I suffer from anxiety.
There, I said it. And it is a hard thing to admit publicly. It’s like admitting to a weakness. Or shining a light on a part of me that I work so hard to hide.
But here I am, “coming out”, if you will.
But I am not alone.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 40 million American adults suffer from some type of anxiety disorder at any given time. That’s 1 in six adults – or about 18% of the population!
According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) Study conducted in 2010, 1 in every 13 people globally suffer from anxiety. That’s more than 560 million people! Over half a billion of the global population!
So while I often feel like I am completely alone in my struggles, caught up in the torrent of worry, the constant anticipation of catastrophes, and experiencing the myriad physical symptoms of anxiety disorder, it’s some small comfort to know that I am not alone.
Officially, I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I sometimes swing into depression – a closely related disorder.
I have two phobias – spiders (arachnophobia) and germs (germaphobia). Both of these phobias can be difficult to live with – particularly during the time of year when spiders tend to come inside the house. Or when I need to pump gas and can’t immediately wash my hands. Or when my son gets pinkeye, or stomach flu.
While my phobias have lessened in severity as I got older, my general anxiety has gotten worse. One reason for that is that I have taken more risks as an adult. I have more to lose than I did when I was younger. But the years have desensitized me somewhat to germs and the sight of a spider.
But I fit the classic set of symptoms associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). And it’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life.
What Anxiety Feels Like
Anxiety hangs on me like an ever-present sense of impending doom. If life is easy, I feel an ever-present sense of imminent disaster some of the time. There is always something that I am deeply anxious about. If something goes wrong, my anxiety surges.
My mind automatically conjures up the worse case scenario, or the most catastrophic outcome – with everything.
I worry about my health. I worry about getting cancer, or a debilitating (or fatal) neurological disease. I think we all do, to some extent. But for me, that worry injects itself into an otherwise peaceful day, setting off a cascade of intense anxiety and rumination that hijacks my imagination and forces it to dwell on the awful.
Since becoming self-employed back in 2008, financial worry has been ever-present in my life. I am afraid of losing it all. I’m afraid of ending up penniless, homeless, unable to buy food for myself or my family. I’m afraid that I will prove myself a reckless failure.
I felt similar anxiety when I worked a day job. I’d fear a layoff, or that I would screw something up and get myself fired.
I worry about the multitude of pests destroying my garden. I worry about the rash on my 3-year old’s chest, or the “funny” sound in my car’s engine.
And it’s exhausting. Anxiety takes a physical toll, but that toll is not visible.
Anxiety is an invisible illnesses. I don’t look sick on the outside. You can’t tell how I feel from just looking at me. I look fine.
But inside, I’m not well. It takes every ounce of strength and will that I have sometimes just to get out of bed, but on a brave face, and go through my day.
If I was fighting the flu, nobody would think twice if I stayed home in isolation to lay on the couch all day to regain my strength. Yet those with mental illness don’t often get that same level of compassion.
Anxiety’s Physical Toll
A lot of people (and doctors, too,) do not realize that anxiety (and depression) often manifest as physical symptoms.
A severe bout of anxiety mixed with depression back in 2011 was so debilitating, that three doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
I underwent blood work, an MRI (and a bill for $2,500), was told I had a pituitary tumor (turns out I didn’t), put on bromocryptin for two months, and when I didn’t get better, my endocrinologist practically shrugged and said I needed to go back to my primary care physician and start over again.
It took months of searching the Internet before I finally found out what was actually wrong with me. Depression wasn’t even on my radar, and none of the doctors I saw recognized the symptoms as such. (Pro Tip: Depression doesn’t always manifest as sadness. It can feel like something is horribly wrong with your body.)
On its worst days, anxiety is debilitating.
Along with the internal mental turmoil, I experience anxiety as a sore back that can make it impossible to do simple tasks. I feel it in my knees and arms. The tendinitis in my wrists always flair up when I’m under stress.
I can’t get to sleep at night. And when I do, I wake up in the morning exhausted. It can take me two hours or so just to wake up enough to function.
I have days where the exhaustion is so bad that I feel like I am wearing a lead coat. I get winded walking around the block. My legs feel like cement – like they don’t want to move.
My chest feels tight – like my heart is being squeezed in a vice.
I can’t focus. I can’t relax. I can’t enjoy anything. I am both restless and listless. I crave isolation. I get irritable. I have no motivation. I want to give up.
Not every day is like this. I’ll cycle through bouts of severe anxiety that may last a week or so at a time. If I am under stress, or I have uncertainty in my life, it gets really bad.
I’ve been told that I have “high-functioning” anxiety. That means that unlike some people who completely shut down in anxiety-provoking situations, I am somehow able to brute force my way through them. Anxiety pushes me to be productive. I become a workaholic.
And it sucks, because sometimes I wish that my body would shut down. I sometimes long for a nervous break that would force me into a hospital where I could just let go for a little while, and relieve the pressure to constantly hold it all together, because sometimes, I feel like I’m fizzling out, but I never do.
I’ve tried medication. Klonopin (clonazepam) took the edge off, but numbed me out to life. After nine months, I felt my anxiety subsided enough to try going without medication. I stopped taking it and I felt like I became whole again – like a veil lifted and life was vibrant again.
I’ve been too anxious to take the standard anti-anxiety treatment – SSRIs. The side effects scare me. The withdrawal symptoms scare me. The thought of taking medication for life is even less appealing than trying to manage anxiety without it.
