What Having an Anxiety Disorder Has Taught Me

When I read up on anxiety topics, such as explanations on what it actually is and people’s experiences with it, I often find that it comes from a negative perspective. Such as how hard it is to deal with, the sense of achievement people feel when they have overcome their anxiety disorder and how alone one feels when they have an anxiety disorder. People either seem to feel like nobody truly understands what they are going through, or they avoid talking about it altogether because they believe that it’s not a “normal” reaction and they are embarrassed to discuss how they truly feel.

I have had an anxiety disorder since I was 14 years old, I often missed school and university because of it, and there were times when I felt all of the above. But the truth is, like all good and bad things, an anxiety disorder is just an experience one goes through. It is up to the person who experiences it to choose to learn from that experience. Anxiety can be persistent and long-lasting, but it is not necessarily a bad thing to experience, and here’s why:

1. Anxiety has taught me how to feel more connected with my body

Having feelings of fear, worry and anxiety in daily activities, such as going out for dinner with friends or going to a lecture, can be paralyzing for those who have an anxiety disorder. The constant worrying of people judging, or feeling embarrassed because of how you feel and behave is often the cause for feeling on edge the entire day leading up to the event. However, when you have an anxiety disorder, you are forced to start to listen to your body more than you have before. You start to work with it, instead of against it.

Everyone is different, so of course, everybody will have different anxiety triggers. Over time, these triggers become very clear, almost predictable for a person who suffers with an anxiety disorder. I know exactly what makes me anxious and what will help calm me down. For example, one of the first things I experience when I have anxiety is a fast heartbeat.  Suddenly, I feel like my heart is about to beat out of my chest, so I try to shift my focus on my breathing instead. Deep breathing instantly connects me to how my body actually feels, instead of focusing on being in an anxious spiral where my thoughts seem out of my control. This makes sense because deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system bringing us to a state of calmness and clarity. It also releases muscle tension because when we are anxious, our shortness of breath causes our muscle tissues to contract. What also works for me is doing light stretching or walking for a few minutes in fresh, crisp air. Slight movement gives you more energy and allows you to put good blood circulation to use that you experience during the release of adrenaline caused by anxiety.

2. Anxiety has taught me that not everybody will understand, but that’s okay

When I was in first year, I would get panic attacks often. I came from a small high school, and none of my high school friends came to study at UCT. I often felt alone in this new environment where, at times, there was complete pandemonium. I would keep my anxiety to myself, even when experiencing it while talking to a stranger or being in a lecture. I constantly felt sorry for myself during this time. However, I began to realise that I shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if it would be helpful to me, to tell somebody that I was feeling anxious. Because here’s the thing: not everybody will understand and sympathize with you, but if you don’t open yourself up to the fact that they might, you will never know.  I only realized this well into my second year at university. So, one day, just after writing an exam, I experienced a severe panic attack that I have never experienced before. This was one of the scariest things I have ever experienced. Another student, who was studying for her exam that was taking place in the next hour, saw that I was in distress and needed help. She came over and asked me who my emergency contact was, and said that I shouldn’t worry, that she is going to take care of me and that everything would be okay. So, if you are that stranger and you are reading this, thank you for being there for me during my scariest and loneliest time at UCT, and thank you for making me realize that if I need help, I shouldn’t hide it. This experience made me realize that, if you hide how you are feeling, it is going to fester. By not asking for help or reaching out, you have denied yourself the possibility of anybody, (even a stranger) kind enough to be there for you when nobody else was.

3. Anxiety has taught me how to have more meaningful relationships with those around me

Because I became confident in how I felt and I wasn’t afraid to talk about my fears, I became an open book for those around me. I learned that if I was confident in myself and what I needed, it did not matter what anybody else thought of me. I am the only person I can truly depend on, so I should always have my own best interest in mind. So, I gave people the benefit of the doubt; I shared. I wasn’t disappointed when people misunderstood or judged me, because I know what is best for me, not them. When I started to share more, I developed more empathy. I no longer felt disappointed if a friend cancelled on our dinner plans because they had a bad day, because I understood what it felt like to have a truly bad day. More people started sharing their anxieties with me. Although I don’t experience exactly what they are going through (because anxiety and what triggers it is very subjective), I truly sympathized with them. I connected with them on a deeper level because I was not only experiencing the good times with them, but also, the times when they were at their most vulnerable. This is a quality I will never regret having, because experiences such as these have only increased my emotional intelligence.

