Walking down the street, I can feel the eyes of strangers looking at me, while the drive past me. Those looks are nothing but negative: “look at that guy!”, “look how weird he’s walking”, “his eyes are so big, how do they stay in his skull?”, “that guy is a creep”. That’s what the voices in my head are telling me, a clear case of an anxiety disorder. After several confrontations with myself I found out that people weren’t looking at me, at all. Nobody was thinking something negative about me.
The life of someone with an anxiety disorder can be very difficult, upsetting and exhausting. In this article I share my experiences as someone with a very heavy anxiety disorder, how I dealt with my disorder in the past and how I handle my disorder right now. I hope, if you are reading this and you experience any kind of anxiety or even have an anxiety disorder, this article helps you and gives you some kind of hope that all will be alright eventually.
Note: I am not a medical professional. In this article I give advise and I share my personal experiences. If you are feeling bad, or you suspect an anxiety disorder, please consult your doctor or your psychologist, they can help you the best.
Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar.
What is anxiety and what is an anxiety disorder?
First of all, let’s take a deeper look at what anxiety actually is and what having an anxiety disorder means. This part can be scientific, if you are not interested in this part, you can continue to the next paragraph.
In todays world we hear the word “anxiety” a lot and in my opinion the media talks very negative about this emotion. Although anxiety is something very normal and healthy. Everyone experiences it every now and then. For example: when it’s your first day at your new job or school, when you have to go to the dentist or meeting your father in law for the first time. These are very normal situations to experience anxiety in, you feel nervous. So your stomach might feel a bit funny, your mouth is dry, your heart rate is a bit higher than usual and your blood pressure is higher. If you experience anxiety every now and then, it is most likely that there is something exciting or scary is about to happen in your life. There is nothing wrong.
However, if you are experiencing anxiety on a daily, or even hourly basis, I recommend you to seek advise from your doctor. There is a possibility you might have an anxiety disorder. This means you experience anxiety without a clear reason. Like the example in the introduction: you are walking down the street and it feels that everybody is watching you. This is an example for anxiety without a clear reason.
You might have an anxiety disorder when:
- You often have the feeling of restlessness and feeling a bit on-edge;
- You often feel uncontrollably worried;
- You get irritated a lot easier;
- You experience difficulties with your concentration;
- Sleeping becomes a problem: either you can’t sleep or you have a hard time staying asleep.
Of course there are a lot more other symptoms that can point out an anxiety disorder. I am not a medical professional, so I cannot judge wether your anxiety experiences are normal or might indicate a disorder. Any doubt, please consult your doctor or phycologist as soon as possible. I’ll explain why later in this article.
My anxiety disorder
At first I had no idea I was suffering an anxiety disorder, let alone a very heavy anxiety disorder. When I found my first therapist, it became clear in one of the first sessions: I experience too much anxiety and stress, without any reason.
For example: during my very first session with my psychologist I counted how many times a door was opened and closed in 30 minutes: 16 times. I did this while being unaware of it. I did this to keep control, I was too scared something would happen.
My anxiety and stresslevels can rise to the highest levels I can handle in just a few seconds: my heart beats faster, I can hear my blood rushing through my veins, I can’t feel my hands and feet, I am not mentally present anymore. So when I am talking with someone, I am not aware of what we are talking about and I just say some words, without being able to think straight.
Once all the levels are too high and my body can’t handle it anymore, my brain decides to reset: I loose my consciousness for a few minutes. You can compare this situation with a computer: sometimes when an error occurs and you can’t do anything anymore, you decide to pull the plug and restart your computer, in the hope it works again. That is in a nutshell what my brain is doing when I am overwhelmed and my stress- and anxiety levels are too high: it pulls my plug. After a few seconds or few minutes, it depends on how high my anxiety and stress were, I wake up again. I usually can’t remember what happend the minutes before I lost my consciousness, so I need to ask the person who is with me what happened and when I am alone, I simply have to guess when I wake up under a table with some chairs fallen on top of me.
Origin of my anxiety disorder
As I told you before in my other articles, I grew up in a very unpleasant way and that’s an understatement. Danger was always around the corner for me, which meant I had to be aware of my surroundings at all times, I needed to be alert at all times and I needed to be ready to fight, flight or freeze at any given moment. This means my stress- and anxiety levels were always abnormal high, as illustrated in the green diagram. So as this diagram shows, I experienced a high level of anxiety in normal situations.
When I was put in stressful situations, this could be anything: an actual stressful situation, because my alcoholic parent was drunk again, I was being chased and abused by classmates or just a simple conversation with someone, my level of anxiety would rise even more. If I compare my anxiety level with a “normal” person in the orange diagram, you can see that a healthy person experiences a much lower level of anxiety in a stressful situation compared to me. Even when anxiety gets too high, I will blackout.
So I grew up with already a high level of anxiety I experienced on a daily basis. What healthy people experience as stress, was for me my normal feeling.
How I am dealing with my anxiety disorder
Before I was in therapy and before I even knew I had an anxiety disorder, I didn’t care for myself at all. I saw my blackouts as something pleasant and something useful. And I didn’t see it as something negative, let alone thinking that my brain and body were screaming for help.
When I went in therapy back in the summer of 2018 and I was diagnosed with a heavy anxiety disorder, a lot made sense, even when I didn’t understand the concept of anxiety. It was a sort of assurance that I am not crazy, as many people told me. What I understood was that it is not healthy at all how I experienced stress and anxiety and that is wasn’t good at all to blackout. For me a reason to step on the brakes and clear my schedule, so I had more free time in a week, so I could clear my mind.
