6 true things about living with an anxiety disorder – Anna Spargo-Ryan

6 true things about living with an anxiety disorder

6 true things about living with an anxiety disorder

You may have seen this piece in today’s The Age, wherein we discover that, unsurprisingly, a large percentage of the population either doesn’t understand what anxiety means, or actively denies its existence. Apparently, 50% of people think that anxiety is a personality trait. You’re a nervous person. You need to get it together. Miki Perkins has interviewed a person with anxiety and this person has said, “yes, I have anxiety”, and Beyond Blue has said, “yes, anxiety exists.” Job done! Now everyone knows about anxiety.

If only it were as simple as stamping our feet and telling them it is real, we’re not just highly strung. We’ve already tried this. Beyond Blue had a whole viral campaign with Ben Mendelsohn, and it was moving and true and distressing. The trouble is, 50% of our public don’t know what we’re describing. We don’t distinguish between “anxious” and “anxiety disorder” in the same way that we do “low” and “depression”. We’re talking about the onset of anxiety, or of temporary anxiety, and not the realities of living with an anxiety disorder.

6 true things about living with an anxiety disorder

1. There are many different kinds. You can have a panic disorder, which is when you have lots of panic attacks a lot of the time. You can have a generalised anxiety disorder, where you just feel a low-moderate level of anxious feeling pretty much all the time (this is what I have). You can have specific phobias. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder. One person can have multiple anxiety disorders.

2. Anxiety disorder doesn’t fit a neat diagnosis. Anxiety disorder is not just when you get trapped in a lift and you scream until someone comes to save you. Anxiety disorder is not just going to a job interview and realising your palms are sweaty and actually, you feel a bit like someone has their hands around your throat and actually, you also feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest. Anxiety disorder is not just when you decide you can’t go to your favourite restaurant anymore because it’s become a trigger for you. Anxiety disorder is not just suddenly having an acute belief that you don’t exist and nothing around you is real. It can be all of these things or none of these things and what it is is specific to each person who experiences it. One of the symptoms of my anxiety disorder is that the right side of my body goes weak and numb, even when I’m not feeling obviously nervous or panicked.

3. None of these things are helpful: “Just calm down!” “Stop being so highly strung!” “There’s no reason to be nervous!” “But you’ve done this heaps of times!” “You worry too much.” “What have you got to be anxious about?” We have a mental illness, not stupidity.

4. Panic attacks really do feel like dying, even after 15 years. With work, it can become easier to recognise and deal with them, but part of you always, always, always thinks, “This is the time that I’m actually dying.” The most common physiological symptoms of anxiety closely mimic those of a heart attack or stroke: difficulty breathing, racing heart, dizziness, disorientation, chest pain and tightness, headache, body weakness. The only real way to differentiate it is when you don’t die at the end. Like, five minutes ago I was having a heart attack, but I seem to be fine now.

5. It’s not like Offspring or Girls. Anxiety disorders aren’t hip or quirky. They are fucking shithouse. Shoving a q-tip through your ear drum is definitely something you could do as part of a compulsive behavioural disorder, but it’s not romantic. It’s terrible. You do that because you feel out of control of your actions, because you can’t get a hold on yourself or the world, because something bad will happen if you don’t, because you definitely have something living in your ear, because you’re having a stroke, because you’re going deaf, or any number of other reasons relating to the fact that you just can’t face the next part of your life unless you do this first. It’s not cute or fun. It’s debilitating and cruel.

6. It’s mentally and physically exhausting. I spent Friday night talking to a person close to me who has started having panic attacks. One day, a few months ago, she was driving her car and suddenly believed that her death was imminent. Now she has panic attacks most days (this is usually classified as a panic disorder). She had to drop back to part-time work, and now sees a psychologist every week. She came to me because after three months of it, she is exhausted and doesn’t know what to do next. I had to look her in the face and say, I’ve had an anxiety disorder for fifteen years and that’s part of the cycle. I feel bad, I feel bad, I can’t stop my brain, I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t think, I don’t know what to do, I’m so tired, I’M SO TIRED, HOW CAN I LIVE WITH THIS FOREVER, it’s not so bad, I got out today, I haven’t panicked for weeks, I feel happy, I’m safe, I’m so tired, I don’t know what to do, I can’t think, I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t stop my brain, I feel bad, I feel bad. Chronic anxiety often presents with depression, because it’s just so bleeding tedious.

