When I was a little kid our family had an ancient brown Chrysler my mom called “Nellie”. I wasn’t sure if it was actually brown, or if the car was covered in that much rust, but Nellie was a formidable vehicle, a 20-foot land yacht with leather seats that gave you frostbite in the winter and third-degree burns in the summer. The space on the floor in front of the seats was so wide we actually sat there during long drives sometimes, watching the sky speed by through the windows. There are a lot of things about that car I miss, but I did not miss the joy-buzzer sound of its alarm system.
Nellie bleated about everything whether it was a problem or not: the oil gauge would light up even when she was half-full, and so did the gas. The temperature gauge was lit no matter what, so we just learned to ignore it. But the bane of my existence was the “door ajar” alarm, which would sound sometimes even when you just bumped the door with your elbow. Sometimes, during long trips, it would just buzz until we stopped and shut it again — and that wasn’t something a seven-year-old bookworm could do easily. Mom would turn up her Motown tape to try to drown out the noise, but really it just made it worse. Even today, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” just doesn’t sound right without that buzzy whine.
As ancient as she was, Nellie was a good car — even if her gauge system was completely shot. I think fondly of her these days because I identify with her so much; like her hypersensitive open door sensor, my anxiety trigger will go off for like, no reason.
I am one of about seven million Americans with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a mental illness that is often found in people with Major Depressive Disorder. People who cope with GAD are natural-born worriers, with anxiety flaring up over just about anything. The anxiety is excessive for the given situation and many of us feel like we can’t control how much we worry. Symptoms often include a feeling of restlessness or edginess, difficulty with concentration or your mind going blank, muscle tension, difficulty with sleep, and/or being easily fatigued. That worry and accompanying symptoms have to be present for at least six months before diagnosis.
GAD is one of those disorders that develops gradually, so the typical age of diagnosis is right around 31. It affects women more often than men, though it’s not entirely clear why. In fact, not much is known about how GAD develops in general; the best guess is that combination of biological factors, family background, and life experiences — especially stressful ones.
In general, GAD is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), mindfulness training and/or medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which prevent your brain from cleaning up free-floating serotonin in your synapses). Cognitive behavioral therapy helped me understand my anxiety disorder much more clearly, and gave me a good framework to deal with it.
I find it helpful to think of my emotions like the gauges and alerts on a car’s dashboard; when they light up, it’s my mind telling me that I need to pay attention to something. Happiness is basically Cruise Control; everything’s good, just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll be fine. The temperature gauge warns me when I’m getting too hot and need to cool down; the gas gauge warns me when I’m hungry and so on. When the sensors are working properly, emotions are a useful way to bring mindful attention to a situation that might need to be changed. For those of us with mood disorders like depression or GAD, however, the sensors are over-sensitive and tend to light up when they really don’t need to.
Those of us with anxiety disorders tend to have trouble with uncertainty; what’s unknown is dangerous, and our minds tend to jump right into hypothetical catastrophes. So we try to plan or control as much as possible, getting out ahead of any situation that might arise. This can be put to good use in a lot of different ways when the anxiety is mild or even moderate; but when it tips into severe anxiety things get a lot harder.
My biggest stressors are failing at something I really want to be good at, forgetting to do something I’m supposed to, and disappointing someone. For the longest time I refused to move into a position that required more expertise at my day job because I knew in my heart I wouldn’t be able to do it — I’m not detail-oriented enough and the consequences of failure can be pretty high. I didn’t want to be the one person who couldn’t keep up and forced other members of my team to drop what they were doing to bail me out.
Deadlines are a nut I have never been able to crack, especially with writing. I stress about everything when working on a story, and all too often I get caught in a loop where I’ll get stuck on a single aspect of the process, revising again and again and again until I’m exhausted. As the deadline grows closer, that anxiety grows until it feels like I’m physically unable to concentrate on what I need to do: my monkey-brain leaps all over the place, or my mind simply goes blank and I can’t hold on to a thought. Almost always, I’ll freeze in the face of the deadline and watch the opportunity pass me by. Having never tried is almost a relief compared to the imagined hell of really going for it and failing completely.
