Yes, I Have Anxiety And No, I Don't Talk About It For Attention
Yes, I have anxiety.
And it's a pain in the ass.
Let me backtrack by saying that I didn't always experience anxiety to the same degree in which I do now. As a child, I would get nervous for certain things... I was an extreme perfectionist so when things didn't measure up to my standards, I would get upset and frustrated, in addition to feeling nervous about the results of my performance. Oral presentations would give me the jitters, and social situations were somewhat difficult. Overall, though, I wouldn't characterize myself as an anxious child or teenager. I was hard on myself and a little bit high-strung, but not anxious.
That all changed as I became an adult.
My eating disorder is definitely linked to my anxiety, and vice-versa. Everything related to weight and food makes me nervous, and to be honest, I think it will remain this way for a long time. I am not saying this to be pessimistic - rather, I am simply being realistic. Throughout the years, I have learned to somewhat "manage" my anxiety that relates to all things "eating disorder". If I have to have a meal at a restaurant, which would probably mean "eating more than usual", I am able to remind myself that one meal won't make a difference in my weight in the long run. The same kind of reminder can be used during the holiday season as well.
If I weigh myself and I am not happy with the result, I try and keep in mind that I will eventually "get over it", even though it feels like the end of the world in the moment. Now, this doesn't minimize how I feel after I step on the scale - I have shed countless tears and spent many, many hours crying about how much I weigh. But, the thing is, eventually the crying does stop, as my attention always shift to something else later that day, or even later that week.
In the past few years, though, I have also developed symptoms in line with generalized anxiety disorder. I have experienced a number of panic attacks about... nothing. Seriously, about nothing! What makes generalized anxiety difficult is that I am never really able to pinpoint the cause of my panic attacks. They arise out of nowhere, and last an unpredictable length of time. It becomes extremely frustrating because I don't have control over my anxiety and my distress - I never know when it will surface. Sometimes it's at work. Sometimes it's when I am in the subway. Sometimes it's when I am walking home on a sunny afternoon.
A couple of years ago, I did something to manage this anxiety - I started taking a new medication. Truth be told, it works WONDERS for me. My generalized anxiety almost vanished! I don't get panic attacks anymore and that alone has been life-changing. Now, I am not advising or implying that you need to take medication in order to deal with anxiety. Rather, I am simply sharing what has worked for me. (If you have any questions about medication, please don't hesitate to send me a message!)
Recently, though, something has changed once again. I began having anxiety-ridden dreams, where someone I loved would die and I would be faced with their body. Also, I became obsessed and flooded with negative thoughts whenever I would see an ambulance, firetruck, or police car. Right away, my mind went to thinking that some kind of natural disaster or mass casualty was about to happen and I was going to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When my family members would fly, I would lose sleep because of my fears about something going wrong with the plane. And, to make matters worse, I was incredibly jumpy and on-edge. Any small noise scared the living daylights out of me. One afternoon, I became so startled when my dad dropped a screw in my apartment that I started crying.
For me, what makes anxiety tricky is that it's fluid. It is constantly changing and in this sense, I feel that it is incredibly difficult to handle. When I get anxious, I get a sinking feeling in my chest. My heart beats fast and I lose my breath. I become hyper-aware of my surroundings and my senses, and I'm constantly looking for something that may go wrong. For some freak accident to happen, or for someone to jump out of a corner.
It is impossible to just "calm down" when you have anxiety. Unfortunately, the only thing that will allow anxiety to decrease, (for me), is time. I had a doctor in New York who showed me the anxiety curve. It's pretty much an upside-down U, with the top of the "curve" representing the peak of distress. After the peak, though, the curve slopes downwards, and the intensity of the anxiety lessens. I try and remind myself of that when I'm feeling anxious; despite how bad I feel in the moment, the distress will never, ever last. It ALWAYS comes down.
I also sometimes work through the "evidence for" and "evidence against" my (irrational) thoughts, using a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) approach. For example: what is the evidence for the thought that seeing an ambulance on my street will lead to a mass casualty? What is the evidence against? Upon looking at both, I aim to come up with a "reasonable conclusion"; some thought that would make "sense" based on the points I listed. I have written a couple of these situations down on paper this week, and talk myself through them when I'm walking to work, or running errands, for example.
I had another doctor in New York who once told me: anxiety won't kill you. Not eating WILL. For those of us who struggle with food and weight, we often refrain from the mere act of eating beyond our comfort zones for fear that doing so will result in extreme anxiety. But, my doctor's orders ring true: no one dies from anxiety alone. People do die, though, from starvation and from eating disorders and from malnutrition. I try and remind myself of this, too.
Anxiety is a nasty illness, and it seems that more and more people are beginning to relate to its symptoms. Whether or not you can identify the source of your anxiety, please know that you have permission to take care of yourself when you are feeling off. It is not selfish to turn down an invitation, and it is not lazy to stay in and take a bubble bath or watch a movie. I do encourage you, though, to find an outlet for your anxiety. Whether it's exercise, painting, knitting, colouring, (blogging!!), or making a warm cup of tea, try to interrupt the anxiety curve so that it doesn't reach its peak. It still may feel intolerable, but interrupting it by using an appropriate coping skill is, in fact, taking care of yourself and doing something good for the most important person in your life - YOU.