Feeling anxiety about things is a normal part of being a person. Feeling acute, compulsive, recurrent or non-contextual anxiety is not. Let’s be clear about what we’re saying, before we expect to change anyone’s mind about what it really means to live with anxiety.

If you or someone you know needs help contact Lifeline (13 11 14) or beyondblue (1300 22 46 36).

20 Comments
  • Kaye Rickards

    February 23, 2015 at 1:27 pm Reply

    Kinesiology is an amazing tool for dealing with anxiety, I have been practising for 15 years and it has the most profound beneficial effect. I worked with a client who had conversion paralysis her anxiety was so bad and after 5 hours of kinesiology she no longer has the problem. It is an avenue worth exploring, keep an open mind and allow things to change.

  • nikki

    February 23, 2015 at 2:53 pm Reply

    what a lost opportunity in the Age article, indeed. I doubt many people understand it better from reading something so generic, and the sobering result of the survey doesn’t really make it more likely for people with anxiety to speak up.. Your post would deserve similar exposure and have way more impact, I believe. .reading candid words of other people living with anxiety disorders, complex ptsd and depression helps me A LOT. i have a lot of anger and struggle to socialise through ptsd. my whole personality has changed and i really struggle to socialise. i have distanced myself from the trauma geographically and with time, but the anxiety is still with me every day. thanks for posting.

  • Jennie

    February 23, 2015 at 4:12 pm Reply

    Love your writing. Tears. Lots of them. Two of my children have GAD and take medication. I have GAD and PTSD but don’t have treatment (because my twisted thinking tells me I should be strong enough to deal with it). No one understands. Family, friends, teachers, they try but inevitably they just look at you quizzically like its our fault and we should just go fix it. It is incredibly isolating. Thank you. Your writing helps. I think you do understand.

  • SawHole

    February 24, 2015 at 10:50 am Reply

    People also have all types of suggestions, as though you are not trying hard enough. It’s not helpful because you are already doing your best. Mental illnesses are imperfect and have no pattern.

  • LouisaG

    February 24, 2015 at 11:27 am Reply

    I find anxiety quite sinister, a snake in the grass character. I’ve suffered with depression all my life, and I would have thought I was fairly mature and well educated on my condition. However it has only been in the past few years I realised I had anxiety also played a major role in my life. It dominates my life, I have two good weeks each month. Anxiety moves in and creates havoc two weeks out of every month. Its crippling, and this is when I work on it and feel like I’m managing it fairly well. I think that ignoring it for so long has made it more intense now. Keep talking about this, its so important and helps so many. Thants Anna <3

  • Kerri Sackville

    February 24, 2015 at 12:09 pm Reply

    Yup. This. All this.

  • kyle Cogan

    February 24, 2015 at 5:39 pm Reply

    Yess it’s sad that so many people are still ignorant about mental illness. Even my parents have assumed depression is just in the mind and that it doesn’t exist. Well, that was my mother’s view anyway but my mother learnt pretty quickly that depression and anxiety does exist.

    I’ve actually got a friend who lives down the road from me in the street I live and she’s going through some pretty tough shit so she’s going to have a break from everyone.
    She herself suffers from anxiety and depression and the last couple of times I’ve tried to offer my opinion and we’ve argued briefly.
    For instance I said that often animals get separation anxiety and she said “no they don’t”.
    Then tonight when she called me I said to her that I only ever text or call her when my mother asks have I heard from her and I said that I won’t text her for the week but when I said that I only ever text or call if my mother asks if I’ve heard from her and she said no don’t text.
    I tried to tell her I meant in general and it’s sometimes as if I’m knocking my head against a wall with her maybe I don’t understand depression after all.

  • Vanessa Beattie

    February 26, 2015 at 2:42 pm Reply

    You explain it so well. I have GAD as well as PTSD from being a victim of violence on four separate occasions over my lifetime. My anxiety levels fluctuate with reliable irregularity. My biggest struggle is allowing myself to enjoy the good days rather than constantly being on the look out for a bad day. Panic attacks are exhausting. I always feel like my soul has been battered and bruised after an attack. But being on high alert looking for the signs of either a panic attack or a potential attacker is just as exhausting. Most people don’t get it though and empathy is hard to come by.

