Meet Benjamin: What No One Knew He Had to Overcome

My name is Benjamin. I’m the proud father of a bloodhound who I love to take on hikes. I’m a gamer and a closet metal head. I’m 6’2″ and weigh 215 pounds so…

You might not know from looking at me that I have general anxiety disorder, GAD, but this is #myinvisiblefight.

Images are not images of Benjamen

I first noticed I had a problem when I was sitting in one of my college classes and was physically unable to raise my hand. I had something I wanted to add to the class’ conversation but something was holding me back.

I felt an overwhelming sense of unease. I started to sweat heavily and breathe harder. I felt myself trembling and all just because I wanted to make a comment.

This continued for an entire semester before I saw a doctor on winter break. The description I gave to my doctor led both of us to realize that I have general anxiety disorder (GAD). The causes of GAD can be hard to pinpoint and can range in source from a single traumatic event to long-term sustained stress, neither of which I could identify in my own life. That of course added to my frustrations of having GAD – not knowing what caused it or how it started has contributed to the overall difficulty of living with it day to day.

Regardless of how GAD began, I was faced with something that was regularly disrupting my college experience.

Because of GAD I decided to get a single dorm where I sometimes spent entire days, taking care not to input myself into any social situations that may trigger my condition, no matter how casual. Even walking through my school’s busy dining hall was more than I wanted to deal with sometimes, and I would instead opt to unnecessarily spend money on eating out. GAD was the reason I chose to go home almost every weekend to work part-time rather than spend my weekends hanging out with friends or studying like everyone else. Due to my GAD, I would worry so much about my tests and exams that even thinking about them would make my heart race to the point where, if I sat down to study, I would feel restless and short of breath to the point that I couldn’t focus.

My doctor told me about a few options as far as medications. Anxiety shares traits with other psychological disorders, including depression. This is why some doctors prescribe anti-depressants to those with GAD and, indeed, my doctor suggested that an anti-depressant could potentially target the underlying cause of my anxiety. My hesitation, though, was with the addictive nature of anti-depressants, and the numerous possible side effects, none of which I wanted to deal with in addition to my anxiety.PW_Lecture Hall

Shortly before I met with my doctor, I was scheduled to give a presentation in one of my classes and the nervousness I felt in the days leading up to my presentation was difficult to handle. I couldn’t eat without feeling nauseous and since I wasn’t eating a lot, I had low blood sugar. This compounded my problem. I went online and read about medications called beta-blockers that some people had taken before giving speeches. When I brought this up to my doctor, she seemed enthusiastic. My presentation was not good. I trembled through the entire process, to the point where I was convinced my professor and classmates were not able to understand what I was saying. It was such a blur of nervousness that I was exhausted and immediately went back to my dorm to sleep, no doubt catching up on the sleep I had missed in the days leading up to the presentation.

It struck me odd because, as a kid, I was always vocal in class. In fact, I was so talkative that it sometimes got me in trouble with my teachers. Growing up, it was never a problem for me to do something as simple as going to a friend’s house or to a party. These would’ve been no-brainers. Things are different now. Even since graduating, though I’ve gained some insight on how to deal with GAD, it still regularly rears its head. For instance, if I make plans with a close friend, I will sometimes feel an overwhelming yet implacable sense of worry in the hours leading up to our meeting. Luckily, when I anticipate that my anxiety will boil over, I can take a beta-blocker and my symptoms usually subside.

The thing is, I can’t always anticipate an event.  I was recently running errands with a friend and we ran into someone that my friend knew and hadn’t seen in a while. The moment they noticed each other and started to chat, my mouth went dry and my heart began to palpitate uncontrollably. I told my friend I had to go to the bathroom and excused myself from the conversation, but I really just wanted to get away. This happens at work sometimes as well.