I cling to a faith that I can manage my anxiety without medication – not because I am anti-pill, but because pills give me anxiety.
I was finally talked into trying Wellbutrin (bupropion). It was awesome, until it suddenly stopped working. When my doctor told me to increase my dosage, my ears squealed. The tinnitus was so bad that I rapidly weaned myself off of it in defiance of doctor’s orders. Three excruciating days passed with loud ringing in my ears. I was terrified that it would be permanent.
I’ll take crushing anxiety over relentless squealing any day.
I know that there are many more medication options out there, but the statistics on their effectiveness are not encouraging. And the side effects and withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant.
My experience with bupropion has made me extremely anxious about trying another similar SSRI/SNRI medication.
I do not relish the idea of hitting up the medication buffet until I find one that works – for now.
Some days, I self medicate with a little rum. I am well aware that this is a slippery slope, but it dulls the dread and unease for a little while.
On particularly bad days, I daydream about finding a source for something that would be far more effective at giving me temporary calm, despite the legal risks.
And then there’s therapy.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been the most effective way for me to deal with anxiety. I’ve worked with three different therapists over the years to learn to recognize my faulty thought patterns.
I’ve learned to train my brain to recognize anxiety, and change my thinking in order to combat it.
Being able to derail a worse-case-scenario train of thought, or flip imagined catastrophes into solution-focused idea mining gives me the tools to make anxiety bearable most days.
But it’s no cure. I still live with anxiety, but I understand my thought patterns better, which makes it easier to recognize when I get lost in worry – and maybe pull myself out of it.
In my experience, anxiety is a condition I must live with. I celebrate the good days, and soldier on through the bad.
It helps that I have a wife who understands my struggle, even though she cannot relate to the way I feel, or how I perceive imagined risk. I fully understand that my constant worry must be frustrating to live with, not to mention the resulting mood I am in on my bad days.
I often feel like I can fix this anxiety all by myself. If only I could save a little more money, or free up some time to pursue a new passion, or maybe I can discover that one technique that will give me the edge over the worst of my worry.
Sometimes I think I am only trying to outrun my anxiety, trying to get a couple steps ahead of it. On the best of days, I feel like anxiety is hovering over my shoulder, inches away.
Anxiety Isn’t All Bad – It Has Its Benefits
While anxiety is miserable, there are definite benefits.
There is a pervasive idea that anxiety is linked with intelligence. In fact, there are studies that show this might be the case.
In the early 1900’s, two Harvard psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson, conducted a study that suggested that performance is improved with moderate levels of anxiety, while too much or too little anxiety impairs performance.
Modern research has also held up this idea.
Researchers at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada surveyed over 100 students, asking questions about how much they worry. Those who described themselves as “always worrying about something” scored higher on verbal intelligence tests.
Another study conducted by psychiatrist Jeremy Coplan (SUNY Downstate Medical Center, New York) found that among people who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), those who had more severe symptoms had a higher IQ than those who were mildly anxious.
Yet another study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2012 found that subjects who had higher attachment-related anxiety were better able to detect threats, and respond to emergencies more effectively.
Anxious people are better at anticipating problems, and can approach an issue from multiple perspectives. We’re used to using our imaginations to conjure up fictional scenarios, so as far as problem solvers, we’re pretty damn good at finding weak points in a system.
You have to have a well developed imagination in order to suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Our human ancestors who were the most anxious likely had the best chances of survival. There is a distinct advantage to anticipating all of the ways you can die or get horribly maimed trying to take down a mastodon for dinner. Those of us who think the worst tend to plan for it, and mitigate risk or consequences.
Anxiety pushes me to be productive, and to do the best I can. Fear of financial ruin is a major motivation to work on my business instead of binge-watching Netflix.
Of course, too much anxiety is a bad thing. Anxiety that is unchecked by necessary lifestyle shifts (diet, exercise, a change in environment, reduction of stress), medication (if necessary), or lack of cognitive training, will cloud judgement.
Out of control anxiety can cause you to make poor decisions, and bring about the very things you want to avoid (and freak out about). Or it can push you into a more debilitating, depressive state like it did to me back in 2011.
As long as you can find a way to harness your anxiety, you can use it as an effective tool.
As much as I suffer from anxiety, I can’t help but wonder where I would be in my life if I wasn’t anxious? Would I still be me?
And while I mentioned my fear that coming out as an anxious person might invite judgement on my “weakness”, it actually highlights a strength that those who suffer from anxiety must develop in order to function in this world.
It takes real guts to go through life bearing the burden that comes with having an anxiety disorder. It takes guts to seek help, and to talk openly about it.
And if you feel like anxiety makes you anything less than the extraordinary person you are, consider that some of the greatest people in history suffered from anxiety – Nikolai Tesla, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Emily Dickinson, Edvard Munch, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust – just to name a few.
I know I didn’t say much about how to overcome anxiety, or at least live with it. I will write more about this topic in the coming weeks. For sure.
But I wrote this to let you know that if you suffer from constant worry, dread, and anxiety, you’re not alone.
You’re not “broken”.
You’re not less of a person, so stop hating yourself.
You’re just one in over half a billion people who experience life on high alert. And there is some good that can come from that. And there is help if you feel it’s too much to bear.
There are people who understand what you are going through, because we go through it ourselves.
I am one of them.