I’ve been talking a lot about how I’m largely anxiety free now, for the first time in my life as I remember it. It has been incredibly freeing, but I’ve also realised I have given no context to what I mean by that. What am I free from? What remains? Is there anything that I miss? What have I learned, if anything?
So here are 10 points about anxiety and life after the effects of it.
1. You will never be totally free of anxious feelings and that is a good thing.
Okay, so straight in with a contradiction to the title of the post. You will never be totally free of being anxious, and that’s good. Fear exists for a reason. Worry exists for a reason. Some things are just worth getting anxious over! You should be fretting over deciding whether to go for a new job. The amount of people I’ve spoken to who think they’re experiencing bad anxiety and are just having a perfectly normal response to a situation is staggering. Just like grieving something sad, anxiety is a natural response to some situations that is inconvenient and unpleasant but essential. I still get anxious when going on a first date- I am fine with this feeling, as it keeps me safe. If it stopped me ever meeting new people, then I would be more concerned.
2. Anxiety is a serious problem when it stops you from doing entirely.
As I mentioned before, anxiety and concern over big actions is totally normal. The pattern when it works is: feel anxious over the decision or action. Decide whether to do it or not. Feel some relief at the outcome either way. When anxiety becomes a problem is when it genuinely stops you doing small things that are essential to living, when it completely halts you at that first stage. Social anxiety, as an example, hinders individuals in a way that often means they can’t form or maintain essential human contact. Generalised anxiety, which is what I had, means that feeling of panic invades everything without logic or reason. I didn’t want to shower because I thought I would slip and die. I didn’t want to eat because I was afraid it would make me sick. At my worst, I didn’t want to talk to people I loved because I was scared I would say something that would stop them loving me. I sat perfectly still for whole days in my house, not even watching TV, because I was paralysed by panic. It’s not a great place to be.
3. Anxiety can be a driving force… But a really inefficient one.
Many people with depression talk about the feeling that anxiety is what makes them do things when depression is dragging them down. Depression and anxiety are natural bedfellows. The panic makes them do when the depression makes them not want to do anything. I did my masters degree in this space- I would make myself sick with worry until finally the panic of failure pushed me to do something, often at a cost to my physical health from the stress. What I’m here to tell you from the other side is that powering things with anxiety is woefully inefficient. Anxiety was a hundred times over the enemy of doing stuff, more than depression ever has been. Now I can do small tasks without a thought. I can even do work gradually, without panic. I genuinely didn’t know this was possible, and this is one of the hardest things to explain to somebody who hasn’t experienced anxiety disorders. I genuinely didn’t see how it was possible to build or plan. Now I do.
4. Depression without anxiety is a mud pit… But a clean one…
Now I just have depression to contend with, everything feels slow. I’m slow to get creative ideas. I don’t enjoy things as much as I did when I would anxiously escape into a video game or book. The “buzz” is gone. But at least I can easily overpower the lethargy of depression without anxiety stopping me. Yes, I get days where I just feel like I want to stay in bed crying or binging on food or TV shows, but it’s easier to construct a day without anxiety plaguing it. I can pull myself out of bed, do the dishes, and start my day with much more ease, even if that day might be a dark one.
5. Executive dysfunction is the worst thing I have experienced in my mental health journey
Worse than that brief window of mania. Worse than psychosis. What makes it so bad is that it stops you from building a life for yourself in a long term way. Being without it the best. Having a budget spreadsheet. Having the ability to prepare and plan food. Oh my god. It is the greatest! Executive dysfunction is the worst primarily because it attacks your ability to get better- imagine making a toddler sit eat food when there’s an enormous carnival just outside. That’s what it’s like trying to stick to a medication plan when your brain won’t cooperate.
6. The right medication is invaluable.
I hate when people say meds are a crutch in a condescending way. Yeah, that’s exactly what they fucking are. If you’ve broken your leg you use a crutch until the leg is healed. Go fuck yourself.
(Quetiapine was the one that finally cracked it for me)
7. It takes longer to shed your stress behaviours than to shed the cause.
I don’t eat chocolate as much as I did, but it took me a good few months to even realise I would still reach for a bar, or stay in bed when I wasn’t tired, or reload news websites every few seconds when I knew there would be nothing new. I didn’t actually feel the compulsion to do any of those things any more, but they were such inbuilt habits that they took longer to see. I’m still breaking some of them.
8. Just like anything, there are things you will miss.
I miss sitting online at 3am talking about the ethics of video games with people around the globe. I miss intense friendships. I miss hyperfocus. I miss writing the most – I had a vast fantasy world fuelled by anxious escapism. I was usually too anxious to write, but sometimes it would overflow over days and days of almost constant writing. But the ability to sleep, eat, and grow is too important. It outweighs them all.
9. Putting your own life jacket on first can be hard.
Realising there are people who make your anxiety worse is hard, especially if you actually like them, but it’s okay to cut back a little on contact if it helps. The guilt is awful, granted, but good friends will know you have to look after yourself. It’s okay to inconvenience others a little if it means you’re getting better, whatever your anxiety says. Ditto taking time off social media, making reasonable adjustments at work, or changing your diet or exercise routines. Just make sure you are thankful after. None of us do this stuff alone.
10. It’s a journey
Do I still do weird anxious things? Yes. I check people I don’t follow on social media. I double check all faucets and lights and the oven even if I’m just taking the bins out. I replay old stupid conversations sometimes. I stay vigilant for those things getting worse. It’s a process. There are setbacks and things to avoid (I don’t do loud bars and I largely quit tumblr, for an example), so you avoid them. It takes time, and that’s okay too.
And an extra number 11 for people who are struggling with anxiety: it can get better. It can. It can. It’s slow and hard and frustrating as hell, but it can. Keep working. Keep thriving. You’ll get there in the end.