“It must be horrible to have your brain. You’re always analysing things.”
These words hit me like a cold, hard, slap in the face. This sentence shouldn’t hurt, but they were uttered by a close friend so cavalierly. She meant no harm, I guess, but it added to the constant list of things I could spend hours at a time fretting over.
I can’t remember a time when my brain didn’t work like this. It’s a blessing and a curse; when I’m working, my ability to deeply analyse has paid off. Yet in my personal life, my inability to switch off this part of my brain is problematic. It causes a constant sense of doubt about everything and anything from my abilities, friends, life choices and my future. You name it, I’ve worried about it.
In the midst of a panic attack, last year I finally spoke to my GP. I felt nauseous; my thoughts were spiralling all over the place and I couldn’t concentrate at work. I felt like a tiny monster had crawled into my body, taken control and was wreaking havoc. For years, I refused to consider there might be a deeper cause to these feelings. I had a feeling it could have been more, but I played it down as stress. When my GP mentioned ‘Generalised Anxiety Disorder’ I wasn’t surprised, I was relieved.
In Australia, BeyondBlue reports roughly 14% of the population experience an anxiety disorder. Of this, about 2.7% have Generalised Anxiety Disorder. In the UK, up to 5% of the population are thought to experience the condition, according to the NHS. In both cases, slightly more women are affected than men.
I have experienced attacks before, but never wanted to acknowledge there might be a wider issue behind them. During high school, I placed an enormous amount of pressure on myself to achieve certain marks and my wellbeing suffered because of it. I was still living at home; in my comfort zone, among my friends, and exercising daily. At university, my anxiety took over with a frightening new strength. I moved to a new city, lived on campus with a bunch of strangers, and there was a lot more pressure to perform well academically. As I made friends and felt more comfortable living on campus, my anxiety became solely tied to my grades. By the midpoint of each semester, nausea consumed me.
Remembering points from my childhood, I can now see that I displayed many of the behaviours which accompany Generalised Anxiety Disorder. I was a perfectionist and sought frequent approval from teachers, parents, and peers. I could turn any small problem into a disaster, no doubt annoying my parents with continual ‘what if?’ questions for almost any scenario. Although I never wanted to entertain these thoughts, I was somewhat relieved when I finally got a diagnosis. It was so reassuring realising other people felt this too, I was no longer alone.
I wasn’t in the all clear yet though, the thought of seeing a psychologist caused more anxiety. What kind of person would I be without anxiety? It is such a huge part of my life. Although the constant worrying and over-analysing was just a part of my daily life, it influenced so much of my behaviour. If you took away my anxiety, would I be as sensitive to other people’s emotions? Would I just not care anymore? After 20 years, my personality and anxiety had become impossible for me to separate.
I feel like I am making progress though. When I exercise daily I feel happier and more relaxed. Body image was one of my biggest struggles as a teenager, and my lack of sporting ability did not help. As an adult, I’ve found exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. The key is finding something you love. I may never go for a run, but give me music and all I’ll want to do is boogie. I’ve joined an adult tap dancing class as well as an aerobics-based gym class, where the working out is in sync with the music. When I’m focusing on working out and being in time with the music, my mind is elsewhere. I get to escape and leave behind my worries. I don’t have time to worry about that silly comment I made to a co-worker at lunch, I’m exercising! I always feel more relaxed after, no matter the workout.
There are still times where the beast is at large, when it roars inside of me, and it’s exhausting. I feel like I’m in a constant battle with my mind. When I leave a party with my friends early, a part of me thinks people are happy I’ve left. My anxiety-ridden brain makes me feel like I annoy people and that my friends don’t actually like me. I try to be rational, but there’s no reasoning with anxiety.
I’m pleased to say anxiety is no longer a daily battle for me. However, I do spiral when work gets busy. Loose daily routines, regular sleep and exercise have helped. I am slowly learning to let go and to care less about what everyone else thinks as well as accepting kindness without suspicion
I have been talking to my doctor about different forms of medication too. I am very fortunate to have a wonderful doctor who is happy to answer questions I have about how drugs might impact my life. After she told me I probably wouldn’t notice a difference for a couple of months, I’m starting to realise change doesn’t happen overnight. My personality isn’t going to immediately change, but I’m definitely on the right path to bringing a little calm to my mind.
Although it’s still early days, I finally feel as though I am ready to put myself and my wellbeing first. Everyone has a difference experience with anxiety, I have found talking about it helps massively. Even something as simple as sharing tips or showing some support comes a long way. Finding people you can talk to and trust is essential.
I’ve got a long road ahead of me, but I’m glad I took the first step.