From the vault: Getting Help With Your Anxiety

June 12, 2011
Anxiety Image

Image by Regina Lafaye

It’s not always easy to know when your level of anxiety is “abnormal.”

There are four D-words mental health workers use in assessing whether or not a certain behavior or emotion is normal.

Danger. Deviance. Distress. Dysfunction.

When it comes to anxiety, the last two are particularly helpful. If you need help with your anxiety, you would probably say that your worry causes you a lot of distress in your life, and/or that it keeps you from being able to function fully in your various life roles.

That was certainly the case with me.

Anxiety frequently filled me with such fear that I was unable to enjoy time with my family. Often I could not concentrate on my work and so it felt like I was living life on half the resources other people had available to them. I didn’t realize how much I needed help until recently because the solutions I was trying were often effective, or partly so, for considerable periods of time. I also didn’t realize I needed help because I did not really understand just how anxious I really was most of the time.

I was anxious enough most of the time that I felt it in my body.

My heart rate was often elevated above what is normal for me.

I felt almost constantly like I had butterflies (the size of eagles) in my stomach, and I usually did not know why. Have you ever given a speech and been so nervous beforehand that you were shaking and felt like you were just going to come unglued? That’s what it feels like to live with anxiety.

Perhaps comedian Steven Wright describes it best: You know that feeling you get when you lean back too far in a chair, and for a second you think you’re going to fall backwards, and then at the last minute you catch yourself? I feel like that all the time. 

When that happens, the massive but usually temporary blast of adrenalin that sends your heart rate into the stratosphere and leaves you quivering from head to toe is what surges for hours, days, weeks, even months, through the bodies of people suffering from anxiety. Can you imagine feeling that way and trying to function in normal life, attend patiently to your spouse and children, focus on your job, and deal with all the normal stresses of life? This is life for people with severe anxiety.

Sometimes I knew what was causing my anxiety, but usually I had no idea. Not knowing bothered me, but not as much as knowing did. When I knew what was causing it I obsessed about it, tried to think my way out of it, or spent hours trying to put it out of my mind. But of course the harder you try not to think about something, the more you are actually thinking about it. When I had no idea, I just kept trying to get through my life.

I used the fact that I am a counselor to convince myself that I could treat myself. And I tried. As I have said in an earlier post, I tried almost everything to alleviate my anxiety. Nothing ultimately worked. I was forced to admit I had tried everything in my “bag of tricks” and just could not stand living that way any more.

Then of course there’s the fact that the public is often so dismissive of these kinds of issues. As someone commented on an earlier post in this series, “Counselors just want your money.” That is the level of thinking many people bring to this issue. It’s not that there’s a real problem out there and people are genuinely in misery over it, it’s that the mental health professions have made this up so you will give us your money. As a sufferer from anxiety for 30 years and a practicing counselor for 20 years, that idea is offensive.

It is hard not to get angry with the misconceptions. “Counselors just want your money” is as stupid as saying, “Carpet installers just want your money.” Of course carpet installers want to get paid for what they do, but even more important is that many people realize walking on cement floors is stupid and choose to have carpet installed. Likewise, counselors want to be paid for what we do, but far more important is that people realize they don’t need to suffer with anxiety, and seek qualified help.

I reject the stigma of mental health problems. It stems from ignorance, as stigmas usually do. Still, it has taken me a long time to even refer to my anxiety issue as a “mental health” problem because I fear reproach, or not being taken seriously. But I fear even more that people who could otherwise get help and start a new life will not get help if I do not speak out.

I am living proof that getting treatment for a debilitating anxiety disorder, rather than dooming a person to victim-hood, can move one to greater levels of peace and happiness and productivity than one has ever known.

If you suffer from anxiety, the sooner you get comfortable admitting it, talking about it, and get the help you need, the sooner the people around you will come to understand it better. They will still love you, and you can get on with your life. Then your mess will become your message, as you proclaim to others the news that they don’t have to suffer either.

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