Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at some point in their lives. But people who are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder interpret these stressful feelings differently. That makes it hard for people who don’t have an anxiety disorder to understand why people who have anxiety act the way they do. With this in mind, and for Mental Health Awareness Month, HelloGiggles spoke to 17 women about what it’s like to live with an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are so much more than being stressed, and they can be associated with other mental illnesses, as some of the women who opened up to HelloGiggles demonstrate. (The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that there is no evidence that anxiety leads to depression, but notes that many people do have both disorders.) Even without another mental illness, anxiety disorders — such as generalized anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and social anxiety disorders — can wreak havoc on a person’s life. As the National Institute of Mental Health notes:
In an effort to raise awareness and show how pervasive this mental illness can really be, these 17 women shared their stories of living with anxiety. They shared stories of pain, but also triumph: While the feelings associated with an anxiety disorder can be overwhelming, many of these women have found ways to cope as they work to improve their mental health.
1I have anxiety about managing my anxiety.
“My anxiety manifests in different ways, making it pretty unpredictable. Sometimes I have trouble sleeping, and have nightmares and hallucinations throughout the night, while other times I break out in eczema, have shortness of breath, or a strange heartbeat feeling in my stomach. I have been on medication before, but I didn’t like that it made me feel hazy and unmotivated.
To cope, I put limitations on long work hours and made exercise a priority. I have also been making lists to help with identifying my emotions. Rather than journaling, lists are a lot less pressure. As a perfectionist, I worry about sounding silly, or like Lizzie McGuire, when I am writing (shocker — I have anxiety about managing my anxiety).
Writing lists enables me to write more concisely and honestly. I take time, a few times a week, to write lists reflecting how I am feeling. List titles vary from, ‘Why I Feel Alone’ to ‘Reasons I’m Great At My Job’ to ‘Best Friends Who I Need To Visit.’ This helps me get a better perspective on my life and identify what is making me feel uncertain.”
— Tessa, 26, Maryland
2Like being held prisoner by your own mind.
“Living with anxiety means hiding and missing out on experiences and relationships. It means wondering if you’ll ever see family members or friends again once they walk out the door, and wondering about when/if the next panic attack will strike (and what if it’s not a panic attack this time, or what if it happens in public?).
It’s being on edge — and on the verge of tears — almost all the time and not knowing why, unable to focus through the mental fog, and always saying, ‘I’m tired.’ Because that’s the easiest way to explain the feeling of being held prisoner by your own mind.
I struggle to make and keep friends, I have held myself back in my career, and everyday tasks like going to the grocery store [are] overwhelming. Anxiety makes everything an uphill battle.”
— Crystal, 35, Georgia, author of That Old Kitchen Table blog
3Constantly striving to be perfect.
“Living with anxiety is stressful and debilitating at times. For me, there is this constant desire to be perfect, both in my work and for my family. Though I know nothing is perfect, the constant need to make everyone happy takes over and causes loss of sleep, weight gain, panic attacks, and even grinding my teeth. The idea of failing or never being good enough is a daily internal struggle. The hard part is knowing that it is the anxiety speaking.”
— Alexa, 26, New York
4I’m battling against myself.
“Anxiety is feeling unwell, even though I logically know that I’m perfectly fine. I have moments that feel like I’m battling against myself and it makes everything such a struggle.
Having anxiety means I’m always saying I’m sorry. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t come to work today.’ ‘I’m sorry I left work early.’ It’s not being stressed or worried — it’s my body being pumped full of adrenaline. It’s a near-miss car accident feeling while sitting in a 2 p.m. meeting. It’s people saying, ‘Oh, we’re all stressed!’ It’s the idea that what I’m feeling is not valid, not acceptable, and if I just had my shit together, it would go away. The carryover from when women had ‘the nerves’ and were dismissed still lingers. Mental health stigma is like a big ol’ river that’s gone underground. You can’t see it anymore as overtly, but it’s still there, running strong.
