May 2016 is Mental Health Awareness Month in the USA. For this reason, and to raise awareness for the topic of mental health as well as to contribute to de-stigmatization, EXPOSING THE TRUTH lets people with different diagnoses speak for themselves. I already spoke with John* about his schizophrenia, and last week I interviewed Anne, who was diagnosed with anorexia in her teens.
In part three of our interview series, 33-year-old Nicole talks to us about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and gives us an insight on how anxiety feels to her. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1% of the U.S. population, in any given year. Women are twice as likely to be affected.
There are several different types of anxiety disorders specified in The International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). Examples include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder: marked display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.
Panic Disorder: characterized by recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom.
Social Anxiety Disorder: a fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.
Hi Nicole, thank you for talking to me about your anxiety disorder today. How old were you when you first started showing symptoms of anxiety? Was there a triggering event that started it all?
I was 21 years old when I had my first panic attack. It literally came out of nowhere: I was playing cards at a friend’s house and everything was all fine. Suddenly, my whole body felt like it was burning on the inside, I was getting dizzy, my heart started racing, my legs were shaking… It was horrible. I had never experienced something like that before. I hyperventilated and collapsed. My friend called the ambulance, but they didn’t find anything that might have caused this reaction.
What do you think is the difference between generalized anxiety disorder, and general feelings of anxiety that everyone gets from time to time?
I think the consequences of suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder are much more severe than experiencing anxiety from time to time as GAD affects you both physically, and mentally. There are the physical symptoms like dizziness, nausea, muscle aches, and trembling, which someone who is afraid of something also experiences in a milder form. But then there are psychological symptoms like a sense of dread. I lose touch with my surroundings during an anxiety attack. It is hard to describe, but everything feels somehow unreal and dull in those situations.
How do you cope with that? When the panic is coming, can you feel it beforehand? Do you have any strategies to deal with such cases?
Unfortunately, I don’t feel it coming at all. It hits me by surprise every time because there seems to be no trigger. When it happens, I either try to distract myself or don’t fight it and allow it to happen, try to breathe through it and use muscle relaxation techniques.
Which role does GAD play in your everyday life?
I feel like my disorder affects me a lot and prevents me from living life the way I want to: I avoid most social situations – I can’t remember the last time I went out partying. Most of the time, I even have difficulties carrying out simple activities like shopping. But it is worst when I am home alone with my little daughter…
How openly do you speak about all of this? And do you find your family and friends supportive when it comes to dealing with your diagnosis?
I don’t have a problem talking about it. In fact, I think it is better to let people know about my issues because then they know how to help me when I have an anxiety attack. My family knows the most about my condition, but I feel like they don’t really understand me. But how could they? I think you would have to experience this yourself to be able to fully understand what I am talking about.
Before this interview ,you mentioned to me that you are writing a book about your life with GAD. First of all: congratulations, that is amazing! Can you tell me more about it?
Thanks a lot. It is a biography in which I also talk about the possible reasons for my anxiety disorder. My intention is to empower others who also struggle with anxiety and to give them strength. The title of my book is “And Every Time I Get Up Again”. Unfortunately, I yet have to find a publisher.
By the way you talk about your condition, I assume you already received psychotherapy? In how far did it help you?
True. I have been in and out of therapy since I was 21, and tried different therapeutic approaches, none of which really helped me to cope with my illness until I was finally treated in a psychiatric day clinic. Being there really helped me a lot, not only to find strategies to more effectively deal with my illness, but also to better understand my anxiety. Now I feel much better equipped to handle my feelings when the anxiety shows up again. Plus, I also use medication – Cymbalta* and Lyrica* – which helps me to stabilize my condition.
How do you feel at the moment, regarding your GAD? Did your condition change over time? What would you say is the general trend?
I have to say that generally the trend is positive: I am feeling much better than at the beginning of my illness, and with the help of therapy I managed to develop different strategies to cope with my illness. Most of the time it works, but of course there are days when I am still feeling very low.
* Not her real name.
* Duloxetine. Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, prescribed for major depressive disorder, GAD, fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain.
* Pregabalin. Central nervous system depressant, used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, and GAD.