The dictionary definition of anxiety is a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. However, anxiety has many faces and I believe that while this definition has some truth to it, it barely scratches the surface of what anxiety really is.
Anxiety has been a constant battle for what feels to me like my entire life. I was an incredibly nervous child. I was afraid of my own shadow. I remember avoiding playing certain games at recess (i.e. kickball) because I was worried I would get hurt. I remember always wanting to try out for the school plays but always been too scared to make it to the auditions. I never knew what anxiety really was until my senior year of high school.
It all started very suddenly. One day I was fine and the next I couldn’t make it through an entire school day without going to the nurse’s office. My anxiety often started out as a headache that sat just behind my eyes. It wasn’t a pounding headache, but more just an ache that would start up around the second block and wouldn’t go away. The headache would linger, and nausea would set in. I can remember going entire days at school without eating a single thing or drinking any water because I was afraid I would throw up. Soon after the nausea would be the endless shaking of my hands. At times it would be impossible to hold a pencil and take notes in class. At this point, I would end up at the nurse’s office where I was given ibuprofen or Tylenol for the headache and sent back to class.
This went on for weeks and on occasion, I would go home sick because I couldn’t take it any longer. There was one day where I went to school, realized I forgot a project at home and instead of having someone bring it to school for me I had a panic attack. My friend ended up having to call me a ride home. It was embarrassing to not be able to calm myself down. The anxiety only got worse when I was given a solo in my band class. It was a piccolo solo and I had only been playing the piccolo for a few months at that point. I can remember never being able to perform the solo in class when I was asked. I could play it fine when no one was around or when it was just a few students in the class. I still had no idea what was wrong with me at that point.
I finally gave in and went to my doctor. She did a multitude of blood tests for vitamin deficiencies, anemia, diabetes and thyroid problems. They all came back clean and it was at that point that I was told it was anxiety.
How has anxiety affected me? It has held me back at many points in my life. Though I did nail my solo in band class (after lots of therapy I should add), I have still found myself with anxiety in weird situations. Often my anxiety will come on announced and often it comes along with a lot of uncomfortable symptoms. One of the more inconvenient symptoms for me is crying. When my anxiety peaks it makes me so uncomfortable that I start crying. It can be rather embarrassing to be working and suddenly have tears pouring down your face. The most inconvenient symptom for, however, is the stomach and intestinal pain. Yes, you heard it here. When I have a bad bout of anxiety, it instantly manifests into diarrhea.
I have decided that it is time for me to start seeing a doctor or a therapist in regards to my anxiety. I was due to see a doctor a couple days ago, but with the bad weather we’ve been having I had to cancel yet another appointment to get help.
My story of anxiety may hold true to many stories that you have heard before, or perhaps it doesn’t. Anxiety doesn’t manifest in one single way. No two people will experience anxiety with the same symptoms. For several weeks now, I have been collecting stories from my friends, family and even strangers from all over to share about how anxiety has affected their lives. Here are some of those stories.
“My anxiety started when I was diagnosed with type one diabetes. I was nine and had to grow up. I was constantly shamed at the doctors for not being the perfect diabetic, which caused conflict with my parents at home. To this day I feel like I am a disappointment and nothing that I do or say is good enough. I constantly overthink every situation and it drives the people I care most about away. When I’m feeling anxious I need reassurance and that comes off as needy and I feel like a burden to those around me”.
“My anxiety sometimes catches me in strange behavioral loops in attempt to self soothe. They aren’t long lived but sometimes I feel like people think I’m ‘crazy’ because I’m rocking my wrist or experiencing a verbal tick to calm myself down.
For me though the worst part of my anxiety is how isolated I become. I have a hard time reaching out to people to see if they want to hang out, and because I have so much anxiety tied to my phone, messages from people can go unnoticed for weeks. If I make it past the messaging phase, there is a new set of problems. Going to a new place can numb me with fear, to the point where I must cancel plans. I am anxious about having people too close to me because I am always afraid they will think I’m bonkers for how real my mental illness symptoms are to me. As such I’m actually really lonely”.
I first recognized I had anxiety when I was in my late teens, although now when I look back I can see the symptoms have been present throughout my life. I think it was first recognized as shyness but as I got older I’ve realized it’s so much more than that. Anxiety to me is never feeling like I’m good enough, no matter how hard I try. It’s a constant battle within myself, knowing I can do something but struggling to push myself out of my comfort zone enough to achieve it. It really is a constant battle with your own thoughts.
I know deep down that I am capable of anything that I put my mind to but that has come from a long, hard battle itself. The struggle is overcoming all the thoughts I have along the way, managing those thoughts effectively and productively. I overthink every situation. I feel like I must plan and be in control of every possible outcome and it’s exhausting. If I haven’t planned for every outcome, then I don’t feel like I can deal with it and be prepared.
I struggle with physical symptoms of anxiety too; racing heart, shaking hands. I feel like the physical symptoms make me more anxious in case anyone notices. This usually happens in social situations that I feel uncomfortable in. I tend to feel uncomfortable in front of people I don’t know well. I’m introverted in that way.
I think the most exhausting thing is how up and down you feel. Some days you barely notice it and others it’s really bad. For me, it depends what I’ve got going on in my life and how I’m coping to manage it all. I got through stages where it’s really bad and somewhere it’s only mild.
Anxiety makes me irritable, moody, defensive, on edge, stressed and paranoid. On the other hand, it makes me empathetic because I can relate to what people are feeling, kind-kind hearted because I know what it’s like to struggle every day and it makes me thankful for the good things in life because every tiny step is an achievement because of the battle”.
“Anxiety is waking up at midnight after dreaming you didn’t turn your headlights off and having to physically get out of bed, get dressed and go outside to be sure you did shut your lights pf and that your car will start to be able to calm down”.
“Anxiety is taking everything your partner says, or the way they look at you, and determining that you did something wrong and that this is the end or that they aren’t in love with you anymore”.
“Anxiety is either not sleeping for weeks or sleeping all the time for weeks. Sometimes there is no in between. I am constantly exhausted”.
“I’m super open about my anxiety because the stigma needs to go away. My anxiety makes me light-headed and dizzy. I can feel my heart beat quicker sometimes. It’s scary and uncomfortable. For me, anxiety is having to wear Band-Aids on my fingers because I picked all the skin off from around my nail”.
These are just a few stories of millions of people who suffer from anxiety and anxiety disorders. The stigma needs to stop. It is said that 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders every year. You never know who is suffering.