Last weekend, I went to Dragon Con, the biggest geek party in Atlanta, to party it up with other nerds. On Saturday, I took a break to freak out, question my worth as a human being, and cry until I was exhausted. Then back to the party. This is what my life is like with an anxiety disorder.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders fall along an entire spectrum. One of the most common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is the closest to what I deal with, but you can also suffer from panic disorders that cause sudden and repeated panic attacks, or social anxiety disorders that tend to crop up when dealing with other people.
As we've talked about before, anxiety disorders are different from general stress. Stress is typically an appropriate response to outside pressures or threats. It's normal. Anxiety, on the other hand, happens when your brain becomes fearful or apprehensive about normal things like socialising, paying your bills, or going to work. Anxiety activates some of the same parts of your brain as your "fight or flight" response, and you can't shut it off. This impairs your ability to make even basic decisions and can often cause a lot of the problems you're worried about. Here are some of the things I learned while dealing with anxiety.
Anxiety Doesn't Always Come Alone, and It Can Be Hard to Spot
I didn't have much experience with parties as a kid. I never had a prom or any type of school dance in general. Which is probably why, in my 20s, when I went to one of my first real parties, it was a disaster.
This particular shindig was a Halloween party. I like Halloween, so I figured I'd have fun at a Halloween party, right? Except I didn't know how to interact with anyone. I'd been invited by a cute girl I'd met at a movie theatre, but I didn't know anyone else. I was too nervous to talk to anyone, and to everyone else, I was the weird guy no one knew (or at least, that's how it felt). Eventually, I ended up sitting on a chair in the corner of a room, curled up into a ball, hiding from everyone. It was not my proudest moment.
When I went home, I went over what went wrong. Obviously, I concluded, it was caused by my depression. If only I didn't feel so numb all the time, I'd have something to say, like all those shiny, happy people. While I wasn't wrong, I missed something critical: I did have things to talk about. I liked Halloween and I was excited by the costumes and the music. I was just too afraid to talk to anyone. My anxiety was hiding out on the back of my depression like the Millennium Falcon latched onto a Star Destroyer.
In reality, my depression and my anxiety were two were separate but intertwined issues. Dealing with depression made me avoid social situations because I felt like it was pointless. Isolating myself caused me to miss out on basic social interaction, so when I did try to socialise, I was on edge. I had no idea how to carry on normal conversations. Since I had so little experience socialising, I developed severe anxiety when meeting new people. I blamed my depression for sapping my energy to talk to people, not realising that I also had a separate social anxiety disorder -- which requires entirely different coping strategies and treatment methods.
Mental health problems don't come in neat, self-contained packages like other illnesses. When you get a cold, you know what the symptoms are and how to treat it. While anxiety disorders can sometimes occur on their own, they can also develop as part of a broader health problem. As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) points out, anxiety disorders can tag along with a number of physical or mental health problems, including eating disorders, sleep disorders, ADHD, chronic pain, and yes -- even prolonged stress For me, anxiety was like the free disorder you get for being a regular customer. I just didn't realise it until much later in life.
You Can't Just "Calm Down", But You Can Practice
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, your least favourite words are probably some variation of "calm down." You can't just calm down -- that's the whole point. If I could just make the bad feelings go away by thinking about it, I wouldn't have an anxiety disorder. Sound familiar?
I'd heard this so many times that the words started to make me angry on principle. Back when I was just starting out as a professional writer, I encountered the worst thing that could ever happen to a person: someone left me a mean comment on the internet. It's normal to take these things a little personally, but I let it eat away at me so much that I walked into the kitchen, passed my roommate without saying hi, and started crying over the edge of the sink.
He asked if I needed to go somewhere to calm down, and my response was exactly as measured and reasonable as you'd expect. I yelled about how I can't calm down. I told him that he can't possibly know how painful it is to be so stressed all the time (which is obviously crap, but I felt it at the time). I bemoaned how awful I was as a writer, and I should just give up now. I screamed about how everything is terrible and nothing will ever get better. Eventually, I broke down into a sobbing mess on the floor. My friend, again to his credit, stayed with me until I could breathe normally again.
