Trigger warning: this post discusses my experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It is not my intention to trigger someone, but I want to warn those of you who are especially sensitive to these topics. I am not a medical professional nor an expert on the topic, my intention is purely to share my story and help others who may be seeking guidance.
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. - 43.8 million or 18.5% - live with mental illness, and 18.1% (42 million) of American adults live with anxiety disorders, making it the most prevalent mental illness in the United States. Why, then, are we so scared to talk about it? Why is it so taboo? Why is it viewed as a weakness in some eyes?
We’re taught from a young age to always put your best face forward and we’ve been trained to automatically answer the question “How are you?” with “Good, you?” without even skipping a beat. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m wiling to bet a good portion of the population isn’t always answering that question truthfully, myself included. What would it feel like to actually stop for a second and tell someone how you’re really doing in that moment? Sharing these feelings and expressing these harder emotions are the moments of cathartic release that we need but are few and far between.
WHAT IS GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder or GAD is kind of like anxiety on steroids. Rather than worrying about things like money, relationship problems, or your job occasionally, those with GAD feel extremely worried or nervous about these things on top of a slew of other things.
All. The. Time.
I can speak from experience when I say this is an all-consuming illness. These feelings can interfere with everyday obligations and activities such as my job, relationships, or even something as simple as running errands. I worry about everything from body image to leaving at the exact same time for work every morning to food (a huge trigger for me that deserves its own post) to meeting someone in public at a restaurant to making my bed in the exact same order every morning. I’m all over the board.
GAD develops early, typically from the teenage years to young adulthood. People with GAD may experience:
- Having a hard time concentrating
- Worrying a lot about everyday things
- Having trouble controlling their worries or feelings of nervousness
- Feeling restless and having trouble relaxing
- Being easily startled
- Tightness in your chest
- Increased heart rate
- Excess sweating, feeling light headed, or out of breath
- Headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches, or unexplained pains or numbness
I’ve always been an introvert and was extremely shy until about the age of 16 when I took a big solo trip to Spain to study abroad and was more or less forced to socialize to survive. Anxiety never really crossed my mind until I was in my early 20's, partly because it was never really talked about as openly as it is now.
When I was younger, I just thought I was a goofy, awkward teenager who got nervous a lot and was a bit sensitive.
Fast forward to 2015 when the panic attacks started making a name for themselves in my life. They started out pretty low key and I could typically talk myself out of an episode rather quickly. My heart would race and I'd feel some tightness in my chest, but a couple of deep breaths usually did the trick. I didn’t really even label them as panic attacks, just more so intense moments or nervousness. Then, true, unadulterated panic attacks came on with a vengeance.
I remember my first true panic attack like it was yesterday. It was in November of 2016 as I was driving home with a guy I was seeing at the time. We had gone back to his hometown to go to his friend’s birthday party and I could feel the panic set in almost instantly as I walked through the doors. Actually, that’s a lie, I began to panic as soon as he told me what the plans were for the night. I didn’t know anyone there. He was always off talking to someone and I was frozen with fear. The simple words: I’m going to head to the restroom really quick, can send me spiraling from zero to sixty. I became so nervous that I was overcome with an elevated heart rate, tightness in my chest, intense nausea, cold sweats, and numbness in my left arm.
Does everyone think he just ditched me?
Why is everyone staring at me?
Maybe I should text him to just meet me outside.
I was fully panicking.
Now I had certainly experienced feelings of nervousness in social settings before, but nothing of this caliber. I was utterly scared out of my mind. He could tell I was not doing so hot and recommended that we start making the drive home. I was silent. I, quite literally, could not get the words out to tell him what was going on. He kept asking me what was wrong and how he could help, but between attempting to calm my nausea, keeping my eyes on the road, and pure confusion, I had no clue what to do or say. The thought of sharing intense emotions like these with someone else immediately caused me to freeze.
Vulnerability. Is. Terrifying.
