In this blog post, Eduardo Hernandez shares his journey with anxiety and how he has dealt with the stigma and shame that accompanied his anxiety.
This post is part of a series dedicated to sharing personal stories, journeys, and insights about mental health and anxiety from members of our community.
Early Experiences with Anxiety
Throughout my childhood, I felt uneasy and nervous around the possibility of being judged, embarrassing myself, or the thought of failing. Although these feelings had an impact on my well-being, my parents and I attributed these emotions to typical childhood angst. When I started high school, these emotions really took over. I felt like I was always on edge, my heart would race, I would tremble, and my mind was extremely active with negative thoughts. I was only able to think about how I might fail in my schoolwork or embarrass myself in social situations.
These feelings only intensified when I began studying at the University of British Columbia. Moving away from home for university is an exciting and stressful time in anyone’s life. The thought of living by myself, away from my family and friends in a completely new city contributed to a lot of new anxiety and stress. I moved to Vancouver in 2015, and while I was excited, I was still unsure about how I was going to cope by myself with a limited support system. I was constantly afraid of what the future had in store and potentially having to tell my friends that I would sometimes need time alone to destress and cope. All these worries made it difficult for me to pay attention in class, complete my taskwork, and maintain a healthy social life.
Like many others, I was unfamiliar with anxiety and how negative thought and behaviour patterns might become an anxiety disorder. The onset of my anxiety was acute. I went years without realizing that I had a treatable condition.
Experiencing Anxiety as a Man
Identifying as a man, I always thought that I should never share my emotional state in order to avoid being perceived as sensitive, weak, or emotional. I would often hide my feelings from friends and family, forcing myself to seem “normal” as to not draw any attention to my anxiety. In both high school and university, I was always involved in various sports teams and extracurriculars. Sports, through their competitive nature, often create an extremely aggressive environment, causing me to become even more reluctant to reveal how I was feeling to my teammates. How would my teammates react if I told them that I had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder? Would they think I’m weird? Would they shun me? Hiding how I felt was emotionally exhausting, resulting in many missed practices and constant excuses as to why I was acting “off”.
Although I was diagnosed with a fairly common anxiety disorder, I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself for not being “normal”. I felt as if I was somehow inferior as I couldn’t control my thoughts. I was ashamed of myself whenever I became anxious, and I began to alienate myself from my friends as I envied their perceived ability to live their lives and not be controlled by the ever-present feeling of worry that dominated my mind. I believed I was destined for a future that revolved around my anxiety.
This feeling of shame and embarrassment carried over to my time as a member of the Sigma Chi Fraternity. Although I felt welcomed and liked by all the brothers, I was still very concerned about others’ perception of me and what people would think if they knew I had mental health issues. I knew that the fraternity existed to provide a supportive environment, but my mind was constantly preoccupied with images of rejection and alienation from people that I valued so much. I was so attached to this masculine notion of being “strong” and trying to conform to societal expectations that I lost track of what truly makes me happy, which is being myself and not caring what others think of me.
How I Regained Control of My Thoughts Using CBT
As a result of suffering from anxiety for so long, I was unable to picture a future where I could manage my emotions and find healthy coping strategies. I believed that constant worrying was just a part of me and that I would have to toughen up and live with it for the rest of my life.
Fortunately, a school counselor advised me to see a psychiatrist who then diagnosed me with generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive worry, ranging from every day responsibilities to future endeavours. Often, a person diagnosed with GAD finds it difficult to relax, always feels on edge, and worries excessively about things that are outside their control. For me, for example, just the thought of getting through an entire day of school would worry me, and I would enter the vicious thought cycle that perpetuated my anxiety.
Although it took a while, my psychiatrist was finally able to convince me that what I was going through was no reason to feel ashamed, as there were millions of other people that went through similar things. With her help, I was finally able to accept that although I suffered from anxiety, I was no less of a man.
In addition to acceptance, we started using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to try and change the harmful thought processes and behavioural tendencies that I had developed over the years. One of the most useful techniques that I used was identifying the negative thinking patterns, or thinking traps, that I possessed, such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing, and replacing them with more realistic thoughts. By replacing these negative patterns, I was able to decrease the amount of worry that resulted from these unrealistic thoughts. Over time, through using additional CBT techniques and mindfulness meditation, I was finally able to exert some control over my thinking and I saw real improvement over my anxiety levels. Although anxiety will always be a part of me, I now know that I have the tools necessary to manage the cycle of worrying and live my life in the moment.
Eliminating the Stigma
By sharing my personal journey with friends and family, I’ve received support and understanding, not rejection. By being open and willing to communicate, I have found that some of the people that I had originally envied for their ability to “function” were going through many of the same things as me. I started to realize that I was one of many people that had their lives impacted by anxiety and other mental health struggles. By telling others, I felt as if I had lifted a huge weight off my shoulders, and I no longer felt as though I was hiding my true self. I am now no longer ashamed of what I’ve been through, and I hope to continue to raise awareness to help others learn to accept themselves.
Throughout my years living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), I have learned a great deal about myself and others that has moulded me into who I am today. As a result of my experiences, I have seen how resilient the human mind really is, and how much of a difference acceptance and understanding makes. I was constantly creating imaginary battles in my head, fearing that I would fail or embarrass myself and that others would judge me. But by utilizing CBT, accepting myself for who I am, and being there for others in similar positions to me, I have found a sense of hope and excitement for the future that I seldom had before. I’m optimistic that society will continue to learn about mental health, and that someday, we can all comfortably share our struggles with each other.