  • Katharine

    March 9, 2015 at 11:57 am Reply

    I have only just found your blog. But let me tell you, it’s been a pleasure! I feel like you are actually inside my own head because your explanation of anxiety is just so spot on. It really helps to know that I’m not alone…20 years of anxiety/panic/not able to travel/not able to (insert most things here!)…it’s tedious, overwhelming, lonely, and sometimes just downright shitty! Thank you again.

  • Lauren

    March 19, 2015 at 6:27 am Reply

    Thank you for using this post to educate the public more about living with anxiety. I definitely agree in that telling someone to calm down is the last thing they want to hear.

    • kyle Cogan

      March 23, 2015 at 6:39 pm Reply

      I myself suffered from clinical depression 11 years ago and I was told I was taking time off school to get out of school work and that I was using my issues as a cruch just to get attention. My mother didn’t believe depression even existed but she had to learn that it did.

  • Lisa Humphries

    April 19, 2015 at 5:50 pm Reply

    Anna I am so relieved to find you, Carly from Smaggle mentioned your name at her workshop this weekend in Sydney.
    I also share as much as I can about my 10+ years living with PTSD, anxiety, panic and depression.
    Thank you for being real, honest and imperfectly perfectly you xx

    • Anna Spargo-Ryan

      April 21, 2015 at 1:29 pm Reply

      I’m so glad you’re also sharing your experience, Lisa. I think it’s the best thing we can do. Thanks for visiting :) x

  • Fab Single Mom

    April 26, 2015 at 11:31 am Reply

    Hey Anna
    You are righ that anxiety is exhausting. I had few times those moments, and even an anxiety attack, and I felt like dying. I was so scared. What helps me is doing yoga every morning, Valeriana Root drops, and various teas. Also, meditation during the night. However, yes, it is life changing, and I understand why this lady had to go to a part-time job.
    I still believe that alternative medicine is more beneficial than the traditional or may be at least some balanced combination of the two. Our body is equipped to deal with everything and we just need to find what works for us. I think each person experiences anxiety in different ways. Therefore more personalized methods are better.
    Thank you for your excellent, provocative and honest posts.

  • Lauren

    June 13, 2015 at 9:47 pm Reply

    Thank you for this. #6 especially. Its frustrating when people think that an anxiety disorder is a funny quirk. It’s not funny that it takes me upwards of 2 hours just to walk out the front door.
    I think society is becoming far more accepting of depression and other mental illnesses, but too often anxiety is seen as just an unfortunate personality trait. Thank you for spreading awareness!

    • kyle Cogan

      June 14, 2015 at 6:48 pm Reply

      you’re absolutely right there lauren, although there are still people who are ignorant of mental illness or depression and there are still people who keep it secret and don’t like to share it sometimes, somebody has disclosed what has happened in their past and often times because if you’ve never dealt with those things before you’re at a loss as to what to do or say and the best I myself could do was ay sorry or just let the person speak because if you say something or do something it can often make things 10 times worse than they were before. sometimes, even the slightest touch could set somebody’s emotions into a spin so I suppose I’m somebody who tries to treat people with kid gloves

  • Peyton

    February 13, 2016 at 7:52 am Reply

    My wife suffers from GAD. It is tough to talk to most people about this, “you worry too much”, etc. If you have never suffered from this or known someone who has, it can be difficult to find help.

  • Jess

    February 23, 2016 at 7:10 pm Reply

    I just discovered you and I may have a major girl crush. I also have GAD and sometimes (or every time) it’s bleeding infuriating how people just – don’t – get – it!

  • JJ

    March 24, 2016 at 11:27 am Reply

    Oh wow, here, all of this time I was just calling my heart attack scares “anxiety” rather than panic… but the scary thing is I used to have REALLY MASSIVE panic attacks that were just wow, I can’t even begin to describe them… they made me so upset that I’d run and run or hide in a closet or have to rush to the nearest hill… they made me so out of touch with reality, I can’t really do them justice with words… so the ones where I just feel like I am having a heart attack feel sort of minor at this point. Isn’t that awful? Oh it is so awful. Awful awful stuff. Thanks for writing about it.

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