Then came the panic attack during my 200 Hour Yoga Teacher Training. How ironic, right? Let’s not get it twisted - yogi’s aren’t rainbows and peace, love, zen all the time. What you see on Instagram is not always reality. Yoga has actually heightened my emotions tenfold since beginning a dedicated practice over two years ago.
As a part of my personal experience with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, I experience intense social anxiety almost daily and it does not play around. It was a Thursday evening during Yoga Teacher Training in early 2017, the night we met every week. When I was told we were going to do an improv type of dance class with partners instead of a typical yoga-based module where I could sit comfortably in the back of the room, holy SHAZAM did my heart drop. I immediately had thoughts like:
How can I fake an illness to get out of here?
Can I sit out without everyone judging me?
Why weren’t we told about this before coming into class?
I almost felt betrayed.
This. Was. My. Hell.
People began to dance to the music with looks of euphoria on their faces. They were having a blast and I was over here faking it and not making it. I made it about ten minutes and then something took over and I began to hyperventilate and sob uncontrollably. I rushed out of the room, hoping nobody saw me, and made a b-line for the bathroom where I collapsed onto the floor and lost all control. I couldn’t feel my arms, my whole body was tingling, I was almost drooling from the amount of saliva that was accumulating from my nausea, I was sweating uncontrollably, intensely sobbing, had shortness of breath, and honestly felt like I was having a heart attack.
Ten minutes passed and I still couldn’t get a grip. I was so claustrophobic in the small bathroom that I ventured out into the other empty yoga studio where the symptoms of my panic slowly dwindled. The cold air calmed my nausea and sweats and I started to take deep, cleansing breaths and feel my body’s sensations in that moment. This was so intense and felt like an out-of-body experience.
It was in this moment that I knew I needed to seek help. Handling these panic attacks solely on my own was not working and they were only getting worse. When I got home that night I immediately started researching therapists in the area and it took me two months of endless emails, phone calls, and insurance conflicts to finally find the therapist I’ve been seeing for almost a year. It has been a game changer.
WE COULD ALL BENEFIT FROM THERAPY
Although I’ve been seeing a therapist for almost a year and have made some major, personal strides, this does not mean my anxiety is nonexistent now. Ironically, I’ve been experiencing some of the most challenging anxiety of my life recently. To the point where it feels like my heart is pounding out of my chest. My stomach is being twisted like a wet dish towel which can cause my appetite to plummet. My head is pounding with such intensity that I have blurred vision and I lose feeling in my fingers and forearms. But these aren’t just random headaches that I pop an Advil for. These are my thoughts. A constant, influx of thoughts that scream their way through my mind at all hours of the day.
What if something I said two weeks ago in passing hurt someone’s feelings?
Why was that random stranger looking at me in yoga class? Maybe they thought I looked fat in this tight shirt.
I should probably reorganize all of the notes and reminders on my phone, wouldn’t want to forget anything!
Spoiler alert, I never forget anything that’s of no importance or relevance. My mind is a steel trap of worry-inducing information.
It’s an all encompassing journey every single day.
In the recent weeks, I’ve been going through some really difficult personal battles and have had to make some big, tough decisions in my life. This has caused me to spiral on more than one occasion. But with the tools and techniques I’ve learned from my therapist, I am able to redirect my thoughts more frequently and with more success than I was before. I am aware of what’s going on in my mind and can start to talk the anxiety devil off of my shoulder, even if its only for a few minutes. It still counts and it still makes a difference.
I’ve tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Exposure Therapy, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, changing my diet, journaling…you name it and I’ve probably tried it.
It can get quite overwhelming.
My schedule is full of therapist appointments, meditation reminders, nutritionist appointments, yoga classes, acupuncture appointments, all while maintaining both a full-time job and part-time job, supporting myself financially, maintaining various relationships, and carving out some time for myself to just be. It can be too much at times and I find myself wondering if it’d be easier to just deal with the loop of my thoughts because it’s what I’m used to. Because before I started being so intune with my body and mind, I didn't experience nearly as much anxiety.
