Dec 28, 2011

The Silent Prison: Top 10 Ways Anxiety Disorder Destroys Your Life

The silent prison of anxiety disorder.
Although I've been on various medications for mood disorders for almost 20 years (4 of those years with a psychiatrist), I'd never received an actual diagnosis. You know, that thing people say they are. Things like "I'm a hypochondriac", or "I'm obsessive-compulsive", or "I'm a schizophrenic (and so am I)".



Well, I finally know what I am after all these years: I'm a recurring major depressive with severe generalized anxiety disorder.

Not really a huge news flash. It's not like I never would have guessed I'm depressed and anxious until a doctor clued me in on the fact. But he did say something in our last session that's so obvious it never occurred to me. He was talking about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and said, "It's when people are always worried".

Wow.

That's exactly right. I'm ALWAYS worried. The levels change, and the intensity changes. Sometimes it's unsettling and semi-conscious background noise, like the staccato of distant gunfire. Other times it's like sitting on the flight line at the airport and watching the jets come in - a rumbling cacophony of screaming noise so loud it tears the world apart. But it's always there: unceasing, unchanging, and unrelenting.

And I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm lucky to be so high-functioning. I'm not on the streets, in jail, or in a mental hospital. I'm not starving. I'm not homeless. I have family and friends who love me. I have a support network and a fantastic therapist. I have wonderful lover. I have good physical health, all things considered. I even still have most of my hair.

But I still live in prison, a prison no one can see and few understand. Despite all my blessings and good fortune, anxiety disorder is still destroying my life and the lives of countless millions of other "normal" people. Based on the knowledge I've amassed over the years, and in no particular order, here are the top 10 ways anxiety disorder encases people like me in an invisible prison of silent desperation:

#10). Social Prejudice
Thank God we don't live in the 1950s anymore! We've come long way, baby, towards social equality on issues like racism, sexism, and sexual orientation. Hell, being an alcoholic is practically a badge of honor these days. But curiously, mental illness is still "in the closet" as it were. Society still has a tendency to view mental disorders as signs of moral weakness, or even a choice made by self-indulgent, lazy people who milk it for their own advantages. Even though anxiety disorders are not technically a mental illness, our culture is still pretty quick to judge the chronically anxious as crazy and to openly wonder why they can't just "snap out of it". Could YOU "snap out of" cancer or a smashed hand?

#9). Loneliness and Isolation
Buffalo Springfield's now famous 1965 anti-war statement about how paranoia "starts when you're always afraid" is also an apt description of living with anxiety disorder. Because it is like a kind of low-level paranoia where you're never quite sure what's going on or if you're about to step out of line. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and now Iraq, battling anxiety disorder is a war of attrition with only one rational outcome: withdrawal. Isolation becomes the anxious person's main defense against an intolerable onslaught of panic and worry that most others simply don't understand. The resulting loneliness and depression can destroy the foundations of life. People with severe anxiety disorders are up to 9 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

#8). Inability to Concentrate
Have you ever had a telephone conversation with a new mother? Chances are good that her baby was screaming in the background during the call. If there's anything more annoying than being on the phone with a squalling infant, I don't know what it is. Unless it's the feeling of impending doom screaming in the background of my head 24/7. Both baby and anxiety have a particularly piercing shriek that could shatter delicate crystal. That's why God took pity on us and invented Xanax, Adderall, and Ritalin. Thank you, Jesus.

#7). Inability to Sleep
"Sleep is the interest we have to pay on the capital which is called in at death; and the higher the rate of interest and the more regularly it is paid, the further the date of redemption is postponed."
- Arthur Schopenhauer

Old Arthur may not have been much for laughs, but I can't think of a better aphorism on the importance of sleep. Studies indicate that upwards of 50 million Americans suffer from chronic insomnia, although the majority are not due to anxiety disorder. But everyone has lost sleep from time to time because of worrying about a job, a relationship, children, bills, etc. Most people get over worrying. Some of us never get over it. Going to bed is like laying down next to a lightly sedated, pissed off tiger for the anxiety sufferer. It often feels vulnerable, out of control, and unpredictable. Anxious people also tend to have nightmares, assuming they're actually able to sleep. Nightmares are just worry in another guise. No doubt about it, chronic sleep deprivation takes years off your life and makes anxiety and depression worse. Which makes it even harder to sleep.

#6). Perfectionism
Some people would consider perfectionism a good thing rather than something destructive. After all, "practice makes perfect", right? I think it's a question of degree. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do your best and produce something that's high quality. That's why I'm writing this instead of telling dick jokes (which I happen to think are hilarious, BTW). But there's a difference between wanting to do well and being so afraid of doing it wrong that you end up doing nothing.