I’m exhausted and wired. At the same time, I’m hopeful for the future. I know I can get on top of this because I have a strong support structure and I can afford private counseling. I worry for others who are not as fortunate. There’s absolutely no substitute for real human kindness.”
— Zoe, 35, Australia
5The pain and suffering are as real as any visible, physical injury.
“I am an injured survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing who struggles with an anxiety disorder, PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a so-called ‘invisible illness’ or ‘invisible disability.’ But I assure you, its pain and suffering are as real as any visible, physical injury. Each person with PTSD faces different ‘triggers,’ which are what may lead to a panic attack for them. Due to the bombing, one of my triggers is loud and/or sudden noises: a door closing, a car horn, something dropping on the floor, a balloon popping. Even when you know it’s coming, something like fireworks are so loud, so aggressive, that it’s often a trigger anyway.
A panic attack can force someone like me, with PTSD, to relive a past trauma — and the emotions that come with it — against their will. You don’t want to shake. You don’t want to be scared. You don’t want to cry. You’re embarrassed and you don’t want anyone to see you in that state…but you can’t always control your reactions to your triggers.
Through years of therapy, I’ve learned what triggers me and how to lessen my reactions to it. I also take supplements and medications to help reduce my PTSD and panic attacks. There’s no magic cure or specific amount of time when you can declare, ‘Finally, I’m healed!’ You have to do the work, put in the time, and make slow, steady progress toward regaining control of your life.”
— Lynn, 41, Massachusetts
6It’s that voice in your head saying that everything is going to fall apart.
“Anxiety isn’t something you can explain, since it’s hard enough to understand yourself. It’s that voice in your head saying that everything is going to fall apart slowly should you not know one detail about that concert you’re going to. It’s tunnel vision in a crowd of people with the walls closing in on you. For me, it’s been my battle with general anxiety and panic disorder.
Working a full-time job wasn’t even something I was capable of doing, because little triggers hidden behind trees on the sidewalks at lunch would send me into a state of panic, forcing me to run to my car and to leave. It’s the paranoia of thinking your office is out to get you because of your anxious thoughts that run in a loop around your mind.
It’s not something that ruins you; it’s something you can take control over with the right tools, resources, and support system. Anxiety will come and go, but as you tone down the voice in your head and see the rationality in the irrational situations your anxiety creates, the beauty you once saw in life slowly returns.”
— Taylor, 26, Texas
7When I was first diagnosed, I felt ashamed.
“I’ve suffered from anxiety for as far back as I can remember. When I was a child, it was severe separation anxiety from my mom to the point where I had to attend her night college courses with her. At the age of 19, I had a severe panic attack that almost landed me in the hospital. I took a medical leave of absence from work and school and started my journey of healing. I started with therapy and she suggested I go see a psychiatrist as well. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. I began taking anti-anxiety medication and have been on it ever since.
The hardest part, in my opinion, of struggling with any mental disorder is the stigma attached. You can call in sick to work for the flu, but most bosses will question someone calling in for a mental health day. Back when I was first diagnosed, I felt ashamed. I believed the stigma and believed I would be judged, so I kept it a secret for a very long time. In recent years, that changed. I started seeing how many people, many of whom are very close to me, suffered from the same thing I had gone through all these years. And so I started talking about it. I told my story and am now very open about my struggle. Accept that it is okay to talk about it and get help if needed — instead of suffering in silence.”
— Christina, 34, Florida
8The feeling of complete fear.
“I never really knew what anxiety was until a few months ago. I mean, I was diagnosed with anorexia — an anxiety disorder — over three years ago, but I just didn’t get it. What was anxiety? Only now am I really realizing what anxiety is and how it can affect myself and others daily. Looking back, I think I’ve had anxiety for a large portion of my life.
Some days, it’s too much to think. I’ll go to do some work and am unable to bring myself to do it. I then get anxious about the fact that I’ve not done enough and end up staying up late, panicking about a piece of work that, rationally, could wait.
