Everyone has anxiety. It’s not something we can cure, and we wouldn’t want to if we could. Anxiety, when it kicks in properly, is our natural two-pronged protector reflex. It’s a physical feeling in our body, combined with the thought process in our head that directs our behaviour. Anxiety is our brain’s smoke alarm, our gut feeling that keeps us safe and out of danger. Everyone experiences anxiety when we sense danger, maybe as we walk down a dark street alone at night. Our hands get sweaty, our face gets hot, our heart speeds up, and we’re on high alert for possible trouble. Our brain tells us to cross the street, or to walk more quickly. The human brain is wired for survival, which is why it’s excellent at perceiving physical danger. Our instincts are sharp. When faced with a grizzly bear, we bolt. On the flipside, it’s not so precise about what to do when we sense a risky social situation, like trying out for a sports team. It’s very common to feel excited and nervous, and scared of embarrassing yourself, but you’re able to go for it. My brain works differently.
I have a mental disorder called Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD. It’s not the same as having Depression, or Panic Attacks, which come and go. Living with GAD, sometimes just called Anxiety, means dealing with excessive and uncontrollable worry every day. My brain initiates the same response to both an actual threat and a mild concern. It comes up with irrational scenarios, while my heart starts pounding, my tears come, my palms sweat, and I feel dizzy and nauseated. Let’s say I smell smoke. Is the house on fire, or is that just toast burning? Either way, I react with the same intensity. Having GAD means being on high alert all the time, which makes me feel different, jumpy. I need a lot of sleep because dealing with GAD is exhausting.
For those of us who live with GAD, it means our worries and fears become even more intense when we’re faced with situations where we feel out of control. We work hard to avoid unpredictable, uncertain, or unusual situations because the worry of “what if?” is overwhelming. In trying to manage our anxiety, we might decide to just skip the social stuff that freaks us out (meeting new friends, going to parties, riding the bus). This makes us feel like we’re in control but actually, this is us giving into our fears, which makes things worse in the long run. It’s important to find help from a professional early on so our worries don’t stop us from doing the stuff we really want to do.
Living with GAD means we hear a negative attack track in our head all the time. Our brains are on a loop, feeding us irrational, fear-based, judgemental messages all day long. It can sound something like this: “What if you’re late for school. You need to leave an hour earlier, stupid. You can’t take the bus because what if you get on the bus and there’s no room? What if you get on the wrong bus? What if you can’t find your way home? Just run, idiot. You’re so slow, you’re so fat, you’re so ugly, no one will ever love you. Why do you even go to school? What if no one will hire you? What if you never get a job? What if you get run over in the street because you didn’t take the bus?!”
These constant streams of negative messages hits hard. Our brain, in survival mode, tells us to find something that helps us escape. My escape is food. Cookies, ice cream, chocolate all help to push down my fears, the voices, the pain. Food is easy to get, cheap, and always available. It’s easy to hide, which is important, because if I get caught, other people will find out I’m a messed up loser who doesn’t fit in.
So, if you are among those who must deal with this or a similar condition, whether you choose food (including both binging and restricting your intake), or drugs, or alcohol or sex, your reason is the same as mine: escape the pain. But none of these things is the root of our problem. They are all presumed solutions that don’t work. Every time I used food to numb my pain, I told myself I was finally in control, that I knew what to do to help myself feel better. The truth is that I didn’t feel better, I felt gross and disgusted with myself. The more I ate, the more I hated myself. The very voices I was trying to silence just got louder. But I didn’t know what else to do. I was a teenager dealing with a mental disorder by myself…how could I know what to do?
Here’s what I wish someone had said to me when I was 14 years old:
“You are not a freak. You are strong, creative, smart, funny, compassionate and brave. I know there are voices in your head. You can’t control the voices, but you can challenge them, because thoughts are not facts. Your brain doesn’t know everything. We need to figure out what your triggers are (what jumpstarts your worrying into sweating, tears, dizziness, dry mouth, fast heartbeat), so that we can connect with healthy solutions. Can we replace your “escape the pain” plan with talking about what’s going on for you? I know it’s hard. Tell to me about what’s going on in your head. I care about you. You can trust me. You’re not weak or stupid. How you are is not your fault. Mental illness and disorders come from a combination of environmental factors (family, friends, school, social activities, social media…) and genetics. Scientific research proves that mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault. Drop the shame. You don’t need it. You don’t deserve it. You deserve love and belonging. We’ll do this together. I’ll show you lots of tools that you can use every day to build up your strong mental health.”
Here’s a list of tools that I use to help manage my GAD:
Medication. I take a pill every day because medication helps me to be my best self. It doesn’t change my personality, or mess up my head. It seems to quiet the noise and help me think more clearly. Medication may not be right for you, and that’s your choice. I believe that if something can help me live the life I want to live, then I’m in.
Therapy. I meet with a therapist, which allows me to figure out feelings I don’t understand with an expert who is trained in this work. It’s important to be able to talk to someone I trust, but who is not in my everyday life.
Sleep. Anyone who says people with mental illness are weak have never lived with one. Our own brains are feeding us information and stimulation that we need to constantly question. Good quality sleep in a comfortable bed is critical. Passing out on the couch doesn’t count.
Good Food. Less sugar, more vegetables. Crap in, crap out. Healthy, regular meals makes a huge difference in my energy level.
Exercise. This means getting out of the house and out of our heads. Connect to our body. Breathe fresh air. I walk. Simple, but it grounds me.
Strong Support System. We need to surround ourselves with family and friends who get us, who don’t judge us, who accept us, and see more of us than just our GAD.
Routine, Routine, Routine. Even when I don’t feel like it, I try my best to stick to my routine because anything off the grid triggers me. Sticking with what I know builds up my confidence because I see myself getting stuff done. I can bank this evidence of accomplishment so that when I want to try something new, I remind myself I have proof that I can do stuff.
Pets. My cats love me and are happy to see me no matter what. I take care of them, and they trust and count on me. Their comforting company is key in my life.
Chill time. I need to spend time just being quiet. No video games, no headphones, no texts, nothing. Just peace. I may only do it for ten minutes, but I do it every day, so that I don’t get overwhelmed. Some call it prayer, or meditation. Don’t label it. Just do it. It helps a lot.
Music. I crank the tunes. I play guitar, I sing all the time. It relaxes me, and brings me joy.
Play. It’s okay to have fun. We need it. Whether it’s being on the stage, or baking, or gardening, I do these things just for fun. No other reason. Fun engages all parts of us, including creativity and imagination.
The support that is waiting for you is your key to self-acceptance. When you start to talk about how life is for you, you’ll see for yourself that you’re not alone. Not only are there wonderful resources out there for adults, there are websites, resources and programs specifically designed with youth input to help other youth who live with GAD, too. Once you see that your struggle is something that can actually help you feel connected, you’ll hopefully understand that this disorder is only one part of your life. It is absolutely possible to have GAD and be mentally healthy. With these tools, and a good understanding of what you need to defuse your own triggers, you can do more than barely survive. You can thrive.
Rina Varley is a writer, performer, and GAD awareness advocate. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information on her one-woman show, MiND FuLL or visit: www.gadtobealive.com . And be sure to check out GAD to BE Alive Productions on Facebook!
© Rina Varley, GAD to Be Alive Productions
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