We All Have Stress—Here’s How I Knew Mine Was Something More - Verily
It’s important to know everyday stress from actual anxiety.

According to a recent brand-sponsored study on stress and sleep, Millennials account for 32 percent of stressed adults in the U.S. That’s higher than our parents’ generation by almost 10 percent. When you compare men to women, women account for 63 percent of the “stressed” population.

I fall squarely into that cross-section of the population (Millennial and female), so it would be easy for me to write off my anxiety as just everyday stress—and I did for many years.

The truth is, stress and anxiety do not always coexist, nor are the terms interchangeable. An easy way to differentiate between the two is to think of stress as the outside pressures that we all experience sometimes, while anxiety is the nervous state of mind that often emerges from those pressures. Anxiety can pop up in someone who isn’t experiencing any obvious pressure, but added stress does tend to exacerbate anxiety.

If you didn’t know about the nuances behind these terms, I wouldn’t blame you. I didn’t know that anxiety could be a mental health issue until after I began to experience it.

My Discovery Was a Process

You could say that I’ve experienced various forms of anxiety throughout my life. I remember small moments scattered across my childhood, like one day when I started crying at a neighbor’s house but couldn’t explain why or when I had a minor panic attack during a church service that forced me out of the chapel. Back then I didn’t have a word for the feeling, that suffocating panic in my gut. But the moments were rare enough, and spread far enough between, that I could write them off as glitches.

But something shifted while I was in college. I don’t know what changed, or when exactly—only that those meltdowns started happening every day instead of every few months.

There came a point during my junior year where I regularly locked myself in the bathroom to catch my breath before Latin. I skipped English Lit to stream old episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in bed. I fled church just before the final song to seek refuge in my car.

One day, driving home from campus, I felt that same familiar panic rising in my chest. As I blinked tears from my eyes and struggled to breathe, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Something is wrong with me.”

When I made it to my apartment, I shut the bedroom door and started typing frenzied searches into Google. “Why do I cry so much?” I typed. “Can’t control emotions.” I strung together all kinds of words and search terms in a blind attempt to find answers.

Who knows which query turned out to be the winner—but eventually I found myself on a page about mental health that mentioned generalized anxiety disorder. I ran through the list of symptoms: Muscle tension? Check. Irritability? Check. Difficulty concentrating? Check. And on and on.

But I still didn’t look for professional help. First I sought out other people who suffered from anxiety. I poked around on web forums, messaged friends on Facebook, and mulled it over for weeks before doing anything about it. I asked a lot of questions and wrestled with the feeling that I was imagining my symptoms, that it wasn’t that bad, or that I was just looking for excuses to explain my lack of motivation in school and life.

Finally, though, I made an appointment. My therapist confirmed that I was suffering from generalized anxiety disorder as well as some minor depression. And we worked together on a treatment plan.

I Couldn’t Have Managed Alone

Anxiety can be like quicksand—it gets worse the more you fight it. My therapist suggested that instead of attempting to stifle my feelings, I should learn to accept them and allow the anxiety to wash over me. Accepting that part of myself helped me to avoid getting overwhelmed or frustrated when I couldn’t stop it.

With the help of cognitive behavioral therapy or other treatment, many people (including me) eventually learn how to regain control of spiraling thoughts. But part of that process meant being kind to myself. Of course I couldn’t always skip my classes or hide in my car, but sometimes the most effective way of letting go of some of my anxiety is to focus on something else, even if that means streaming shows in bed instead of venturing into the world and interacting with others.

When I told a handful of people about my anxiety, I was surprised how supportive they were. One acquaintance confessed she also had anxiety attacks, and she brought me lavender oil to help me relax at night. I clued in my Latin professor, who helped me catch up on some missed classwork. Feeling understood and supported gave me the courage to face my anxiety. 

The thing about an anxiety disorder—or any other mental health issue—is that you can’t expect to fully manage it without any outside help. My best successes have come from allowing myself to be vulnerable and accepting the good will others have to offer me. A person wouldn’t attempt to set a broken bone without a doctor’s help; similarly, mental health isn’t really a solo job. In my case, I started with cognitive behavioral therapy but supplemented with medication until I felt equipped enough to handle the anxiety attacks.

That was the strategy that felt right for me. But others may prefer more natural treatment methods, and those can work wonders on their own. The key is to have the input of a professional, whether that’s your family doctor or your therapist.

Realizing there was a name for what I felt changed everything for me. Suddenly I wasn’t just an overly emotional wreck—I was a normal human being experiencing a common mental health challenge. When I recognized my anxiety for what it was, I had a chance to face it head-on and treat it. I still struggle with it sometimes, but I feel equipped—and that makes all the difference in the world.