Put me up on a stage in front of hundreds, speech in hand, and I’ll own it. Plonk me down in a room full of strangers, I’ll fake small talk so good you’ll think I’m an extrovert. Give me a tight deadline and I will work, work, work until I get it done. But if I believe I haven’t worked to my expectations? Or someone puts me in a position where my health could be compromised? Get ready to watch my anxiety disorder kick in.
I’ve been officially diagnosed with and medicated for Chronic Anxiety (also known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder) for about five years now, a big chunk of my adult life – although in hindsight, I can now see some of my negative behaviours popping up in my A-level years. It’s followed me through university, graduating, working full-time, getting engaged, and still lingers around like a red wine stain on my favourite white dress. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am an old-timer when it comes to living with anxiety. I’ve learnt to have it in my life, or more precisely, I’ve learnt to live with it, and live with it successfully.
Alongside anxiety, I’m bringing along other conditions with me for the ride, and like any other illness or condition, they must originate from somewhere. For me, my asthma is caused by inflamed bronchioles in the lungs; my peanut allergy occurs because my immune system treats peanuts as a foreign substance; and my PCOS is a case of unbalanced hormones in my brain box and ovaries. So what causes my anxiety disorder?
My anxiety disorder is a mixing pot of two things – brain chemistry and experience. Everyday I take Sertraline, an SSRI (or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor if you are feeling fancy), which allows more serotonin to make its way to my brain as it seems my brain doesn’t make enough. Serotonin is a chemical that essentially stabilises mood and increases happiness, so we need a lot of it. By taking Sertraline, my mood, anxiety, and brain chemicals are regulated! So that’s the brain chemistry side of things accounted and treated for. But then comes experience…
What separates Chronic Anxiety from any other anxiety disorder, such as phobias, OCD, or PTSD, is that it essentially touches all areas of my life. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t spurred on by something. It’s taken a long time, a lot of watching negative behaviours and noticing what triggers me, but my anxiety takes the form of two monsters based on experience.
- Failure. This is a common trigger for people my age, thanks to a messed up schooling system that puts too much pressure on literal children to decide their future when all they can really think about is what they want for lunch and who is their favourite Pokemon. For the record, mine is Jigglypuff (sorry, I digress).
- Health. This one makes a lot more sense to me. Growing up, I always had to be on high alert due to my asthma and severe nut allergy because otherwise I could, you know, die. However, couple that with low brain chemicals, an anxiety disorder already a-brewing, and you know it’s going to latch on to whatever it can.
I think recognising what causes my anxiety was one of the first and most important steps I took to learning to live, not just survive, with my anxiety. Well, behind Step One – get medical help. Learning how my anxiety takes its form was also vital to my progress (goodness, I’m making it sound like some obscure werewolf-esque creature). On a day to day basis when my anxiety is just there, I tend to have the usual symptoms – a nervous twinge in the belly, fatigue, feelings of restlessness. But if I’m particularly triggered or having a flare up, I can develop insomnia, an increased drive to work (honestly, not in a good way), forgetting to eat or shower, heart palpitations, nausea, the jitters, shortness of breath, and overcompensating behaviours. Whew, fun times.
But now, five years on since seeing my first doctor, I’m so proud of looking where I started and where I am now. I rarely have those enormous flare-ups that held reign over my university years. When I’m anxious, I know how to address it. I’m living with my anxiety disorder, just like I’m living with my asthma and allergy and PCOS. But the question is, how did I get to this point? How have I managed to control and manage a disorder that previously took over my whole life? Honestly, it’s taken years of medication, and talking to doctors, alongside addressing my feelings and triggers. It’s also taken a lot of trial and error of adding things to my life. Here are some of things that have stuck in helping me learn to live with my anxiety –
- I treat my anxiety as external. Any thoughts or feelings I have when struggling with anxiety are not mine – they are my anxiety’s. I practice changing my language – instead of saying “I am so blimmin’ worthless today”, I try to catch that thought and turn it into “my anxiety is making me feel so blimmin’ worthless today”. It’s about changing the narrative.
- Addressing the fact that if I am ill, that is valid. Throughout the year, I have to take some days off because I have an asthma flare up. My anxiety likes to make me feel that because I’m not in the hospital with an oxygen mask, I am actually slacking, that I should be at work, that I should exercise, that I should do something. In reality, I’m having trouble breathing – if that’s not a reason to be classed as ‘ill’, then nothing is. So, everytime I have an illness flare-up and I can feel that voice going “excuse me, what are you doing, you slacker?” I try and focus on the fact that I have these conditions, that I need to rest to get better, and that just because I am not at death’s door doesn’t mean I shouldn’t look after myself.
- This one took a long time to come to terms with and is probably something I struggle with the most, but it is vital – speaking out. Not as in “Hi everybody, my name is Rosie, and I have an anxiety disorder”, but telling people about my triggers if they come into play. It’s saying “sorry, can you put the bowl of peanuts away?” whilst at a party, instead of letting my anxiety make me feel like a burden and hiding in the corner, hoping no-one touches me. It’s saying “excuse me, I need an extension on this piece of work” instead of listening to the voice that says “only failures require extensions”. It’s about owning my life, and not letting anyone, anything, or any disorder have control over that.
- If I can feel some symptoms coming, I act straight away. A big example of this, is my insomnia. Before a bout of insomnia hits, I can feel it; it feels like I’ve downed three cups of coffee in one go. So I spend the rest of the day winding down. All caffeine and high sugar foods are out. I rearrange my day to focus on calm or easy tasks. I shut the curtains in my bedroom as soon as I’m home, and set off a diffuser with lavender to create a space that says sleeeeeeep. I’ll do something to use up my physical and mental energies; reading, walking, jogging, cooking etc. Perhaps the most important point, and to some I’m sure this would be trivial, is I have a hot bath. I’ve trained my body to react to all of these things as a trigger for sleep, to overcome anything my disorder wants to throw at me. It’s about reacting to your triggers and symptoms in order to care for yourself.
- The most important aspect I have when it comes to living with my anxiety, is simply accepting it is a part of my life. Not accepting the negative thoughts or behaviours, just accepting that sometimes, you have to make concessions. It’s about noticing those symptoms are creeping up, so maybe you should rest. When you have a deadline weeks ahead of you, taking the disorder into account and adding a few days of contingency to this mix. For me, the last few years have been about learning to live with it rather than defeating it.
Now, I am not a doctor or medical professional in any way, shape or form. I’m a goofy little woman, with a BA in arts, a passion for doing some good, who just so happens to have an anxiety disorder. Through time and effort, I’ve managed to learn how to live with my disorder. Everything that I’ve spoken about has worked for me, but it might not work for you. If you are struggling with anxious or intrusive thoughts, you should always go to a medical professional. Don’t be afraid of therapy or medication. It’s there to help. Step one is getting help, and it’s the hardest step. But, it’s the most important one.