“She hasn’t replied to my message. She must just be pretending to like you. You’re never going to fit in with them. You’re trying too hard and they know it.”
“You’re so bad at your job, you’re going to get fired. Why are you even here? You’re contributing absolutely nothing. They’re just praising you because they have to.”
“He’s going to throw a temper tantrum again and everyone will know what a bad mum I am. Ever since that meltdown at Christmas three years ago, they’ve been judging you this whole time.”
According to Beyond Blue, one in four people – one in three women and one in five men – will experience anxiety at some point in their life.
Yet two in five people believe anxiety isn’t a treatable mental health illness. It’s a condition that many people still don’t really understand.
Because we’ve all experienced anxiety before, right? Everyone’s felt anxious or nervous or stressed in their life. That’s just life.
But for anxiety sufferers, those feelings of worry and fear don’t really disappear. They stay. For weeks, months, years. Anxiety burrows deep into your psyche, taking hold of your thoughts, your feelings, even your body, until its grip is so tight you can’t remember a time in your life that you didn’t have this pit in your stomach that you’re sure you’ll never be able to unclench or that voice lurking in the back of your mind screaming everything will go horribly wrong.
To the outside world though, everything looks fine. It’s precisely why it’s so difficult for people with anxiety to explain what they’re experiencing to others. Because how do you get people to understand that facing life everyday is like stepping onto a busy road without looking both ways? How do you share the racing thoughts that come unbidden at 3am, the thoughts you reason with yourself aren’t true but then comes that voice, always so confident and sure of itself, that murmurs, “but what if?” How do you explain that you know you’re blowing things out of proportion, but even though it’s a small and silly issue, even though you’ve already told yourself a hundred times to snap out of it, it’s all you’ve been thinking about for the past eight hours?
To get a better understanding of what people who have anxiety experience, Mamamia spoke to women about what their life with anxiety looks like.
“I’m not having more children because I just don’t think I’d cope,” Brodie, 29.
“When I was 10 I developed a heart condition which set my anxiety off. It happened out of the blue – I was at a swimming lesson and my heart suddenly started racing over 200 beats per minutes. It lasted 45 minutes and only ended when I fainted. I had surgery at 19 to fix it but the anxiety it brought really impacted on my life.
My older sister died due to heart complications and while I didn’t know her, I picked up on my parents’ anxiety around me having a heart condition. Luckily mine wasn’t life threatening, but I couldn’t travel, go to parties, or exercise without worrying.
Because I couldn’t control what was happening to my own body, I needed to have control of other things. I needed to plan things out for the future – I had to get married and have kids at specific ages similar to when my mum did. Luckily for me it worked out but it was silly.
After the birth of my second child, I developed post-natal anxiety. I manage okay but I’m a routined person and a baby is not routined, nor can they tell you what’s wrong when they’re screaming the house down. My anxiety makes me try to avoid appointments so I don’t have to interrupt the routine of the house. If something unexpected happens, I get a lump in my throat, my stomach drops.
Having two young kids also makes me late to everything and my perfectionist self hates being late! I get worried about people being disappointed with me. Whether it’s the doctor or a friend, even if I am only five minutes late, I feel like I have to rush and apologise, as it’s an inconvenience to others when I’m late. I always hated getting into trouble at school and feel like I’m letting people down.
While I’d like to have more children, I am not planning to because I just don’t think I’d cope that well.
“It was this big scary part of my mind that I felt ashamed and frightened of,” Lauren*, 25.
When I was 14 years old I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Secondary Depression. At the time the diagnosis really scared me, because I thought that surely I was the only girl at my school that had to see a therapist, who would wake up in the middle of the night feeling like the world was ending, who would occasionally have to breathe into a paper bag when I would get so strung out I couldn’t breathe, who would have to take medication. At the time (and occasionally now) my anxiety would manifest itself as OCD, because it was my brain’s way of trying to gain control over my situation.
