Facts and figures don’t help connect humanity: vulnerability does. Exploring the ins and outs of an anxiety disorder takes more than mere statistics. Real life stories, from real people, is how we build bridges of empathy. Let’s smash the glass ceiling veiling mental health awareness together.
Take a moment and think back to the last time you took a walk in the woods. The soothing sounds of the hidden wildlife fluttering around you, as a cool breeze ruffles the tops of the crowded trees standing boldly nearby. Reflect on that stillness and infinite peace that likely overcame your sense of being. Magical, huh?
Now try to imagine a divergent scenario. That pervading state of calm you took immense comfort from disturbed by the presence of something overwhelming powerful: fear. In this vision, stepping underneath the leafy canopy no longer offers a welcome form of meditative release, but inescapable panic.
The first is the relative state of a mind free of a mental health disorder. The second is the standard for someone with anxiety.
1 in 5 adults in the United States live with a mental health illness – the most common of these being anxiety and depression. More than 327 million people live in America right now, of which 22.6% are older than 18. Meaning that, based on the rough estimation by the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 40 million adults in the U.S. have a mental illness today.
Let that sink in for a second: 40 million people around us are struggling with mental, behavioral or emotional disorders. Many of which can impact work, relationships and lifestyle. Most of which affect the quality of life.
Staggering numbers like these suggest the obvious; it’s pretty likely that someone you know has a mental health problem. What’s more probable is that it’s undiagnosed. A 2018 Mental Health Survey revealed that only 44% of American adults with a mental health condition reported receiving treatment. Argubly more dire is the 1.7 million youth with major depressive episodes not getting care.
17 tends to be an age people look back fondly upon. Responsibilities not yet a reality, romance and reckless fun a priority. Glamorized on the silver screen, 17 is supposed to be the peak point of adolescence.
When I think back on being 17, I don’t get lost in a stream of memories starring frivolous parties, boys or friendships. For me, 17 represents the age I was diagnosed with GAD. No, Gregariously Awesome Dancer is not what that stands for (although my moves are Michael Jackson smooth). Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, afflicts approximately 3.1% of the U.S. population every year. Clinically defined, it’s a condition that translates to excessive worrying about things outside of a person’s control.
Endless anticipation of disaster is a sound way to illustrate GAD. Left unchecked, a person with the anxiety disorder can get so wrapped up in a worry cycle that it becomes impossible to carry out simple, day-to-day activities.
Just like with most mood disorders, GAD doesn’t frequently stand alone. It walks hand in hand with other anxiety conditions, substance abuse or mild to severe depression.
In my particular case, my GAD was joined by a self-destructive lifestyle, filled with false friendships and numbing social drinking. When I set off for college the year after my diagnosis, it only got worse. Heartbreakingly, my aunt died suddenly a few months into my freshman year. Riddled with grief and overwhelmed by even more worry; that something like what happened to my aunt would happen to other family members or friends – what was once a mild disorder spiraled out of control.
You didn’t sign up for an autobiography (if this was one, the name would have to be: Are You There, Mental Health? It’s Me, an Overly Anxious Ayurella) so I’ll stop with that story. All I’ll say is that panic attacks became my new normal, and my undergrad days are just a blur of regret, shame, victimization, and loss. I wish I could confidently share that I woke up one day during college and realized that things needed to change. I can’t.
We tend to see the forest for the trees, and it can take years for us to recognize that we desperately need to take a step back from our bubble for a more unobstructed view.
Seven years was how long it took for me to prioritize treatment. Last year, at the age of 24, after the end of a toxic, long-term relationship and a job in a detrimental workplace (misery attracts company, or so the saying goes) I hit rock bottom. Just like when my aunt passed away, I did what I thought I needed to in order to survive. For months on end, I would slip on this mask of joyfulness and frivolity around friends and at work, only to come home to a vacant house and an emptier sense of purpose.
I cried myself to sleep every single day for four months until my senses were so numbed I found I could no longer produce tears (or I temporarily exhausted my tear ducts – either way). Dark periods of time like that one gifted me with an extraordinary opportunity: the chance to authentically reflect on everything I’d been struggling to shove under an ornate, battered rug. My inability to move on from events like my aunt passing, or in college when I became a victim of cyberbullying (another story for another time) had entrenched itself in my very core, and I’d pushed away some of my closest friends and family as a result.
It was during one of those numb sessions of mindlessness that I came to a proverbial fork in the road. Do I carry on as I’ve done and risk history repeating itself, like a hamster trapped in a boundlessly spinning cage? Or do I take a chance and whirl my consciousness off of that wheel from hell into the unknown?
You guessed right – that tiny, furry, spirit animal of mine leaped right off of that worn-down cycle (don’t worry, hamster joke is now officially retired). Seven years after diagnosis, I came to terms with the fact that at the root of all my negative behavior and harmful choices was a source: my generalized anxiety disorder. Incessant fear had ruled my day-to-day for too long; in order to get better, it was time to make some changes.
A year is how long it took to do this. Slow and steady, my path to a life not dominated by worry and excessive stress was an arduous one. Think the Wizard of Oz’s Yellow Brick Road, but stretching out even longer, and with even more metaphorical evil little monkeys threatening to veer you off course.
