Today we’re doing something a little bit different. While this blog will still mostly focus on my experiences with anxiety, I’m going to start interviewing other people who deal with anxiety and posting it here every so often. Partly this is because my experience isn’t universal, and there are definitely things about me or my journey that are not representative of other anxiety sufferers. I also want to highlight the commonality of what we all experience – like how we all have some kind of physical symptom(s) – and because talking about this kind of stuff is what helps to break down this stigma. Prejudice and judgement about mental health exist because people don’t speak up about their experience, and so the myths are not dispelled. You guys know that advocacy is really important to me, and so I’m going to use this platform (every once in a while) to be a voice for someone.
DS is originally from the Midwest but has lived in New York City for 16 years. They work in youth development and professional development and training for those who work with youth. They are the parent of a two month old, and enjoy reading, cooking, and science.
When did you start experiencing anxiety and do you know why?
DS: I’ve had anxiety off and on for most of my life. It started when I was five and my parents got divorced. I started having a lot of stomach issues and would fake that I was sick a lot so that I could stay home. I’m sure that I had anxiety when I was growing up after that at more acute times, but it really came back again after college. I started noticing it a lot more than I had been before. I feel like I don’t actually know why that happened but it just kind of came back.
When you experience anxiety, what does that feel like? What are the physical symptoms and thoughts you have?
DS: The times when I experience the most anxiety are around traveling because I’m a nervous flyer, so that’s the most acute for me. Generally when I experience anxiety I often am nauseous and really tired. I feel really lethargic and weak physically. If I’m teaching a workshop or something I’ll feel that way before, and then when I start teaching it feels great and it goes away. And I’ll notice that often my heart will be beating more rapidly, I will cry much more easily, and in terms of my thoughts I feel like I often do a circle where I’ll have whatever the thoughts are that are provoking my anxiety, and then I’ll try to calm myself down or use positive self talk, and then will kind of circle back around. Sometimes in between I’m beating myself up for feeling that way. I think that’s where I used to spend all of my time: having anxious thoughts and then beating myself up for feeling anxious and then having anxious thoughts. And I think through therapy and living with it I can interrupt it more with positive self talk, but I’m not always able to get myself out of it.
Would you describe those thoughts more as ruminating – going around and around and thinking about the same thing all the time – or are they more like racing, where you’re having a rapid succession of what if thoughts?
DS: I think I’m more of a ruminator because I think that often when I’m feeling anxious it’s situations that I’ve already been in. When I’m thinking about flying, I’m not actually thinking to myself what if the plane crashes or what if… it’s just more of a general like I’m freaking out about this feeling. For me it’s feeling a lack of control, and when the unknown becomes to great I feel like I don’t have any control over it, or not as much control as I would like. That’s when I get really anxious, and so it’s not as much what ifs as just that general feeling of feeling out of control. So then I’m just kind of like get it together.
You talked about how you experience anxiety when you’re traveling or you feel out of control. Are there any other situations in which you’ve noticed that you tend to feel anxiety?
DS: Anytime there’s potential confrontation. That’s the other big thing for me. Any time I’m worried that someone is going to be mad at me, or disappointed in me, or any time that I’m anticipating a negative reaction from someone else based on what I’m going to say or something that I did or something that they’re doing, then I feel a lot of anxiety about that as well. It leads me to avoid having those conversations often, and when I have to have them, if I can’t show that I’m anxious, then I psych myself up for them, like if it’s at work or something. And if it’s in my personal life where I can show that I’m anxious, then often I have to stop and take really deep breaths and force myself to say the things that I know I need to say. Sometimes I try to be really honest about it and say like “I don’t want to say this but I feel like I have to.” Like “I’m feeling really scared about saying this out loud but I’m going to say it” because that helps me be able to get it out. But it’s still really hard and I’m usually completely exhausted by the end.
Why do you feel like you can’t express your anxiety at work?
