It's a feeling we're all familiar with: you get butterflies in your stomach, your heart beats a mile a minute, your mind starts racing, and your knees go weak. Maybe you feel it before a big public speech or during a particularly turbulent flight. Now imagine that feeling all day, for no reason — that's what it's like to live with anxiety.
"Anxiety" and "panic attack" are terms thrown around so casually nowadays, it has watered down what it truly means to have this unpleasant mental illness. But as someone who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression when I was 14, then later with bipolar II (with which anxiety is a common symptom), I can tell you it's nothing to be flippant about. Although my anxiety isn't nearly as severe as some people's — I have only had a couple panic attacks in my life and I am still able to go to work and function most days — it's a silent illness that impacts every facet of my life, every day.
On a good day, my anxiety manifests itself by thinking of worst-case scenarios for some situations: What if my train gets delayed and I'm late for work? What if I forgot my wallet at home and can't buy my lunch? Is my friend actually mad at me because she didn't text me back right away? What if I go to this party and no one talks to me?
On a tough day, my anxiety is both physical and mental: the butterflies and sinking pit in my stomach are constant, my heart races for no reason, and my mind can't help but catastrophize everything in disturbing, vivid scenarios all day long. What if I trip on the subway platform and get hit by an oncoming train? What if I open my mouth during a meeting and word vomit comes out, offending everyone and I get fired on the spot? What if that mole on my arm is melanoma and I'm secretly dying of cancer? What if someone brought a gun and opened fire in this theater — where are the closest exits? Sometimes, it's just an overwhelming feeling of fear and doom with no source or reasoning.
It feels like I'm a prisoner trapped in my own mind and my brain is showcasing a highlight reel of frightening imagery on a constant loop. No matter how hard I try to think of happy, pleasant thoughts to counteract the bad ones, the negativity always shines through. I have a couple go-to thoughts I try to invoke when I'm feeling anxious to calm me down: being on a beach looking at a calm, serene ocean, or sitting on the couch at home with my husband and a glass of wine. Most of the time, it's futile.
On days I'm feeling particularly anxious, I tend to shut down and not talk much; I'm always worried that I'll say something wrong or bad, offend someone, and sever that connection or get fired from my job. This has led to people thinking I'm rude or standoffish, personality traits I definitely don't want to exhibit.
My psychiatrist's office doesn't prescribe benzodiazepines, which means it's up to my prescribed mood stabilizers for my bipolar disorder, lifestyle habits, and the occasional CBD oil to treat my anxiety. I can usually manage on just my prescriptions, working out in the mornings, and getting enough sleep. But if I feel some anxiety creeping in, I'll take a dose or two of CBD oil. And, I certainly don't recommend this as a coping strategy, but sometimes I'll unwind after a particularly stressful day with a cocktail or glass of wine in the evening.
I've been told by doctors before that my anxiety isn't "that bad" because I have never ended up in the hospital because of it. Sure, I am lucky that I've never had to have emergency medical intervention, but living with anxiety is a burden that impacts my personal and professional life on a near-daily basis.
As I continue to seek treatment, I hope my anxiety will start to be alleviated; lately, I've been having more good days than bad ones, which is a sign of progress. I know anxiety is something I'll live with forever, but I'm committed to continue working on my mental health and eventually live a calmer, more balanced life.
I just hope people realize that anxiety is more than just "being a worrier" or a mindset people choose. It's a serious mental illness that takes effort, and sometimes medication, to treat.