Opening up to my loved ones came first. Truthfully, this was both the most difficult but simultaneously easiest part of the journey. Being vulnerable is really, really hard to do. We’re all riddled by this inane fear that when people ask “how are you?” all they want to hear you say is “happy.” There’s a degree of truth to that. As in, I’m not the type of person to advise someone to pour out their heart to a person they barely know.
That person you casually chat to in class, or a fellow employee standing by the coffee machine at work – probably not the ideal outlet for your truths. But a close friend you haven’t talked to in a while, or family member whom you trust? Those members of your social circle almost always welcome candid conversations where you get real about silent struggles.
Therapy followed these heart-to-hearts. Let’s get real for a second here: everyone could use a therapist. We live in an increasingly isolated world, where extraordinary pressures to be perfect and inner validation often depend on carefully constructed online identities. Knowing that there’s someone who you can sit down with and spill all of your insecurities too, who won’t judge or use it against you in any way; well, that’s just magnificent.
For some, therapy is an option, for others, it’s a necessity. Cognitive Behavioral Treatment falls in line for the latter, especially concerning people with problematic mental landscapes. Words tied to actions stir from thoughts, which have the power to change us. CBT helps a person re-route the very way that they think, thereupon influencing behavioral patterns and style of communication. All in all, it’s a dream for anyone fighting ceaseless fear.
Social drinking got axed out of my routine next. At this point I was living in a new country, back in school. Slipping into old habits was a tempting move to make. I wanted to get better more than I wanted to be the old me, so shirking an old, protective facade I’d worn for years, I gravitated towards people who shared my legitimate interests. Rather than aligning myself with those that preferred empty conversations in crowded bars, I sought out peers who filled their time with things I had always been drawn to, like radio production and theatre.
Armed with uplifting friendships, a few months passed before I was inspired enough to join a gym. That didn’t last long (they never really do, at least not the first time around. Why, oh why, must gyms be so tricky to love?) so I quit and started running outdoors on my own. Alas, I’m a woman living in a society fraught with things to be terrified off, and my anxiety didn’t let me enjoy an outdoor run as much as I should have (top tip: running while continually looking over your shoulder is kind-of-absolutely a safety hazard), so I shut that down out of self-preservation.
Until a few months later, after landing in a new place of residence yet again, I forced myself to sign up to a world of indoor exercise; one with many shiny machines beckoning those who dare to understand their overly-complicated mechanisms. All it took was two weeks of hyping myself up to go every single day (“Ayurella – get off the bloody couch and go do something productive”) and forsaking the complex equipment (as if I want to accidentally knock myself out on a cable flye) for that tried-and-true cardio.
Endorphins flowing, I got hooked on the way that working out made me feel. Treadmills became my safe havens, where I could outrun inner demons and continuously challenge myself. The day I ran three miles in thirty minutes I shouted “YES!” before collapsing into a red-faced, sweaty heap of aching muscles onto the floor. If I could live on a treadmill feasibly, I would – no if’s, and’s or but’s about it.
From there, the last step I took was a natural one after adopting a physically active lifestyle: eating healthily. Never one to not follow the call of a stomach addicted to pizza, I slowly siphoned myself off of foods that harmed my body, rather than empowered it or filled it with energy. Bidding adieu to dairy products and ready-made dinners wasn’t easy (R.I.P a cheeky blue cheese binge), but once I got used to staring cravings in the face and telling them to get lost, the positive effect it had on my body, skin and most of all, my mind, was phenomenal.
And that brings us to the spectacular now. Physically, mentally and emotionally strong, I’m leading a lifestyle that has fundamentally changed who I am. Is my GAD gone now that I eat smart, exercise all the time and live well? No, and here’s a newsflash: it never will disappear entirely. Such is the way of a mental health condition.
Let’s view it as if anxiety were an ex-boyfriend who isn’t welcome anymore and still slides into your Instagram DM’s every once in a while because he can’t seem to let you go. In real life, you can block him faster than you can say, “leave me alone.” You can’t do that with anxiety, but you definitely can with a clingy former flame. If anxiety is moonlighting as that figurative ex, then what ends up happening is you dance around each other. Pushing him away only to have time and circumstance soften your resolve; until those weak moments when you call him back, yet again.
Above the therapy, working out, eating green and adopting positive habits, I attribute my ability not just to survive but to thrive with anxiety to the single most important self-help solution: speaking up.
I won’t pretend it’s all sunshine and roses. Like with any mental health disorder, there are days where I feel myself slipping back into that hamster wheel of worry: where facing crowds of people or even leaving the safe cocoon of my home can be trying. Unseen battles of the mind are perpetually hard, and a positive outlook for those of us with anxiety is one we have to work tirelessly to maintain.
For the most part, a life overruled by overwhelming worry isn’t the one that I lead anymore. It no longer disrupts my work, personal experiences, or day-to-day routine. Being afraid no longer causes me to struggle with inaction. Above the therapy, working out, eating green and adopting positive habits, I attribute my ability not just to survive but to thrive with anxiety to the single most important self-help solution: speaking up.
Let’s head back to those allegorical woods, shall we? Strolling along an earthen walkway with a managed stress disorder won’t be easy, but if you’ve got someone there next to you, hand outstretched to support you on your way, each step forward will be lighter. As tensed shoulders relax, and you take in the immersive freedom of nature all around, believe in your strength and the limitless universe waiting to be discovered within.