We're living in anxious times. Between a turbulent news cycle, the fast-changing job market and technology that regularly upends whole industries, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by worry.
But for some people, those feelings aren't new - and their feelings add up to more than just apprehension about the future or situational nervousness, like the butterflies you feel when you have to give a speech. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting as many as 18 percent of Americans over the course of a year. People with these illnesses can experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including excessive worry or tension, cognitive problems such as trouble concentrating, sleep disturbances and physical issues such as heart palpitations and muscle fatigue.
For Mental Health Awareness Month, Gambit spoke to seven young New Orleanians who self-identify as living with an anxiety disorder. In their own words, they described similar feelings: My throat closed. I couldn't move. I thought I was dying. They also talked about their decisions to seek (or not seek) treatment, and how it worked out for them.
[jump] If their accounts sound relatable, it may be worth being evaluated by a professional. Mandeville psychologist Dr. George Schreiner cautions that only a doctor or mental health professional, such a therapist, can diagnose and treat anxiety.
"[In an anxiety disorder], not only do I have that cluster of symptoms, but it's causing personal distress, and it's impairing my social, occupational or otherwise important functioning," he explains. "You do want to have an expert who can put that all in a context."
Most people interviewed for this project said they had known about their anxiety for much of their lives. Or, like many other mental health issues, it surfaced for the first time during adolescence.
Christy: As far back as I can remember I was always really neurotic. I was just always really intense, even as a kid.
Adam: I guess I started to notice it a few years ago, but I feel like it’s always been a part of my life. The symptoms just got worse and I took notice.
Malia: The first time I had a full-blown panic attack, to where I felt like I was paralyzed and couldn’t breathe, I thought I was dying, I was 15. I was lying on the floor of the bathroom telling my mom "I’m dying."
Leslie: I remember very vividly being in the kitchen of my house, talking to [my husband], and I can’t remember what we were talking about - I was doing dishes - and I just kind of had this moment where I stopped and I said “I think I have anxiety.” And my husband just started laughing at me and was like, "Yep.”
Malia: My mom and my grandfather both have anxiety and depression. … It runs in the family. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Simon: [When I first noticed it] I was 16. My family was lower-middle-class and I would help out with getting groceries. … This one time that I was at the checkout, and when the total came up I went to pay using our food stamp card. It ended up not being enough, and immediately, I started internally panicking and feeling ashamed and very self-conscious. … I remember just sitting in my truck and having to calm myself down before heading back home.
A cluster of emotional and physical symptoms characterize anxiety disorders. Many of them are centered around worry, but there also are less obvious symptoms, such as "blanking out" in conversation, trouble concentrating, gastrointestinal distress or even excessive sweating.
Adam: I will wake up with crippling fear and worry completely out of the blue for no reason. Nothing I could tell myself or do would make it go away. Sometimes I wouldn’t even be able to move.
Joseph: I was having trouble just being a person. I felt like I was having a nervous breakdown.
Simon: After the store incident, I started trying to avoid doing the shopping, and that led to me reducing my exposure to the outside world. It was gradual at first. I would decline going to birthday parties, and at family functions I limited my interaction with adults.
Joseph: I would start to panic, thinking about what will I do if this doesn’t happen? Who will I be? What does this mean? That kind of constant feedback loop of thoughts, that’s what it felt like.
Dana: I feel like my throat closes whenever I need to make big decisions. … I feel like I have to have it together and figured out for my family.
Adam: I also started to notice that I would break down when put in certain situations. … my mind goes blank. I couldn’t put words or thoughts together even when asked a simple question. The mere thought of contemplating an answer would make me shut down.
Malia: At one point I wrote a suicide note. I cut myself a few times. I think that was more of an attention thing … I think it was just me wanting someone to help me. I didn’t understand why this was happening, or why I was feeling like this all of a sudden.
Leslie: In any kind of situation, I always fixate on all the things that could go wrong. I spend a lot of time thinking about all the ways any decision or problem could [be] exacerbated.
Christy: It was a feeling of dread to the point of being paralyzed. I was absolutely aware that it wasn’t some bizarre physical condition; it was coming from a place of stress.
Adam: My mind feels very foggy at times … there are no real thoughts happening. It’s like my mind is just completely blank.
Leslie: I didn’t have all that much in my life that would have triggered me to be as vigilant as I was. I just was.
Joseph: There were times when I genuinely felt like I was hallucinating things … I was really losing control, a grip on reality … my internal monologue was getting so loud that I was like, is this an auditory hallucination? I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything -literally nothing - for more than what felt like seconds.