When I moved across the country to go to college I had a complete anxiety breakdown being away from my support network for the first time. I found it really difficult to make friends at uni, because the anxious thoughts I was having would constantly tell me that they wouldn’t like me, that I wasn’t funny enough or smart enough to be their friend. I became a little bit of a “phantom” in my college dorm because I would hide away in my room, sometimes sleeping for 16 hours at a time. It got so bad that I ended up taking a belated gap year where my main focus was to improve my mental health and get a grip on my anxiety condition. It was the best decision I had made, because it meant that I was better equipped to tackle university when I decided to go back and graduate.
Nowadays, I feel like my anxiety is more of an annoyance than anything! Through therapy I have learned what my triggers are, why people feel anxiety and how I can minimise its effects so it’s no longer this big scary part of my mind that I feel ashamed or frightened of. I still wake up most mornings feeling like my heart is racing, and I still experience intrusive negative self-talk, but I know what I need to do to help myself, so I don’t feel helpless. It actually helps me when I get angry at it rather than upset about it.
“I was convinced I shouldn’t even bother going to work as I wasn’t needed there,” Sherry, 24.
My anxiety first started when I entered the workforce about a year ago. I became self-conscious about how well I was doing at work. I was used to the continuous notes and feedback from uni assignments and tests to tell me that I was achieving, but in the workplace I was getting less feedback and more criticism of how I could be doing better. It played on my mind and made me think I needed to keep doing more and be better.
It got to a point where every morning as I was getting ready for work, I’d start to beat myself up about not being good enough. It was all this negative self-talk that I couldn’t control – I was convinced I shouldn’t ever bother going to work because I felt like I wasn’t needed there. I’d feel a tightness in the chest, get stomach pains, get very fidgety (which I am not usually) and then cry and find it hard to breathe. Even if I could get myself to work on my low days, I would feel terrible and insignificant the entire time I was there. When my boss would tell me I was doing a good job, I didn’t believe them. My thinking was that if there was no hard evidence – such as getting a grade to prove to my brain I was actually smart – it couldn’t be true. I ended up having a breakdown and have gone on antidepressants to try and manage it all.
Talking to people has made it better. I was in denial for a long time; I believed I just needed to work harder to become better. I looked online and thought if I ate better and did yoga, I would feel better even though I was refusing to speak about how I was really feeling. Opening up to people in my life has helped, it meant that I didn’t have to lie about how I was feeling anymore.
My anxiety also came with depression after starting medication. All is going well but I feel like the depression came along unannounced and it’s become another added thing I need to manage as well.
“My husband doesn’t understand and wants me to go back to the way I used to be,” Vicki, 35.
I have suspected for quite a while that I had post-natal anxiety or post-natal depression since my son was born three years ago. I didn’t cope with motherhood as well as I thought I would. I felt very lonely and on edge about everything. I was previously very social but since I became a mum, I felt anxious at the thought of going out anywhere. All I could think about was getting home to my son and making sure his routine wasn’t disrupted. When my daughter was born a year ago it really escalated. I’d yell if things didn’t go the way I thought they should have, I was constantly worried that my son (who has sensory issues and is very hyper) would ruin events we attended and that family were criticising my parenting because of his behaviour.
Whatever I was doing, I kept thinking about the worst case scenario. If my son and I were at a friend’s house, I’d worry he’d have a temper tantrum so next time I’d try and avoid visiting or I’d be tense the whole time we were there. It got so bad I didn’t even want to go to the shops as I was just waiting for the next meltdown to occur. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and play past scenarios or possible scenarios over and over again until my stomach was in knots.
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My anxiety has really affected my relationship with my husband. We argue a lot. He doesn’t understand why I feel the way I do or why I will suddenly just start stressing about something and then get angry at him, but for me I have been thinking about it all day. He kind of wants me to just go back to the way I used to be.
I try to manage it through exercise which does help to an extent, but after I had a huge meltdown last week, I visited the GP. I’ve had a session with a psychologist who I think is really going to help and I’ve started antidepressants as my GP and I really feel like I need to take the edge off how I’m feeling.
“I feel like my anxiety is so deeply ingrained in me, I don’t know what’s my personality and what’s the illness,” Rebekah, 25.
