Growing up, it is common to feel anxious in certain situations—giving a presentation, taking your driver’s test, asking someone out, or waiting to learn if you have been accepted to your first choice college. Adulthood brings with it a whole new set of anxiety-provoking situations: getting married, interviewing for a job you really want, buying a home, or becoming a parent.
Unfortunately, for some of us anxiety isn’t just present during times of high stress but is a constant companion, seemingly triggered by life itself and not just one particular event.
“Anxiety is universal—everyone gets anxious sometimes,” notes psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, who blogs at EllenHendriksen.com and was also the host of the podcast The Savvy Psychologist.
“Just enough anxiety can be good. It can be motivating and make you do your best. But if anxiety gets to the point where it gets in the way of your life, causes ongoing emotional pain, or is giving you health problems—stomach problems, insomnia, or pain in your neck, back, or wherever you hold your tension—it’s a red flag.”
Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy. ~Leo Buscaglia
If anxiety has affected—or is affecting—your life, you aren’t alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Society of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States. I am one of them.
In the years following my brother’s death—which you can read more about here—I knew my world was getting smaller and smaller but I couldn’t figure out why and had even less of a clue how to fix it.
I found myself spending more time at home, especially on the weekends. I didn’t have a problem getting out of bed or being productive, and during the week I could get up and go to work without much fuss, but I found the thought of meeting up with friends, especially if there would be lots of people around, nearly unbearable.
I remember spending one July 4th at a friend’s house near tears the entire time. I left early and couldn’t get home fast enough. I was overwhelmed with emotions and found at least some comfort in being in a space I controlled, with my cats for company.
I also could not tolerate anything suspenseful, even a TV show cliffhanger. Did you read the book Gone Girl? Me too, but only after I read how it ended on Wikipedia.
It all came to a head one evening when a really good friend texted me to say she was close by and asked if I wanted to meet her for coffee. Without thinking, I grabbed my phone and responded with “What’s wrong? Do you have bad news?”
Once I had a few seconds to reflect, I could see this wasn’t a healthy response. What bad news could she have? And if she did have bad news, wouldn’t she just call me or stop by? Clearly, I needed to talk with someone.
As luck would have it, I had a physical scheduled for the following week. I didn’t know what was going on but I knew I had nothing to lose by mentioning it. After talking with my doctor, I was able to put a name to what I was feeling: anxiety. He also let me know that there were options for treating it.
Gaining Control Over My Anxiety
Taking charge of my anxiety instead of letting it run my life has been a game changer for me. It was only after I stopped being afraid all the time that I even realized fear had become a constant in my life. Fear whispered into my ear that my work performance was suffering, that my friends would soon tire of me, and that the only reason people didn’t run away from me when I walked in a room was because they were being kind.
None of this was true, of course, but anxiety made it plausible.
A day of worry is more exhausting than a day of work. ~John Lubbock
And the amount of energy it took to just participate in life—indescribable! When I get asked now how I get so much done, it just makes me smile. Working full time, having a side hustle, and writing on my blog is a walk in the park compared to forcing myself to act like everything is okay while fear and panic make me want to hide out at home.
Are You Living with Anxiety?
As noted above, anxiety disorders affect a lot of adults in the United States: around 18%. What you should also know is that most—almost two-thirds—aren’t receiving treatment. Are you one of them? I was.
In my case, I think the reason it took me so long to identify a problem was that I didn’t know what it was I was experiencing. For one thing, I thought people with anxiety had panic attacks. When I asked Dr. Hendriksen about this she agreed that people with anxiety do often experience panic attacks. But not always:
Anxiety reaches far beyond panic attacks. Anxiety is physiological, to be sure—sweating under pressure, the flip-flop feeling in your stomach when the spotlight is on you, the buzz of adrenaline that makes it hard to think—but anxiety also manifests in one’s thoughts and actions.
In terms of thoughts, anxiety often makes us jump to the worst-case scenario. We screw up something small at work and think we’ll be fired. We tell a joke that falls flat to a colleague and worry now they hate us. We have a headache and worry it’s a brain tumor.
In terms of behaviors, anxiety can manifest in our actions, like excessive planning and list-making, over-the-top organization, taking a long time to research and make a decision, or asking for reassurance. But it can also manifest as inaction—the things we don’t do—like procrastination, avoidance, or being unable to delegate.
I also thought people with anxiety usually had co-occurring conditions like depression, and even at my worst I never had a problem getting out of bed in the morning or being glad I was alive.
“Anxiety and depression go together like a hand and a glove. And different types of anxiety may manifest in the same person, like social anxiety and panic attacks. But it’s absolutely possible for anxiety to stand on its own,” noted Dr. Hendriksen.
Talk to Your Doctor
If my story sounds familiar I would definitely encourage you to talk to your doctor. If I hadn’t done so, I would never have been able to do so many of the things I done these last couple of years, including starting this blog (which I hope is of value to you).
Want to learn more first? For free, helpful resources on social anxiety, head on over to EllenHendriksen.com. You can find more general information about anxiety on the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
And, if you are up for sharing, let me know in the comments section below about your experience, or email me through my contact page.