Posted by: counselorcarmella | August 16, 2011

My Personal Story About Anxiety, Part One

Modified from a presentation given to the MidCarolina chapter of the SC Alliance on Mental Illness, October 2005


Anxiety is not always a bad thing. A certain amount of it can motivate us to get things done and alert us to  some sort of danger. Too much anxiety  can cause a lot of problems, though. Eighteen percent of the population, or forty million Americans,  struggle with anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions, though only one-third of those experiencing them receive proper diagnosis or treatment.


There are various types of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, social  anxiety, specific phobias, and post traumatic stress disorder. Most anxiety disorders are twice as common in  women as in men.  That same  percentage is true of depression. Many people who  struggle with anxiety  disorders will also experience depression at some point.  Like many other  mental health conditions, anxiety can run in families.  It can also be due to  stressful or frightening life circumstances, and is often a combination of  genetics and environment.


Many people turn to substances to alleviate their anxiety, such as alcohol or OTC sleep aids.  Counselors call this “self medicating.” People with anxiety can have problems in school, work, relationships, and day to day functioning. Anxiety may also come out as physical complaints, including nausea, headaches, sleep problems, muscle  tension, or other types of pain. A lot of times, though,  those with anxiety  deal with  it by themselves as part of a very private internal struggle.  They feel alone and unable to describe what’s happening to them.  They feel afraid they’re going crazy, or will one day, and feel out of control and  scared.  They can “fake it” pretty well and most people around them wouldn’t know anything was really wrong.  Inside, they’re  worried,  on edge,  scared to leave the house or be in crowds, tense,  or braced for that attack of fight or flight feelings. 


I have lots of anxious clients.  I have a particular interest in helping people with  anxiety disorders.  My interest is professional, but it is also personal. I’d like to tell you about my own struggles with anxiety to help you understand it and  also to give you some idea of how people cope with  having an anxiety disorder.


I probably always had a tendency to worry as a child. I can remember some instances of what I would call anxiety related to school problems or being away from my Mom. I recall going to the doctor for severe stomach aches during elementary school. I also recall  trouble sleeping and being painfully shy around peers and adults. I was fearful of adults who were loud or domineering and would  clam up around such people.  I didn’t like going to new places or meeting new people.  I refused to use public bathrooms.


I was always described as “very sensitive.” For a long time, I thought many of my childhood issues were due to my blindness, but   have since talked to  others who grew up blind who were much more confident and outgoing.  I  now believe  these problems were mostly due to a mixture of high anxiety and a more introverted personality.


Things really got bad in high school, though.  I was 15 and had been dating a boy for several months. After we broke up, I spent days feeling like a storm was about to break over me. I constantly felt this sense of impending doom and just wanted to get up and run. Inside my head, I was constantly screaming and I was afraid I would scream out loud.  I wanted to scream for someone to help me and make it stop, but I didn’t know what “it” was. It was terrifying and I’d never experienced anything like it.  Nothing I did would make it go away and I couldn’t sleep and would have bouts of uncontrollable crying. I would try to stay busy doing things, but the feeling just never let up.


I didn’t know how to describe what was going on to my parents.  I’m sure that, if they’d known how bad it was, they would have taken me to a doctor or something. They thought I was just upset because my boyfriend and I had broken up and I was, but the feelings I was having went way beyond that. I’d broken up with boys before and been upset, but not to that extent. My reaction continued  for longer than  the  usual grief of an adolescent crush and was much more than sadness.  It was terror  about everything.  I had a feeling of fear in the pit of my stomach and a constant sense of dread.  Everything seemed bigger and scarier than it really was.  Small stressors would seem huge.  I was  overwhelmed and felt helpless and vulnerable. I  began taking  cold medicine to help myself sleep.


After a few weeks, things started getting a little better, but I would have what I started calling “anxiety attacks” every so often throughout the rest of high school and early college. The same kinds of things happened. I would feel this awful sense of dread and be all keyed up. I would feel like something was going to sneak around the corner and grab me at any second. Everything seemed big and scary and overwhelming and my mind would just race.  I would feel my chest tighten up and my heart would beat faster.  I couldn’t sit still and   couldn’t make my brain slow down. I couldn’t sleep. I’d usually call my Mom or go and sit in a rocking chair and talk to her about it, if I was at home. Sometimes, I couldn’t even say what I was worried about. I’d just say, “It’s happening again, Mom.”


The anxiety always seemed to get worse during times of transition, but that’s to be expected. Everyone experiences anxiety sometimes, especially when facing change or loss. A certain amount of anxiety is healthy and motivates us to get things done, stay safe, plan ahead, and other  things necessary for  health and survival.  But for me,  it seems like I  had a lot more of it than  other people I knew.  I  would ask myself a lot of “What if….?” Questions and  would always think of the worst things that could happen.



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