Repatterining these thoughts can be so challenging and exhausting.
But then I remember the episodes of pure, overpowering panic I used to experience and realize I can’t recall having one of those in the last nine months where I couldn’t control it. I went from having, on average, two crippling panic attacks a month to zero. That’s huge.
I can tell myself that I didn’t gain ten pounds overnight, that the stranger I passed on the sidewalk wasn’t looking at a pimple on my face, that people aren’t excluding me from plans - they’re simply busy with their own lives. I can make it through an entire trip at the grocery store without getting overwhelmed, abandoning my cart (my apologies to the employees of Whole Foods), and speed walking to my car. Now, this doesn’t always work. There are moments where I try to shift my thoughts into reality and it just all feels like bullshit. But, those are the deep, dark opportunities for growth and practicing mindfulness.
CAN'T YOU JUST POP A XANAX?
I first want to disclaim that I do not think anxiety medication is a bad thing and I respect everyone's personal decisions to handle their anxiety however they'd like.
As I've started to open up more and more about my anxiety over the past year, I've had multiple people tell me to just take a pill. That they started taking anxiety medication and it drastically changed their life. Now don't get me wrong, the thought of simply popping a pill every morning and watching all my worries float away sounded really attractive for about a millisecond. But as someone who strives to live as holistically and naturally as I can, there was no way I was going to make anxiety medication an option. I remember that was one of the first things I told my therapist when I met with her initially.
But, even more importantly than the chemical change it would have on my body and hormones, my anxiety stems from deep-rooted traumas that I need to bring to the surface and work through on my own. I don't want a pill to simply mask those feelings for the rest of my life. What would happen if I wanted to stop taking the medication? If I simply forgot it one day? I've put so much time, money, and effort into treating my anxiety that the thought of starting from scratch breaks my heart.
THINGS WE CAN DO TO CALM THE ANXIETY
- Deep, cleansing breaths. Inhale through your nostrils deeply, exhale out of your mouth. I also find that counting my inhales and exhales shifts my focus from my thoughts to my breathing and can greatly calm my nervous system.
- Essential oils. Diffuse them, rub them between your palms, or place a few drops in your shower or bath. Lavender, grapefruit, eucalyptus, and clary sage are some of my favorites.
- Talk to someone. This can be really hard and I’m still figuring this one out because I didn’t open up to anyone for years. But when I’m having an especially hard time or find that I’m on the high side of my anxiety roller coaster, talking to my therapist releases a lot of that emotion I’m holding onto and brings my mind back down to earth. With over half (60%) of the population living with anxiety disorders not receiving services last year, it is crucial that we make therapeutic services more accessible.
- Find your therapeutic outlet. For me, this is cooking and yoga. Find something you enjoy doing that shifts your mind away from the thoughts and anxiety, even if it's for ten minutes.
- Be selfish! Say no to things that trigger your anxiety. Say no to things you don’t want to do. I’ve really adapted this into my life over the past couple of months. With my mental heath being a priority, I find that engaging in events or plans that send me spiraling really aren’t worth it right now.
- Cultivate healthy relationships. Surround yourself with people who lift you up, people who support you even when you might be struggling. Weed out the bad seeds that send you into a trigger frenzy. People grow, relationships change. It's okay to pick and choose.
- Take a look at your lifestyle. Are you only sleeping for three hours a night and thriving off of caffeine? Do you get home from work and immediately plop down on the couch rather than going for a nice walk or doing some other form of exercise? Do you find yourself taking a trip through the drive-thru everyday rather than spending time making a meal full of whole, real foods? All of these situations can throw your neurotransmitters out of wack and ultimately cause various mental illnesses to occur. Making some healthier lifestyle changes can have an extremely positive effect on your body and mind.
