I’ve had anxiety since I was a small child. It was manageable until I was 16 years old, when my anxiety became crippling — i.e., way too much for me to handle. I began to have daily panic attacks and developed a phobia of using public transportation. I was scared to take trains and airplanes. Even taking the school bus began to scare me and I’d find ways to avoid going to school. I was eventually diagnosed with panic disorder.
It’s important for people to understand that “having anxiety” isn’t the same as having an anxiety disorder. It’s natural to experience stress and anxiety from time to time; that’s part of being human. But when you have crippling anxiety — the kind that overpowers you to the point where you are unable to regularly attend to day-to-day functions — you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder.
What Is An Anxiety Disorder?
To understand what an anxiety disorder is, it’s important to distinguish it from the common stresses and anxieties that many people experience in their daily life. For example, feeling anxious or having butterflies in your stomach before an important event or when you are meeting a new person, is normal and to be expected.
But when your anxiety is present most of the time, is overwhelming or crippling, and when it makes it difficult for you to complete your daily tasks or participate fully in life, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Below are the most common types of anxiety disorders and their characteristics:
Panic disorder is characterized by panic or anxiety attacks — sudden feelings of terror that take over and make it difficult to think clearly or function normally. You may experience a rapid heart rate, sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing, and racing thoughts.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is usually linked to a specific traumatic event, such as losing a loved one or being the victim of violence. The disorder is characterized by frightening flashbacks to the traumatic event, and feeling numb, on edge,” or like your “fight-or-flight” system is on overdrive.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
If you experience a feeling of constant worry or anxiety, not necessarily linked to a stressful event or situation, you might have generalized anxiety disorder.
People who have social anxiety feel like they are always going to be judged or humiliated when they socialize. They are incredibly self-conscious when they are in social situations and they may avoid socializing altogether for this reason.
When you develop an irrational fear of a specific situation, such as a fear of flying, a fear of snakes, or a fear of heights, you may have developed a phobia.
Signs Of Crippling Anxiety
Although there are several specific kinds of anxiety, many have the same symptoms manifesting physically as well as emotionally. You should speak to a therapist or psychiatrist to get a formal diagnosis, but recognizing the signs of crippling anxiety can help you figure out if your anxiety has gotten to a place where intervention may be required.
Symptoms of crippling anxiety may include:
- Feelings of fear, panic, or a general unsettled feeling
- Feeling “on edge”
- Feeling irritable and even angry
- Difficulty sleeping
- Nausea, stomachaches, and digestive upset
- Dizziness, feeling unsteady
- Headaches, neck pain, muscle tension
- Racing thoughts
- Withdrawing from social situations or isolating yourself
- Excessive sweating
- Rapid heartbeat
- Inability to sit still
- Tight breathing
How To Manage Crippling Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders
The first thing to know about managing crippling anxiety is that you are not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, affecting about 40 million people. It can be easy to feel that you are the only one — but there is nothing shameful about seeking help for how you are feeling. Anxiety is common. Most importantly, anxiety is treatable and you don’t have to face it alone.
The most qualified person to treat your anxiety is a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. These days you have a lot of options when it comes to starting therapy for anxiety. You can go the traditional route and start in-person therapy, or try an online therapist. Online therapy involves therapy via virtual platforms, such as text messaging, audio chatting, or video conferencing.
Whatever form of therapy you choose, you should look for a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety disorders, or who has experience working with people who have anxiety disorders. Therapy modalities that are generally successful at treating anxiety include cognitive- behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EDMR), and exposure therapy. Sometimes treatment for anxiety includes a combination of psychotherapy and medication — it will be up to you and your therapist can figure out what works best for you.
Personally, I was able to manage my panic disorder with a combination of therapy and lifestyle changes (exercise and meditation). But what works for one person may not work for another. Everyone is different and has different needs. If you’re looking for convenient, inexpensive options — online therapy is a great place to start.
The bottom line is that having crippling anxiety doesn’t have to be your reality forever. Help is out there. You can feel better, and you deserve it.