To learn about generalized anxiety disorder is, see https://www.camh.ca/en/health-info/mental-illness-and-addiction-index/generalized-anxiety-disorder.
Every single person on Earth has anxiety. The difference between generalized anxiety disorder and regular anxiety lies in the nervous system.
Usually, when there is a threat of some kind our sympathetic nervous system reallocates our energy to our muscles to sustain the “fight or flight” fear response. With regular anxiety, this system only activates under situations of real danger.
Those with generalized anxiety disorder become stuck in constant fight or flight, regardless of the presence of a real threat. The nervous system becomes sensitized, activating the body’s sympathetic nervous system during every day events that hold no threat.
Unless you live with the condition chronically, it is hard to understand just how pervasive this condition can truly be. So, what is it really like living with a chronic, clinical anxiety disorder?
We all have some degree of anxiety over the events that happen to us – it could be a potential divorce, a bad job, health issues or fights with our partner. To someone living with chronic anxiety, these events go one step further into the realm of existentialism.
To some degree we are all meant to simply exist, without questioning our existence too much. A lion does not ask himself why, or how he came to be a lion. He will not look to the sky and ask, “What is all of this?”. He simply accepts what he is without question, and just is. It is of no significance to him.
Generalized anxiety disorder can pave the way to those “big questions” about our reality that only exasperate the anxiety.
The existential dread lies in the unknown, and fear of that unknown. What happens when we die? Where do our family members go when they die? What am I? The inability to understand these questions creates fear.
You can’t just snap out of it.
A hypersensitive nervous system takes a long time to become desensitized. Those with G.A.D. cannot just snap out of it, no matter how irrational their reaction seems. Once a panic attack starts, it is almost impossible to stop.
Existential dread may lie in the fear of death itself, but even if one with G.A.D. stops actively thinking about fear, the nervous system will continue to function abnormally. It takes a long time to correct this.
It makes you think you’re dying or going psychotic at times.
When people fear something they tend to think about it frequently. This fear is kept alive by symptoms that may normally go unnoticed. Due to extreme anxiety, these symptoms become magnified. Heightened symptoms increase the original fear. Symptoms can be so distressing it feels like death or psychosis is right around the corner.
A person with generalized anxiety disorder and existential dread may dream of the day in their past when they naturally did not think of such things. Their distress lies in the realization that once you open that door, it is very difficult to shut it again.
It makes you feel chronically sick.
People with generalized anxiety disorder have increased cortisol throughout the day, and a nervous system that does not function appropriately in relation to its environment.
Increased physiological stress in the day impairs sleep, increasing REM sleep as deep sleep goes down. Less deep sleep in the night causes even more stress the following day in the form of cortisol and adrenaline, as the brain has not had adequate time to rest.
The cycle of less deep sleep and increased daytime cortisol is pervasive. Energy is allocated to the muscles to support the fight or flight response to a threat. The result is exhaustion, and an all-over body tension.
Sickness caused by generalized anxiety disorder feels similar to coming down with a cold or flu, combined with an inner restless energy that prevents us from resting as we would if we had a virus.
Increased physiological stress affects the gut, causing people to lose their appetite (or sometimes over-eat), and severe nausea.
The detrimental effects of constant anxiety are extremely distressing, sometimes impairing one’s ability to hold a job or function in general.
Acid reflux and GERD are common in those with generalized anxiety disorder, as well as TMJ, bruxism, migraine headaches, tension headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
The effects of chronic stress weigh heavily on the body over the course of years, making the sufferer feel persistently sick.
It is never-ending cycles of suffering.
This cycle of feeling sick and increased anxiety over being sick may lead to serious events such as major depression and hypochondria.
Those with generalized anxiety disorder may feel as though their head is in a pressure cooker, about to burst. Tension headaches and migraines are common, as well as acid reflux, TMJ and fatigue. It is very easy for a person with G.A.D. to think there is something medically wrong with them.
The constant sickness can lead to an all-over body malaise, making day-to-day tasks seem overwhelming as the mind and body become over-stimulated too quickly. Non-stop fatigue feels like a heavy weight to the sufferer as the body’s nervous system ceases to function properly.
Simple tasks may seem completely overwhelming. Energy reserves simply aren’t there to sustain the body appropriately – leading to irritability, anger and sometimes aggression.
You learn to master the ability to hide your symptoms.
During a chemistry lab one day in university, my lab partner turned to me and said, “I have to go, I’m diabetic and I’m not feeling that great right now”. She then told the lab instructor, and he sent her on her way.
In the same year I found myself in a situation where unexpected panic attacks plagued me day and night, impairing my ability to attend class presentations.
Knowing the consequences of not being able to attend one particular presentation, I sat down with my professor and explained to him that I was having panic attacks. I politely asked if I could go over the slides rather than be present for the presentation.
He looked at me questioningly, unsure of how to respond. He then shrugged, then told me sternly that my presence was mandatory.
No one seems to believe your illness is as bad as it is.
Being treated like my symptoms were imaginary was nothing new to me. I started hiding my symptoms shortly after the meeting with my professor, attending the events in school, and enduring extreme panic attacks each time.
My body descended into chaos as the extreme stress took its toll on my health. Not having a chance to work on my anxiety, I deteriorated. My stamina ran out fast and because of my panic attacks I was fired from my part-time job.
