“Anxiety presents in lots of ways that may not be obvious. Unfortunately for me, most of the time mine presents as anger. What does that mean? It means when I feel anxious on the inside, it manifests itself on the outside as me being pissed off.”
When I read the article referenced above, it started me thinking about my own anxiety and how it presents itself in me. Like a lot of other people with anxiety, and other mental health conditions, the presentation from person to person and even within one person can vary greatly. So it got me thinking about how my anxiety has been displayed over the last 10 years. Hopefully by sharing my journey maybe one person will learn a little more about anxiety and how it may affect them or the people they love.
Dog waiting to attack
This is how the CEO at my workplace described me about 8 years ago. Who knows why they still have me working for them! I remember the day clearly. I was in a meeting with the CEO and the team I managed. I was talking about a project that we were working on and I was asked to justify the need for the project. According to the people who were there, I was perched on the edge of my seat, arms crossed with looks that could kill. Every time someone questioned my decisions, my approach or my suggestions I bit their head off. At the time I thought I was justified in my behaviour and that they were just being stupid imbeciles who didn’t understand (yes, I didn’t suffer fools lightly). Instead all that people saw was a brat who was mean and unprofessional.
There are 100 more stories like these that I could tell you. My old team still remembers the day I told them our team was a dictatorship not a democracy. This behaviour was often followed by a period of intense disgust with myself. I knew that what I was doing was wrong in one sense, but couldn’t control my reaction or appreciate the magnitude of my reaction. Following an episode like this I would apologise, buy flowers, ask for forgiveness.
What I know now is that my reaction in those situations was a result of anxiety. Anxiety from feeling unworthy; that my project being questioned was an indicator of my work being unsatisfactory. I often felt like an imposter who was constantly trying to prove herself as worthy.
Have you ever felt that you could jump out of your own skin and then run around like an energizer bunny? This is me a lot of the time and why people often see me walking the streets of my local suburb just to move and release that energy. At first this symptom of my anxiety is my ‘favourite’. Who wouldn’t want lots of energy? But it has its price. Along with this energy comes excessive exercise (energy has to go somewhere) and excessive alcohol consumption.
I often describe this feeling as ‘feeling too good’. Why? Because what goes up must come down. My ups and downs were so severe about five years ago that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder by a psychiatrist and was medicated for this for a few years. I’m no longer on this medication, and have come to realise that this peak of energy is anxiety and the resulting dip is pure exhaustion. My body and my mind just stop and I just sleep for days.
Sick to my stomach
From the feeling of butterflies, worry, restlessness, difficulty sleeping to being unable to eat, feeling nauseous and having irregular bowel movements. I believe that this is the symptom of anxiety that is misunderstood by many and often misinterpreted by people who feel these sensations as purely physical. Common responses when I feel this way – “what are worrying about”, “try not to think too much”, “what have you got to worry about?”, “you just need to rest”. And this is why anxiety, and other mental health disorders like depression are so confusing for people – both the sufferer and people around them.
There is often nothing that I’m worried about; I wish I did not have 1000s of thoughts going on in my brain at the same time; I wish I could stop worrying about ‘nothing’; I wish I could rest. This is what makes anxiety different from feeling nervous before a job interview or worrying about the results of medical test. It’s often irrational, without explanation and not necessarily reduced when the stimulus or trigger is removed.
My anxiety often comes from feeling out of control; that feeling that things are happening in my environment that I have no control over. So in the absence of the control of – things in my environment, my relationships, my work, my feelings – I control other things and the top three are: exercise, diet and consumption of alcohol/drugs. My thought pattern goes a little something like this – “If I’m going to feel like shit, then at least I’m going to be the person who will control how shit I feel.” I’ll exercise to the point of exhaustion until I feel that I’ve punished myself sufficiently; I’ll either binge or starve myself as both serve the purpose of self-punishment; and/or I’ll self medicate until that edge is lifted and I’M THE ONE CAUSING THE PAIN. Often these ways of ‘coping’ actually make the situation worse.
This is obviously self-destructive and has led to excessive weight loss, injuries, an unhealthy attitude to food/alcohol/exercise, losing my licence, leaving my job and affecting relationships. This of course aggravates my mental state even further; it turns into a vicious cycle of hate, hate more, hate more again etc.
What I’ve presented is just a very quick overview of how my anxiety affects me. Some of this may resonate with you as you read this, either how anxiety affects you personally or you can recognise some of these behaviours in the people you love.
The good news is that I’m now much better at picking up the signs – I know that if I’m starting to feel irritable, on edge, angry at the smallest things, I need to stop and reflect. If I feel an excess of energy I try to rest, rather than go crazy and walk 20kms. I try to connect with others – my mum is a good barometer for my mental state and will say things like “I know you’re not good as you’re getting angry with me.” (bless my ever-understanding mum).
Sometimes this means taking time out and cancelling plans, despite the fact that this may let others down. And it also means owning up to bad behaviour – checking in with myself regularly and asking myself if my reaction was reasonable in a given situation and if not, apologising for bad behaviour.
My anxiety and depression have taught me a lot about myself; it has taught me self awareness, compassion towards others, to lower my expectations of myself when I need to step back, to adjust my behaviour and activities to suit my mood. Anxiety, depression etc. aren’t as straightforward as they appear to those who are lucky enough to have never experienced them. It is also a constant struggle where every situation in life has the potential to trigger or be a learning experience; or both.
There are many strategies out there – medicinal and natural – and there is no one way that is best for me or that work reliably. I rely on medication, meditation, close relationships with others, exercise, a good night’s sleep (or a daytime nap if I need it), healthy food, time alone and limited alcohol. I try to be aware of changes in my behaviour and mood and manage these day to day; sometimes effectively, sometimes not. I try to be kind to myself in the tough times and believe that things will improve during these times as they have before. I wish others all the best in their journey with anxiety. Just remember, you are not alone.
Or have a read of a previous blog that I’ve written on a similar topic.