What if I am really just an anxious person?
Anxiety disorders are among the most common of all mental illnesses. They vary in form and symptoms and can change over time. A lot of sufferers don’t recognize it as a mental health issue until it becomes almost unbearable. Frequent panic attacks, constantly visiting doctors’ offices and loss of self-confidence are often results of suffering from an anxiety disorder. Even though they are so common, a lot of people still struggle with identifying them and think: What if I am really just an anxious person?
That’s exactly what Abs and Mags thought when they were navigating through their twenties at the University of Pennsylvania. At that time, they were both coming to terms with the fact that their anxiety might be something pathological – and treatable. Ever since then they have supported each other in their process of dealing with their day-to-day struggles for more than three decades. When they finally reached a point where they felt comfortable and at peace with themselves, they decided it was time to share their knowledge with others and founded their blog named Anxiety Sisters. Ever since then, they have created a support system for others affected by anxiety disorders and share their expertise to shine some light on this issue that affects almost 50% of the world population.
So, to raise awareness, I talked about life with an anxiety disorder with the anxiety sisters in this month’s conversation.
Conversation#9 about Anxiety Disorders
What would be the title of your autobiography?
When did you realize that you struggle with something not everyone struggles with?
Looking back, we were both anxious kids, but we didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge to express our experiences. We didn’t know that what we were feeling was anxiety or that it was any different from what other kids were feeling. The first time we really understood that we were suffering from actual disorders was in our early to mid-twenties, when we were struggling with panic attacks. That didn’t seem “normal,” but, even then, it took a while to understand that our physical symptoms were a result of a mental disorder. We spent a lot of time and money in various doctor’s offices. And even when we both received our diagnoses, we had trouble accepting that anxiety could wreak such havoc on our bodies.
How does it affect your everyday life?
Before we learned to manage our anxiety, it affected every aspect of our lives. We missed a lot of work. We couldn’t travel or go to events for fear of having anxiety attacks. It really shrunk our worlds in that it got harder and harder to go far from home. We lost some friends and angered lots of family members who didn’t understand. It was a very lonely time—thank goodness we had each other.
Now that we know how to manage our disorders, it doesn’t interfere with our everyday life. This is not to say that we don’t have anxiety—we both do. But our anxiety no longer makes our decisions about where we go and what we do.
The gift anxiety has given us is the Anxiety Sisterhood—a worldwide community of fellow sufferers we’ve formed to try to help others learn to live well despite their anxiety.
How did your family and friends react when you told them? What impact did this have on you?
It was mixed. Some people didn’t understand that anxiety is a disorder, not a decision. So they thought we had some kind of weakness, like laziness or a lack of motivation. That was frustrating. For other people in our lives, our diagnosis explained a lot. Those folks were very supportive of us. We never take for granted how lucky we were to have even some support. Lots of anxiety sufferers feel very alone.
What was the most valuable advice anyone has ever given you?
We got so much good advice from therapists, educators, and, particularly, other Anxiety Sisters throughout our journey. We also got some bad advice. The most valuable advice really came from our own discussions—we completely reframed how we understand and experience anxiety, and that changed everything. We stopped struggling against it and started what we call “riding the wave.” It was like the light had been switched on.
What did you discover to be a helpful coping strategy?
We have a lot of strategies! We believe anxiety sufferers need a large toolbox for all occasions. There’s no one size fits all, so you must have choices. Some days a strategy will work beautifully, and then, on another day, it won’t. One thing that seems to be universally helpful is what we call our “Spin Kits,” (we refer to anxiety as spinning) which are basically portable first aid kits for mental health. Spin Kits include things that soothe your senses, things that can distract you, and things that relieve symptoms, so everyone’s kit is personalized. Just being prepared for anxiety can often diffuse it.
How did it feel to reach out for help? Did anything make it easier for you to do so?
For both of us, help came in the form of an emergency room visit (ok, more than one). That’s the tricky thing about anxiety—it’s so physical you assume you have a physical illness. (Abs thought she was having a heart attack and Mags thought she had stomach cancer.) Once we ruled out physical causes (lots of doctors), we embraced any help we could get. We just wanted the symptoms to stop. Because we were both in the helping professions ourselves, reaching out for help wasn’t a difficult choice. But we understand that it can be for others, particularly for men.
Could you describe in one sentence what is it like to live with anxiety?
When our anxiety was unmanaged, life was exhausting: we were either in a panic attack or anticipating the next one. It was very scary. Now that our anxiety is managed, having anxiety is like living with any challenge. There are good days and bad days. It’s just part of who we are.
Is there anything that still bothers you about having to live with anxiety, but that you have made your peace with?
It would be nice not to need medication, but we both do.
What’s something you want people to know about your condition?
It’s a disorder—not a decision! No one chooses to have anxiety.
What is a positive thing about your illness? How did it have a positive impact on the person you are today?
Anxiety has given us a deeper sense of empathy and has allowed us to connect with thousands of people around the world. We feel lucky in that respect.
If you recognise yourself or a loved one in this conversation, please don’t hesitate to seek help by a professional. Psyonline is a website that helps you find a therapist. In acute crisis you can call the Kriseninterventionszetrum or the Psychosozioale Notdienst.
header image credits: Mona Eendra via unsplash.com