I feel like I’m in a constant state of buzzing anxiety. When it’s at its peak, it feels like a super intense adrenaline rush. I’m shaky, I can’t speak properly, I become really snappy and aggressive, I feel like I need to pee (it’s like a sudden UTI), my heart feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest. And then when it subsides, I just feel really exhausted and my brain feels like mush. It’s a constant roller coaster of that.
I’ve been like this since I was a child. And I never even knew how bad it was until I talked about my childhood experiences. I only sought help for it when I went through a bout of full-blown agoraphobia for three weeks in Year 11. I woke up one morning and got in the car to go to school and felt like I’d pee myself and have what I now know to be a panic attack. After so many tests on my bladder and ovaries because that was my only “symptom”, I only realised I had anxiety when the doctor prescribed me Valium to get me out of the house so I could do my exams.
Now I know my triggers are unfamiliar areas and people, and changes in routine. For example, I had to get up and go somewhere for work earlier than I usually would today and so last night I didn’t sleep all night because I was worried I’d sleep through my alarm even though I never have before.
I have a massive phobia of vomiting to the point where I don’t leave the house if I know there’s a gastro bug going around certain areas. I have panic attacks if my partner is nauseous because I’m worried I’ve got it too, I can’t use a toilet I know someone’s been sick in for at least a week after it’s happened and even then I struggle, if I’m worried I might be sick then I eat nothing but plain dry crackers for a week until I’m sure I’ll be okay. It SUCKS. I feel so alienated by my anxieties.
I honestly don’t manage super well. I go through periods where I feel okay with it but if something unexpected happens then I’m back to struggling. I just feel like my anxiety is so deeply ingrained in me, I don’t know what’s my personality and what’s the illness. I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to not suffer from it every single day. I’ve lost so many experiences to anxiety that I can never get back.
“I became consumed with checking locks, the oven and stove over and over again,” Alyssa, 32.
I remember always having some form of anxiety. As a kid I worried about everything. I remember praying no one in my family got cancer or worried that someone would kidnap me and my siblings. I don’t know why as neither of those things happened when I was a child.
It sort of went away when I became a teenager but when I became a mum it came on really quickly because I had this little child I was responsible for. I would have panic attacks at night but I was embarrassed and never sought help. Eventually it manifested into OCD and I’d become obsessed with checking locks and the stove and the oven at night before bed or if I left the house. I would be checking so many times it would make me late to things. Sometimes I would even leave and come back as I wasn’t 100 per cent sure I checked it properly.
Eventually I knew it was time to seek help, because I just couldn’t go on living like that anymore. I saw a psychologist and I think just being in a safe space, having someone explain it to me, normalise it for me and give me tools to help me with it have helped tremendously. For me the stress of the unknown and not being in control can be challenging but I’ve learnt this is part of who I am now and that it just needs to be managed.
“I tried everything to numb the feeling, but the only thing that works is to acknowledge it,” Cathy, 48.
I think I have had anxiety for most of my life. Sometimes it has no impact on my day-to-day life, sometimes anxiety will be so bad that I simply can’t leave the house. When things were really bad, I ended up in hospital with a nervous breakdown and I couldn’t walk or use my left arm.
I feel anxious in most situations, particularly going into the unfamiliar. I am anxious that I am not doing enough, that I am not good enough, that I am not enough of everything. If a friend doesn’t message me back instead of simply telling myself that this person is busy, has a life outside of me, I work myself up into a state.
Other times there can be no obvious reason for the anxiety. The thought of walking into a room where I know no one and don’t have a job fills me with dread and I will do anything to avoid it, including somehow creating a job to do so I have a reason to be there. I can get anxious about driving in a car, being around people, going to the shops, staying at home – you name it. I will typically disassociate from a situation or experience to numb myself from the anxiety. I am anxious about everything in life. The joys of living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
I think I’ve been experiencing it since I was in my teens, I just didn’t know what the words were to describe it so I did all sorts of things to numb the feelings of it. I’ve found these avoidance tactics only serve to cause more anxiety in the long term and the only thing that helps is to acknowledge it and sit with it. Medication helps as well. Most importantly I would say to everyone speak up, don’t suffer it in silence, ask for help.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy but the person is known to Mamamia.