll on your body, even when you're not experiencing episodes of extreme anxiety or panic attacks. Like many people with anxiety disorder, some days are better than others — but the bottom line is that my anxiety is always there. For me, the best way to describe it is "exhausting." At the end of each day, I feel like I've dodged a bullet by not making a mistake at work, embarrassing myself in a social situation, or having a meltdown due to some sort of sensory overload. Worrying all the time leaves me constantly fatigued and this chronic exhaustion takes a toll on me. And, of course, being tired makes us more vulnerable to anxiety — so it's a vicious, frustrating cycle.