DS: Because I don’t want to be seen as weak. Sometimes I think that my ability to be diplomatic and very Midwestern is an asset, but sometimes I think it’s not. And sometimes I wish that I could be more direct. I think when you’re younger you’re always deferring. Everybody is older than you, everybody has more experience than you. But there’s a point at which you realize that things are shifting and, in fact, you do know what needs you happen. You are the expert. You are the adult. Other people are wrong. [laughs] It’s weird to make that transition, and it’s hard to speak from that place of authority. Partially because I think everybody has imposter syndrome and you’re not 100% sure, but also because I’m always worried about taking up too much space or stepping on someone else’s toes or handling something in a way that people feel is inappropriate. Meanwhile, there are tons of people at my job who do that all the time. And often they’re seen as rude or sort of aggressive, usually when they’re women, which is the other piece of that. But also, they get stuff done. And sometimes people are scared of them which means that they get their way, which is really fascinating. It’s kind of this interesting world to be in. But there are ways in which I wish that I could be more confident in asserting myself when I feel like I’m right, but again, I just get nervous. Especially because I think that really taking a stand means that someone can really push back, and so again there’s that potential for conflict if I’m doing that.
Just to clarify, when you say “Midwestern”, what do you mean by that?
DS: I think in the Midwest, and not only just the Midwest but the family that I grew up in, it’s a very like passive-aggressive, beneath the surface kind of way of communicating. People who are really direct and straightforward are seen as being rude or not caring about other people. The ethos is that you always put other people before yourself. If I feel like I’m putting myself first, I feel selfish. And that makes me feel anxious. So I’m always trying to calibrate that internally whenever I’m in a situation like that. “Am I right? Am I right to be taking care of myself here over taking care of someone else?” I’ve come to learn that often the best way to take care of someone else IS to take care of yourself, but it took me a long time to get to that place. That was not something I saw modeled when I was growing up.
How has anxiety affect your life, either positive or negative or both?
DS: Everything I’ve just said I’ve learned about myself because of my anxiety, so it’s definitely fueled a process of self-growth that I’m not sure I would have undergone otherwise. It’s not the whole reason why I started going to therapy, but it’s part of it. The other thing I’m thinking about is that my partner struggles with other mental health issues, and so I think it makes me more empathetic to my partner as well. We both have things that we struggle with and it’s easier for me to get to a place of compassion, because I know how hard it is for me when I’m in a really anxious place. When my partner is in a really depressed place, it doesn’t feel as far away as it might if I didn’t have any times in my life like that. Even in the work that I do with young people sometimes it affects me negatively because there are definitely times that I feel anxious. When you work with teenagers there’s going to be conflict, so there’s that piece of it, but also I see how anxious they are and there’s sort of a feeling of “I’ve been where you are” and I at least know part of the way out. And that feels good to be able to do that.
I think there are definitely positive ways that it’s affected my life. Certainly there are times when my anxiety keeps me from doing things. When I knew I really needed to get help was when I didn’t go on a trip because I was too anxious to get on the plane and that was kind of a wake up call for me. But there are definitely things that I regret not doing or not saying because I felt like I was too anxious to do them.
How do you manage or address your anxiety, either in day-to-day or acute situations, and how effective have those methods been?
DS: Depending on what’s going on, I think the biggest way that I manage it is through breathing. In certain situations, especially around travel, then meditation is often also really helpful for me. Sometimes having someone else just be there. My mom used to rub my back when I was a kid, so having my back rubbed is really comforting to me. Sometimes that’s really helpful. If I’m in the kind of situation where I can do those things then I will. I’m always trying to breathe. Especially at work, I try to use positive self talk, partially because I’ve been trained to do that at work so it comes out contextually a little bit more there. Sometimes I will try to stand in a way that makes me feel more confident, for instance, which can also be helpful. I don’t think I experience that much day-to-day, it tends to be more situational.
And you also mentioned therapy?
DS: Yeah, that too.
Do you take any kind of medication?
DS: Not regularly. There’s an anti-anxiety medication that I have for when I’m traveling and I went and got the prescription for it when I had that experience where I didn’t get on the plane. I was like I can’t do this, I’m not letting this control my life this way. I think that I had sort of gotten into a spiral where every flight that I took made me more anxious, leading up to the one that I didn’t take. After I got the anxiety medication, I took it on the next flight and that flight was pretty good. I think just having a good experience helped me remember that I could do it. Within like a year I was only taking it if it was really stormy. Not for every single flight. If we were going someplace that I knew, and the weather was good, then I was fine and I didn’t need it, but if it was a big trip or if the weather was really bad then I would still need it. There have been a few trips where I haven’t taken it when I have gotten really anxious and haven’t had it with me but have managed to be able to use my other techniques to be ok.