"Laziness" is one of the cheap shots smugly normal people often take at those of us with mood disorders. But the fact is that most anxiety sufferers are actually sensitive, highly intelligent, and creative people with a lot to offer. Many grew up in homes marked by violence, sexual abuse, and/or harsh, rigid expectations. We tend to feel like failures, probably because we've been told that we ARE failures, at least in so many words. This can lead to a paralyzing fear of doing anything wrong. It makes being productive kinda tough, know what I mean?

#5). Overall Lack of Energy
Being wound up and tense all the time is paradoxically exhausting. Some days, managing anxiety feels like a full time job with very little left over for anything else. Chronic fear weakens normal functioning of the adrenal system and increases the production of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. The adrenals are one of the body's main regulatory systems and effect everything from bone formation to immune response. Long term exposure to high cortisol levels can cause brain damage that leads to impaired learning ability. Many anxious people also compensate for lack of energy by abusing stimulants like coffee, soda and hard drugs like cocaine and speed. This whips the adrenals even harder and ultimately further decreases energy levels.

#4). Inability to Maintain Friendships
The inability to either make or maintain friendships leads to loneliness and isolation. It's one of the most heartbreaking aspects of anxiety disorder. Friendships are hard even without undue anxiety; for the chronically anxious, they can seem impossible. Humans are social animals and need emotionally intimate relationships. If you've been anxious most of your life, your avoidance of people may have caused you never to have learned HOW to form relationships. Or if, like me, your anxiety began later in life, you may know how to connect but are often unwilling to make the effort. I've had numerous friendships and potential friendships fizzle simply because I didn't put any energy into keeping their heart beating. Friendships take work. If your life force (your ch'i) is consumed by fear, the work that friendships require may demand more energy than you can muster.

#3). Inability to Have Intimate Relationships
Intimate relationships are sometimes described as "the Ph.D of personal growth". Speaking from personal experience, I'd say that's absolutely true. Engaging (and especially maintaining) intimate relationships seems to require the confidence of champion, the concentration of a samurai, and the patience of a saint. Even "normal" people regularly get their asses kicked by intimate relationships unless they've developed a great deal of interpersonal skill. Lots of chronic worriers avoid intimacy because it's just too scary. Some have never had a sexual relationship at all. People with anxiety usually need understanding partners who are willing to work with their condition and to take it slow. It seems to me that understanding partners are in short supply these days.

#2). Inability to Relax/Have Fun
One of the classic features of any anxiety disorder is always being "on alert". Alternately referred to as "hyper-vigilance", "catastrophizing", or "stinkin' thinkin' " (how quaint), severely anxious people always expect the worst and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Where the hell does that saying come from anyway? I need to look that one up. As Murphy's Law says, "anything that can go wrong, WILL go wrong". Murphy probably had undiagnosed anxiety. Always waiting for something to go wrong (and to be blamed for it) makes relaxing and having fun very difficult. It's a shitty way to live. A life without fun and joy is no life at all.

#1). Stress-Related Physical Illness
A quick Google search on the term "emotional stress" returns approximately 3,110,000 results. That means Google has indexed a third of a BILLION web pages about this topic, and I'd say at least half of them mention the effects of stress on physical health. A lot of people are really fucking stressed out! Here's a list of the most common impacts that stress (aka anxiety) has on our bodies:
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Heart attack and High Blood Pressure
  • Ulcers
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Insomnia and Chronic fatigue
  • Obesity
  • Cancer
  • Muscle aches
This is just a partial list. I believe chronic stress can effect any system in the body and that people with anxiety disorders are at higher risk for chronic illness, debilitation, and early death.

Break Out of Your Silent Prison
I think anxiety sufferers like me have two basic choices: choose to be victimized by it, or choose to take action. Action is by far the better choice, even though it doesn't always seem that way. The attitude I'm trying to maintain is this: I may be in prison, but even life in prison can have value and meaning. Some of the most inspiring works of art known to man have been created during periods of incarceration. And I'm not talking about "Mein Kampf"; that book was boring as fuck.

Some of the ways anxiety sufferers can take action include:
  • Get a therapist (this probably saved my life)
  • Join a support group for anxiety disorders (there are several good ones on Facebook)
  • Participate in online forums (lots of options here)
  • Learn about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT is the best drug-free treatment for anxiety)
  • Take a reputable online treatment course (for example, Panic Away is an effective self-help program for treating panic attacks)
  • Take anti-anxiety medication (Meds get a bad rap from some people, but I believe they can help a lot, especially when combined with other forms of treatment)

Comments, suggestions, and outrageous compliments are always appreciated.