The more you try to suppress symptoms, the stronger they become.
People with anxiety disorders feel shame and embarrassment for having symptoms that are outside of their realm of control. The urge to hide these symptoms is an immediate response, and many simply endure the horrific symptoms in order to maintain an appearance of productivity.
The stamina involved in this is nothing short of extraordinary, but the degree of suffering one goes through is rarely acknowledged. The more a person with this condition tries to suppress their symptoms, the stronger they will become.
Medication can sometimes cause horrendous side effects.
Generalized anxiety disorder is more than just our thoughts, and controlling those thought patterns. An anxiety disorder affects the entire nervous system, brain and body on a physiological level that impairs one’s ability to function in day-to-day activities.
Medications can help, but at a cost.
Medication is a complete shot in the dark. The reality of psychotropic medication is that the effectiveness varies from person to person, and what works for one may seriously impair the other.
Sometimes medication can completely strip a person of their entire personality, causing apathy and the inability to experience true joy. Other times, the side effects are so unbearable it makes the original illness seem lighter in comparison.
Most of the time, it takes experimentation with many different types of medication to find the right one. This “medication roulette,” can be terrifying when one endures the bizarre symptom profile these drugs come with.
Most people “get worse before they get better,” so if you are already suffering severely, medication will push that suffering to an entirely new level before you even begin to feel relief.
Psychiatric medication is powerful, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. It can make your current anxiety seem like a nice walk in the park if your particular body chemistry doesn’t like it.
It feels like there is a gun to your head and the world is screaming at you to “be productive!”.
When we lose the ability to work or function as a productive member of society, we become full of guilt. There is a lot of embarrassment in admitting one has an anxiety problem. It makes us look vulnerable and weak, even though we know we can’t control it.
Contrary to popular belief, having an anxiety disorder means you are strong. The stamina required to live with something like anxiety is nothing short of intense.
Turning to medication seems to be the only appropriate course of action, but the idea of enduring the scary side effects on top of the anxiety already experienced feels like absolute torture.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, it feels as if you have no choice. Despair and dread may overcome even the sanest person afflicted with a serious bout of clinical anxiety.
It feels like there will never be an escape from the fear.
It can lead to derealization and depersonalization
de·re·al·i·za·tion/dēˌrē(ə)ləˈzāSHən/Learn to pronouncenoun
- a feeling that one’s surroundings are not real, especially as a symptom of mental disturbance.
Sometimes, a person with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or any type of anxiety can experience such severe terror they dissociate completely.
The experience feels like being injected with drugs and entering a strange dream. Unlike psychosis, the sufferer knows that they are experiencing a level of detachment. The brain thinks it is helping by removing their conscious awareness from the thoughts, and the result is derealization or depersonalization.
As distressing as it seems, the experience is not harmful, though it can make the person believe they are truly going psychotic or even dying. The experience of DP/DR only intensifies things such as existential dread and insomnia, and a constant fear of it happening again looms over the person experiencing it.
Typically, derealization and depersonalization do not last forever, but tend to occur in episodic fashion. During an episode of severe anxiety or depression, a person may find they cannot even go to the grocery store without essentially “dissociating” from reality.
So what is it really like to have generalized anxiety disorder?
Generalized anxiety disorder is terror. It is constant, internal restlessness and exhaustion. It is constantly feeling sick with head pressure, jaw pain, bleeding gums, nausea, dizziness, vertigo and the shakes.
It is existential fear of the unknown that makes seemingly normal tasks feel overwhelming. It’s constant irritability and rage because of exhaustion and an unstable sleep cycle.
It is skipping lectures in class because you feel like you’re going to pass out. It’s losing weight and losing hair because you can’t eat. It’s a constant malaise that you carry with you everywhere in the realization that you may never be normal again.
It is random panic attacks that are laughed at by a large chunk of the society we live in. It’s like watching yourself fall into despair without knowing how to stop it.
It is relentless suffering that you hide for fear of ridicule. It is fighting an extreme internal war with your mind that no one can see. It is hearing, “just snap out of it already,” when you are already fighting for your life. I
It’s living a life of secrecy, failing, and wondering when you will finally just end it all because you can’t handle one more day of suffering. It is dissociating from reality and running from events or even loved ones out of embarrassment – and taking medication but being even more afraid of what it may do to you.
It is trying to believe in yourself and your ability to get better, but not having the understanding of those around you. It is suffering in silence, and hiding.
Is it all as hopeless as it seems though?
The answer is simple. No. With support and compassion, a person with this horrific condition can get better. With things such as cognitive behavioural therapy and sometimes medication, many people are able to live healthy lives.
Most importantly though, those afflicted with severe anxiety need the support and compassion of their loved ones, and an environment that supports their ability to heal.
If we continue to approach these conditions in a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” way, we will continue to see people needlessly suffer and avoid seeking help.
I only hope that one day our entire perspective of disorders such as this change, so that we can all maintain wellness and overcome these absolutely devastating mental health conditions that rob so many people of their lives.
Like this post? Be sure the check out: http://circumnavigating-madness.com/2019/10/24/my-postpartum-depression-the-descent-into-hell/ to read about severe anxiety.