A former corporate worker turned freelance writer, Jessica has a history managing her generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic disorder. Recently, she opened up to Chat Owl to share what it’s like living with anxiety.
Jessica lives with what she calls “functional anxiety.” Constant simmering anxiety feels completely normal but leaves her little mental space to handle everyday stressors. With the guidance of her therapist and family doctor, she has navigated several years of counseling, medication, and healing.
She pulled the following excerpts from her daily journal. Over the years, her daily scribbling has become a powerful tool of understanding, reflection, and recovery.
What is Anxiety?
Generalized anxiety disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is “excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about many things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances.”
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Difficulty sleeping
- Constant worry or dread
- Feelings of restlessness or being on-edge
Panic disorder is “recurrent unexpected panic attacks.” Panic or anxiety attacks are “sudden periods of intense fear that come on quickly and reach their peak within minutes.” Panic disorder is often diagnosed in conjunction with anxiety disorders.
A Week In the Life of an Anxious Person
Mondays are for planning. It’s incredibly important to me that I schedule everything in advance. It’s even more important that everything goes according to these plans. If something should go off schedule, I find it very difficult to cope. Surprises are difficult.
Over the years of dealing with anxiety, I’ve come to learn I do not do well with sudden changes. Why? Because I haven’t had a chance to run through every preservable outcome in my head beforehand. Surprises are terrifying in some regards, even if I can recognize the reality is much different.
Today, I drank my coffee in the morning and felt on fire with ideas. I ended up scheduling everything perfectly, writing over a thousand words, and plowing through several important inbox items. Today is a great day. As a highly functional anxious person, the lingering daily anxiety is my friend sometimes — like today.
It means today I was exceptionally productive. I was on schedule, on task, and focused.
At the end of today, I am gutted with my lack of focus. I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to, and I can feel a familiar feeling of panic start to build within me. Therapy has taught me to be gentle with myself, but my anxiety tells me otherwise. I know I am very hard on myself and always feel like I am not living up to my expectations nor those of others.
Fueled by these imagined stressors, I’ve managed to work late again. I always try to work regular working hours, but today I’ve blown right through them. Now, I’m eating supper late and will end up with no downtime.
If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s how vital downtime is for my mental health. Today, I’ve ignored it. Relaxing is the exact opposite of what anxiety tells me to do. It tells me to work like a wild-woman and fall exhausted into bed.
Based on nothing tangible, I woke up extremely anxious today. I can feel it in my chest, like constant pressure. It’s highly uncomfortable, but after many years with this diagnosis, the feeling is familiar.
When I feel like this, I tend to become irritable. I find myself getting busier and busier as I try to avoid feeling these feelings. I cleaned my house, I meal prepped, and frantically worked on my assignments. I got frustrated and irritable with everyone who bumped into me in line or wasted my time at home. I’ve got so many things to get done.
For whatever reason staying busy helps me ignore my anxiety. I know, based on years of therapy, this is unhealthy. My therapists have always told me to pause, breathe, and focus on self-care when my anxiety reaches a fever pitch. Of course, this is one of the most challenging things to do.
Last night I didn’t sleep at all, which is the most reliable indication that today will not be awesome. If anything exacerbates the state of my mental health, it’s a lack of sleep. I always wake up at 4 am, and then start spiraling.
Spiraling is the unique ability of an anxious person to pull every possible situation into their head at once and go down a rabbit hole of possibilities. What happens if I miss my bus tomorrow? What happens if I get fired? What about getting groceries or meeting up with my friends or, or, or…
At night there are endless lists of things to worry about. Every worry eventually leaves me in the worst possible outcome, meaning I have lost everything and live on the streets.
I always try to remind myself at night that nothing good comes from solving problems after dark. I tell myself to wait until the light of day to consider the problem again. Inevitably the problem doesn’t even exist in daylight or is far less stressful. Last night I popped in an audiobook, and after a long while, fell asleep.
Still, I’m exhausted, which means my capacity to cope today is also depleted. I have to be gentle with myself today. I’m most at risk of panic attacks when I feel this way.
During the peak of my mental health issues, I had multiple panic attacks a day, but these days, they only happen a handful of times a year. They are not pleasant by any means, I find them incredibly embarrassing, but I’ve gotten quite good at them. Often I find it is a release from extremely pent up emotions.
But, I’d prefer not to have one. Tonight I will focus on self-care. That always means turning off and chilling out. I might eat a bowl of popcorn for dinner (because I can) or have a long hot bath. Both are ways I turn off my mind and feel better.
Last night I made sure to focus on myself and my mental health. I went to bed early, and with the help of earplugs and a hot bath, slept through the night. Today finally feels manageable.
Headed into the weekend, and I’m looking forward to relaxing.
Relaxing for an anxious person like me is exceptionally challenging. I can always find something useful to do, like cleaning, errands, meal prep, and more. Trying to relax is one of the most challenging aspects of my recovery, but I know its a critical one. As I once said to my therapist, even when I’m chilling out, I am making lists in my head and planning the future.
But with an anxious week behind me, I have to focus. I’ll try to take my dog for a long walk through the woods and stay away from my computer. Big breaths and long baths are on my schedule, nothing else.
What Does Journaling For Anxiety Look Like?
As a daily exercise, journaling is an excellent practice for anyone with anxiety. Journaling is a scheduled period of daily reflection that helps you put your spiraling thoughts onto paper. Writing down these thoughts gets them out of your head and in perspective.
What’s the best way to start journaling? Putting pen to paper. Keeping a writing schedule as regular as possible also helps. Your journal will end up as unique as you are, but in the beginning, you may want to adopt one of the following approaches:
- Gratitude Journal: No matter how the day unfolded, find three events that you are grateful for. Pondering gratitude starts to reroute your anxious thoughts into more positive directions.
- Thoughtful Examination: Anxiety is an ongoing experience of rumination. Writing these ruminations down is a time for reflection. Examining these thoughts can help put them into perspective.
- Find Patterns: Over time, you may see patterns in the way your anxiety appears. Does lack of sleep make it worse? Do you find certain times of the month or social situations change it? Knowing the triggers or exasperating events can help create a solution.
A Lonely Experience, But Ultimately Never Really Alone
Like many mental health issues, anxiety feels incredibly lonely. Jessica explained to us that she often feels the need to hide or even outright avoid social situations when she is feeling the most stressed. She described it as embarrassment, “When I’m anxious, I don’t look people in the eye, and I shut down communication. I know I am not my best self. Therefore I try to close off until I feel better.”
But, Jessica is one of nearly 18 million people in the US who have experience with anxiety. That number works out to roughly 20 percent of the adult population. Before shutting down, consider opening up.
You never know if the person sitting across from you has direct experience or understanding of anxiety. Transform your thoughts through journaling, but then don’t be afraid to share with those around you.