Here's What Having Anxiety Is Like, for Anyone Who's Never Dealt With It
Before becoming a beauty editor, I went to school for my MSW. I had always wanted to be a therapist, but, as life often takes curious twists and turns, I ultimately made my way to the world of beauty and wellness. While it may seem like a career-360, psychology manifests itself in beauty and (more obviously) wellness every day, so I haven't strayed as far as one may think. In fact, this very post was certainly influenced by my education but more pointedly by an important lesson learned from one of my professors: "Needing anxiety medication is the same as needing medication for high blood pressure or back pain." In other words, the fact that there's a stigma surrounding needing medicinal treatment or anxiety isn't fair—we often don't criticise those who need prescriptions for physical ailments, so why is the mind any different?
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 18% of Americans have anxiety, yet one-third of those individuals seek treatment. This may be because of a lack of funds, cultural viewpoints towards therapy and treatment, a lack of education, and/or a fear of being viewed negatively, according to Michael Otto and Stefan Hofmann, authors of Avoiding Treatment Failures in the Anxiety Disorders ($118). While each of these factors is cause for concern, avoiding help to bypass others' judgments is a sad reality; however, studies suggest that those who have a greater knowledge base of mental illness are less critical of those with a condition.
That's why we'd like to share the stories of real women and their personal journeys with anxiety. They're all different yet have similar unifying undertones of pain, outreach, and acceptance. For individuals who have anxiety, these stories from other people with the condition offer support and advice, and for those who don't have anxiety, they offer much-needed insight. Below, read their moving accounts.
"I remember the first time I felt real anxiety. It was a spring night before my fifth-grade field trip to the Liberty Bell. What was supposed to be a celebration of elementary school's end and a first-time adventure to Philadelphia turned into a dreadful series of anticipated catastrophes. I was tucked into bed around 9 p.m., and the excited butterflies in my stomach turned to a concerning flurry of energy by 9:15 p.m. Eight hours dragged on as I laid restless in my bed, counting the infinite number of reasons I should avoid America's iron symbol of independence. I arose from my bed at 5 a.m., completely lacking sleep and too drained of energy to be either anxious or excited.
"And I dealt with it. For the next 12 years, I would 'deal with it,' as many armchair psychologists suggest. Only anxiety doesn't take well to being simply ignored. Rather than reserving its appearance to the day before an event or exam, my anxiety would pop up at random times throughout the week. While I never experience full-blown anxiety attacks, I would describe what I felt as a rush of anxiety. I would awake on a completely innocuous Tuesday night with an impending sense of doom. I would lift my hands off my desk in class to be greeted with a puddle of sweat generated by my body's inability to regulate the neurotransmitters in my brain.
"After over a decade assuming that anxiety was just part of my personality, I finally spoke to my GP about anti-anxiety medication. For the past five years I have been taking Lexapro, and while anxiety is still a part of my life, it is no longer a part of me. Eventually I'd like to taper off medication and rely solely on exercise and meditation techniques, but for now, I am concentrating on living my life without the constant distraction of anxiety."
"My story with anxiety begins in May 2012 when I had a serious concussion after a brick wall fell on my head. I had severe post-concussion with intense anxiety, insomnia, and depression. I really thought I was going insane and just couldn't control the thoughts in my head and my fears. This especially wasn't good as I was an undergraduate student and away from home. I got to the point where I was having almost daily panic attacks, so I went on Cipralex. I'm still on it today because it really helps manage my anxiety and mood and gets me through the day. I went off it for a few months and just couldn't function. It has been a huge help for me. Also: therapy. Before, I never wanted to go to therapy because I had this idea in my head about it, but it really helped me. Even if you don't think you have anything to talk about or think your problems are trivial, therapists know exactly what to ask and how to help you manage your problems.
"I also find that having a bullet journal and planner really helps me manage my anxiety. I need a place to have everything written down and scheduled. When my anxiety rears its ugly head, making me think that I've forgotten something or missed a deadline, I can calm myself by having everything in one place that's easy to find. Another great thing about the bullet journaling is you can completely customize it. You can make it as simple or as creative as you want. It's a place that combines lists (I have a wish list, books-to-read list, and an online order tracker), a planner, and a journal all in one.
"I'm not one who is very good with routine, so I know the benefits of meditation, but I can never stick to it past 10 days. I enjoy doing yoga. I walk as much as I can and have a bike in my house so I can easily exercise.
