My name is Mollie and I have an anxiety disorder.
Specifically, I suffer from an anxiety disorder known as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was diagnosed with this disorder when I was 16, but in retrospect I’ve probably had it for most of my life.
Using the DSM-5, GAD is diagnosed using the following (paraphrased) criteria:
Abnormal amounts of worry or anxiety over multiple activities lasting more than 6 months.
Inability to manage this worry or anxiety.
Occurrence of 3 or more of the following:
Problems with sleep
Symptoms affect daily functioning.
These symptoms are not due to medications, drugs, or other physical health problems.
Symptoms do not fit better with another disorder.
While this is the formal diagnosis, I like to explain my anxiety as follows:
Everyone wakes up every day and they live. I live and so do you. You wake up and you’re probably stressed about something. It could be getting to work because you’re running late, the laundry you have to do when you get home, or even leftover stress from the day before. That stress is minimal, so we will say it’s a 0 on a scale of 1-10.
If you have something specific that day that is stress-inducing like a job interview, a first date, or a presentation, your stress level is higher than that 0, every day anxiety. It’s anywhere from a 1-10, depending on what it is. Maybe that first date is a 3. Maybe your family member is ill, so it’s more like a 9. No matter what, that level is abnormally high and it’s being caused by something. That’s how your anxiety works.
Mine does not work that way.
Your every day stress level starts at 0. Mine starts at a 3. (When I was 16, my level started at a 6.) This means that when you wake up and are at a 0, I’m already at a 3. When you have a job interview and are at a 6, I’m having anxiety like I have an ill family member (9). This causes me to act in a way that you may think is irrational for the situation, because you aren’t experiencing an event like I am.
In summary, the answer to the question is yes. Everyone does have anxiety. However, everyone’s anxiety is experienced differently.
If everyone’s anxiety is experienced differently, how can I empathize with my “abnormally” anxious friends?
This is a simple answer, but not one that you’re going to like. Simply put, you can’t.
Let’s review that again.
You cannot empathize with your friends that have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety goes so much farther than empathy, and even that is a struggle for most individuals. That’s not to say you can’t try (as you should)!
Let’s practice an exercise. Take a deep breath and close your eyes. Invent a new color. Can you see it? Can you think of one?
Of course you can’t. It’s impossible. That being said, something you can do for your friends with anxiety is to take their word at what it is. If they say they’re feeling a certain way, that’s how they’re feeling.
Even if how they’re feeling seems irrational or like it doesn’t make sense to you, for them it is all too real and seems all too rational.
The next time you’re feeling anxious or you hear of someone with an anxiety disorder, think of how you would react to a situation and remember that someone with an anxiety disorder is feeling it in a way you cannot understand. Remember the rule of 10, and that the best thing you can do is accept. Because everyone has anxiety, we often think we can understand a disorder. But we can understand someone else’s disorder as easy as we can imagine a new color.