Stories, skills, and positivity- to anxiety sufferers from anxiety sufferers.
Deep down, I think I’ve always known that I’m not exactly what they call neurotypical. But it took me a while to understand the meaning of my anxious thoughts and feelings and how they were affecting my behaviour, and moreover my entire life. I still remember the sick sense of relief that washed over me when I first discovered the term generalized anxiety disorder. All at once it was, “great, now I have a disorder I didn’t know about,” and, “thank god this is a real thing.”
My early childhood was a happy one as far as I can remember. I was a goofy kid with an inclination to perform and a close-knit family. My anxiety showed itself for the first time once I was expected to interact with people my own age.
I had never been shy before, but when I started going to school, suddenly I was. Having a hard time socializing with kids I didn’t know sort of set a precedent for the way I would feel throughout most of my schooling. Grade school came and went, then middle school; I was grappling with the fact that I didn't really know how to be myself and was doggedly followed by negative emotions like fear and sadness.
Before I was aware that anxiety is a mental health issue, I had assumed I was just someone who, despite craving close companionship, wasn’t good at making friends, and that I was unhappy because most of the ones I had didn’t treat me very nicely. It wasn’t until early high school, when I finally had enough friends I liked, that I stopped examining my social skills and began to try and understand my own mind.
By tenth grade I was cracking down. I was miserable, panicky, and on edge almost all of the time. I could barely enjoy myself anymore, having fallen back into my pattern of hating school. Despite the fact that I had made friends, the social environment of my private school felt negative and entitled, and the academic stress was becoming unbearable. When I woke up crying at 4am a week into my winter break, my family and I decided it was time to figure out what was going on. I am lucky enough to have supportive parents who saw my plea for help and acted on it. We all knew this was not a healthy reaction to stress. I started on regular visits to a psychologist shortly after.
I finally learned what my type of anxiety was. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (G.A.D.). The nervousness, sadness, self-loathing, and guilt I feel on a regular basis are part of an issue larger than a particular person, event, or aspect of my life. Having generalized anxiety means I worry in an extreme, irrational, and disproportionate way about pretty much everything. I experience terror at small things going wrong, like spending too much money, getting a cold, or doing poorly on a test, and at big things, like change, bad friendships, and familial problems. For an introvert, stressful social situations bring about a lot of anxiety. Simply the thought of certain things - such as the idea that I might go through life having never accomplished anything of meaning or that I’ll die alone - become very real to me very quickly, and can send me into a fit of panic.
So then I knew I had G.A.D., and the next question was what I needed to do to make it easier to live with. I cannot stress enough the importance of positive social environments in my journey to mental wellbeing. One of the first proactive choices I ever made in trying to improve my health was the decision to switch high schools. I removed myself from an environment that was toxic to me and put myself in a new one where I formed several wonderful friendships and had more choice in my academics. This taught me that despite the anxiety disorder that affects all aspects of my life, I can be resilient and adaptable. I applied this same mentality when the time came to pick where I would go for my undergrad. I had a number of reasons for choosing the University I did. Ultimately, I went to visit and it just felt right. I also knew my school had a reputation for its inclusive atmosphere and student resources. Being able to seek out support from your school makes a world of difference to a student with a mental health issue.
Unfortunately, anxiety and depression often come as a package deal. When I became severely depressed around the end of high school, I sought out medication. I wish antidepressants were the answer, but my experience has involved a lot of trial and error. The meds I’m taking right now are certainly not a panacea, but they help me feel more stable. I find that there’s sometimes an awkwardness about people who take medication for mental health, and to anyone who buys into the stigma or self-stigmatizes, I would say this: it’s going to be much more difficult to get over strep throat without taking your antibiotics. For a lot of people, the same goes for mental illness.
I started trying to improve my mental health a few years ago, and I imagine I’ll be doing this, in some form, for the rest of my life. For years now, anxiety has been my “neutral”, my normal state. My hope is that one day I’ll find a better neutral, and that when there are times I inevitably deviate from that neutral, I can trust myself to make my way back. I’m working on it, in every way that I can. Good therapy and support networks and forgiving yourself for not being perfect are important. So are smaller everyday things, like trying to eat properly and getting enough sleep whenever you can. I recognize that I am more privileged than most. I am in a position to seek help and to talk about my issues. As a society we need to focus our attention on trying to ensure that all people who suffer from mental health disorders have access to the resources and supports they need to recover.
There’s no formula; recovery varies from person to person. I know several incredible people with various mental health issues, and coping can be so different for each individual. That’s why it’s crucial to be aware and respectful of people around you who might be suffering. We need to talk about mental health, so that the people around us don’t feel the need to suffer in silence. Nothing feels more isolating than that. This is why I’m choosing to speak about it.
Katie McLean holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, and bases her anxiety aid in personal experience, as well as techniques that have been passed on to her by counsellors, friends, and fellow anxiety sufferers.