13 Women On When They Realized They Have Anxiety

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Most people know what it feels like to be anxious, but it's not always clear what the difference is between everyday nervousness and debilitating anxiety. While anxiety disorders are extremely common and should not be stigmatized, it is important to get help if you're experiencing one. How, then, can you figure out if your anxiety requires professional help?

"Everyone feels anxious at times," practicing psychologist and Harvard lecturer Holly Parker, PhD, author of If We're Together, Why Do I Feel So Alone?, tells Bustle. "And as undesirable as it is, it’s beneficial that we have the capacity to feel it. Anxiety is an alarm bell of sorts that warns us to be on the lookout for something distressing or hurtful that could happen sooner or later."

Anxiety is different from fear because it's not always associated with one particular threat, Parker says. "People can also feel anxiety that seems like it’s just floating out there, with no clear reason to pinpoint. There are assorted signs of anxiety, such as thinking about what could go wrong (e.g., 'What if I say the wrong thing on the date tomorrow night? That would be so humiliating. I couldn’t handle that.'), trying to stay away from whatever it is that’s increasing anxiety (e.g., hold back from chatting with the person), and physical signs such as tenseness in one’s body (e.g., tight jaw, crunched forehead, tight back, shoulder, or neck muscles), a racing heart, breaking out in a sweat, difficulty breathing, shaking, lightheadedness, and feeling ill."

If your anxiety is bothering you, there's no shame and a lot of benefit in going to a therapist, says Parker. Here's how some women knew their anxiety was interfering with their lives and required their attention.

1. Molly, 31

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"When I discovered that everyone else did not share my debilitating fears about being embarrassed in public, failing miserably in every corner of my life, and not being good enough. It happened gradually and I do think everyone has a little anxiety. But whereas some people have high school level anxiety (and lucky ones have a nice grade-school variety), I'm doing my post-doc work on the topic."

2. Gwen, 53

"I developed a bleeding ulcer at 16. I could never relax, and to this day, it takes me at least 90 minutes to fall asleep."

3. Lydia, 25

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"I read a New York Times article about anxious babies and thought — YES. This explains everything."

4. Rachel, 32

"Panic attacks that sent me to the ER because I believed they were heart attacks."

5. Kristina, 30

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"I was living in Japan at the time and would wake up gasping for breath. I would feel a weight on my chest so severe I thought I was suffocating. After weeks of this, I finally went to the hospital and was diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder. I feel like it had finally just reached a point where I couldn't ignore it, but I had always known something was wrong. My stepfather emotionally and mentally abused me for years, and I was just scared all the time. I wouldn't go out, I wouldn't use the phone, I made excuses to cancel plans. I had so many incidents in college but just thought it was stress. It was only after my diagnosis abroad that I realized what it had been all along. It was so soul-confirming, but I still struggle to this day."

6. Jen, 36

"I came across a note on my medical record, which I had recently been given access to review as part of a pilot project. A note from my doctor said 'depression.' I’m a busy, working mom and I’ve never given myself time to think of my own emotional well-being (I’m busy worrying about everyone else!). Reading that one word completely rocked me because deep down, I knew it was true. That moment projected me toward a (slow) journey of trying to become more self-aware — it’s a journey that I’m still on. l’ve realized certain things give me anxiety, which contributes to my depression and feelings of hopelessness. I do feel, now that I’m actively trying to be more self-aware of my emotions, of myself, that I have been managing my anxiety better, and as a result have been working through my depression in a very productive way."

7. Everett, 40

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"I heard a loud pop outside and freaked out, wondering if my husband had been shot. It was a car backfiring. We live in a neighborhood where, as far as I know, nobody has ever been shot. I contacted a therapist that afternoon."

8. Alayna, 34

"I was talking to my doctor about struggling more and more with keeping my depression under control and she asked why I thought I had depression because the things I was describing sounded more like anxiety to her. After some research I was astonished to find that I truly was experiencing generalized anxiety and not depression at all. A prescription for Lexapro ended up being a magic pill for me and my life is completely different now and so much more hopeful."

9. Allyson, 27

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"I started seeing a therapist to talk about a few work issues and after our first session, she goes, 'Do you realize that you don't need to live like this? You have major anxiety that is interfering with your daily life.' I didn't even really know what anxiety was and believed everyone felt like this."

10. Whitney, 38

"When it started impacting my sleep. I had a stressful job and a newborn baby and, for the first time in my life, I started waking up at three or four in the morning with pressure in my chest."

11. Candice, 32

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"Nightmares and insomnia when I was very young. Abusive household led to CPTSD. I was probably 10 when I realized that how I felt every day wasn’t normal."

12. Molly, 29

"When I realized that the whole hyperventilating/thinking I'd be better off dead/'everything is hell' thing was actually a panic attack and not something everyone struggles with regularly."

13. Lilian, 48

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"A panic attack where I literally felt I was floating outside my body."

If you think you might have anxiety, consider going to a therapist, or talk about it with a trusted friend or family member. Talking it out is an important step in getting better.