Anxiety is not alien to us. We all have feelings of unease in unpredictable situations. Most of us have times when we cannot sleep. We all experience stress. You may worry about work, your children, or your marriage. Anxiety is a typical reaction of your body to fear and worry. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), anxiety is widespread, and 1 in 13 people live with it. In 2021, the estimation was that 284 million adults worldwide experience anxiety.

June* is a businessperson who lives with anxiety, and she agreed to share her experience with us.

 

June, thank you for telling us about your experience with anxiety. You work in an environment that traditionally is men’s territory. How does that affect you?

I am answering this purely from an ‘anxiety’ point of view – not much. There is a lot of frustration prevalent in day-to-day interactions. Some days are more challenging than others. Still, the effect is generally not any cause for anxiety.

 

Would you describe yourself as competitive or perfectionistic?

I am competitive by nature. This is intrinsically linked to my need for perfection and success. I could hierarchically prioritise perfectionism over competition.

 

We know that anxiety is the physical reaction of your body to worry, fear, and stress. Can you tell us what happens when you are anxious?

I’ve had an interesting relationship with the physical manifestation of anxiety. I remember having awful stomach aches as a pre-adolescent and teenager. I tend to get headaches, ranging from mild throbbing to full-blown migraine as an adult. I’m not contributing any of these purely to anxiety. It flares up in high-stress situations. My need for high performance put a lot of pressure on me. I also sometimes have strange chills in high anxiety moments – almost an embodiment of a thrill or foreboding. These are primarily late-night hours of racing thoughts anticipating a future event.

 

Anxiety commonly starts at a young age. It often peaks between the ages of 5-7 years and again in adolescence. Can you remember an early experience with anxiety?

I honestly do not, but I remember my childhood—specifically, at school. I was pretty alone and did not belong, but I had a happy time with well enough friends.

 

It may be challenging to handle the intensity of anxiety at a young age. How did you manage it?

As a young child and adult, I was unaware of the link between my physical symptoms and their emotional and environmental counterparts. I realise now that many childhood stomach aches were brought on by my immense need to perform at my very best, or preferably better. Failing to do so (in my opinion) made me feel unworthy and, for all intents and purposes, a failure. It triggered feelings of self-loathing and performance anxiety.

 

Many things can trigger anxiety attacks. It may be work, relationship, or trauma-related. Can you name your triggers?

My primary triggers for general anxiety are work-related. In most instances, it is self-provoked due to high self-expectations. The only actual physical attack I’ve experienced to date was related to a situation in a personal relationship, which I’ll elaborate on below.

 

According to estimations, between 35 and 48 thoughts are racing through our minds. This can become even worse when we are anxious. What thoughts plague you most?

I often think that my clients will constantly be disappointed in the work that I’m producing. I dream about disasters on-site (as an architect, this can be nightmarish at the best of times). Then I wake up and fret about these unsubstantiated claims and scenarios. These intrusive thoughts also plague me during work hours. It can become incredibly invasive during a workday. Knowing these are implausible but take up so much of one’s time is frustrating.

 

Although they are related, panic attacks are different from anxiety. A panic attack can visit you out of the blue without warning or apparent reason. Have you ever had a panic attack?

I vividly recall my first (and most likely only genuine) panic attack. It culminated in driving myself to the ER at 4 pm on a Wednesday. I was convinced that I was dying. It felt as if my lungs were bound to explode. I was 28, in good shape and knew the symptoms of an actual heart attack. But I was petrified.

I was also incredibly humiliated after the doctor gave me the diagnosis.

My anxiety is complex, and the reason for this specific attack was not a trigger I’ve had before. This meltdown fuelled my actual reasons (performance-based) to rear its anxious head, a double whammy.

I must admit that I gauge any situation given that event. I luckily have never had an attack as severe as that.

Interestingly, I do tend to have anxious dreams. I can’t always recall the specific subject matter once awake, but I almost always have an incredible sense of panic and urgency to wake up. I’m screaming in my dream, but no one hears me. In these moments, it’s almost a physical struggle, to the point that my husband wakes me up due to the noises I make.

I do have to note that this is insanely frightening. However, it has never officially been classified as night terrors or sleep paralysis, although it feels like both.

 

Anxiety can be debilitating, and yet you are highly successful. Do you have specific ways to calm down the fear and thoughts?

I’m currently under the care of an incredible therapist who is explicitly dealing with high-performance anxiety. Part of the process is to do guided meditations. In all honesty, I’m struggling with this because it makes me physically uncomfortable, but it is becoming easier with time.

Music is the most helpful way to calm my racing thoughts and potential anxiety. I am singing in a choir. It forces me to focus on something that requires my undivided attention and leaves no room for wandering thoughts.

During the COVID-19 lockdown in South Africa, we were only allowed to assemble briefly, so we had no rehearsals. We started recently again, and I did not realise the impact all these months of ‘no singing’ had on my psyche.

If you can find something in which you can immerse yourself and almost lose yourself fully, it should have an incredibly freeing effect. Even just a few hours a week can make a significant difference.

 

What advice can you give to our readers who live with anxiety? Can you manage your anxiety like an expert?

I discovered an interesting phenomenon over the last few years:

We are not alone!

Dare to say something to someone you trust and love. You will be pleasantly surprised by the support and understanding people show.

Anxiety will most likely become an unwitting byproduct of our post-pandemic world. And that makes us the experts!

 

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, Jane.

 

If you can manage your anxiety like an expert, it seems like a superpower. But it is a superpower that can be learned. There are many techniques that you can use to relieve anxiety. And remember: YOU ARE THE EXPERT!