Five things I wish everyone knew about having an Anxiety Disorder
By Lauren Paczynski
I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and talking about it is never easy. Not only is it hard to explain anxiety to someone who’s never experienced it, but the nature of the disorder means that I am often nervous about speaking up in the first place. I think it’s important for people struggling with this disorder and others like it to talk about it, though— because if we want our condition to be understood, if we want more and better resources to become available, we first need to create more awareness about what anxiety is, exactly. Having said that, I’d like to share with you five things that I wish people knew about my disorder.
1.”Anxiety” is not just a fancy word for feeling “stressed out.” – Not only do I feel “normal” stress to a greater extent than most, I sometimes feel anxiety that is totally unrelated to anything actually going on in my life. I have whole days where I’m anxious and uncomfortable for no discernible reason, and nothing I do to try to alleviate the feeling seems to work. I often describe it to people this way: it’s like playing a video game or watching a movie and hearing the menacing music that signals something bad is going to happen, except it happens at random times, sometimes constantly. The threat isn’t actually there, but that signal in my brain that something is very wrong (or about to be) won’t go away.
I know I’m being irrational. There’s usually some part of my brain that understands that I’m worrying about something minor. That doesn’t mean that my emotional responses are any less real, or any less scary for me, and that doesn’t mean that telling me I’m overreacting is going to help.
2. Anxiety is “all in my head”— but that’s the problem. I can’t even count the number of times that someone has said some form of this to me— “It’s all in your head, just don’t worry so much!” At this point, I have a hard time responding politely anymore. Telling someone that their anxiety is “all in their head” is about as helpful as telling someone with a broken femur that it’s “all in your leg.” I know that my brain is messed up. That’s the whole problem with mental illness, and implying that because something is psychological it should be easy to fix is frankly a little ignorant. Just like any physical illness, mental illnesses require constant management and care. They can’t be fixed by just wishing them away or ignoring them— believe me, I’ve tried.
3. Anxiety affects everything I do. Not everyone feels this way about their anxiety, but for me it is a core part of who I am. Ultimately it has an effect on everything that I do. Even simple things, like ordering food or answering the phone, get filtered through my anxiety and become ordeals. Speaking up in class gives me a rush of nervous energy. I get nauseous just thinking about giving a presentation. For better or worse, this is my normal, and I live with it daily. As good as I usually am at staying on top of my anxiety, I will always have bad days. It’s on those bad days that the understanding and support of the people around me really makes a difference.
4. It’s not always laziness— sometimes it’s anxiety. Something I didn’t understand about myself for a long time— and something that my parents and teachers have long been frustrated by— is that anxiety can come with additional complications that don’t seem like they’d be related. Anxiety.org elaborates on this, saying “a number of studies have found that high anxiety individuals, such as those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), have a decreased ability to ignore irrelevant information, especially when that information is threatening, and greater difficulty switching attention between tasks.”
What this means in practice, at least for me, is that occasionally I have a hard time focusing enough on a task to complete it. I have spent many long evenings at the library staring at an open textbook and trying desperately to make sense of it, or even manage to read it at all. This means that I sometimes have difficulty completing and submitting assignments on time. I had a hard time with this in high school. After years of developing coping strategies and learning how to work around this issue, I am now generally able to do what I need to do even if it’s hard to get started at first, but others may have more difficulty with this than I did.
I’m not arguing that you should ignore your anxious child or student’s failing grades because it isn’t their fault, but I am saying that a little understanding can go a long way. Instead of assuming they’re just lazy, talk to them. Figure out if this is something they might be struggling with, and see about getting them the help they need to overcome it.
5. I can’t “just get over it.” Unlike some physical problems – a broken bone, a fever – an anxiety disorder isn’t something that’s necessarily going to go away. I might be able to control it most or even all of the time, but it’s always going to require time, energy, and effort to do that. When my anxiety is bad, I can’t always just “push through it.” When it is under control it’s still taking up a sizable amount of my energy. That means that I may have to cancel plans sometimes, or miss out on something that I needed or wanted to experience, and that can be frustrating for both myself and the people around me.
If it comes down to a choice between another person’s feelings and my own mental stability, I’m always going to pick myself— I have to. This is something that anyone who loves someone with anxiety, or really with any mental illness, needs to understand. I love my friends, and my family, and my boyfriend, but sometimes self-care and solitude are the only things keeping me afloat. If someone with anxiety cancels on you, try to understand that it’s not that they don’t like spending time with you. It’s just that they may need some time alone to decompress.
Let me be clear that my experiences are not universal. Anxiety comes in many forms and presents itself in a bunch of different, often very personal ways. What I’m talking about here is my anxiety, my experiences. Every individual with anxiety has different needs. If someone you love has anxiety, I encourage you to talk with them about it. Ask them what it’s like for them, and what you can do to help. Not only will it help you understand them, I promise they’ll appreciate the effort.
If you think you or someone you love might be struggling with anxiety, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has an extensive list of resources for identifying and managing various anxiety disorders: https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/ask-and-learn/resources
This Act Locally Waco Blog post was written by Lauren Paczynski. Lauren is a Senior at Baylor University, studying Professional Writing. A Virginia native, she moved to Texas in 2014 to attend Baylor and intends to stay here (at least for a while). After graduation, she hopes to work in editing & publishing. The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email [email protected] for more information.