The words "calm down" still irritated me, but that exchange also helped me realise that my friend wasn't just being dumb. Even if I was right that I couldn't just "chill out," my friend didn't deserve that. He was trying to help. More importantly, he correctly recognised that, in that moment, I needed to find a safe place to deal with my anxiety.
Here's the thing that took me way too long to figure out: yes, it's true that you can't just make yourself "calm down." But it's still pretty great advice. It just doesn't work the same for people with anxiety problems. The average person may be able to "calm down" by taking a deep breath, counting to 10, or thinking about something else for a second. That's great for them. Your problem is those things don't work.
However, the concept is still helpful. As mental health support site Help Guide explains, anxiety disorders cause your body to enter your "fight or flight" state, even when you don't need to. This results in a faster heart rate, faster breathing, and tense muscles. After a while, this may feel like your default state. To this day, I still have trouble just sitting still for long periods of time because anxiety has made me so used to feeling tense.
Practicing relaxation techniques can help your body learn how to do something besides freaking out. Help Guide recommends practicing meditation, deep breathing, and relaxation. Note the word "practice." These are things you should try doing every day regardless of your anxiety levels, not as an immediate response to them in the moment.
These won't fix your problems. Anxiety disorders still require treatment from qualified mental health professionals. However, by practicing ways to feel relaxed, your brain won't see relaxation as foreign when you need it. Part of the problem with anxiety disorders is that you can't move from fearful to relaxed because it doesn't feel natural. The more practice you have with feeling relaxed, the more natural that state will feel again.
In my own experience, I found that even though "calm down" isn't something I can make myself do on command, it was still a good cue that I was having an attack and needed to do something. Anxiety has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. When I got to a point where I was starting to overreact or panic, if someone tells me to calm down (or some variant), that's a good sign that I need to take my own action. Sure, counting to ten doesn't help me, but walking away from the situation until the anxiety fades might help me come at it again later from a place of strength. I also found that the more I practiced relaxing in my free time, the easier it was to recognise the difference when I had an anxiety flare up.
You Need a Plan to Deal With Attacks
Sometimes an anxiety attack can make you feel unreasonably stressed during a social event. Other times, your bedroom door is broken for a week. OK, maybe that last one is just me. During one particularly bad anxiety attack a few years back, I was in my bedroom while my roommate had some of our friends over in the living room down the hall.
I don't even remember what triggered it, but it's not like I needed a reason. While I sat alone in my room, I started hyperventilating. I was scared, since my anxiety was acting more severely than normal -- but being scared only made things worse. I could barely breathe, so calling for help was difficult. Finally, I managed to shove my desk chair at the bedroom door. It was a flimsy door in a crappy apartment. The door broke into several pieces.
It got the attention of my roommates, however. One friend called paramedics, which scared me more, and the panic got worse. Fortunately, they only stayed long enough for me to calm down. Afterwards, my roommates and I had a talk about how to handle a situation like this the next time it happens.
Anxiety isn't convenient. When an attack occurs while you're alone, it can be terrifying. When you get overwhelmed in public, there may not be a socially acceptable way for you to deal with it. The pressure to keep your composure may only make your anxiety worse. Having an anxiety attack or flare up can cause problems if it occurs at the wrong time. How your anxiety manifests at the worst of times can vary wildly, but it helps to have a plan on how to deal with those situations before they happen.
Help Guide explains that severe anxiety attacks often peak within about 10 minutes, occasionally lasting up to 30 minutes. For some people, anxiety attacks may be so severe that you physically can't breathe. For others, it may simply manifest as severe and sudden stress. In most cases, it will pass if you can give it time.
Everyone will have different needs, but in my experience, here are some of the things that helped get past the attack and deal with the bigger issues:
- Pause the situation: You can't physically stop everything that's happening, but if you're in the middle of a stressful conversation, ask if you can come back to it later. Don't continue a fight with a loved one while anxiety is flaring up. If you're driving, pull over. Whatever you can control, try to pause it for a bit.
- Isolate yourself from the stressful stimulus: In my case, I often had a problem with loud places. Concerts in particular were awful. It's hard to deal with anxiety when you can't hear yourself think and lights are flashing everywhere. If you can, get to a quiet place where you can be alone, or with a friend for support for a bit.
