The other day I had to do something out of the ordinary. I won’t go into it — because it really wasn’t about me — but it was something I’ve only ever done once before, as well as being a situation that most would find difficult or stressful.
I’m not here to write about what I did, but rather how I did it. The few other people who know what happened commented afterwards how naturally I managed to slide into the role that was required, and overcome the stress of it all. Welcome to the world of an anxiety disorder.
About four years ago I was diagnosed with having an anxiety disorder and it was a bit of a lightbulb moment. I was lucky enough to receive a course of counselling on the NHS back in England, in which I went through some Cognitive behavioural therapy sessions. Since then I’ve had panic attacks, bouts of depression and times where I’ve felt completely enveloped by my poor mental health — but I’ve never felt as low as I did before my understanding of the disorder.
Back when I was diagnosed I was scored on a chart, where I could see via line graphs and data just how bad my anxiety disorder was. “This isn’t great. In fact — It’s about as bad as it possibly can be,” my straight-talking NHS counsellor told me, “but it’s nothing you can’t fix.”
Before my CBT sessions I displayed strong symptoms of social anxiety and agoraphobia, on top of my generalised anxiety disorder; I couldn’t have conversations with anyone on most days, and some days I was terrified of what might happen if I left the house.
To put it simply, an anxiety disorder is a chemical imbalance in the brain that means you process events differently. It plays into the whole primal fight or flight element of living; Something that used to be all about surviving potential predators in the wild, but now helps us out in scary situations. My imbalance means that I read most encounters as fight or flight — which allows the anxiety to seep in, leading me to not do either. Instead, I freeze.
It’s recommended that people with serious anxiety disorders don’t drive, as it consists of a lot of instant decision making that can put people’s lives in danger. So I don’t drive, for now. Most other aspects of modern living are fine enough to handle with some CBT, meditation or understanding of the disorder — because in most situations you’re given a minute or so to make a decision on something.
If we reduce negative feelings of a mental heath disorder to a simple 1-10 scale, I was told that I’m constantly at a 5 — that’s my base camp. I know that when I meditate, or control my breathing in any way, I can get that feeling as low as a 2 and feel what it’s like to not have an anxiety disorder.
It’s great, by the way — but I can’t be constantly meditating. I might live at a high altitude in Colorado, but I’ve got a long way to go before I’m actually living up a mountain.
For whatever reason, whenever I encounter something in day-to-day life that I’ve done a hundred times before, such as order a meal, make a phone call or speak to a stranger, my 5 goes up to a 7 or an 8. Until online delivery came about, ordering a pizza used to be an impossible task.
In these everyday situations my fight or flight kicks in, as usual, but then my anxiety asks why everyone else involved in the encounter isn’t also freaking out — and I start to panic. Why isn’t the waitress as terrified to receive my order as I am to give it? Why isn’t my polite neighbour trembling with fear when we say hi to each other? I’ve learned to control this, for the most part, but it’s something I have to actively suppress.
Now when something traumatic happens, something that legitimately demands a fight or flight response, and people around me do start freaking out — That’s when I’m in my element. See, I’m already at a 5, so to jump to a 9 isn’t a huge stretch for me. The people also involved the other day, they were floating along at a 1 or a 2, but they also had to jump to a 9, from a much lower point.
I’m good when accidents happen to other people, because everyone is running around and visibly displaying the same panic I feel on a day-to-day basis. This stops the anxiety of “you’re not normal” seeping in, so I can think clearly and do what I need to do to solve the problem. I’d really prefer it if accidents didn’t happen to other people though.
Jon Ronson is a journalist and writer with an anxiety disorder, who occasionally discusses its impact on his life. Despite his struggle with performing a lot of basic, daily tasks — he has spent time with terrorist groups, been around some dangerous people and put himself in situations that most would normally find terrifying.
In a podcast interview he once mused:
“Maybe it’s why people with anxiety disorders are quite good when it comes to actual difficult situations, because we’ve rehearsed it so many times. We panic unnecessarily so often that when something really worth panicking (about) comes along, we actually handle it really well.” – Jon Ronson
What I had to do the other day was nothing like spending time with terrorists to get to know them, but it was something really worth panicking about.
It got me thinking that maybe I can overcome even more of aspects of my life effected by my anxiety disorder, if I can just convince myself that it’s all worth panicking about. I’ll have to give it some thought, because reprogramming thought-processes can be risky — but if I could respond to normal situations in the same way I did to that stressful one, then I’d consider myself as close to “cured” as I think is possible for my particular mental health issue.
The world is a scary place from time to time, and while ordering a pizza isn’t worth having a panic attack over — if I tell myself that it is, then maybe I wouldn’t panic in the first place?
Some thoughts for thought, which is now my neurosis speaking.
Today is Wednesday, August 8th and if you’re struggling with your mental health you should talk about it. It’s not talking that causes the damage.
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