But the anxiety that is most terrifying and debilitating is the feeling of complete fear, and the loss of all control and connection to your body. I’ve only had one full-blown panic attack and I’m beyond grateful for that, because they totally inhibit one’s ability to be and to do anything other than panic. I thought I was dying as the tension in my throat grew and I gasped for air.
Panic attacks make the concept of doing things hard because it’s easy to live in fear of being in a situation that will provoke one. But with the support of friends and family, they’re a lot easier to get through. I hope that by raising awareness, people’s anxiety levels are lowered as they feel less judged.”
— Lily, 17, England
9A very long and frustrating road.
“Like most people, my first panic attack landed me in the ER, and I was both relieved and embarrassed that there was nothing wrong with my heart, that it was ‘just anxiety.’ For me, there is more than one type of anxiety.
The most debilitating aspects — public panic attacks and wanting to have a plan and wanting everyone to be safe — have made it very hard to have friends. As has my overwhelming desire to not leave my home, which I know has everything I could need. And the fact that I will randomly remember something embarrassing I said or did yesterday, or four years ago, or even in elementary school, doesn’t scream, ‘Be my friend.’
I’m finally on a regimen of medications, and I utilize cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and other coping skills. But from my first panic attack at 15 to now, it has been a very long and frustrating road.
— Brittany, 28, Florida, psychiatric nurse practitioner and owner of Mental Calm
10Sometimes, I feel like I am not going to make it.
“I have been dealing with anxiety all my life, but became more aware of it when, during my junior year of college, I was diagnosed with a panic disorder. I unknowingly had an anxiety attack, and an ambulance came and rushed me to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe. It was one of the scariest moments of my life because it was the first time I felt like I had no control over my own body.
It is something I suffer with on a daily basis, and have never felt comfortable talking about it because it is something I am still trying to get a handle on. Anxiety is different for everyone. For me, it takes over to the point when I feel like sometimes, I am not going to make it. It has affected my relationships with my family and my boyfriend. Things that aren’t a big deal (or at least shouldn’t be) are huge to me. When things don’t happen the way I thought they were going to, I am a total mess, and people think I’m crazy or psycho for reacting the way I do. I have medicine to help control it, but I am not at the point where I am ready to go and see a therapist. However, I am so lucky to have people around me who stick with me through it all because trust me, I can be BRUTAL.”
— Angelina, 25, New York
11Breathwork is so important.
“Some days, having an anxiety disorder is like being on a roller coaster that flies off the tracks at 100 mph. You know you’re headed somewhere awful, but you don’t yet know where. Other days, it starts with a whisper. You get that small, all-too-familiar feeling of butterflies in your stomach. It’s a queasy, wheezy, unsettled something that spreads like cancer. That’s why breathwork is so important. Your breath is the one constant that can take you from chaos to calm at any time or in any place. It’s always there to comfort you — you just have to remember to find it.”
— Mary Beth, 44, Illinois, founder of With Anxiety in Tow
12Disconnect between my emotions and what I know to be true.
“A thread of anxiety has been in me as long as I can remember. At its worst, anxiety drove me to near-daily hysteria — a disconnect between my emotions and what I knew to be true. Perceived physical pain from constantly fighting off panic attacks, a complete lack of trust and constant questioning of my very loyal and very kind boyfriend at the time, rumination that would spiral into tears streaming down my face walking through campus, and a pursuit of just feeling okay enough. A desire to run from painful situations, an immeasurable fear that my loved ones would die, isolation from my friends who couldn’t understand, confusion about God’s promises, and dread over the possibility of living the rest of my life in such darkness.
With just 20 mg of SSRI each day and the support of my faith and my people, I am happily unrecognizable from the shell of a person I was in college. Though I still feel anxiety creep in occasionally, life healed is even better than life before all my anxiety. I can recognize anxious thoughts and throw them out. I can speak into the dark places of others because they know I’ve really been there.”
— Anna, 24, California
13Pressure to perform.
