I’ve been told that I was always an anxious child, but it wasn’t until 6 years ago, when I was 17 that I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and associated Panic Disorder (thanks to A-Levels, like so many teenagers). Since then, there’s been a few ups and downs in my life that have made my anxiety a difficult demon to shake. A massive reason that it’s been so hard for me to get better in the long term is, I think, because a lot of people don’t really understand what I’m feeling, despite their best intentions.
Anxiety isn’t a new topic for most of us now, and it seems to be something more and more people are becoming familiar with as awareness of it, and other mental health issues, grow. Because it’s so vast, of course, there are a number of ways people experience it, and that makes it tricky to pin down. But there are some things that a lot of anxiety sufferers will relate to (I think, anyway), whether they’re struggling with generalised anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, or any other anxiety disorder you can think of. Even though I feel very much alone sometimes, I know that other people are feeling the same as me, they just might find it difficult to put into words, so I’ve put into my own words a few of the things I wish people understood about the way my brain works.
- Anxiety doesn’t always stem from anxious thoughts – my anxiety and panic attacks nearly always start with a feeling of unknown dread or fear. There’s no logical thought behind it and I usually can’t pinpoint exactly what’s making me feel bad. In fact, it’s usually the other way round; I think my body has learnt that once I’m feeling anxious, it’s a good idea to start churning out the negative thinking. Helpful.
- Just because I’m smiling on the outside, I might not be on the inside – I’ve heard the words, ‘but you seem so happy’ so many times. What people don’t realise is that I actually feel anxious about making other people anxious. A big part of my anxiety stems from being totally neurotic about other people’s happiness (or so a therapist told me) and so making people who care about me unhappy makes me anxious which means I nearly always try to hide it the best I can.
- There’s not always a rational “trigger” – as I said before, my anxiety doesn’t tend to start with a thought or thought process and so it can be tough to explain when confronted with someone trying to help you. For me anxiety and panic attacks are a very physical experience and something that can’t be triggered by one single thought. On the other hand, sometimes there are very apparent triggers (I can’t hack any kind of conflict, whether it’s me or someone else. It’s the happiness neurosis talking), which, obviously I’m working on.
- It’s not the same as stress – yes, stress plays a big role in the way your brain works, so of course when you’re stressed you’re going to find it harder to stay anxiety-free. For me at least, stress is a much more logical and manageable thing which I have many ways of coping with and letting go of. Anxiety isn’t always so simple.
- It doesn’t mean I’m not happy – so far this probably all sounds super whingey, but I’m never, ever unhappy or ungrateful for what I do have in life. I have a nice life, a bunch of awesome family and friends and people who love me, and I really do live a happy life. But being happy can fuel that anxiety; you’re forever thinking why you feel the way you do and the anxiety becomes a constant unknown (another of my major anxiety no-nos, so I’m told by people in the know).
- It’s not your fault – when I do turn to people to talk to, so many of them immediately ask, ‘is it me?’ and whilst that’s understandable (I’m sorry), the answer is almost always ‘no’. I don’t bring my anxiety up to accuse people of causing it, I pour my heart out to them because I think they’re the person to help me. So, instead of worrying that it’s you causing it, take the compliment; I’m reaching out to you because I think you’re the best person for the job.
- There’s no quick fix – unfortunately, I can’t flick a switch and turn it off (trust me, I would if I could) and nor can any amount of doctors, therapists or medicines without time.
I’m sure there are so many things I’ve missed, but for me that pretty much sums it up. Obviously, Virginia Woolf has better words for it than me, so I’ll leave you with them:
My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child–wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.