Calm in the storm
Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Some mornings, my heart starts to race before I even open my eyes. My brain begins to whir like an engine revving, cycling through thoughts and stimuli, reacting to and balking at each one no matter the actual importance. My alarm goes off, and I brace myself for the torrent.
Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) means that mornings and nights, waking up and going to sleep, are times I dread. These are the times when my mind is most vulnerable to anxiety and when I’m least capable of addressing the symptoms with a healthy mindset. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, GAD is characterized primarily as “excessive worry.” There’s a bit more to it than that: trouble concentrating, sleeping poorly and experiencing frequent headaches or stomach aches are additional symptoms of anxiety. At 30 years old, I have a proper diagnosis from my doctor, although it took me years to get it because I didn’t know I had to ask for it.
For years, I thought my anxiety was just who I was. As a child, I was very self-motivated, hardworking, often called “Type A.” I assumed that feeling a mild level of panic at all times was the cost of being an ambitious girl. I was also a fearful child: dogs barking made me flinch, and I detested rollercoasters for the way they made my stomach feel like I had missed a step walking down stairs. I hated anything that made me feel “out of control.” I glommed onto the routine of academia, of structured activities like Girl Scouts. I was weird, introspective and on edge all the time from elementary school to high school. That’s just who I was, and I resigned myself to accepting it.
When I was in college, I finally realized that maybe it wasn’t “just me.” I had my first panic attack one day while walking back to my dorm room and thought I was dying. A panic attack is terrifying when you don’t know what it is, because all of the symptoms are physical and mirror others like asthma attacks or heart attacks.
A formal diagnosis was a relief, because it affirmed that anxiety is indeed a medical condition with physical symptoms and that I wasn’t “crazy” or just high strung—or other euphemisms that don’t address the underlying medical issues at play. Those who deal with mental illness struggle to convey what they experience and others assume that because they can’t see our illness on the outside it can simply be “willed away.”
Sometimes I envision my anxiety like an egg, lodged in my chest next to my heart. It’s delicate and easy to crack. Sometimes when it breaks, its a relief from the tension; other times, it breaks wide open and feels like it’s releasing poison, seeping through my body and rendering me paralyzed. An anxiety “attack” is catalyzed by seemingly innocuous stimuli: the sound of a motorcycle backfiring makes me breathless and jittery. But most of the time, it’s just an ever-present hum.
Living with anxiety has given me some positive traits. I’m perceptive and thoughtful, because the dread of the unknown forces me to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. I’ve also had to become my own advocate and find ways to manage anxiety so that I can fulfill my goals and survive day-to-day life. The routine I’ve crafted is just what works for me, but I encourage anyone who faces a similar struggle to make time to craft their own regimen. As a disclaimer, though, none of this should be considered formal medical advice.
Deep breathing with my eyes closed invokes an almost instant feeling of calm and control. My go-to trick for preventing a panic attack is to breathe in and out, counting to four with each breath. I’ve learned this from mindfulness experts, and it really does make a difference.
Taking medication for mental illness is OK, and the societal stigma around it needs to end. I take a low dosage of a medication called Lexapro, prescribed by my doctor, and it helps the anxiety from spiraling into a panic attack. Lexapro is a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) and prescribed to patients with anxiety or depression (sometimes both).
When I’m tired, I’m much more likely to feel anxious and unequipped to handle it. Sleep helps repair my mind and body, and I try my best to get a restful eight hours a night.
Keeping my body busy and active can release some of the jitters and stop me from ruminating, which means obsessing over the same thoughts or worries. I often go to the gym just to feel less anxious, but the physical benefits are well worth it.
Anxiety is common, diagnosable and treatable. Living with GAD is scary and sometimes overwhelming, but we always have our breath to return to, a reliable constant: one, two, three, four.