Anxiety can change the way you approach everyday activities. The subjects of these interviews said that anxiety has altered the way they make decisions, what they do on a given day and how they interact with other people.
Simon: I have trouble even getting together with friends that I know really accept me and whatever weird, awkward stuff I do. It’s a fight with myself just to get out of the house some days.
Dana: I always feel stressed when something is out of my control. For example, I have a hard time riding comfortably when someone else is driving.
Leslie: I do a lot of avoiding of social situations.
Joseph: A lot of my anxiety comes from being unprepared, or not being ready, or feeling that if something didn’t go right I could have done something differently. … There’s a lot, though, that is not in your control.
Leslie: Most of the things that I’ve done in my life have been [based in] inertia. … A lot of that is just because changes are tremendously stressful for me. Meeting new people is incredibly stressful for me.
Simon: Working in a kitchen works out for me because it’s easy to manage my anxiety. I can get so focused on the food and the chaos of the kitchen provides a multitude of distractions. … It’s a place with a limited number of people that has a set of rules I fully understand.
Christy: If I’m worried about something, a deadline, an assignment or a test at school, I have to fight the urge to just say "fuck it" and sabotage myself and stay home or fuck off. It’s so scary to leave the house.
Simon: I want to travel. The best I manage with my current self is driving around town late at night.
Anxiety can be treated with medication or psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Some people involved in this project sought treatment through medication, but others were more conflicted about taking medication or even seeking treatment at all.
Leslie: I’ve been taking antidepressants for 15 years, every day. So I can’t really remember what I’m like without them anymore.
Dana: I’ve considered seeing a therapist, but I feel like they’ll tell me what I [already] know.
Christy: I was in the party scene for a little while, and I had a lot of friends who were taking [the kinds of] anxiety medication they were giving me through the VA. They were giving it to me like candy. I was getting Ativan and Valium and Klonopin.
Malia: My mom got me in therapy and I talked to someone who wrote me a prescription for Zoloft and, I want to say, Klonopin … and I was on that for many years.
Adam: I basically always have a Valium or two on me, just in case.
Malia: At first, they put me on way too much Zoloft. And I remember being in class and just falling asleep on my desk and feeling like a total zombie.
Christy: I’ve always been able to see from the sidelines this ongoing problem of people being on these drugs, and just not being able to handle it. At some point I made the decision that I didn’t want to take them anymore.
Joseph: I’ve really consistently been in some sort of CBT or talk therapy since, like, age 19 or so.
Christy: I’ve been gritting my teeth sometimes. I had an incident this winter where the pressure built up, and I had some other family things going on, and I wound up needing a ‘professional break’ [a hospitalization].
Other ways of coping: exercise, recreational drugs or just breathing through it.
Dana: I’m not sure if I’ve found anything that has helped me cope. Maybe when I’m reading self-help articles I feel like I’m working towards something, which helps. Other than that, I’m not sure. Deep breaths, maybe.
Malia: I can’t always control things, but I can control how long I’m on the elliptical [exercise machine]. Those are things I can look at and say "I’m going to do this, I can do it." Even accomplishing those little goals helps.
Adam: I can tell you this, though, the use of psychedelic mushrooms has most definitely helped with my depression and anxiety. Each time I’ve used mushrooms I leave feeling cleansed and repaired.
Malia: I had never smoked weed up until about two years ago. … Now it’s gotten to the point where [weed] really is my medicine, that really does help me more. I don’t feel as groggy as I did on Klonopin.
Joseph: Exercise is a big thing. … There’s a resignation that happens when you go for a run, when you just have to kind of get into being there, and the time, and you can’t think about how far you’ve gone or how far you’ve left to go. You just kind of have to be where you are.
Malia: If I smoke [weed], I feel confident enough to leave the house and be able to look people in the eye when I talk to them.
Some people were confident that their anxiety can be overcome or managed, while others weren't so sure.
Simon: It’s not something that can be defeated in the general sense of the word. It seems like most people only understand things they can physically “defeat” or fix.
Adam: The medicine I’m on now helps tremendously. … There are still days where I’ll have that crippling feeling for no reason, but I found a medication that helps with that.
Leslie: I can try and teach myself to notice when things are making me uncomfortable, and think about it, and mindfully say "No, I’m going to let this continue."
Malia: It’s definitely something I feel like I can manage now. It’s something that I struggle with, but … I can talk myself off that ledge now. It wasn’t always that way.
Simon: It was kind of good to talk about it a little.
All names have been changed to discuss current health issues.