- Become mindful of your social media intake. In a world where everyone is constantly staring at their phones, it can be easy to get caught up in the whirlwind that is social media. Experiment with deleting all social media apps from your phone for a day, stashing your phone away before you go to bed, leaving your phone in your bag or pocket while you're having dinner with someone, or unfollowing certain accounts that trigger your anxiety in any way. These are all helpful ways to stay more present in the moment.
- Positive affirmations. Be your own best cheerleader, peeps! As someone who's had negative body image and self esteem for as long as I remember, it's hard to give myself positive affirmations everyday, and even harder to believe them. But I've found that when I incorporate these positive affirmations more and more into my day, the more they resonate with me. Start small, that's where the change starts. Leave small love notes to yourself around your home. We all deserve a little pick-me-up at all hours of the day.
- Educate yourself. Do research online (at credible sources) to learn more about anxiety disorders and mental illness in general. I've listed some at the end of this post.
WHAT MY GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER LOOKS LIKE TODAY
Over the years of struggling with GAD, I’ve gotten really good at hiding my emotions. If you were to see me walking on the street or in a yoga class, I would assume you’d have no idea that my heart is racing or that the noise from everyone having different conversations is sending me into sensory overdrive. On the outside, I operate like a typical 25 year old just going about her day. I’ve used this as a protection mechanism so people don’t think I’m weak or fragile.
But there are nights when I can’t stomach the thought of socializing with people in a yoga class. Where I’d rather stay at home in my pajamas than attempt to make plans with anyone. I’ve learned to do so without guilt or without the fear of missing out on something because ultimately, my mental health is more important than getting wasted on a Saturday night. Finding a balance between maintaining friendships and taking some time for yourself can be really challenging, there's no doubt about it.
As a friend, daughter, yoga teacher, sister, and caregiver, I make it a point to encourage others to love themselves, to feel strong and empowered in the skin they’re in. But it's not always easy for me to practice what I preach. Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite or a fraud.
How can I tell these people in savasana to let go of things that no longer serve them when deep down I’m holding onto things from middle school?
That's a hard pill to swallow.
But I’m a work in progress.
I’ve learned that these feelings and thoughts are fleeting. That everyday I have a chance to start fresh. That I will experience moments of pure joy where I’m laughing until my ribs hurt with my friends, or crying happy tears when my best friend sends me a photo of her sonogram and tells me she’s pregnant, or just spending an afternoon with my family who I love with my whole heart. Those are the moments that make this doable. The moments that are worth more than a panic attack on a bathroom floor.
YOU ARE ENOUGH
If you’re still with me, I genuinely thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading my story. I’ve held onto a lot of this for years and it feels so cathartic to write it down and release it. A huge weight has been lifted from my heart. I hope this post finds someone struggling or dealing with similar experiences who can relate and know that they’re not alone. That this is so common. I hope to inspire others to share how they're feeling.
Mental illness does not discriminate between gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, the rich, the poor, or those with disabilities. Mental illness affects everyone and no one experience is more important than the other.
We are all in this together.
Know that it’s okay and you’ll have people around you to pick you up when you’re down.
Whether it’s a parent, a friend, a partner, or a therapist, find someone you can share these feelings with and learn to let go of things that no longer serve you.
If you find that you are experiencing some of the symptoms of mental illness that I talked about and feel like you need more help, please check out the resources listed below.
- The National Institute of Mental Health - www.nimh.nih.gov or their HelpLine, 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), which can be reached Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm EST.
- National Alliance of Mental Illness - www.nami.org.
- Speak with a trained volunteer at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- Get general information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area at the SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline. 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727), Monday-Friday from 8am to 8pm EST.
Feel free to leave me a comment with any ideas, questions, or experiences you may have had with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or mental illness in general, I’d love to hear from you. Let’s keep this a safe space full of loving and supportive advice and comments!
With love and light xx