I’ve spoken with many people who don’t believe that anxiety and/or depression disorders are truly ‘real’ in the sense that they believe each can be managed by simply being more positive, exercising, and following a healthy lifestyle (because that’s the real and genuine experience they’ve had). In all honesty, I kind of used to be one of those people. Having experienced both disorders throughout most of my life (while only acknowledging and accepting this over the past 5 years), I wanted to share my perspective related to the reality of anxiety and depression. My information is based on both research, and personal experience, and what I can assure you is that both illnesses are very real and very life-altering.
All of us will experience episodes of anxiety and depression throughout our lives.
Anxiety typically presents as nervousness, with increased heartrate and breathing, tightness in the chest, upset stomach, and feelings of fear or unease. Depression, on the other hand, is often presented with a feeling of emptiness and/or sadness, social isolation, lack of motivation, fatigue, and sometimes, thoughts that things would be better if we weren’t around.
Typically, when neurotypical people (those whose brains are developed and functioning optimally) experience anxiety and/or depression, it is because of an event that triggers the episode. For example, you have an important upcoming exam, you made a significant mistake at work, you have been diagnosed with a disease, or you’ve lost a loved one. Any of these events (or those similar) can create feelings of anxiety and/or depression which a person must deal with, before they begin to ‘feel like themselves’ again. Usually, once the event is over and the person involved essentially grieves the loss or change, the anxiety/depression is resolved, and the brain/body begin to function normally again. I’m going to assume that upon reading this, almost all readers can relate to these emotions, in some capacity. They have a known cause, are relatively short-lived, and do not typically have lasting impact on one’s life.
Emotion vs. Disorder
Anxiety and depression disorders, on the other hand, don’t always have a specific, or known, onset, they are experienced long-term, and they significantly impact the lives of, not only those experiencing them, but many others within their social circle. Focusing on anxiety, let me explain further:
I have a general anxiety disorder, so, at random, without any preceding event, my brain will trigger an anxiety, or ‘fight or flight,’ response. I may be laying down to take a nap (as is what happened today), when suddenly my chest becomes uncomfortably tight, my pulse races, my breathing is shallow, and I start to sweat. This lack of a ‘specific triggering event’ is a significant distinction between an anxiety disorder and everyday emotions of anxiety. For the first 35 years of my life, when this would happen, my mind would instinctively react to the ‘fight or flight’ response by thinking, “What’s wrong? Something must be wrong because my body is preparing for action.” It didn’t make sense that I was responding to nothing, so my mind would instinctively attach a ‘fear-based thought’ to the response. I mean, obviously there must be some danger present for my brain and body to be responding in such a way… Right?
WRONG! This is an anxiety disorder.
With an anxiety disorder, events can occur in the following sequence:
- First comes the physiological anxiety response in the brain/body (i.e. adrenaline dump, increased heart rate, shallow respiration, chest tightness, etc).
- Next comes the fear attachment to attempt to ‘make sense’ of it (i.e. “I think someone is following me while I walk home in the dark” or “My children are going to struggle in this world in 20 years if things continue this way”).
- This fear attachment causes increased anxiety response (gross right – not only have you increased your own anxiety response, but you’ve also acknowledged that your fear was founded, because otherwise, why would you be anxious? So now, you believe you’re right to be afraid of whatever your ‘fear-based thought’ was).
- This increased anxiety leads to increased fear, and the cycle continues.
It’s for this reason that I spent majority of my life unable to sleep because I was ‘afraid’ someone was breaking into the house, or that a fire would start while I slept – so, rather than sleep, I had to prepare for a fight, or an escape. It never happened, but I’d go to bed the next night, and the one after that, always going through the same preparation, rather than sleep. I defended this behavior with the idea that it was simply ‘smart’ to be prepared. At the age of 35, after having 2 kids and a hormonal shift that made the anxiety and depression of adolescence look like a party, I finally sought help. Professional help from a qualified, and certified therapist, who specialized in anxiety disorders.
The Turning Point
My therapist explained the ‘anxiety disorder cycle’ to me and had me write down my preparation plans, whenever a new anxiety ‘fear-based thought’ hit me. Then, when it inevitably hit me again, I was to tell myself that I’d already planned for it, and written it down, so I am ready to respond. No need to repeat. This took A LOT of practice, but after about 6 months, I was able to cut-off the cycle between steps 1 and 2, above. For the first time, maybe ever, I wasn’t worried. Keep in mind that I still have the initial anxiety response, because I still have an anxiety disorder. Relatively regularly, my brain still triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response that makes my chest tight, along with all the rest, but I’ve learned not to allow my brain to attach a ‘fear’ thought to it. Now, I feel the physiological response in my body and when my husband asks why I’m having anxiety, the answer is usually, “because that’s how my body works!”
I think to myself, “I’m having anxiety… no bigs, just let my body do it’s thing and it will pass,” and then I simply breathe. I take long, slow, deep breaths, I focus on my breathing, and anywhere from 10-30 minutes later, the episode passes – no fear attached. No more panic attacks. No more letting a real or perceived thought control me. No more feeling out of control. Just acceptance that this is how I was made, this is how I operate, and I’ve got the knowledge, skill, and ability necessary to manage it. As a caveat here, know that I’m not opposed to medication for mental disorders. I’ve personally witnessed a palpable change and reduction in daily struggle in others who have started anxiety medication.
In full transparency, I didn’t go this route simply because I medicate for ADHD and depression (both diagnosed in the past few years and acknowledging them and managing them has truly changed my life, which I’m sure I’ll speak to another time), and while I’m sure I could use medication to reduce the number of ‘anxiety responses’ my brain triggers, I’ve found peace over the past 6+ years in managing the response with the knowledge and skills learned through cognitive-behavioral therapy. Some of us are born this way (with a brain that isn’t neurotypical), and some of us have life experiences and/or trauma that cause a change in our brain function. Regardless the ‘reason,’ the good news is that you can move through, and past, anxiety.
What Can You Do?
Whether you ‘believe in’ anxiety, or not, the best thing you can do for anyone around you who may be suffering from anxiety, is to stop doubting them and show them empathy. There’s never a downside to being kind, compassionate, and patient with someone when they’re struggling. If you may be suffering from anxiety, ask yourself if you spend a significant amount of time worrying about things that aren’t necessarily present or within your control, and whether this worry negatively impacts your life (i.e. are you fatigued often, impatient or irritable without immediate cause, unable to take part in certain activities due to fear, etc.).
If so, my advice is this: Find a close friend who understands, or preferably, a competent therapist who specializes in anxiety. Then, just do the work. Take it from someone who has spent a lifetime living in a very lonely fear on the inside (and sometimes on the outside) – it’s worth doing the work. It’s hard, and takes time, but your efforts can be life changing. Mine certainly were!
I’ve included some links below (taken from the American Psychological Association Website: News section), for additional information related to managing anxiety, and when to seek medical help.
Until next time, I hope you’ll join me in striving to be better today, than we were yesterday!