11 comments:

  1. As a fellow sensitive, intelligent, creative person who enjoys dick jokes, I found there was a lot here I could relate to. In short, thanks for sharing : )

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  2. Thanks man. I always appreciate your comments.

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  3. I also have GAD, CBT and voluntary work (was hell) have really helped me reduce my anxiety, i have less worries, and i can function much better, it requires hard work, and perseverance, but the gains are good. With anxiety there is the problem of secondary gain, and i have this too, we want to let go of it, but secretly theres gains from leading a solitary life, for some its empathy and sympathy, others its just holding onto the pain, which makes us feel better.
    GAD is a Bitch of disorder, it can take years to reduce the anxiety.
    I wish you success with your therapy
    Imran

    Imran

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  4. Thank you for this rather witty and interesting account.

    I could relate to this story. I have suffered from anxiety disorder. A few years back when joining university, it was really bad - I could barely get up (my heart would race), I was vomiting after meals and could not concentrate well. Ironically, my performance in university was best in this period, for some unknown reason (I am guessing it was coincidence). I also suffer from paranoid tendencies. Even writing this I thought "what if someone I know happens to read this and recognise it was me who wrote it!" I do not suffer it with everyone - I do not question my family's intentions. Though I tend to question the intentions of everyone else I know outside my home, with greatest intensities with those who are closest to me. "How can they just take from me?", "Do they really like me?", "Are they serious about me?", etc. Thoughts which seemed entirely rational at the time just exploded in flames of rage at those closest to me, burning down beautiful forests of friendship. And the worst thing about it is, in those moments, I did not even know I was doing anything wrong. It was only in hindsight that it did become entirely apparent that such damage was being done.

    I too am highly sensitive and perceiving, yet in these moments it just seems to slip off the radar. I get close to people quickly, yet this harm is imminent which destroys closest friendships after they just lose the patience with what was being said in those fits of rage. Well, I cannot blame them - who likes being guilt tripped constantly?

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  5. Great article quotes with parabolic meanings, yet the debt/ interest paid per sleep I related well to/ all quotes powerful thought, I never knew jail of 21 days could destroy me. I heard of them, I read about, until there first time at age 41, for 21 days now at 43- I cannot get past it , I'm in huge depression, hence I know I need help. Being caged and not knowing how make phone call not sleep, not given medical care, I cannot get past that.
    System is based on thought, these people deserve this, been here before.. no guide for first timer. I read prison prison but there is no guide for or jail depression. 2 years after I cannot sleep, I think of jail always and scared cannot cope, this article has me seeking care.

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  6. I'm so glad I just happened upon your summing up of what anxiety can do to a persons life. I've suffered and I do mean suffered with anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD and depression all my life. I'm 47 years old now and it has gotten so much worse with age. I was abused physically, emotionally and psychologically as a child and lost getting to be a child. I don't know what "normal" is, that was taken away from me. I lost my identity and feel I never formed as I would of had as a person.
    I'm getting to the point of not wanting to leave my house unless my husband goes with me and even then a lot of times I can't go then. It has taken my life from me! I get so angry at myself all the time. I have very little family and no real friends. It's a hard life to live! I've wished of not being here many times in my so-called life. It's so lonely and unfulfilling.
    I have a husband who does his best to try to understand. I have 2 grown children, 1 who I haven't seen going on 2 years... his choice, not mine. 1 who is slowly pulling away from me. It's sad that people don't try to understand and stick with you and help to take your mind off of it all and much as it can be. I feel like they see me as a disease they might catch or they are embarrassed of me or it's all a sham?? They do know bits and pieces of what I've been through, but that doesn't change anything.
    Thank you so much for sharing some of your story and for the information.

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  7. Thank you so much for writing this article. This is the first time I have found all the things I suffer from in one single place. I'm working on living with it and making some small steady gains but its so hard. Good luck to all of u going through this. I think my problem is I have so much love to give but none for myself. I hope one day I will. Chris

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  8. This is an amazing article and thank you very much for writing it! I've had anxiety all my life and am not good at keeping friends and now as an adult, I don't go out at all. I stay indoors and have no real life friends. There is one friend, who also has mental health problems, but we rarely see each other. Maybe once or twice a year and that's it. Anyway, I'm worried my anxiety will actually kill me one day and of course, even more worry comes into the equation when I think like that. Sorry for rambling. This journal sums it up perfectly.

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  9. I am going through this same anxiety had lost a lot in my life and now alway live in fear of worst cant enjoy anything and my confidence is too going down

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