4. Anxiety has taught me what I am truly capable of

About two weeks into my first semester at UCT, I took a long leave of absence. I was getting anxious by even the thought of attending university, and I felt overwhelmed by the workload I was already missing. When I did attend campus, I would get panic attacks that felt so out of my control that I had to leave. When I wasn’t at university I had no motivation to go back because of how exhausted and unhappy I felt. I was convinced that I needed to take a leave of absence, and nobody around me understood this. They kept telling me that there was no point in taking the leave of absence, as University will be the same when I get back. If I didn’t attend University, then what was I going to do for the next few months? However, bearing my own best interests in mind, I was persistent. I needed to take time off to focus on my wellbeing, and that’s exactly what I did.

It was the best decision I made, because during that time off, I found myself and my purpose again. University might be exactly the same for that few months I missed and life definitely did go on, but I changed. I was in a different mental space. I became happy instead of having self-doubt every day by going with the flow and not listening to what my body needed at that time.

During the leave of absence, I did a lot of meditation and yoga because I naturally overthink, so I focused on quieting my mind and having mental clarity. I attended therapy and I kept a journal where I wrote down small daily and weekly goals, such as going for a walk. I started exercising not because I felt I needed to since I just had a chocolate, but because it made me feel alive and showed me what I was capable of, physically and mentally. Mentally because I would focus on being mindful during these walks and not “mind full”. I improved who I am as an individual over only a couple of months by finding a balance and inner strength. By the time I was ready to go back to university, I felt like a completely different person who no longer experienced self-doubt and loneliness. I became confident in who I was and what my aspirations were. Being back at university is a constant reminder of who I was during that first semester at UCT, and how far I have come since then. I am so proud of this; I am even sharing this experience with you, as a reader. When before, I used to try and hide the fact that I suffer with an anxiety disorder.

5. Anxiety has taught me what is good for my mind, body, and soul

I probably would never have started a fitness and health journey if it wasn’t for my anxiety disorder. Because of the lack of confidence I felt when I gave in to my fears which would lead to anxiety or even a panic attack, I just didn’t feel like myself. Growing up, I was always confident, so I didn’t recognize the person I had become, and that’s why when I started to take care of my body, my focus shifted from unhealthy thoughts to thoughts like “I want to eat something wholesome that will make me feel energized and good” or “I want to have this chocolate because I really feel like it and I have eaten well for the majority of the time”. This naturally led me to develop a healthy relationship with food, my body image and exercising. I never exercise just because I feel I need to work off that burger I had last night, but because it makes me feel strong, capable, confident and happy. I also became more conscious of what my body needed instead of what I wanted, such as cutting down on caffeine because it makes my heart beat really fast. So now, if I am tired, I rest. If I want a pizza, I eat it. If I want to feel strong and energized, I exercise.

6. Anxiety has  taught me that what will work for others, won’t necessarily work for me

Often, when I discuss my anxiety, people say something along the lines of “but you can take a tablet for that, right?”

When I was 15 years old, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication that I needed to take every day. I hated the idea because I have always been against taking tablets. Personally, I never felt it worked for me. I tried it out for two weeks, and during those two weeks I was constantly ill. When I discussed it with my doctor, they said that it was common to experience side effects and it took a while to find something that works for you (as everybody is different). I wasn’t happy with this response. I thought to myself; my body is trying to tell me something and I should listen to it. Perhaps this isn’t about taking a tablet to alleviate the symptoms, but work on the root cause of what’s bothering me. It started with my thoughts, so I began to write how I was feeling in a journal, I unpacked my anxiety disorder and it was very uncomfortable, but worth it. Because I then knew what I needed to work on. Like I said, anxiety is an experience that comes and goes, but if we know what’s causing it, we can look to heal it, for the long term.

The way I deal with my anxiety naturally is by meditating, doing activities that nourish my soul and make me happy, such as Pilates and going for long walks. I never do things out of obligation, if I feel that going to an event will trigger my anxiety and self-doubt, I don’t attend. I am always honest, I apologize and state why I am unable to make it without fear of judgment. I always carry a bottle of water with me (which helps with hydration and concentration), healthy snacks such as dried fruit and nuts (to keep my energy and blood sugar levels constant), and Natura Rescue. Natura Rescue is a homeopathic flower blend that is beneficial to take to ease anxiety, stress and sleeplessness. You can find Natura Rescue at your local pharmacy or wellness store, in tablet or liquid drop form.