Last week, I posted Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 1: My Long & Complicated Relationship With Panic. In it, I gave a brief description of how and when I began experiencing the crippling effects of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attacks. If you have not yet read part 1, reading it before you read this post might help with context.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?

The Mayo Clinic defines GAD as “. . .excessive, ongoing anxiety and worry that interfere with day-to-day activities.” People may develop “generalized anxiety disorder as a child or an adult. Generalized anxiety disorder has symptoms that are similar to panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other types of anxiety, but they are all different conditions.”

Symptoms of GAD include:

Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns that’s out of proportion to the impact of the event
Inability to set aside or let go of a worry
Inability to relax, restlessness, and feeling keyed up or on edge
Difficulty concentrating, or the feeling that your mind “goes blank”
Worrying about excessively worrying
Distress about making decisions for fear of making the wrong decision
Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion
Difficulty handling uncertainty or indecisiveness
Fatigue
Irritability
Muscle tension or muscle aches
Trembling, feeling twitchy
Being easily startled
Trouble sleeping
Sweating
Nausea, diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome
Headaches

Symptoms in children and teens can manifest differently than adults and may include:

Performance at school or sporting events suffering
Difficulty being on time (punctuality)
Fear of earthquakes, nuclear war or other catastrophic events
Feeling overly anxious to fit in
Being a perfectionist
Tendency to redo tasks because they aren’t perfect the first time
Spending excessive time doing homework
Lacking confidence
Striving for approval
Requiring a lot of reassurance about performance

What are Panic Attacks?

The Mayo Clinic defines a panic attack as ” a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you’re losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.” Further, they note that “Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends. But if you’ve had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder. . .Although panic attacks themselves aren’t life-threatening, they can be frightening and significantly affect your quality of life.”

Panic attack symptoms vary widely from person to person, but they almost always come on suddenly and without warning, even at times when there does not seem to be anything that would trigger a panic attack. Many people, myself included, have been awakened in the middle of the night from a sound sleep having a panic attack. While symptoms are not the same from one person to the next, they can include:

Sense of impending doom or danger
Fear of loss of control or death
Rapid, pounding heart rate
Sweating
Trembling or shaking
Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
Chills
Hot flashes
Nausea
Abdominal cramping
Chest pain
Headache
Dizziness, light-headedness or faintness
Numbness or tingling sensation
Feeling of unreality or detachment

I have experienced all of those symptoms over the years. Most of the time, my panic attacks have multiple symptoms at a time. They are incredibly frightening, embarrassing, and create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that someone who doesn’t experience them simply cannot understand. They are exhausting, and after they end, I feel as though I could sleep for days. But, the worst part about panic attacks and panic disorder is the fear that they will happen again. That is why I, and so many other people who suffer from them, avoid situations where they might occur. That leads to isolation, loneliness, and depression. As I said in part 1, relationships with family, friends, significant others, and co-workers can be dramatically impacted by these conditions.

But, the symptoms of GAD, panic attacks (panic disorder) are not the only things you need to know. There are several more that those of us who suffer want those of you who don’t to know–not about the conditions, but about US!

We Are Not Crazy
People who suffer from GAD and panic attacks are not insane. In fact, on the whole, we are among the most sane, intelligent, and creative people you’ll ever meet. Leann Rimes, Johnny Depp, Kate Moss, Emma Stone, Joey Votto, Kim Basinger, Scarlett Johansson, and Adele are just a few of the people known to suffer from GAD, panic attacks, or both. Some psychologists and psychiatrists who’ve studied his writings believe that Abraham Lincoln also likely suffered from GAD. (from CalmClinic.com) While GAD and panic disorder are classified as mental/emotional in nature, the people who suffer from them are most certainly not mentally disturbed or insane. You don’t need to be afraid of us.

We Don’t Have A Switch To Turn It Off
Oh, that there were a switch that would allow us to turn off the worry, the fear, the panic, the racing thoughts–I don’t know that there is a price we wouldn’t be willing to pay. Unfortunately, that switch doesn’t exist. As much as we want to (as much as YOU may want us to), and as hard as we try, we can’t just turn it off. Many people with GAD and panic disorder have suffered with it since childhood; and while there may be times when we are perfectly fine, we always know that the panic could hit at any time. There are effective treatments for GAD and panic disorder which help many people who suffer with them, but they are just treatments, not cures. We will most likely always “have it.”

We Probably Can’t Tell You What We Are Afraid Of
I have a fairly sizeable list of phobias: heights, closed spaces, large crowds, etc. But, ask me during a panic attack what it is that I’m afraid of at that moment, and I probably won’t be able to tell you. The vast majority of my panic attacks are not triggered by any of the phobias I have. I can’t tell you what most of them are triggered by, and most of the people who I’ve talked to who suffer like me say the same thing. We can’t tell you what we are afraid of during a panic attack. All we know is that the fear is very real.

We Need You To Be Our Friend Even Though We Can’t Always Be Yours
This is, maybe, the hardest truth about GAD and panic attacks that I know of. Those of us who suffer need people around who care about us. We need people around who know what we’re going through and who still love us anyway. We need people around us who will continue to be our friends even though we are not always very good at being yours. This flies in the face of everything we’re ever told about friendships. You know–they’re a “two-way street.” That is true. Unfortunately for those of us who suffer from these disorders, we’re not always able to travel down the other side. We know we need to. We know we should. But, just at that moment, we can’t make the trip.

We Haven’t “Given Up” On Life
One of the things that I dread most when I talk to people about GAD and panic attacks are the looks of pity on people’s faces. You know the look–furrowed brow, eyebrows raised, head tilted to the side, weepy eyes. It’s a look that suggests the thought: “Oh, you poor, hopeless thing. You’ve given up on having a happy life.” But, we haven’t. Most sufferers of GAD and panic attacks may have some level of depression accompanying the disorders, but we don’t often just give up and go to bed. Even during the times when I’ve been housebound, I’ve been busy about trying to get better. It may just be that my “busy” doesn’t look the same as yours. But, trust me, I (we) haven’t given up.

Lastly, and the most important thing we want you to know…

If you know someone who you think may be experiencing Generalized Anxiety Disorder and/or panic attacks, please talk to them. Let them know that there is help available and that they don’t have to suffer alone. This is especially important for little kids who might be suffering. The earlier GAD and panic attacks are caught, the easier they seem to be to treat. Please don’t let someone you know suffer alone. There is hope and there is help.

If you think you may know someone who suffers from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and/or Panic Attacks/Panic Disorder, check out the resources available through the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

And, don’t forget to be a friend!
Coming up:

Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 3: The Things People Say That I wish People Didn’t Say
Anxiety–Destroyer of Lives, Part 4: Let’s Get Serious About This

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