At this point in our socially aware, post-Pixar’s “Inside Out” society, where Ariana Grande and Broadway actress Patti Murin may speak openly about their daily struggles with anxiety, there’s really no excuse for not having a basic awareness of the prevalence and seriousness of anxiety in the United States. It is, after all, the most common mental health disorder in the country, affecting more than 40 million Americans each year. As one of those millions, I am often pleasantly surprised by how open and accepting people seem to be when faced with the revelation of my affliction. “I have terrible anxiety, too,” they might say; or, at least: “I know someone who suffers from terrible anxiety.”
But there’s always room for improvement, right? So, here are three, more subtle ways that my anxiety affects me on a regular basis… ways that go regularly unnoticed by people in my life, proving that we still have some untilled land when it comes to awareness. (Of course, I can only speak from my personal experience, as anxiety is a wide-ranging disorder with many different symptoms.)
I am the ultimate procrastinator.
People tend to be pretty unsympathetic when it comes to this trait, mainly (I suspect) because they associate procrastination with laziness.
However, procrastination really has nothing to do with an aversion to working hard. It’s a form of avoidance, which in psycho-speak refers to coping mechanisms a person develops to avoid dealing with something unpleasant. In my case, work and deadlines give me an enormous amount of anxiety, and rather than deal with these feelings in an appropriate and healthy way, I tend to just put off thinking about them altogether. This, of course, kicks off one of those fun “vicious cycles” that are so common in mental health discussions: the more I put off a task, the more anxious I become, the more I am inclined to put it off, and so on.
In 11th Grade, I wrote a 20-page research paper I was supposed to have been writing for a whole semester in a single night. Needless to say, it was not a good paper. Which, that’s actually the most frustrating part of being a procrastinator, aside from how judgmental people get: that it severely limits how well I am able to perform. No one does their best work in a mad rush at the last second. Procrastination can also put a strain on my personal and professional relationships when I don’t follow through on a commitment or turn in work late.
My sleep is perpetually inconsistent.
Another aspect of my life that almost no one is privy to is my horrible, horrible sleep patterns. At night, as soon as the lights are turned out, my brain is divested of stimuli to distract it from all the stuff it’s worried about.
And let me tell you, it is worried about a lot. Work I still have to do. People I have been neglecting to talk to. Every single brusque or unkind thing I’ve ever said to anyone at any point in my life, ever. In the dark, I am absolutely savaged by obsessive thoughts and disquieting ruminations.
Oftentimes, I am forced to wile away the nighttime hours with vacuous distraction after vacuous distraction until I am so exhausted I simply pass out. You would not believe the amount of YouTube movie trailers I have watched multiple times, for movies I have no intention of seeing. This ritual carries a lot of ramifications for the rest of my waking life — a life that I typically stumble through in a sleepy, bleary haze, barely energized or focused enough to function. Poor sleep hygiene greatly impairs one’s cognitive abilities; it lowers motor functions and IQ. It causes car crashes. People might consider me to be low-energy or moody, but more often than not, I just didn’t sleep well, and it’s all because of my anxiety-ridden brain.
My self-esteem is in tatters.
This is the biggie. The aspect of anxiety that is hardest to explain to someone who doesn’t experience anxiety. Basically, my anxiety makes me feel bad about myself.
That’s it. Each day, I go through the assorted motions my life, and I feel bad.
Not just bad: inept. Like I’m not able to function on the level that “normal” people are. I just feel so broken. Every time I cancel plans with someone because of a spike in my social anxiety; every time I let a call go to voicemail because I can’t bear the thought of talking on the phone right then; every time I am somehow relegated to sitting outside a Wendy’s in my car at 2:45am, panicking for no discernible reason other than just being out in the world, muttering under my breath like I’m summoning a demon, utterly unable to get out of my car, or drive away, or order food, and why did I even drive here in the first place? my god I’m pathetic, my life is a waste, look at me, I’m such a goddamn loser…
And I’m a burden on those around me…And I’m a failure.
Of course, having an anxiety disorder doesn’t mean any of these things. Not really There is no bar for “normal” in America that you’re not meeting, there’s just an endless amount of spectrums of functionality and privilege, on which you fall higher than some, and lower than others. I have an anxiety disorder, but also 20/20 vision and grew up in a middle-income home. At some point, all exercises in comparison become ludicrous. As trite as it is to say, we’re all on our own journeys.
But as long as we’re embarking on our personal quests for wellness and fulfillment, we might as well do everything we can to engender a little more empathy for one another. I hope this post has illuminated a few ways that a person’s struggle might be invisible to you, but all too acute for them.