I already feel slightly anxious about traveling with my baby for the first time because just being responsible for someone else – I feel nervous about not being able to fully take care of myself the way I might need to because there’s this other human being. I know that sometimes for people distraction is something that works really well for them. I feel like for me it just augments things, so I’m not sure that having someone else that I’m taking care of will be helpful. It’s an unknown. It’s both traveling and it’s an unknown. I’m sure that I will be anxious about that.
Also, distraction is one of those things that in the moment it feels really good because then you’re not focusing on how crappy you feel or the ruminating or racing thoughts that you’re having, but you’re only making it worse because you’re not dealing.
DS: My partner always tries to distract me, or they used to, until I was finally like you have to stop doing this because it’s not helping me at all and you keep trying and I keep telling you. They would try and I’d be like stop it. From the outside it looks like I’m wallowing or something, so they would keep trying to do it and – it took me a while to kind of figure it out – but it’s still happening. Distracting me doesn’t make it go away. It’s still going on, it’s just like churning below the surface and I’m not dealing with it. And I’m much better if I’m just dealing with it. And if it’s getting worse and worse, distracting me is not going to stop that. Don’t make jokes at me while we’re taking off, because I’m not in a place where I can hear them.
Right. It’s like, I’m not going to laugh and then you’re going to be upset.
DS: Right. I’ll just be like “shut up. Just let me breathe.” So we’ve learned. It took me some time to figure out what I needed, and it took me some time to be able to express that to my partner, but we’ve gotten to the point where they know to just hold my hand and check in with me. If I need something from them, I’ll let them know. It’s cute, because they can be like half asleep and when the plane starts accelerating they’ll reach over and take my hand. And usually that’s all I need. If there’s like a crazy bump or something just to know they’re there is the most helpful. They know to just kind of leave me be, to let me come to them with the things I need instead of trying to [distract me] because it feels like it adds anxiety to the situation for me.
Right, because they want you to respond to the things that they’re doing.
DS: It’s also that they’re worried about me so then I’m dealing with that, too. It makes me more anxious if I know that you’re worried about me because it makes me feel like I have to take care of you. So you just do your thing and I’ll let you know if I need you, but I don’t want to have to worry about how I’m impacting you. That’s not helping me at all. And it took me a while to figure out that that was part of it, because sometimes you just don’t know. Especially when you’re anxious, it’s hard to sort through what you’re feeling, and sometimes when it’s over you just want to forget about it. You don’t want to go back and analyze everything. That’s part of what was helpful about therapy was just realizing that there are some common themes in my life generally in terms of how I think about the world and how I interact with people and my framework for things, and that those of course are appearing where I’m anxious as well. It helped me kind of pull those out when I was anxious because I was like oh this is a pattern in my life. This pattern is here, too. Of course it is, why wouldn’t it be?
Are there any resources that you’ve looked at or used that have been particularly helpful?
DS: I like buddhify. That’s one of the meditations apps that I use that I really like that’s sort of just general. There’s also a website [yepcheck.com] that helps you count. You can set how many counts you want your in and out breaths to be. That’s really nice. And then for people who are nervous while flying, Virgin Atlantic has an app called Travel Without Fear that I find really helpful. They do classes in England for people who are serious nervous fliers to where they cannot get on a plane. This app is part of that course and it has general meditation and then it has specific meditation for things like takeoff, landing, noises on the plane, weather, all that kind of stuff. I used to use those a lot if there was something specific that was making me nervous and it’s nice because they’ll say like those noises are normal and sometimes I need to remind myself of that. And having anti-anxiety meds as a resource, taking them during acute situations, was super helpful. It got me out of a spiral. And therapy! Therapy has been amazing.
Big thanks to DS for their awesome answers and their time.