Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Alex Smith, a 34-year-old sales operations analyst and writer living in Toronto.
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I was only recently diagnosed with anxiety, but in the past couple of years I’ve come to realize that I can’t remember not feeling this way. I was an introverted and highly sensitive child, which wasn’t really a well-known thing at the time, but for me it meant being terrified of a lot of things without knowing why.
When I was little, my dad took me to my first Maple Leafs hockey game. The game was exciting with lots of goals but for me, it was unbearable. Loud noises, screaming crowds, bright lights; they all made me so overwhelmed that, sobbing, I begged my father to take me home. To this day, I feel like I let him down by ruining what he wanted to be a fun bonding experience for us.
In school, I took naturally to creative arts and social sciences, but math was exceptionally difficult for me, and I’d get test anxiety. My grades suffered, which disappointed my parents, and my math teachers would put me on the spot in front of the entire class to solve an equation, which just made me clam up.
When all my friends got their driver’s licenses, I failed the written test and was so ashamed that I’ve never gone back. It was one of those things that anxiety convinced me was easy for other people but would always be impossible for me. I feel like such a loser for not being able to drive, but the thought of failing again is more than I can stand.
I’m also utterly terrified of conflict, to the point that I avoid it at all costs. When I’m upset, I just cry, even if I’m angry, which makes it impossible to express myself in a healthy and constructive way. I was also in an emotionally abusive relationship where my feelings were constantly belittled or dismissed, which just solidified my belief that my feelings were a burden that served no one. I don’t like sharing feelings because I don’t feel that doing so is “safe” for me, emotionally, so I cover it up by making jokes (very much like Chandler Bing from “Friends").
When I’m anxious, I sweat, my breathing quickens, and my mouth gets dry. I’ll also twirl my hair, sometimes sticking it in my mouth.
When I’m especially anxious, I find I can get to sleep, but I’ll wake up, and thoughts will immediately spring to what’s making me anxious, and I’ll be unable to get back to sleep. As soon as I’m awake, negative thoughts are off to the races.
I’ve also developed psoriasis on the palms of my hands, which has been really difficult for social anxiety, because the dry, red skin is on such a visible part of my body. I wear long sleeves constantly so I can hide them, even in warm weather. While psoriasis isn’t caused by anxiety, stress makes the symptoms worse.
When I’m anxious, I have great difficulty concentrating or processing information. Simple things like learning a new task at work become extremely difficult, and within minutes I convince myself that I’m so incompetent that I’m going to get fired.
I’ll also replay embarrassing or stressful situations over and over and over, mentally kicking myself for making such stupid mistakes. I talk myself into avoiding doing anything, because I’ll somehow fail at it.
I used to write short stories a lot and have layouts for several new ones, but anxiety stops me from actually getting down to write it because I’m sure it’ll be garbage and that I won’t finish any of them, so there’s no point in starting. Instead, the ideas whizz around in my head with nowhere to go.
When I’m especially anxious, even getting out of bed is hard. Going to work sounds like a Herculean task, even if it’s not a busy day. All I can think about is getting home and getting into sweats and disappearing into surfing the Internet, shutting the whole world out.
If I have simple errands to run, like filling a prescription or going to the grocery store, I feel overwhelmed that I wind up doing none of them, letting the to-do list get longer and longer.
Social engagements and work functions are extremely difficult for me, because I feel like I have to be bouncy and fun and full of stories and jokes. When I’m overwhelmed, I can’t put on that social face without feeling fully emotionally and mentally drained.
Having a routine helps me. Doing the same things in more or less the same order every morning before going to work helps me feel like I have a little control over my day, and because I’m often lost in my own thoughts, it helps make sure I don’t forget things.
When I’m at work, I’ll either type out a short article on a subject I’m interested in (so I can really absorb the article but still look like I’m working), or I’ll take a piece of paper and list out all the 50 states. I find it helps ground me and turns my focus away from the constant stream of negative thoughts running through my head It usually takes about 15 minutes which is about the time I need to let the overwhelming feelings subside.
If I’m having an anxious day, I’ll cancel plans and stay home under a blanket and watch TV or read. I feel most relaxed when I don’t feel that I have to be “on.”
That anxiety doesn’t operate with logic and isn’t a tap that can be turned off. Even when you know your thoughts aren’t rooted in facts, how do you fight against your own mind? If I could get rid of it, believe me, I would.
For a lot of people, anxiety manifests itself in different, strange ways. Little tics and routines may look silly on the outside, but it’s a coping mechanism for someone who has determined that it makes it just a little easier to get through the day.