In the year or so since my diagnosis with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I’ve had a lot of questions.
What exactly is GAD?
What causes it?
How common is it?
What are the best strategies for managing it?
And in this Information Age, a simple Google search or a “Hey, Siri” can go a long way in shedding light on these types of data-driven inquiries. However, the experience of mental illness also raises many questions that are far too delicate, complex, and individualized for this method of answer seeking– questions that can’t be sufficiently addressed by examining “just the facts, m’am.” These are questions that require us to draw upon additional sources of knowledge, including personal and collective experience and intuition, to formulate an adequate response– and questions to which an “adequate response” may look a bit different for each of us and may shift over the course of a lifetime. These are the questions that come to mind again and again and tug on our psyches until we finally decide to face them.
Today I’d like to share three such “nagging questions” about anxiety and depression that have posed a particular challenge for me in my mental health journey. I’ll also discuss some of my thoughts related to each one in hopes of sparking an open, honest, and productive dialogue. I’d love to know if any of you have had these same questions, and if so, what insights you can offer. I’d also love to hear what other “nagging questions” you’ve faced in your life, regardless of whether you’ve experienced a mental illness.
So let’s get this soul-searching party started.
1. Do I “deserve” to feel this way?
As most of us are acutely aware, our world is brimming with pain and suffering. Far too many of our fellow humans experience hunger, poverty, violence, homelessness, debilitating illness, persecution, and other direct threats to their wellbeing on a daily basis–and in comparison, my worries seem pretty darn petty and meaningless and my “struggles” practically scream ease and privilege. What do I really have to be anxious about? Have I really suffered enough to warrant depression? Do I “deserve” to feel the way I do? Shouldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?
This is a difficult thing to explore from the inside without spiraling into guilt, shame– and as a result, further anxiety and depression–so I find it helpful to step outside my own experience and think about what I would tell a loved one if he or she came to me with these same questions.
I would first clarify that no one chooses whether or not to experience a mental illness. These conditions arise out of complex gene-environment interactions, not because people wake up one day and decide they want attention or special concessions. Some people do, in fact, behave in certain ways because they want attention or special concessions, but this is not mental illness.
Secondly, when we look at issues like poverty, we have to remember that just as mental illness isn’t directly caused by a lack of material goods, it isn’t prevented or cured by simply acquiring more of them. There are plenty of people who “have it all” and still suffer from anxiety and/or depression, as well as plenty of people who own very little and do not.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the real issue isn’t whether someone “deserves” to be anxious or depressed, whether he or she has “suffered” enough to warrant these experiences. As I mentioned earlier, these kinds of guilt- and shame- inducing questions don’t serve to alleviate the anxiety and depression– in fact, they’ll likely make it worse, and no one benefits from that. On the other hand, owning and accepting one’s experience and taking the actions one can to manage symptoms and strive to lead a healthy and productive life is a far better response. The more we take care of ourselves, the more we’ll be able to give of ourselves to others and contribute to the betterment of the world–and everyone benefits from that.
2. What if my anxiety drives my success?
As someone who has undoubtedly experienced anxiety for most of her life (long before any official diagnosis was made), I can look back and see a lot of worry and stress–and also a considerable amount of “success” in terms of good grades, leadership roles in extracurriculars, etc. Which leads me to wonder, what if my anxiety was actually a key factor contributing to these achievements? What if being tightly wound drives me to perform better? What if I start taking steps to reduce my anxiety and find that I’m no longer “successful”?
Thankfully, as any good scientist knows, correlation does not equal causality. (In fact, if you’re ever in need of a good chuckle, check out Tyler Vigen’s Spurious Correlations. Good news for Nicolas Cage fans and cheese lovers alike!) So just because I’ve experienced anxiety and success at the same time does not mean that anxiety directly causes success. In fact, research supports what most of us already know from experience– that a moderate level of psychological arousal contributes to the best performance. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, if you don’t care enough, you won’t be motivated to do your best–but being totally freaked out will send you into overdrive and inhibit peak performance.
It’s also important to examine how we’re defining success here. I mentioned things like grades in school and achievements in extracurriculars, but what about the even more important things, like relationships, health, and spirituality? I would argue that my periods of highest anxiety have most definitely not correlated with my “best successes” in these arenas. Just ask my family, my doctor, or, well, God.
And finally, even if I did somehow determine that my anxiety was an important driver of success, the real question is, at what cost? Is getting good grades or a strong letter of recommendation or an award or a scholarship really worth the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social toll that anxiety takes on us? Is it worth the headaches, the stomach pains, and the heart palpitations? Is it worth the paralyzing fear and constant feelings of scarcity–that what we have isn’t enough, what we do isn’t enough, what we are isn’t enough? Is it worth the opportunities missed because we couldn’t pull ourselves together and the joy lost because we couldn’t get out of our own heads and just be in the moment?
Now, of course, my answer would be no, but I have the benefit of hindsight. If you would have posed these questions to my overachieving high school self who hadn’t yet experienced the worst that anxiety has to offer, I would have been like, “Yeah, but…SAT scores/college applications/MY FUTURE.” So I think it’s something I needed to learn the hard way, otherwise, I never would have believed it.
3. How will I ever “repay” my loved ones?
As I mentioned to above, anxiety always comes at a cost. During my time in grad school, it definitely cost me my ability to fully show up in my relationships and be the daughter, sister, girlfriend, friend, classmate, coworker, etc., that I wanted to be. I didn’t set out to become a selfish, angry, or distant person, of course, but I got so caught up in my own thoughts and problems and stresses that that’s essentially what I became. My tank was constantly empty, leaving me with nothing to give to anyone else.
Now that I’m in a much better place, I often wonder how I will ever “repay” these individuals for the love and grace they extended to me during this dark time in my life. I use quotation marks here because I know that strong and meaningful relationships are “give and take” and that my loved ones aren’t expecting to be showered with gifts and praise in exchange for their support. However, when you’ve just come off a long period of take, this question doesn’t feel unreasonable. Furthermore, despite the massive improvements I’ve experienced, I still have GAD, and it’s a lot like walking with a tiny pebble in my shoe–it’s always there, but there are days I don’t really notice it, days when it’s just a minor annoyance, and days when, seemingly out of nowhere, it lodges itself in just the right place and pain shoots through my entire body. And during those latter days, I can be pretty pathetic–like lying on the floor unable to move pathetic. Cancelled plans pathetic. Call my mom and cry pathetic. But now I’m honestly kind of hesitant to go to loved ones, because I feel like I’ve already used up all my “pathetic anxiety time” with them for now. To continue with the financial analogy, I made some major withdrawals from my relationships during my time in grad school, and I haven’t rebuilt my savings yet.
I don’t really have a great response for this one, because I’m still struggling to figure it out for myself. My loved ones have assured me that they’re not keeping score, and I’m learning how to believe them. I’m also learning how to take care of myself so that I can show up for them–on a day to day basis as well as during those times when they’re in a low place and need that same kind of unconditional love they gave me.
For those of you who struggle with anxiety and/or depression: Have you asked any of these same questions before? If so, what insights do you have to offer? What other questions tend to nag at you?
For those of you who don’t necessarily struggle with these issues yourself: There’s a good chance that you know and love someone who does. What insights might you provide if they came to you with these questions?