Women With Generalized Anxiety Disorder Explain What It Really Feels Like to Struggle With the Symptoms
Something as common as misplacing a wallet, keys, or phone can lead to panic.
In 2018/19, stress, depression or anxiety were responsible for 44% of all cases of work-related ill health and 54% of all working days lost due to health issues in the UK,
which means odds are someone in your life is coping with anxiety, depression, OCD, bipolar disorder or another debilitating condition. Still, shame about mental illness — likely a holdover from when people wrongly believed such conditions were character flaws or a mother’s fault — can make it hard to seek help or even know what to say to those who struggle. To shine a light on the daily realities of mental health.
In our special package on how to support loved ones with mental illness, women who live with these widely misunderstood psychological issues share what it feels like,
and how you can make a difference.
We all sometimes feel anxiety — a sense of unease or worry about something uncertain in the future — which is a good thing: A bit of performance anxiety, for example, which can manifest as apprehension or even dread, might motivate you to hunker down and prepare for a test or a speech. But for those with anxiety disorders, these intense feelings rarely dissipate, and sufferers tend to feel ramped up anxiety more of the time and in more aspects of their everyday life.
“When anxiety becomes a big problem is when it starts to interfere with the relationships in your life, your job, or your routine at large,
“If the person feels greatly distressed on a daily basis, or if they’re very concerned by their own reactions to the stresses around them when they occur,” that’s a sign that the their anxiety may rise to the level of a diagnosable disorder, Ho explains.
For Emily, a 39-year-old says “anxiety over things most people take in stride can quickly upend her entire day”
She is full of self-doubt, second guessing her choices, which results in inaction. “Will things turn out well or not? It’s almost feels like being stuck in a paralysis,” she says.
Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. There’s a good chance someone in your family or in your social circle is dealing with it. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 40 million adults — almost 20% of those are experiencing some form of an anxiety disorder right now.
While the term anxiety or anxious is often thrown around in casual conversation, it can look very different for each individual, says Diana Samuel, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “Anxiety is a state of persistent and excessive worry and fear that interferes with one’s life, but sometimes, anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms,” she explains. The most common physical symptoms of anxiety include chronic stomach aches or abdominal pains, chest tightness, sweating, and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, she says. Some people have severe symptoms, says Dr. Samuel, hyperventilating multiple times a week or even daily. While anxiety and panic are not the same thing, panic disorder is a kind of anxiety disorder, and it is possible have both experiences at one time. (Read more about the differences between an anxiety attack versus a panic attack.)
The psychological ramifications of anxiety can be even harder to tolerate. A person with an anxiety disorder might sometimes be unable to do basic daily activities or think clearly at any given time. This, of course, can interfere with work and relationships. And while generalized anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder, others include social anxiety disorder (an irrational fear of dealing with other people or perhaps being humiliated in front of them) and phobias, being terrified by specific situations or objects to the point where the fear prevents you from living a normal life, says Dr. Samuel.
Hannah, a 35-year-old mother who has had anxiety since the fourth grade, says her GAD brings on both physical and mental pain. “In the last month, I’ve had a lot of anxiety, and it shows on my body — I had a back spasm a couple of days ago,” she says, adding that acknowledging that she’s feeling anxiety and taking breaks instead of just powering through really helps. “I think the best way to describe my brand of anxiety is feeling as if the world is moving really fast around you, you want to join in, but you feel paralyzed because the anxiety is too much. GAD is like taking that one moment where you feel anxious and multiplying that into every day, 22 hours per day. That’s what this feels like.”
If everyday stresses add to her anxiety, pretty much anything that’s out of her control can inflame it even more. Things that would worry anyone feel paralyzing to Hannah, such as the mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart in 2019. “After the El Paso shooting, my mom and I were in the garden section in Walmart. There was only another family there, but I had to leave. I felt really uncomfortable.” She also feels anxiety anticipating how she may be treated by strangers. “My mum is from Colombia and I have dark Colombian skin. Growing up, I was bullied for it,” she says.
But it doesn’t take a major news event or a past trauma like being bullied to trigger anxiety in someone with GAD. Emily’s day can be upended by a simple misstep. Something as common as misplacing her wallet, keys, or phone can lead to panic. “Anxiety is feeling like you need to get something done but not knowing what to do,” she says.
Therapy works on several levels. For one, it can help people with anxiety develop moment-to-moment coping skills based on their own triggers, such as breathing techniques or a brief distraction in the form of music or entertainment. “I attend a support group where I’m able to share experiences when I’m feeling in distress, and show how I’ve used coping skills to help overcome these moments of distress,” says Emily, which helps her feel in control.
Therapy for anxiety disorders also employs cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves understanding what triggers your anxiety so that you can approach them differently, Ho explains. It may also involve exposure therapy, which pushes patients to confront their triggers with the help of their therapist, and establishing an anxiety hierarchy, which involves classifying patients’ triggers from least threatening to most threatening, which makes them easier to manage.
Along with therapy, Hannah has found medication helpful.
When it comes to supporting a loved one with anxiety, both Dr. Samuel and Ho agree: Being empathetic is very important, but you don’t want to step in and try to offer solutions or “fix” things outright. Most often, simply having someone check in is more important, says Hannah. “Just validating instead of trying to offer advice is a huge thing.”
Here are some other ways you can be an ally:
Practice empathetic listening: Taking time to listen to someone’s concerns (without responding with judgmental statements or questions) is immensely helpful, Emily says. For someone suffering from severe anxiety, part of what they’re fearful of is being judged, Ho says. “You should try to employ reflective listening, or summarizing what they said to you back to them — that way you’re not assuming something by mistake.” For example, “It sounds like you’re worried about what will happen if you don’t remind your son to study for his test.”
Allow them to voice their concerns freely: Especially if you are a close family member or a friend, give the person with anxiety the space to speak about their anxiety or their triggers.”I’ve had family members say, Why share that you have a mental illness? It’s a reflection on our family…” says Emily. “I felt alone growing up, which is why now I’m trying to help others.”
Be flexible and lower the stakes when you can: Hannah says that her husband routinely reminds her that she can delegate some of her responsibilities to take time for herself. “My husband has said to me: ‘I get it. You have anxiety — I get it, and I’m here. You don’t need to feel guilty about this,'” she says. “I tend to feel guilty that I sometimes have to check out. That’s not ideal when you’re a wife and mom, but when my husband says, ‘It’s OK if you take a break. You’re a great mom.’ That’s really helpful.”
Be watchful for signs of anxiety: These can be different for everyone, Dr. Samuel says. “Anxiety can generally be broken down into anxious thoughts, anxious behaviors or physical symptoms.” And these signs can be subtle, so be on the lookout for changes. If you suspect that your loved one is experiencing a bout of anxiety, ask them in a non-accusatory way if they are and what you can do to help, if anything at all.
Empower them to handle their own challenges: While it’s important provide support an encouragement when necessary, it can be easy to overstep. “You can become a crutch if every time they become anxious, you are the only reason they are calming down — it becomes a type of dependency,” Ho explains. Besides, “You need to take care of yourself as well.” Encourage an anxiety sufferer to get professional help, especially if their main way of coping is avoiding all anxiety-inducing situations, says Dr. Samuel. “This can lead to a vicious cycle that reinforces their anxiety and actually makes [anxiety] grow.” The more someone learns that she can handle her anxiety on her own and that it will pass, the better she’ll feels.
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