- Focus on something else for a while: This one can be hard, since the nature of anxiety attacks is that you can't stop focusing on the terrible thoughts, but it's good practice to try. While you sit for a moment, try to focus on something else. Distract yourself if you can. If you can get your mind off the thing that's giving you anxiety, you might be able to bring your body back to a normal state.
- Alternatively, let it all out: Scream. Cry. Make that awful noise that's somewhere between the two. Sometimes, when anxiety overwhelms you, the only thing you can do is let yourself feel what you need to feel for a while. Eventually, your body will get tired. It can't keep up feeling tense forever, and certainly not after you've been screaming for five minutes straight. Keep in mind, this isn't for every situation. If your anxiety attacks make it hard to breathe or if you're in a public place, it might not help, but privately for more emotional anxiety, it can be a quick fix.
Only you can figure out what works for you. I've had anxiety attacks that range from mild "I can't deal with this" freakouts to the incident with the paramedics. There's no miracle cure, and no technique works for everyone. Again, the point isn't to fix the anxiety in the short term. All you want to do is let it run its course until you can come back to it later.
More importantly, don't beat yourself up over it. The occasional attacks are as normal to a person with an anxiety disorder as sneezing is to a person with a cold. Obviously, long term you don't want it to keep happening, but you shouldn't hate yourself because it happens. Hopefully, the people around you will understand and be supportive of this, but even if they don't, at least give yourself the space to take care of your needs.
Your Problems Aren't (Always) Other People
Like nearly everyone else on the planet, my first romantic relationship went pretty terribly. Looking back, most of it was my fault. See, my childhood was a pretty abnormal, and because of it I felt rejected and developed a lot of bitterness. Naturally, the first time I successfully managed to get a girlfriend, I viewed her as my personal fountain of reassurance and support. Pro tip: this is terrible.
We were both in college at the time for filmmaking, and she took me to a local film festival. The idea of going to a crowded place to "meet new people" sounded terrifying to me, but I went with it because if things go poorly, I have my girlfriend there for support.
To the shock of no one, I couldn't handle it. I didn't talk to anyone new and eventually, I ended up telling her I'd wait in the car. She asked if I was ok and we talked for a moment, but eventually she stayed behind. She knew where I was, but decided not to cut the entire evening short. Instead, she let me go to the car and have space to chill out, then come back if I wanted to. In other words, she handled a boyfriend with anxiety in a constructive way.
Meanwhile, I felt hurt that she'd left me alone to go have fun. How could she just abandon me like that? Later that night, we had a fight about it. It wasn't long after that we broke up.
Looking back, the obvious problem was that I wasn't dealing with the underlying disorder. My anxiety wasn't her fault, and blaming her only distracted me from the real problem. The worse side effect of this kind of blame is that it alienates people who are trying to help. Some people may try to go out of their way to avoid triggering an attack, which can stress them out. Others may become (perhaps rightly) defensive and become unwilling to be supportive.
For me, this was the hardest lesson of all to learn. I wanted there to be an external cause I could cut off to stop this feeling. If only my roommate would stop being such a jerk! If only my girlfriend were more supportive! When you're overwhelmed with anxiety, your ability to take action is already at an all time low. Pretending other people are responsible for how you feel takes the pressure off you. That might feel nice, but it also makes it harder to build supportive relationships, which are really important.
Sometimes other people can seriously screw you up. If you have a terrible job, look elsewhere. If you're dealing with a friend who only makes you feel worse, it's ok to try to deal with that problem. However, it's best to approach those problems on your good days, or when you're not feeling overwhelmed. Most importantly, wherever possible, focus on what you can do for yourself. The more you invest in your own well-being, the better you'll feel about yourself, and the easier it will be to deal with anxiety when it comes.
If you're struggling with an anxiety disorder, don't hesitate to seek help. There are tons of hotlines and groups you can call if you're not sure where to turn. Your health insurance plan may have some guidance for covered mental health programs If you can't afford therapy, there are low- or no-cost options also available. No matter how you choose to get help, the most important thing is that you take action. If you have someone in your life that can support you, try to reach out. It's a long, difficult process to get better, but it is possible.
If depression is affecting you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.