You know someone who has it. Maybe you have it. Anxiety is a mental health disorder that affects 3 million Americans every year. It’s more common than heart disease or diabetes.
Everyone has felt anxiety at some point in their life. You cannot be human if you haven’t experienced a moment of anxiety. Maybe it was nerves before a test in school. It might have been stress and worry while waiting to learn medical test results. The difference between anxiety and anxiety disorder is that 1) There is an identified source of your stress and worry 2) The stress and worry go away once the situation or person causing it resolves or leaves.
Anxiety disorder is different because the stress, worry, and fear persist for months, even years with no rational or logical explanation. Anxiety disorders can be debilitating.
There are five kinds of anxiety disorders-
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is chronic anxiety, exaggerated worry, and tension. People who suffer from GAD describe it as feeling like there is an elephant on your chest 24/7.
Obsessive- Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – You ever hear someone say something like “I’m a little OCD about that”? Well, that’s actually a gross misunderstanding about OCD. OCD is not about preferring things be organized and clean. OCD is a debilitating form of anxiety that causes unwanted thoughts/obsessions and repetitive behaviors. Things like hand washing, counting, cleaning, and checking are done repetitively in an attempt to make obsessive thoughts go away.
Panic Disorder – Panic attacks are sudden unexpected episodes of intense fear. During panic attacks people go into fight or flight and experience intense physical symptoms such as sweating, shaking, racing heartbeat, pounding sensation in the chest, chest pain and tightness, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and fainting spells. People who suffer panic disorder live in fear of having a panic attack in public which can lead to another disorder called agoraphobia, which is a fear of leaving home.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – This condition is not limited to soldiers returning from battle. Victims of abuse, violent crime, natural disasters, traumatic events like a fire or car accident can all develop PTSD. Caregivers can develop PTSD.
Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia – This is overwhelming anxiety and excessive self consciousness during normal everyday situations. Things like going out to dinner with friends suddenly feels too overwhelming and causes extreme nervousness causing a person to constantly cancel at the last minute.
Anxiety disorders are not rational or logical. Anxiety is not a weakness of character. There are three causes of anxiety.
Environmental – These triggers are the experiences, events, and people in the life of someone with anxiety. It could be a job, school, a personal relationship, or personal financial situation
Medical – Life threatening diseases like cancer and diabetes can trigger anxiety.
Brain chemistry – Disruptions to hormones in the brain can cause disruption in the electrical signals in the brain causing anxiety. Anxiety disorders like GAD, social anxiety, and OCD have genetic links and are shown to be passed from parent to child,
Anxiety has many symptoms. Pain in the joints, headaches/frequent migraines, stomach cramps and irritable bowel, hot and cold flashes, shaking, racing heartbeat, chest tightness, shortness of breath, and racing thoughts are all typical symptoms of anxiety.
People with anxiety will constantly check to see if everything is alright. They will frequently cancel plans at the last minute. They have difficulty sleeping and suffer severe insomnia. They over analyze everything. Friends and family of someone with anxiety are often frustrated with the person who has anxiety especially if they don’t understand what their loved one is going through.
Anxiety can be life threatening. Studies show that 70% of people who attempt to commit suicide have an anxiety disorder. It is important to understand that though anxiety is common it should not be dismissed. It’s important to know that anxiety is treatable. Therapy, medication, meditation, and exercise are all proven to reduce and help manage all five types of anxiety.
You can help someone with anxiety by educating yourself as much as you can about anxiety disorders. If you have a friend or family member who suffers from anxiety let them know that you want to help and ask them how you can help. It’s important to listen without judgement. Never say things like “that’s silly! What are you so nervous about?” or, “Everything’s fine! Get over it.” Instead learn to sit and listen without trying to fix the situation. Be patient. Understand that many who suffer anxiety develop their own coping mechanisms. A common coping mechanism is showering. A person with an anxiety disorder may shower more than five times a day. Don’t lecture them on how much water they are using or how many towels they went through. Showering is better than trying to slash a wrist or self harming like cutting. There is no cure for anxiety, so don’t try to fix the problem. This can lead someone suffering from an anxiety disorder to think that they are a problem, which will make the anxiety worse.
If you suffer from anxiety or you think you do, you need to know that anxiety is treatable. Anxiety can be managed. Finding the right medication is a process of trial and error, but medication works very well and once you find the right one at the right dosage anxiety quickly becomes manageable and easier to live with.
Anxiety is hard to live with. My daughter has panic disorder. At its worst, she suffered between 3 to 5 panic attacks a day. Anxiety robbed her of her teenage years. My daughter’s anxiety became so debilitating I had to pull her out of her high school and enroll her in an online public high school because she missed so many days of school. To everyone on the outside she appeared to be a beautiful teenage girl from a good home with a family who loved her. She smiled on the outside but on the inside she was fighting for her life. Her panic attacks were particularly severe at night. My daughter’s primary coping technique was to take a shower. One night, after her fourth shower, my daughter took the picture of herself below to document what she looked like when her anxiety was high. It’s one of the most haunting photographs of my daughter I’ve ever seen.
This is my daughter at night when her anxiety is at an eight on a scale of one to ten. This was taken about 30 minutes before she had a panic attack.
This is how the rest of the world sees my daughter. I share these photos because I want you the reader to know that anxiety affects everyone at every age. I want you the reader to know that if you’re struggling with anxiety and feeling alone and overwhelmed, you’re not alone. You and my daughter are part of the three million people in the United States treading water trying to keep from drowning in fear and worry. And most importantly, I want you to know that you are not weak. No one who lives with anxiety is weak. People who live with anxiety are the most bad ass warriors to walk this earth. People with anxiety are battling the boogey man in their head every day and though it may not feel like it, they are winning.
Anxiety is normal. There is nothing about anxiety to be ashamed of. People with anxiety should feel as comfortable talking about their issue as do people with high cholesterol. It’s time to end the stigma around anxiety and mental illness.