I’ve currently got an anxiety disorder and have been virtually housebound with it for the last 8 months. Most people aren’t sure what anxiety disorders are like and many think that they’re about something. Some anxiety disorders including phobias are about something but many, like mine, are not. This is my attempt to explain what generalised anxiety feels like and how it develops.
Anxiety feels like you’re drowning in a sea that no one else can see or help you out of. It feels like you’re being strangled and can’t get enough air into your lungs to breathe. You feel scared. More scared than you’ve ever felt. Most of the time you don’t even know why or what you’re scared of. And yet you are. And it eats you up inside.
Anxiety is like a creeper around a tree. It starts off slowly growing alongside it and before you know it it’s stifling it, preventing it from growing, moving and eventually stopping it from living. Anxiety slowly creeps into your life through worry about little things, and then bigger things. This worry then becomes obsessive and less controllable. It stops being about a specific area of your life and spreads throughout your life. It keeps growing and growing until it takes over your life. Then it starts squeezing out the spontaneity, the ability to adapt and cope with change. You end up unable to cope with strangers, unfamiliar places, or new situations. You struggle to make phone calls, leave the house, or remember things. You get anxious about making mistakes or regretting things which makes decision-making a nightmare. You can’t plan or think straight because all of your thoughts become plagued with worry and you spend days feeling anxious about an upcoming event that when well you’d have taken in your stride. Your life gets reduced down to very limited “safe” activities and situations and your thoughts are so anxious you no longer feel like yourself. You struggle to explain why or how you got this way because by this point the anxiety has taken over so much that you’ve almost forgotten what it felt like not to be anxious and you think back over events in your past and wonder how on earth you accomplished them. Your life revolves around fear and the life you once knew seems to be gone.
At some point the panic comes. Panic is like everything I’ve already described but ten times more intense. Panic feels like your life is being threatened right here, right now. It feels like the worst thing you could possibly imagine is imminently going to happen and you’re powerless to stop it. Occasionally you end up feeling so panicky that you lose control. Panic attacks are awful but when you lose control during one, it’s so much worse. You can barely speak or breathe because you’re hyperventilating so much. You can’t be reasoned with because you’re no longer rational due to being so frightened. You can’t keep still because then the “bad” thing might happen but there’s so much adrenaline coursing through your system that you can’t stand or walk or even sit. This has happened to me five times in my life and during most of those I had to be restrained by people because I was so out of control. I have little memory of these events other than how I felt and you truly couldn’t feel more frightened, it’s as if a gun is pointed at you. Afterwards, once your brain has decided to realise that the threat doesn’t exist, you feel totally exhausted and very embarrassed. You have to apologise to the witnesses who you’ve just traumatised who were on the verge of phoning an ambulance or the police. As soon as this has happened to you once you’re always aware that it could happen again and every anxiety-provoking situation becomes more so because you fear losing control again and perhaps being hospitalised. Fear feeds fear and the cycle continues.
Anxiety robs you of rationality. It steals your freedom, your courage. You feel incapable of doing anything new because it feels so intensely threatening. The rational part of you is still there fighting, knowing that no real threat exists and yet every day you’re thwarted by mundane tasks because they threaten your very existence. Living every day like this is completely exhausting. The anxiety even eats into your sleep, keeping you up for hours at night and then warping your dreams into worrying and fearful situations so that waking up is almost a relief until you realise that you have another anxiety-filled day ahead of you. Anxiety doesn’t let up. It doesn’t ease off when you’re having a particularly bad day. On those days it ramps up the intensity so that bad days are almost unbearable and you feel scared of just about everything. Anxious thoughts can’t be switched off and they’re often impossible to be distracted from and so you’re scared and worried and anxious until your brain forgets what it’s scared of and anxious about and maybe you’ll get some relief by focusing on something normal for a while. But sometimes your brain just keeps you feeling anxious, even though you no longer remember why and so you can’t rationalise it or even explain it to anyone else because it no longer makes sense and it just is. You’re no longer anxious about something, you’re just anxious. And so it goes on…. and on…. and on.
I truly hope that this conveys some of what those of us with anxiety disorders are going through. For those of you that may have underestimated what it’s like and think we just worry a bit more than usual, I hope that this has brought some clarity and will make you think again. Those of you that have suggested we “are not being rational”, “need to try harder”, “should be giving it a go” or “should just go outside more”, I hope you realise how unhelpful these comments are and that what you’re asking us to do is nigh on impossible when we’re feeling such intense fear and panic. Maybe if you walked a day in our shoes you’d see why the idea of going food shopping makes us cry, or why we have to work ourselves up to calling our GP, or why we’re tired all the time and can’t always string coherent sentences together when our minds are racing with anxiety and never letting up. Instead, why not offer to visit us and brighten our afternoon, send a card so we know we’re thought about or give us a call to see how we’re doing? We’re often out of sight because we’re being tortured by these thoughts but it’s such a shame that we’re so often out of your minds too. I hope this will have given you enough of a glimpse into our lives to see that we’re battling the anxiety every day and it’s not a fight we always win but we do always try.
So now you know, Life With An Anxiety Disorder can mean being Afraid Of Everything and often not even knowing why.