Life as an Anxiety Ridden Human Being
An anxious knot of fear twists in her stomach, and her heart races in an irregular pattern. Panicked thoughts fill her mind as she struggles to remain calm.
For Krista Pollock, a 39-year-old mother of four, this is a normal day. Pollock suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, a mental health disorder affecting 6.8 million adults in the U.S., according to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America. GAD, which is characterized by persistent and usually irrational thoughts of worry and fear and is thought to stem from a variety of causes, can manifest in different ways and change how one participates in everyday life.
“It [GAD] has caused me to have a lot of unnecessary fear that without, I would enjoy a lot more in life. I tend to worry and overreact when feeling anxious about something very minor. Even something that seems so small to one person, can be huge to me, like grocery shopping,” Pollock says.
While according to the ADAA, anxiety tends to occur more often in women than in men, anyone can suffer from GAD. Each individual has a different experience with anxiety, but the persistent fear is consistent among those who suffer from it.
“Anxiety is an equal opportunity disorder. It doesn’t care how old you are or how wealthy you are,” says anxiety counselor Karen Muranko. “For generalized anxiety disorder, you’re afraid of everything. Some people have a specific fear, like you can’t get on an elevator or you can’t get on an airplane, but with generalized anxiety disorder you can be afraid of anything. It’s very random.”
Certified life coach and author Kristen Baker says those who suffer from anxiety may experience excessive worry, tension, apprehension, racing thoughts, trouble sleeping, nausea, shaking, racing heart, heart palpitations and avoidance behavior. There is no hard and fast rule regarding these symptoms, but according to Baker, at least one or more of these symptoms is present in order for a patient to be diagnosed with anxiety. They can impact the lives of anxiety sufferers and make leading a normal life challenging.
“Avoiding things, fearing and having worst case scenario thoughts and racing thoughts can make you so afraid and uneasy. Eating habits are affected; one may not eat or feel nauseous if they do; some may overeat. Your energy is zapped; you can feel like you will die,” Baker says.
Those suffering with anxiety consider this constant fear normal. Many don’t realize this excessive worry is a mental health disorder until new symptoms appear. Diagnosed in her thirties, Pollock says her experience with anxiety started much earlier than that. Her persistent symptoms finally convinced her to seek a diagnosis.
“Looking back, it [GAD] is something I’ve had for much, much longer than when I was diagnosed. I’d say all the way back to high school. My main symptom has been heart palpitations. I have them daily. The onset of these is what made me realize there was more going on inside me that was real than I had thought. Meaning I never would have thought I suffered from anxiety until I started experiencing these symptoms,” Pollock says.
Others who suffer from anxiety feel this same way. Many people who have GAD do not seek treatment because they are unaware what they feel is not normal. Some realize their feelings are unusual and irrational, but believe it’s something they should simply “get over.” For other people, it is a fear of the stigma that surrounds mental health disorders.
“People don’t want to have someone with a mental health disorder as a neighbor or a coworker or a relative. In their mind, everyone with a mental health disorder is dangerous,” Muranko says.
For Pollock, a combination of medication and counseling have allowed her to function despite her anxiety disorder. Muranko recommends seeking help from a therapist and investigating alternative treatments like hypnotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy before using medication. According to Baker, anxiety is a normal fear response, but when someone suffers from an anxiety disorder, the way he or she thinks and responds to situations and events is often with irrational worry and fear. Changing one’s thoughts and perceptions can help to overcome these anxious thoughts and feelings.
“Sufferers of GAD can lead a normal life. They just have to be willing to pack up their anxiety and carry it with them. Part of that involves recognizing that as human beings we’re all terribly flawed and imperfect, and that control over our lives is at best fleeting and elusive,” says anxiety expert Dr. John Cook.
Unfortunately, GAD and other mental health disorders are often misdiagnosed. There are no specific tests that give a definitive diagnosis the way they do for other illnesses like viruses or cancer. After a physical exam rules out a physical cause for symptoms, a physician will either recommend a psychologist or ask a serious of diagnostic questions, says Baker. These questions can be subjective, and related disorders can be confused. These disorders can also often go hand in hand.
“People tend to get frustrated with things if they have chosen not to seek treatment or the treatment they are currently on is not working. If someone is not on the path to wellness, they can feel that frustration and that can lead to depression,” Muranko says.
College student Katy Schoech, 19, suffers from a combination of anxiety and depression. Her condition has had a significant impact on her life and the way she participates in every day experiences.
“I feel that I am controlled by my anxiety. It’s a lot harder to be in large crowds, deal with many of life’s problems or be in cars, all of which give me anxiety personally. It has sometimes made it harder to stay focused on school; it has made it difficult to interact with people or be in large crowds, especially if I am worried about having panic attacks,” Schoech says.
Pollock also says she sometimes believes GAD controls her life. She avoids certain situations because she knows her anxiety will be more severe. However, she says she also feels she does as much as possible to be normal.
“I don’t think having anxiety sets me apart from other people. It is what it is. Some people are caring and try to understand, and others don’t care to,” Pollock says.
For those suffering with anxiety, the feelings of panic and fear are very real. Some find themselves crippled by their disorders, while others like Schoech and Pollock make an effort to live a normal life with their condition. As Cook says, living a normal life with anxiety is possible if the sufferer is willing to accept his or her condition and work through it.