While being in therapy I had to confront myself with my fears, I had to look them straight in the eyes and see that there was nothing to be afraid of: my first step was outside and paying attention to other people. As I mentioned in the introduction, it felt like everybody was watching me. For this confrontation I had to find out whether this was true or false. By confronting myself, I found out that nobody was watching me at all. Nobody paid attention to other people on the streets.
One of my other fears was doing something wrong, resulting in disappointing someone and ending up in a fight. This was my biggest fear. Even while facing my fears, it didn’t help, I was still afraid, even after questioning everybody close to me and asking them what they would do if I did something wrong.
The fear of being left alone by people I love was another huge fear, together with the fear of not being liked by the people I like. So they acted like they liked me, but it wasn’t real. For these fears it was very difficult to face them. If I asked the people I love(d) for reassurance, how could I be sure they were telling the truth? Trusting people was still an issue.
My psychologists and I came to the conclusion that these fears were too big to face alone and without any extra help. After six months therapy we decided to try medication: antidepressants. After a long period of hesitation I decided to agree on my therapists advise and start with medication.
This medication is meant to lower my level of anxiety and live my life with a lower experience of fears.
Pro’s and cons of medication
Starting with the kind of medication I use, is not something you can decide overnight. You really have to consider everything and both the positive and negative side of the medication. To help you, I made a list with my own personal pro’s and cons:
- I feel calmer since I started using my antidepressants;
- I became a lot more confident about myself;
- I am less prone to stressful situations;
- I don’t have the feeling that everybody hates me;
- I sleep better;
- My nightmares stoped;
- I don’t experience anxiety attacks anymore;
- I can keep my consciences while being in a stressful situation;
- I feel happy and calm;
- I can be the person I always wanted to be: myself.
- Once you start using antidepressants, there is a slight possibility you will need them for the rest of your life;
- The first week you start using the medication or your dose is increased, are horrible. The first few days your anxiety can increase even more and the nights, especially during the first week, are terrible. Anxiety attacks and a depressed feeling are part of the process of getting used to the medication;
- If you forget to take a dose, your night and next day will be terrible. Your body has to work with a lower level of serotonin, the hormone that the medication provides. A lower level of serotonin can result in restlessness, a depressed feeling and increased anxiety. I forgot one of my doses this week, the next day I felt really depressed and I had a small anxiety attack during the day, my first since I started using my medication.
So these are a just a few pro’s and cons I experienced using antidepressants.
My advise for dealing with anxiety
In this last section I would like to give you some advise on how to deal with your own anxiety, things that help(ed) me and might help you too.
First of all: if you experience anxiety a lot on a day, please consult your doctor or psychologist as soon as possible. There is a possibility your level of anxiety is way too high and it can be treated, before it becomes a anxiety disorder.
For me it took a long time to find ways to deal with my own anxiety, besides the therapy of course. I still experience some sort of anxiety like everybody else.
When I experience it, I try to confront myself with my fears. So for example: if I think that everybody is watching me while I am walking down the street, I check these things:
- First of all: am I wearing clothes and if so, do I wear them correctly? People with anxiety might recognize this scenario. For some reason people with anxiety often experience the feeling that they forget to put on some clothes. I had the constant feeling that I forgot to put on my pants and was walking down the streets in my boxer and whatever I was wearing as top. This could be a reason why people are watching you if you forgot to put on your pants and it is minus 10 degrees celsius outside. So first of all: check your outfit. Wearing everything you planned to wear? Great, time for the next check. Did you forget your pants or did you forget to put on a top? Go back and put them on and set a reminder in your phone for the next day;
- Is there something special at the place you are walking and is that the reason you feel watched. For example you are walking past a huge castle? That might be the reason why people watch in your direction. But they are not watching you, they are watching the beautiful (or not so beautiful) castle. No castle in sight, nothing special happening? Next step;
- Confront yourself by watching other people. Try to find out if people are watching you. You might feel that they are watching you, but it doesn’t mean they actually do. This step is for me very useful, because I can find out whether I see ghosts or people are actually staring at me. 9 out of 10 times they are not watching me. This single time they are watching me, is because I stand out for different reasons: 1. I look really good (confidence about yourself, you look good), 2. My outfit is the best they have ever seen (again be confident), 3. I am walking home after a run (I know I look like I am about to die after I took a run) or 4. They are jealous for some reason I don’t get, but I don’t care for it. So my point is: if you find out people are watching you, try to see it from the bright side, be confident about yourself. You have all the right to be confident. You are amazing!
Become the boss of your anxiety
Of course it can happen that your level of anxiety rises for no reason or it rises to a too high level. That’s very annoying, but I found a way to control it!
It is actually really easy, if it happens that you experience anxiety for no clear reason, try to look for distraction in this situation. You can give yourself some sort of assignment, for example:
- Look for 10 red objects at the location you’re right now. Try to pick a color that is not too easy to spot at the location. Looking for colored objects helps the brain to focus on something else;
- Count back from 100 to 0;
- Make a calculation for yourself, like 8 + 8 = 16 + 8 = 24 + 8 = 32 + 8 = 40…what was my anxiety about again?
If these exercises don’t help anymore, it is important to take a step back and relax. I recommend a short meditation for a minimum of 10-15 minutes. Find yourself a quiet place and focus on nothing but your breathing. Where do you feel the air flow in your body? Meditation can also help to lower your anxiety.
Anxiety disorders, one very difficult disorder to have, but a disorder you can learn to live with. In this article I explained what an anxiety disorder is, how you can deal with it and become the boss of your own anxiety. Let me know in the comments if you find my tips helpful and let me know if you have any questions, I am happy to help. In my next article I will write about why I decided to become a vegan.