I have probably had anxiety for a lot longer than when I was first officially diagnosed with it. People who have anxiety have been labeled by friends and loved ones for all time, albeit not always with kind intentions. I remember being told I was disorganized, scatterbrained, a chatty cathy, overanalyzing, overthinking etc. Too many labels to count!
When you have a mental health issue, it is a classic “invisible disability” and in some cases, most people don’t even recognize it as legitimate and will claim it’s an excuse for certain behaviors. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I remember my first panic attack. This was back during the time when I was moving from an apartment into a home. The paperwork and legwork involved were enormous undertakings and since I was a stay at home mom at the time, most of the logistics fell to me. I was overwhelmed and trying to take care of everything plus having the paperwork, phone calls and running around involved with buying a home.
When trying to recall the incident, I remember waking from a restless sleep and having the “sense of impending doom” that is often mentioned when describing a panic attack. At the time, I didn’t realize what was going on, but I felt that something was horribly wrong. Immediately, I noticed that I couldn’t breathe properly. It’s like there wasn’t enough oxygen and my lungs were closing. The first things running through my head were that perhaps I was having a heart attack, since I was cold and clammy, or an asthma attack due to the inability to breathe.
I couldn’t call for help because I couldn’t breathe. I knelt next to the bed and tried very hard to calm my thinking and breathing. Although at the time it probably seemed like a half hour, in all likelihood, the entire event lasted maybe four or so minutes. This is only one of MANY ways that anxiety can manifest itself and I have experienced quite a plethora of symptoms.
One thing that is important to try to learn when living with anxiety, is that many people do not understand even what an anxiety disorder is and often mistake associated behaviors as irresponsible or irritating, when in fact the person is trying to cope with uncontrollable feelings. Telling family, friends and perhaps even co-workers can help others around you to understand some of the reasons why you act, do or say certain things and can go a long way towards understanding.
Most of my anxiety manifests itself with nitpicking, irritability, not talking at all and many times, repetitive thoughts and nausea. The nausea is kind of like a very uncomfortable version of butterflies in your stomach. While I’m in therapy since I went through a triple loss of family in a short period of time, learning how to cope with anxiety is not as easy as just taking a pill, learning how to meditate, diverting your attention to something relaxing/distracting or other coping skills. While these strategies can help tremendously, when the anxiety is high, it can be extremely difficult to even want to try a coping skill due to the level of the current stress.
The most important thing to remember is that while you need to try to be accountable for your words and deeds, having anxiety is not your fault. Working to keep people and events out of your life who are not supportive is one step and that in itself can be difficult. For example, some people have strong anxiety when it comes to social gatherings. If you have a job, you may be required to attend certain events and that can be hard to manage when you live with anxiety.
I cannot stress the importance of finding a therapist or social worker to talk to if you have access to mental health care, or at least making a plan to have someone to talk to or a strategy to cope. Sometimes, when my anxiety is somewhat manageable, I might take the time to write out my feelings, no matter what they are and that can make me feel better. I also have people in my life I can turn to and speak about what’s making me feel anxious. I have also taken steps to remove people from my life who cause me unnecessary anxiety and that is a step that’s not for everyone but has worked for me in the past.
I’ve had people ask me over the years how they can help me cope with my anxiety. While I don’t want to be coddled, there are small things that someone can do to help understand why I might be having thoughts that don’t seem to make sense. For me, I am learning to take responsibility for MY feelings. For example, if I am worried about my child taking a test, I need to learn that the event is out of my control. My child is the one taking the test, the teachers are the ones administering the test and the information on the test was already there and I have no control over it. When I worry, there is nothing I can do to alter the event or the outcome. That is, for me, the most difficult part about having anxiety; the lack of control over an existing situation. Realizing that events and things happening around you are out of your control can be crippling for me. I don’t “want” to control people or their actions, but a fear of the unknown and not knowing what’s going on can trigger intense anxiety for me. For others, it can be loneliness, pressure and stress from work, marital issues, money problems, and a thousand other possibilities.
If you live with anxiety, I hope that you are surrounded by people who you can count on to be there for you. If you are surrounded by people who are making your anxiety worse, I hope you can either educate them about what you’re feeling and how they can help you, or that you can take steps to reduce the level of contact that you have with them so you can deal with life in a more positive way. Sometimes, that is the only way.
Now to get back to worrying about the holidays!