"So that's how I manage my anxiety. It's a daily problem, and for people who don't have these problems, it's very hard for them to understand. I have found what works for me, and it's literally been life-saving."
"I have dealt with anxiety and depression for about four years now. It was triggered by the loss of a job, moving back home, and the death of my dog, Pressly, in the span of about three weeks. I experienced loss of appetite, excessive sleeping, crying spells that could last as long as six hours, and a general lack of motivation to get out of bed and shower. I sought help from my family physician and was prescribed Prozac to help with my anxiety and depression. As with any drug, it took a few weeks for my body to regulate to the medication, but I slowly felt myself coming back. I had a great support system in my mom, grandmothers, and aunt. They made sure I ate, got out of the house, and took care of myself. My medication dosage has increased twice in the past two years, but it has changed my life tremendously. I've also learned that eating well, having a normal sleep pattern, getting involved in a new church and bible study, as well as practicing yoga on a regular basis are critical to me maintaining my mental health. I continue to experience days that are tougher than others, but having several tools and activities to help me cope with the hard days are what keeps me going."
"My anxiety started so early on, even before I knew what that meant. I remember feeling so frustrated and stuck as early as middle school—I was unable to cope with so many things happening at once. Once I got to high school, everything really changed for me. I was overly shy in all situations, and I hated being the center of attention to the point I would get sick in the bathroom during school if a teacher called on me in class.
"After the first several months of my junior year of high school, I was diagnosed with depression and overall anxiety. This came about after about six months of insomnia and bad performance in school. I also noticed how hard it was for me to communicate my feelings, as I often would just cry and have panic attacks without even knowing what was wrong. It was really hard for me as a 16-year-old girl to admit that I was going through anxiety and depression. I felt humiliated that I had to take pills every day to feel like myself. From that point until about my sophomore year of college, I would go on and off the medication. It was always the same feeling—good, then going out and drinking aggressively, then shutting myself indoors, then not eating, then back on the pill. For a large part of my life, that is how I felt.
"Then, during my junior year of college, things got really bad, and I was home at least once a month from university. I was grossly underweight, I hated school, and I was failing courses. I remember motivation and the ability to be myself were completely gone—and I didn't care. By this time, I knew what to do: talk to someone, see my psychiatrist, and tweak my medication. Although, that didn't stop the panic attacks and inability to socialize or do work. My last year or two of college was miserable, and the only thing I wanted was to get out of school and be home—but as I was studying to get my master's, that was not really an option.
"Now I am living in Uganda with my boyfriend, and it has been a really hard transition and big test on our relationship. I'm lucky he is so understanding. Right now, I have been focusing on pushing myself out of bed in the morning to stay active. I force myself to work out, to eat, to do work, and it's not all easy. Every day, waking up is a struggle, but I have to force myself to be me. That really seems like the only way forward. I try to keep my home a relaxing environment, and I do things that always calm me: light candles, use essential oils, do yoga, hot showers, tea every morning, and a weekly trip to the SPCA to play with puppies.
"It's frustrating seeing how easy living and life come to some people. If I could change anything, it would be the depression and anxiety, the struggle and that voice in my head telling me I will not ever be enough. I wish I could be me without this, but I guess that is what makes me human."
"Anxiety has been a major part of my life since I was very young. I remember my childhood, feeling a lot of pressure to succeed and give nothing but the best, like I did not have the option to fail or just be a kid. I would lay in my bed at night, unable to sleep, worrying, criticising myself, reliving little embarrassments—things that most adults are familiar with but might not be expected of a 6-year-old.
"My first official diagnosis for GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) came in 2005 during my freshman year of college. I started having consistent panic attacks, and my social anxiety became a huge issue. I couldn't go to class or socialise. I was always alone, sleeping, or self-medicating. I got depressed, and I became suicidal. I was hospitalised soon afterward.
"After my first hospitalization, things got curiously worse. I started to cut myself as an outlet for my anxiety and frustrations. Thankfully, my family and friends stepped in, and I got a therapist and psychiatrist who helped me get on the right medication.
"I've had many highs and lows between then and now. I don't think anxiety ever really goes away—it's just something you have to learn to manage.
"The right combination of medication and talk therapy have been my number one line of defense. The things I have learned about myself, how I see the world, and how to better manage my anxiety during therapy is priceless. Having an objective observer to help you through is essential.
