Most people have no idea that I deal with anxiety. I’m adventurous, I love spontaneous plans and I’m pretty easy-going — no nervous Nelly by any means. But when a duck glides smoothly along the water, there’s a lot going on below that glassy surface; like the webbed feet pedaling fast and furiously in the water below, thoughts and worries are constantly running through my mind, even when I seem cool and collected on the outside.
Through lots of introspection, reading and on-the-job research (a perk of being a health journalist!), I’ve finally come to accept that my anxiety is real. It’s low-grade enough that sometimes it’s not even noticeable, and I don’t take medication for it. But it’ll always be there.
In some ways, I’m actually grateful for it. I believe anxiety helped propel me through school with great grades and has made me ambitious and driven in my career. I think it’s also made me a considerate and thoughtful friend.
However, anxiety has affected my life in one major way that isn’t so great. It often shows up as a pessimistic third wheel in my romantic relationships. It barges in right between me and my boyfriend, unwelcome and unannounced, like your Real Housewives-obsessed friend who loves to stir up drama.
It often shows up as an pessimistic third wheel in my romantic relationships.
Now at the tail end of my 20s, I can look back and see some common threads that caused some of my relationships to slowly unravel. Anxiety may not be the root of all my relationship problems in the past, nor have the problems always been on my side (being unfaithful is just slightly worse than having anxiety, in my humble opinion). But I do think it has played a role in arguments, and perhaps the eventual demise, of a few of my long-term relationships.
The number one issue with anxiety: It’s made me believe some crazy sh*t. It’s made me worry needlessly about things that haven’t happened yet and maybe never will. It’s made me think that someone is mad at me when they really aren’t, or that they don’t care about me when they really do.
A missed call. An unreturned text. A canceled dinner plan. These have all instilled a huge sense of dread in me in the past, often making me feel sick to my stomach. I would automatically go to the worst-case scenario, rather than shrug these things off for what they really are. He must not care about me anymore, I think, or perhaps, He’s out at a bar flirting with another woman.
Thankfully, through practicing mindfulness and learning more about anxiety, I’m starting to see these thoughts and worries for what they are: fears that aren’t real. I’m finally at the point where I am much more aware of those anxious thoughts and recognizing them for what they are, before I react. A missed call or an unreturned text can happen during a busy workday. Maybe he just wants to grab dinner with a family member or friend without including me. And that’s okay.
I wish that texts and calls were the only forms of virtual communication we had to worry about these days, but they’re not. And unfortunately, Instagram isn’t exactly ideal for people with anxiety. A “like” on someone’s latest post or a new follower can turn into so much more than it actually is in my mind. (Especially when a significant other hasn’t been exactly trustworthy in other ways…).
Now, I’ve realized what might sound obvious to others: Sometimes you just want to double tap a picture of a puppy, and it doesn’t mean anything more than that. But after a breakup especially, I’ve learned that I have to take some time off social media so I don’t torture myself with untrue thoughts. And for us anxious folks, unfollowing an ex isn’t a petty move. It’s a must for our mental health.
But there’s one thing anxiety does to me that I hate the most: It can make me wonder if I even deserve to be in a healthy relationship. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does anxiety can take a strong hold over my thoughts. After a fight or after a breakup, my anxiety invites loathsome, self-defeating thoughts to pop into my mind. They cause me to second-guess why this person would actually want to be with me, or why anyone else would want to be with me.
Don’t get me wrong — I actually do have plenty of self-confidence. But sometimes, my anxiety gets the best of my thoughts as they wander into that dangerous self-doubt. Positive self-talk and self-care have helped a lot, recently, even if they’re easier to talk about than actually put into action. It can also help a lot to say these thoughts aloud to a friend or family member who can assuredly tell me that’s not true — that I am worthy of a healthy relationship, and no, I won’t be alone forever with 16 cats (although that doesn’t sound like too terrible a scenario...).
Since I’m never not thinking — and contrary to some popular beliefs, anxious thoughts don’t always center on myself — I think my anxiety has made me a more considerate person.
My anxiety isn’t all bad. For example, I believe it makes me a thoughtful romantic partner. Since I’m never not thinking — and contrary to some popular beliefs, anxious thoughts don’t always center on myself — I think my anxiety has made me a more considerate person. It makes me care deeply about other people and love fully. You better bet I’d never cheat or betray someone I loved. (Anxiety wouldn’t let me do that!)
Because I’ve gone through some rough patches of my own, I have a deep desire to help other people get through whatever problems they’re experiencing. I’m constantly wondering how I can make other people’s lives better — whether it’s making their favorite dinner or simply letting them vent about their boss.
Speaking of which, anxiety also makes me a really good listener. When you have a bunch of thoughts floating around in your head (all. the. freaking. time.), it can be super refreshing to simply listen to someone else talk. Whether it’s a disagreement with coworkers or their relationship with their father, I am always willing to listen. I think I love learning about other people for the same reason I love taking workout classes — it’s a break for me to get out of my own head and focus fully on what another person is saying.
Over time, I’ve come to accept that my anxiety is a part of me and always will be. And people either will or won’t be okay with that. I’ve been with people who “get” that side of me, and I’ve been with people who don’t. In the past, I’ve never fully explained to any boyfriends that I have anxiety. But now that I understand it more than ever — and mental health, in general, is being talked about more than ever — I feel comfortable opening up about it to new people I date.
Now that I’ve finally accepted that anxiety is an ever-present part of my life (but one that I can control), I have faith that the person I’m meant to be with will accept and understand it as well — and even appreciate it, for better and for worse.
Have a compelling first-person story you want to share? Send your story description to firstname.lastname@example.org.