“I can’t remember a time when I didn’t feel a pressure to perform. The pressures to be a good student while being fun and attractive often left me with a profound feeling of anxiety. I was prescribed Adderall in my early 20s, after a screening tool questionnaire suggested I might have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) — I later found out that I didn’t. Nevertheless, Adderall quickly became my magic pill. At first, it made me feel great! In nursing school, I was able to keep a 4.0 grade point average while being rail-thin and in top shape. The anxiety I felt to keep up this picture-perfect image fueled my misuse of the drug, and I began asking my doctor to up my dosage before forging prescriptions myself.
What I didn’t realize was that while I was taking Adderall to ‘combat’ my anxiety, the drug was actually inflaming the feeling. It was a perfect storm of feeling anxious about maintaining a superficial image, coupled with the brutal side effects of a stimulant that made me miserable.
Eventually, I lost my nursing job and realized I needed help to stop my anxiety and addiction from ruling my life. Entering treatment was one of the best decisions I had made. I learned that the answer to all my problems was within myself, and blaming everything around me — including the pressure I felt — was never going to solve anything. While I still struggle with perfectionist tendencies, I’ve learned healthy coping mechanisms to address them, allowing me to lead a richer life.”
— Kristen, 35, Maine, read more of her story here
14Tough on me, both socially and professionally.
“I feel like, today, most people still look at anxiety disorders as taboo. Because of this, living with anxiety has been a lot tougher on me, both socially and professionally. I’ve always had to craft excuses about why I don’t want to go out or why I had to cancel plans at the last minute because I was experiencing feelings that most people don’t understand (and because I was embarrassed). People are becoming more accepting of this issue, but it’s still hard not to feel embarrassed and afraid to admit that I deal with anxiety.”
— Meagan, 24, Massachusetts
15Fear leads to self-imposed isolation.
“It can be crippling at times. There are times when it manifests as fear, and that fear sometimes leads to a self-imposed isolation during which I don’t want to be around anyone or have anyone see me, but this has gotten rarer as I get older. I think that as I get older, I deal better. It has impacted my friendships because it does make me not want to keep in touch with people. No one really seems to understand or know that’s where it comes from — that it’s not what’s in my heart, but it’s what is comfortable for me.”
— Lisa, 43, Connecticut
16A clingy friend.
“Living with anxiety is like living with a clingy, obnoxious friend. You never know when they’re going to show up or for how long. Sometimes you forget about them and sometimes even the dread that comes with thinking of them makes them appear. My anxiety is mostly performance anxiety — it comes along when I’m doing some activity. Maybe I’m good at the activity, but the anxiety comes when I do it around people I don’t know super well. But sometimes my anxiety pops up for no reason — like that clingy friend. It creeps in at inopportune moments and only goes away when I step away from a situation physically or mentally.”
— Jazmin, 23, Utah
17Racing thoughts that do me no good.
“At 16 years old, I developed an anxiety disorder. My mind was always racing with thoughts that did me no good. I was always anxious, worrying, and fearful that I wasn’t good enough and that I didn’t have what it took to succeed. I was afraid to be judged and unloved. This then led me to being clinically depressed at 17 years old. I was dysfunctional at all levels of my life. Though when my racing mind quieted down and I was just listening with my heart, I’d hear a small inner voice telling me that I can still have an amazing, beautiful life that I love.
In my mid-twenties, I turned to mindset coaching, mindfulness, and spirituality, and then my attitude towards life totally changed. I realized, for the well-being of myself and everyone around me, I am only obligated to do what makes me happy and what feels right to me. I also realized that I do in fact have control over my life, because I always have the power to regulate my own thoughts, emotions, and actions, no matter what other people say or do.”
— Louisa, 29, New Jersey
As these women explain, anxiety disorders can impact nearly every aspect of a person’s life. But these women also show that there is hope when it comes to managing anxiety. If you want to talk to someone or get help, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration hotline at 1‑877‑726‑4727.
These interviews have been edited and condensed. Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.