While this kind of performance anxiety is fairly common, it’s not the reason GAD is so troublesome for me. Like Nellie’s constant open door buzzer, my worry is ever-present and all-consuming. I am in a near-constant state of fight or flight, ready to box any perceived threat or run screaming from it. Right now, as I type this, I’m worried about the following things: the possibility of marijuana addiction; the spectre of a progressively worse anxiety disorder that blossoms into a full blown obsessive-compulsive disorder; all of the people I haven’t spoken to in a while and what they think of me; the last work project I need to turn in; my Patreon; my Pathfinder game; countless other projects I’ve committed to and should be working on; my mother; my brother-in-law; my bank account; my new job; the possibility of dementia at an old age; Trump; Iran developing nuclear weapons; my rabbit; how this post will be received; how much I still need to do before bed; whether or not I’ll sleep well; how much I can get done tomorrow; my upcoming trip to Europe; the possibility of nuclear war or a terrorist attack; my weight; my libido; the length of this paragraph.
My mind gnaws over these worries all the time, from my first thoughts in the morning to those last troubled, fuzzy ones that pop up when I’m lying in bed. I’m constantly thinking about the things that could go wrong, the things that have gone wrong, what’s my fault and how bad it will be when the consequences are due. I’m not going to lie, it’s exhausting; whenever I find something that makes me more relaxed, it’s like discovering Narnia. People who can just wing it, or not care about what happens, are straight-up aliens to me.
But simply knowing that my brain has this hypersensitivity to stress helps me deal with that. It means that building a less stressful life is not just an idle dream; it’s a necessary component of self-care. I’m a bit more watchful for the symptoms of high anxiety, like unfocused near-panic just waiting for something to latch onto or the tendency to take a small annoyance and make it exhibit A for a major problem that we’re screwed if we don’t solve. And when I catch myself feeling overwhelmed, I know that I need to take a breath and a step back, then force myself to take things one step at a time.
Still, it’s a struggle. Knowing that my amygdala is intensely hyper-active doesn’t necessarily make the effects any easier to deal with, especially when they prevent you from doing so much. Anxiety frequently overwhelms the techniques learned through CBT because there’s no one thing that causes it; it really is an omni-present entity, a background static that makes it really easy to be thrown into a state of high anxiety and all that comes with it.
While I’ve been dealing with depression for long enough that I feel comfortable with the coping mechanisms I’ve developed for it, Generalized Anxiety Disorder has proven to be much more difficult to deal with. It prevents me from trying new things readily, or producing stories that I would want to show people. It makes it harder to be relaxed or confident; it affects my ability to be social. I wish it weren’t so, and I wish I had a better way of managing it, but that’s the way it is.
Over 40 million Americans — roughly 18% of the population — has some kind of anxiety disorder, whether it’s GAD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or a Specific Phobia. We are a very anxious country, and it shows. I think one of the best things we can do for ourselves and our neighbors, coworkers and fellow citizens suffering silently under this epidemic is foster an environment of safety and acceptance wherever we can, however we can. Making sure those of us who are anxious have concrete feedback that the consequences aren’t as bad as we fear for failure sure helps, but it also helps to ease the ‘background anxiety’ in our culture. That might be the most important thing we can do: removing fear from our lives and our communities as best we can.
This post is part of Mental Health Awareness Month; I’m writing to share my personal experience with my mental health and hopefully ease the stigma around the very real illnesses I and millions of other people cope with on a daily basis. If you’re interested in helping with this work, here are a few things you can do: support the National Alliance for Mental Illness; visit The Siwe Project, which aims to reduce the stigma of therapy and mental illness in the African diaspora; visit and support The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM); and, if you like, chip in a dollar or two through Ko-fi for the blog. I appreciate your support, no matter what form it takes.