"Of course, a pill can only take you so far and (unfortunately!) my therapist is not on call 24/7, so I've had to add other things to my 'toolbox' in order to keep my anxiety in check: having a creative outlet, journaling, essential oils, long baths and showers, deep breathing, the 5/5/5 exercise (will this affect me five days from now, five months from now, or five years from now?), walking and playing with my dogs, being outside, and putting extra effort into my clothing and beauty routine.
"People with anxiety need to know they are not alone. There's plenty of support and help out there. You don't need to white-knuckle your way through it. Don't be scared of reaching out for help—it could literally save your life. I know it certainly has saved mine."
"I applied to nursing school, and even though I wasn't that far away from home, I was home sick. I had to quit school, and then the anxiety started with jobs. After I had my kids, worrying about them added to it, and it just pops up every now and then. Sometimes it's the weirdest things that will trigger it, but I get that panicked feeling, and my heart will start beating a little fast, and I get the, 'Oh no, I can't do this,' to the point where I psych myself out. It's prevented me from reaching some dreams and doing things that I know I'm capable of doing, but I was too afraid of doing it.
"I would try to start things and tell myself, 'You can do this,' but I would end up quitting. Then I would just say no to things, like if I was offered a trip somewhere, I would just say no. So in a last-ditch effort, I went to see a therapist, and he helped me boost my confidence, and in doing that, I started feeling better with the help of medication. And then I came to the point where I was doing his techniques and feeling pretty confident and wondering if it was me or the drugs, so I decided to quit the drugs, and so far, so good. I still get anxious, but I know how to deal with it. I didn't like the side effects of the drugs, and they have their place, and they helped for a while, but I really wanted to get off them and see if I could still function normally, and I think I am so far."
Amy (age not provided)
"I've been battling anxiety and depression daily since I was a kid. For years and years, I accepted it as normal because I was constantly told, 'You'll get over it,' 'Just calm down,' 'You're annoying,' etc. When I finally reached out to my doctor and was diagnosed with GAD and depression, it was like a weight was lifted from my shoulders. To me, the diagnosis was a relief. It validated the feelings and struggle I'd been fighting for most of my life.
"Depression and anxiety are chemical imbalances in your brain. Sometimes medication is just about the only thing that will help. I tend to take issue when someone frowns upon medication as a way of helping or coping with anxiety. It is not the be-all-end-all, and it does not make you weaker for not turning to alternatives instead. Had I not started taking medication, I would never have been able to drag myself out of the ocean I was slowly drowning in.
"That being said, alternatives can also be vital in treatment: therapy, acupuncture, yoga, exercise—everything and anything that you find help you in your own journey. I chose to come off my medication after four years last October, and it quickly became apparent I needed to find something to help calm my mind. I started doing Muay Thai, and it has been glorious.
"I can feel the GAD lapping at my heels every day, and I know depression is lurking behind me waiting for a moment of weakness to strike. Every single day is a battle. There are always people who choose to remain ignorant to mental illness, and understanding that your emotions and feelings are valid becomes more difficult when those people are a factor in your daily life.
"It does get better—it takes work, but it does. Whether you're on medication or not, I find the most important thing to do for yourself is exercise. It is the most underrated medicine for depression and anxiety. I know it is usually the last thing you want to do when having an episode, but if you have any energy at all, do it."
"It started out as stomach pains at 17. After the birth of my son, my doctor told me I was just 'A nervous new mother.' Meds soon followed and I had terrible experiences with side effects. Then came more meds. At 40, I stopped all medications but soon realized I really did have anxiety (not depression). Usually, I can breathe through most panic attacks, but I have accepted that sometimes I do need a Xanax."
"Anxiety is not always what people think it looks like in movies and TV shows." Even the most confident and with-it women you know suffer from anxiety every day. I used to be crippled by anxiety and sneak off to the bathroom at work to cry, but had to wipe off my face and stand up tall minutes later in a presentation. The best thing I ever did for myself was start going to yoga three to five days a week. It completely changed how I treat myself and how I deal with difficult situations. I will always have anxiety, ADHD, and depression, but I now have the tools to deal with my symptoms without medication."
To speak with someone immediately for help with anxiety, contact Beyond Blue 24/7 at 1300 22 4636. If you're having suicidal thoughts and need immediate help coping, please call emergency services or a suicide hotline such as Lifeline at 13 11 14.
Quotes have been edited for content and clarity.
Do you have anxiety? What have you found helps you cope? Please (if you're comfortable) share with us in the comments.