When we think of anxiety disorders, we tend to visualize sweaty palms, shallow breathing and rapid heart rates. We think of people who are nervous or need everything to be perfect.
Unfortunately, people are not so easily categorized. Everyone is different and therefore symptoms of anxiety can manifest themselves in nuanced ways.
I always knew I was a worrier but it was a long time before I learned of my anxiety disorders. When questioned about whether I experienced certain tendencies such as avoidance, obsessive thinking, perfectionism, and panic attacks, I said no. I was sure those labels didn’t apply to me. Unfortunately, just because they didn’t present themselves in a stereotypical way didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Driving across the country to avoid flying. Delaying doctor visits. Cancelling social plans you were actually looking forward. These are common avoidant behaviours.
My anxiety, apparently, manifests itself in a less common form. I avoid making phone calls. Whether it’s calling a friend, a restaurant to make a booking, or even paying a bill via an automated system, I can delay calls for weeks, if not months. Because it seems so trivial, it's easy to mask the avoidance not just from others but from myself. If I make excuses like “I didn’t have reception” or “I completely forgot!” my avoidance flies under the radar.
I also have a tendency to put off checking emails or buying new shoes until the soles of my current ones are literally falling off. These are subtle signs but they stem from a desire to avoid something.
Hyperventilation, disorientation, and sweating are classic signs of a panic attack, but what happens when they don't describe your panic attacks?
I spent too many years ignoring my attacks because they weren’t as visual as the media makes them out to be. I go through episodes where my mind will race, I’ll feel disoriented, and I’ll experience sheer panic. Meanwhile, I’ll essentially be frozen like a statue, except for one finger that runs in a pattern over and over again.
Panic attacks aren't always obvious bouts of hyperventilation. If you think you're having a panic attack, take slow, deep breaths, physically relax your jaw and any other tensed muscles, and focus on something mundane in front of you, like counting tiles on the floor. And remember, you will get through this.
Other times, even when I don’t have a specific panic in mind, my heart suddenly feels like it will jump out of my chest and it’s difficult to breathe. This didn’t feel like what I’d seen on TV, so I just pushed passed it.
Fear of germs. Pencils lined up perfectly straight. Persistent and paranoid thoughts of a cheating partner. These behaviours are easy to observe and have become synonymous with OCD, which is classified as a type of anxiety disorder. I certainly didn’t struggle with these. I didn’t have the urge to do everything in threes. I’m fine, I told myself.
A thought I do obsess over is getting injured. More specifically, I’ve spent my entire life visualizing myself tripping. As I walk, I see myself falling on my face. On hikes, I picture tumbling down the side of a mountain. Walking up to a stage, I think I'll miss a step. These images are permanently on repeat for almost every second of my life. It sounds silly, but I didn’t realize this was abnormal so I dismissed it and the stress of being scared with every step I took. These anxious thoughts didn’t fall in line with my preconceived notion of obsessive behaviour, so I didn’t address them for a while.
Perfectionism has been linked with anxiety, often stemming from the fear of not being good enough or of being judged. Since I didn’t mind getting some B+ grades and didn’t keep my room perfectly clean, I thought I wasn’t a perfectionist.
I did, however, always think of myself as a very shy person. I just didn’t realize until years of therapy down the road, that this introversion is related to perfectionism. I’m not shy in the sense that I worried about drawing attention to myself, but rather, I agonized over how to say what I wanted to say to the point that I stopped myself from joining in on conversations.
I often get left behind in group conversations because I repeat my thought over and over in my head, perfecting it, down to the inflections. By the time I’m ready to speak, the topic has changed. This very much has to do with a fear of being judged.
Because this outwardly presents itself as “just being shy,” I never associated it with perfectionism or anxiety. I wasn’t aware that a sign of perfectionism is that you think in all-or-nothing terms, as in, I want to articulate my thoughts exactly right, or else I feel like they will be taken the wrong way or laughed at by my peers.
Listen to your body
These are just a few examples of ways I dismissed crucial signs of anxiety. In some cases, sleeplessness, digestive issues, and grinding your teeth can be subtle manifestations of anxiety. Individually, they can be seen as trivial but it’s only once you start addressing them that you'll realize how much they may be impacting your life.
Getting by is not the same as thriving. Don’t ignore signs that feel off just because they don’t fit the stereotypes.
Self-reflection is an important tool to help determine not only patterns in behaviour but their impact on your life. I didn’t want to think about it. I was preoccupied with being normal. If you’re like me and struggle with honest reflection, I’ve found talking through it with a trusted friend to be very helpful.
If you want an empathetic ear to help you work through your anxieties,
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