I work for an IT services corporation just outside of Washington DC. When I was originally scheduled for an interview, just over a year ago, I experienced the same symptoms I would have before giving a presentation at school. I ate very little in the few days leading up to my interview. I had to take my beta-blocker just to have normal conversations with my parents and because I was eating so little, the medication was giving me headaches. It’s difficult for me to remember how my interview went because, like my presentation in school, I was nervous to the point of confusion. Despite that, I got the job and have been able to settle into a mostly seamless process.

Interestingly, during the time that different people were training me for my job, I didn’t really feel the same nervousness that I did when I encountered strangers or social situations outside of work. I can’t say if this was due to my obtaining the job and feeling confident in my abilities or just a general recession in the GAD.

I grew to be comfortable with the people on my team at work but as far as interacting with those who aren’t on my team, it does not happen often. If, say, I am in the kitchen at work, grabbing some coffee, I will immediately leave if someone else enters the kitchen because I don’t want to risk being short of breath or not being able to talk if they engage me in conversation. This is difficult because I don’t actually consider myself to be anti-social. Any time I’m in a social situation, and regardless of a premeditated event, once I actually start talking to a person or group, I usually find myself perfectly capable to hold a conversation. It would make sense that having perfectly normal conversations, unimpeded by my GAD, would give me the confidence to reach out and be more social. The thing is, my symptoms are so unpredictable and have at times been so exhausting that it’s usually easier to avoid potential events altogether.

But I can’t always avoid them.  This is my normal.  This is #myinvisiblefight.

PW_Double Eye PunchWe recently got a new boss at work that made plans to come to Virginia to meet my team from his office in New Hampshire. Even though I’ve had numerous conversations with him over the phone during our team meetings, I was still incredibly anxious about his visit. It’s important to note that I distinguish my anxiety from the normal anticipation or butterflies that someone without GAD might feel in this situation. A part of me was eager to meet my boss in person for the simple sake of getting to know him. A larger part of me, though, was nervous at the thought of the initial meeting – the greeting, shaking of hands, exchange of small talk etc.  The nervousness and difficulty coping are all based in thoughts that exaggerate the experience I anticipate having. Despite my knowledge of that, and maybe even compounded by that knowledge, it’s very frustrating to accept that insignificant situations have such an unnecessarily heavy impact on me.

Living with GAD on a day-to-day basis means that I am almost constantly anticipating an anxiety-inducing event. Things that should be no-brainers, like meeting a new coworker or just having a conversation with a waiter at a restaurant can veer from me being in control to a complete loss of breath and words. It means that even if I want to strike up a conversation with someone, a person I work with closely or a friend I’ve known for years, it can take a level of confidence that I don’t always have. And even though I can usually get over that initial barrier of anxiety when I have to, more often than not, I opt to save myself a ton of stress and avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Despite the difficulty of living with GAD, there are a few things I’ve learned I can do to help myself.

  • Rather than having a defeatist attitude, I’ve started to use a breathing technique to help calm myself when I need to—simply taking in five breaths as deeply as I can, holding it for a second, and releasing slowly. This technique floods the bloodstream with oxygen and I have noticed that when I remind myself to do this before a possible event, I feel more equipped to handle it.
  • Additionally, I’ve always been interested in natural supplements and have read that omega oils can cut down on the inflammation associated with psychological disorders, ranging from dementia to anxiety. Since reading that, I’ve started taking fish oil capsules and, though it’s hard to really measure how effective they are, I think regularly taking something that forces me to address my GAD is actually helping me in overcoming it.  Mind over matter!

As I grow older and move through the last half of my twenties, I’m starting to feel like my GAD is a product of the overstimulation that comes with the entire process of moving to college and having that experience. I can’t say for sure that college caused my GAD but it is where I first noticed it and certainly where it had the greatest impact. I’m not operating under the impression that my problems are any greater than everyone else’s and I’ve tried to be as realistic in my approach to treatment as possible. I find that I’m calm when I live or think in the moment. It’s only when I think ahead and try to anticipate what may happen that my GAD reveals its presence.


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