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My Anxiety Story: Breaking the Stigma of Mental Illness

My story begins when I was about 6 years old, this is the first time I have a memory of feeling “ anxiety”. Of course at the time I had no idea that there was a word for it. I knew that my mother would say she had “ bad nerves” and I remember hearing phrases like “ nervous breakdown”. I had no idea what any of this meant. My anxiety through my childhood and in my teen years became very intense. I was consumed with worries, stomach-aches and feelings of dread. I thought that this was just the way life was. It wasn't until my early twenties that I actually found out what was happening to me was called GAD (Generalized Anxiety Disorder) and Social Anxiety. It took me a long time and several visits to the ER and cardiologists to accept that my panic attacks were not a heart-attack. I remember on one occasion I was so sure that I was dying that I asked my Mom to contact the minister to pray over me before I died!! I felt.. Awful. Terrified. Embarrassed. Hopeless.

At the height of my Anxiety Disorder I was working in a busy hospital psychiatric inpatient unit. I was a Mental Health professional, there to help others who had mental health issues and I was secretly in complete turmoil. My Anxiety Disorder was so severe that picking up the telephone in my office was absolute terror for me, attending team meetings, walking into the nurse’s station, seeing clients caused me to experience feelings of absolute terror and dread until eventually my severe Anxiety lead to a Major Depression. On the outside I was professional, competent, outgoing and successful. I was surrounded my mental health professionals but no one had any idea of the agony I was experiencing inside. When we suffer with an Anxiety Disorder we often assume that our inner fears and there for the whole world to see under a large spot light. I would later discover through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that this was one of the distortions in my thinking. Even though I was feeling fear, the people around me could not see it. I struggled with intense feelings of shame and embarrassment. I started to loathe myself wanting more than anything to rid myself of what I considered to be a flaw that I could not conquer.I have both General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety so I could be perceived as stand-offish, lazy or unmotivated since I would often avoid certain things out of fear and dread. On the other hand there were times when I could be excessively talkative especially when socially uncomfortable and then spend hours after a social encounter agonizing over what I may have said that was inappropriate or how people may have perceived me. I would ask questions over and over again to make sure that I understood exactly what was going to happen and to seek reassurance. I felt that I always had to be “on” and the pressure I would put on myself to be “on” was exhausting. At the end of a workday I would compare my mental exhaustion as the same feeling as having run a marathon. Mornings were the worst, I would cry in the shower wondering how I could possibly make it through another day. 

An important part of my own journey with Anxiety was learning Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Self-Compassion skills. I actually started to embrace my Anxiety, accepted that this was a part of me and learned tools to work with it instead of fighting against it. I stopped beating myself up, learned to be gentle with myself, changed my inner self-talk and learned how to rationalize my fearful thoughts. I started getting in touch with the feeling of anxiety in my body. For me, I would feel it in my stomach. This became the cue for me to check in my thoughts. The moment that I had that familiar feeling of being punched in the stomach I would ask myself “ Andrea, what are you saying to yourself right now”. Sometimes the respond was the simple phrase “Oh no!” or “ What if” I discovered that for me “Oh no” was my automatic thought which meant “I’m afraid I’m going to judged” I then learned to ask myself “Is that thought helpful?” No it is not. Then I would look for the distortions in my thoughts. Do I have any evidence that I will be judged or am I jumping to conclusions by mind-reading (believing that I know what others are thinking). Then I would ask myself: Even if I am judged when I speak …so what? This lead to further work on core beliefs which are developed during childhood such as a fear of judgement and needing everyone to like me. So my aha moment was “Wow I thought I was just afraid of public speaking but there was a hidden emotion under that fear which was a belief that I needed to be liked by everyone to accept myself.I would have never dreamed that my biggest fear would one day become my greatest teacher. 

I am now seeing client’s every day in my own private practice as an Anxiety Specialist. Having lived with Anxiety myself I am able to truly understand what my clients are feeling. I tell my clients that it is so important to connect with a therapist who you feel good with.The stigma surrounding mental illness will only end when we realize that speaking out about it, is nothing to be ashamed of. It is SO important to me that people realize that Anxiety and other mental health issues can happen to ANYONE. Mental Illness is not a character flaw or a sign of weakness! The good news is that there is hope and I am proof that even the most severe cases of Anxiety can be managed.

People who have Anxiety are often misunderstood. Depending on what type of Anxiety Disorder(s) they have here are just a few examples. They may act in certain ways that friends and family don't understand such as not wanting to talk on the phone, declining invitations at the last minute, taking hours to get ready before going out, often have physical symptoms such as headaches and stomachaches especially before going to school or work, get tired easily, be sensitive to perceived rejection, ask the same questions over and over again (seeking reassurance), talk excessively or be very withdrawn and isolate, and have difficulties with sleep.Helpers came into my life at various stages and I had many ah-ha moments from these amazing people who life brought my way. A feminist therapist I saw in my early university days left a lasting impression on me when she self-disclosed by sharing with me that she truly understood how I felt because she had been there too. Such a simple thing for her to share with me but that was so powerful in helping me overcome my own shame. A reminder for me today that breaking the stigma of mental illness starts with each and everyone of us. 

I have studied anxiety management techniques extensively over many years and have even become Certified from the National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists as an Anxiety Specialist. One of the greatest things for me has been to finally reach the place of having compassion for, instead of feeling ashamed, loathing or embarrassed about having an Anxiety Disorder. Living with an Anxiety Disorder is like being on a continuum of acceptance, self-compassion, and learning that my anxious thoughts are almost always not accurate ( the nature of the anxious mind causes this to happen) and that I can learn to speak to these anxious thoughts to calm them instead of magnifying them.I am SO very passionate about wanting to help youth and adults understand what ANXIETY is all about, to share with them what I have learned along the way and to give them the hope that they can feel better.

"I accept myself where I am and offer myself loving kindness and compassion along the way" Andrea Addington 

Andrea Addington, BA, MSW, RSW has a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and a Master's degree in Clinical Social Work from Dalhousie University. She has a private practice in Moncton, New Brunswick where she specializes in Anxiety Management.

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