“When I have an anxiety attack, I literally can’t do anything else until I work it out in my mind.” (GIF: Priscilla DeCastro/Yahoo Health)
What does anxiety mean to you? Is it the low-level feeling of stress and fear, motivating you to be productive for fear of missing a deadline?
For people with the diagnosable medical condition of anxiety, it’s so much more. It can be overwhelming, cyclical, and debilitating.
“Worry is something that we all experience from time to time, but for a person who has an anxiety disorder, it is as though they cannot turn down the volume on the worry or turn it off completely,” Amy Przeworski, PhD, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, tells Yahoo Health. “Imagine thinking “What if X happens” all of the time. It is exhausting.”
General Anxiety Disorder affects more than 6.8 million adults each year. Everyone’s experience with the disorder is different, but there are some things that people living with anxiety find all too familiar:
Anxiety manipulates your thoughts.
“Anxiety once convinced me that I was dying of a mysterious terminal disease, when in fact I was just fine,” Sarah Fader, the founder and CEO of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people who live with mental illnesses, tells Yahoo Health.
But distractions can help during an anxiety attack.
“I tell my friends to try and start a conversation with me about something else entirely,” says Alison Stevenson, 26, a writer from Los Angeles, CA, who was diagnosed with anxiety this year. “It helps me calm down by forcing me to drop whatever it is I’m obsessing over.”
The fear felt during an anxiety attack is not an overreaction.
“The validity of what I experience is continually called into question,” Fader tells Yahoo Health. “It’s astonishing, considering anxiety is a legitimate medical concern. No one would question someone about whether they have diabetes or a heart condition.”
Anxiety can make you physically sick.
Anxiety has physical effects on the body, as well as mental and emotional ones. Chronic stress and worrying can cause dizziness, muscle aches, rapid breathing, and nausea, among other reactions, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Anxiety can be absolutely terrifying.
“During my first panic attack, my throat closed up,” Fader says. “I couldn’t breathe, I began hyperventilating, and my heart was racing uncontrollably. It was undoubtedly one of the scariest moments of my entire life.”
It’s basically impossible to do anything else in the midst of an anxiety attack.
“When I have an anxiety attack, I literally can’t do anything else until I work it out in my mind,” says Sammy Nickalls, a writer and editor from Lebanon, PA, who was officially diagnosed with anxiety in June 2014. “That can be debilitating in the middle of a work day, and it can also be stressful to communicate it to those I’m close to without them getting frustrated with me.”
Anxiety doesn’t always outwardly show.
“There are a lot of people who don’t think they have anxiety because they don’t exhibit certain behaviors they think people with anxiety have to have, like panic attacks,” says Stevenson. “That’s what I thought for many, many years.”
"Relax” and “calm down” are not helpful phrases to hear.
These are common remarks people with anxiety hear from friends and family who don’t understand how it feels. “Generally this is said in a loving tone, so I know no one means to upset me,” says Nickalls. “I generally just smile a bit, even though it drives me crazy. Of course I can’t relax or calm down; that’s the problem.”
Treatment doesn’t just work with the snap of a finger — it can take weeks or months.
Some people respond to treatment after a few weeks or months, while for others it can take more than a year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
There isn’t just one treatment for anxiety — and it can take time to figure out which one is right.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and interpersonal therapy, but there’s no clear way to know which will work for you.
The treatment a therapist recommends may not always work.
“My counselor in college was into relaxation strategies like deep breathing, but that’s not what I needed,” Nickalls says. “I also tried medication and that didn’t work for me either.”
Anxiety can affect how you act around others.
“Social anxiety causes me to get very nervous during opinionated conversations, because I start to worry that people will think I’m a bad person,” says Nickalls. “I try to steer away from topics like politics during times of high anxiety.”