Like most people who have dealt with anxiety for as long as they can remember, I’ve always known that I worry more than most people. You can only hear the phrase “you worry too much” before you start to think there might be something different about you, and something you can do about it. Even though I’ve exhibited signs of an anxiety disorder since childhood, I just didn’t know that much about how anxiety works, and it took me a while to realize that my anxiety wouldn't just go away without help.
While it’s true that managing anxiety is part of life no matter who you are, there is a difference between experiencing anxiety sometimes and living with an anxiety disorder. Almost everyone feels anxious before taking a big test or giving a presentation at work. And in both children and adults, experiencing bouts of anxiety during autumn isn’t unusual. But for people with anxiety disorders, there’s almost never just one trigger to point to. Since chronic anxiety can be caused (at least in part) by a chemical imbalance in the brain, it never really goes away either — but there are ways that it can be managed.
Having an anxiety disorder is inherently different than dealing with typical anxiety, though. Chronic anxiety happens due to a number of genetic, environmental, psychological, and developmental factors — and people with anxiety disorders can feel anxious as hell even when they have nothing pressing to worry about. But it can take a little while for people with chronic anxiety to realize that it's not going to go away without a little help — and it's totally okay, and encouraged, to get help. These were some of the signs that helped me to realize that my anxiety wasn't going to go away on its own.
Nothing Cured My Anxiety Entirely
For most of my life, I thought of my anxiety as this shameful personality flaw that I need to cure as quickly as possible. I've tried anything and everything that I thought might work, but nothing has eased my anxiety entirely.
Back when I was a church-going kid, I tried to pray my anxiety away, but the lack of results only made me feel more anxious. When I went to college, I tried to study my anxiety away with extra credit projects, multiple jobs, and honors coursework. After college, I tried to work my anxiety away by juggling multiple day jobs and a budding freelance writing career — but staying that busy (and sleep-deprived) for that long eventually led to panic attacks and burnout. When I fell in love for the first time, I thought having sex with my then-partner would ease the anxiety I felt about our relationship — but it actually contributed to my anxiety.
I've also tried managing my anxiety with nightly yoga, daily exercise, long walks, anti-anxiety teas, writing, meditation, traveling, music, work, medication, therapy, dietary changes, playing with animals, spending time in nature, and cleaning. All of these things have helped me tremendously, too. I'm super-grateful for my coping methods, and I rely heavily on them to keep functioning. Not one of them has made my anxiety disappear completely, of course, but I'm able to manage it much better than I used to.
I Realized I'd Been Having Anxiety About My Anxiety For A Long Time
Like I said above, I felt concerned about my anxiety from a very young age. But back then, I worried about my anxiety for very different reasons than I do now. When I was younger, I wanted to get a handle on my anxiety primarily because I thought it made me a bad person and a bad Christian, because of the enormous stigma I encountered daily. The churches I grew up in thought of mental illness as demonic possession, and worrying was considered to be both sinful and ungrateful. Thankfully, I learned that this is in no way true of mental illness, but a stigma held by my particular church.
My concern didn't disappear when I abandoned religion, but it definitely changed. All throughout college I worried about my anxiety just because I hated how it felt. I didn't know then that unchecked anxiety can increase your risk of developing diabetes and a bunch of other serious health problems — I just knew that being anxious felt horrible and made my life way more difficult.
I still feel uneasy about how debilitating my anxiety can get sometimes, but now that I know having anxiety about your anxiety is actually a sign of generalized anxiety disorder, I don't feel as freaked out about it as I used to. I mean, I'm always aware of my anxiety, and I still get scared when I feel it spike. I just know enough about anxiety now that I don't take my anxious feelings quite as seriously as I used to. Which leads us to...
I Researched Anxiety & Wrote About It Extensively
Almost two years ago, I was given an assignment to write about the signs of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Everything I read about GAD made so much sense that I started covering mental health more and more after that.
Since then, I've researched my butt off, interviewed many mental health professionals, and written about anxiety from both a scientific and a personal perspective. I now know enough about how anxiety works to keep it from completely ruling my life.
I Remembered Being An Anxious Kid
I've known for many years that my anxiety issues began in childhood, but it's only been in the past couple of years that I've really thought about all the ways my anxiety manifested itself when I was a kid. Now that I can view my anxious childhood through a more informed lens, I'm realizing that the signs of my anxiety disorder have always been there—I just didn't know what to look for.
I remember being seven years old and needing at least an hour to fall asleep, simply because I couldn't shut my mind down. I remember having my first panic attack when I was seven years old. I remember developing nervous ticks, like rubbing my eyebrows and chewing on the inside of my mouth until I tasted blood.
I remember going through a phase of hypochondria where I really felt sick. I remember feeling so guilty when I couldn't control my near-constant stream of weird thoughts that I would clean for hours as a kind of penance. I remember taking to the woods with my dog and a journal whenever my anxiety left me feeling stupid and hopeless. I remember holding my breath when my anxiety spiked out of nowhere, and I remember having all of the most comforting psalms bookmarked in my Bible. There are so many other things I remember about being an anxious kid, but you probably get the picture.
I Realized I'd Been Collecting Coping Methods For Years
Before mental health coverage was part of my job, I didn't know that finding healthy and effective coping methods is a pretty standard move among most high-functioning anxious people. I should have realized sooner though, because I'd been collecting coping methods since I was a little girl.
I've been exercising, cleaning, spending time with animals, studying, reading, writing, working, spending time in nature, jumping in hot showers, and socializing with loved ones to combat my anxiety for as long as I can remember. Still, I was well into my twenties before I realized that so many of my oldest and healthiest habits (like exercising and walking outdoors) double as my most reliable coping methods.
I Took A Closer Look At My Family's Mental Health History
My family has always been diligent when it comes to discussing my risk of developing breast and skin cancer. My Grandma Liz died of breast cancer before I was born and my Grandpa Bill beat skin cancer when I was a kid, so I've been slathering on sunblock and doing self breast exams since forever. My family's mental health history was never discussed though, and I think lack of education was part of that.
It's abundantly clear to me now that my grandma dealt with severe anxiety for a long time, but I don't think the rest of my family fully understood what was going on wither her. I remember how she would smoke cigarettes to cope because she didn't like her "nerve pills." I remember how she would blame her stomach aches and her consistently poor appetite on nervousness, and I remember that she hardly ever stopped moving. She spent hours in her garden and her house was always perfectly clean, but despite her many coping methods, my grandma's anxiety has only gotten worse over the years. She's suffering from Alzheimers and dementia now, and I can't help but wonder if a lifetime of untreated anxiety is partially to blame.
I Talked To Open Minded People About My Anxiety
With the exception of a few friends and one Sunday school teacher, I was in my twenties before I started meeting people who spoke about mental illness in an informed and non-judgmental way. It's not that my family shamed me for having anxiety, but they didn't really know how to help me either. Plus, I grew up in a part of the U.S. where mental health stigma is still particularly rough.
In fact, it wasn't until I left the Midwest to spend some time in Brooklyn that I found myself surrounded by people who didn't think of anxiety as a choice or a character flaw. Everyone from my friends to my editors to my dates were open-minded about mental illness, and not one of them suggested that anxiety disorders aren't real. That experience, plus therapy, plus all the interviews I've conducted with mental health professionals over the past year, has helped me finally see my anxiety for what it is: a very treatable illness that won't go away on its own.