Learning to live with anxiety – Anna’s story

28 February 2016

Although many people can feel anxious from time to time, people with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) find that everyday worries have a negative impact on their life.

Mother of three Anna Vaught shares her experience of living with anxiety for 35 years – how she manages it, and balances her mental health with having a successful career and being a parent.

The early symptoms of anxiety

Family members always considered Anna to be a nervous child. At school, she worried about people dying, teachers in particular, and had feelings of extreme panic with palpitations and sweaty palms.

‘When I felt extremely anxious, I just wanted to run and hide from everyone for no apparent reason. I would stay awake crying all night.’

These feelings continued during her teenage years. During her GCSE exams, she would have sudden overwhelming feelings of panic, such as heart palpitations and a fear of fainting or being sick.

‘I went to see my GP, but simply said I'd been sick so a note could go to the exam board to explain my performance on the paper.’

For parents who are worried about their child during exam season, there are ways to support them through the pressure.

Anna didn’t realise her anxiety could be treated, however, and kept it hidden as much as possible from friends and family. ‘Because I internalised my feelings of anxiety, I started to self-harm which I thought would bring relief from the overwhelming panic.’

Her anxiety continued at university, and intensified in her first year when her father died, followed by her mother passing away after she graduated.

Seeking treatment for anxiety

It wasn’t until her mid-twenties that Anna got the support she needed. She opened up to her GP after a severe episode of depression which co-existed with her anxiety.

She felt relieved when she heard that her feelings of hopelessness and depression were linked to an anxiety disorder. She was offered various treatments, including four different types of anti-depressant medication. None of these worked for Anna; while they help many people, the medication made her sleepy and unable to function well during the day.

Anna also declined Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), a treatment that tries to change how you think and behave. ‘I didn’t feel this was right for me as I would pick apart the therapy straight after receiving it and return to being anxious,’ she says.

It was then Anna’s doctor suggested CAT (Cognitive Analytic Therapy), a treatment that uses some elements of CBT, while looking at the root causes of the anxiety and behaviour patterns. CAT changed Anna’s life – after years of feeling anxious, she finally felt this could help her cope.

Living with anxiety and anxiety attacks

Despite learning to cope, anxiety can still affect Anna at times. For example, she might misinterpret a look from someone and overthink the meaning of this, often for several days.

A critical voice in Anna’s head reminds her of an uncomfortable social situation from the past which will shape how she interacts in the present. This can have an impact on her friendships, as she is constantly analysing conversations.

Anna has developed ways of coping with anxiety attacks, however. If she feels overwhelmed by panic, she will imagine her feelings as the “anxiety train”. ‘I don’t boot the train off the track,’ says Anna. ‘I get running alongside the train and sit with the feeling.’

The ability to manage her anxiety has really empowered Anna. ‘There are things in my life I would like to have done but felt held back because of my anxiety,’ she says. ‘I now feel I can do what I want to do, knowing I have coping mechanisms if I start feeling uncomfortable.’

When she became a mother, Anna recognised the importance of keeping her anxiety under control. She believes it’s important to be open with your family if you have or think you might have a mental health problem. Anna talks openly with her husband and three children so that they see mental health can be managed.

Anna’s advice for dealing with anxiety

  • Anxiety is a perfectly rational response to a number of things, however when it becomes irrational, make sure you find your strategy of coping.’
  • ‘If you are anxious about an everyday situation, try to imagine the worst possible scenario, and realise it’s not the end of the world if that happens.’
  • ‘The feelings always subside. Although this is something you may have to cope with occasionally, realise it’s just a blip and you will have good times too.’
  • ‘I always say to myself, don’t take today’s feelings into tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.’
  • ‘I've developed a sense of humour over the years which helps me to deal with the condition.’

Anna has also written a fictional novel drawing on her experiences with mental health, anxiety and stress Killing Hapless Ally (Patrician Press).