Anxiety disorders have been classified according to the severity and duration of their symptoms and specific behavioral characteristics.

Categories include;

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), which is long lasting and low-grade
  • Panic disorder, which has more dramatic symptoms
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Separation anxiety disorder (which is almost always seen in children)

GAD and panic disorder is the most common. Anxiety disorders are usually caused by a combination of psychological, physical, and genetic factors, and treatment is, in general, very effective.

This particular story is about a mother’s journey with her son who is afflicted with generalized anxiety and mild obsessive-compulsive behavior. She has remained anonymous due to the stigma that still permeates society around mental illness today.

Can you describe to me your path as you struggled for answers for your son’s diagnosis of anxiety?

At the time we received an official diagnosis there was no surprise as my son’s symptoms were easy for anyone to read. Quite simply, he appeared nervous and anxious. In addition, having lived with an anxiety disorder for 30 years myself, I was able to recognize some of the not-so-subtle signs. It was therefore quite clear when he was in his late-teens what the problem was. The biggest problem was when he was younger - in younger children the signs are not quite as obvious and the disorder can manifest in different ways, for example oppositional defiance.

What were some of the worrying signs?

All through elementary school he was always oppositional. He would argue endlessly while trying to prove his opinion to the point that you would start to think you were the one who was actually wrong. No matter what we would ask, he would argue and not want to comply. Academically, we were always told that he was not putting in effort, which was really his anxiety of failure that was paralyzing him. However, we were told he was lazy and not caring. He was always a “class clown” (again a cover up for his anxiety about being liked).

As an adolescent, he went through three high schools. The first one he claimed he didn’t like, and the second one he was asked to leave as he was presenting too much of a challenge for the teachers. All this was anxiety disguised in different ways and he could not articulate what he felt. He discovered drugs and alcohol, as many other adolescents do; however, he took to marijuana as it calmed him down and took away his anxiety. He always went to school, did his work, and came home; however, internally he was suffering a struggle that couldn’t be expressed.

What were some of the worst moments like?

When he was a child, he was just more difficult than some other kids. The serious problems arose when he was asked to leave his high school after grade 10, and when we realized marijuana was playing too important a role in his life. I can remember just not knowing how I was going to go on and where I was going to get help for him. He laughed and walked out of some psychologists’ offices.

The worst moment was when he became depressed as the anxiety became too overwhelming for him to bear. He did not want to get out of bed in the morning, and was having trouble eating and sleeping. He had no motivation for anything, and was losing weight. The anxiety was so powerful that he literally could not swallow his food. At that point, he saw a psychiatrist and was put on some medication, which made a huge difference.

As a mother, how did you learn to cope with your son’s anxiety?

It took me a long time to learn how to deal with his disorder. I read a lot on the subject, spoke to professionals and became involved with organizations like AMI-Quebec. I learnt to prioritize what I thought was important enough to make an issue about. I was constantly worried about him and how he was going to cope.

There are many types of anxiety. What kind of anxiety does your son have and how does it affect his daily life?

He has generalized anxiety disorder with some mild obsessive-compulsive behavior. He is still in university and it is taking him a longer time. He sees a psychiatrist every few months to check in and is on an anti-depressant. He makes sure to exercise regularly, and knows where to go should he begin to feel overwhelmed. He is not comfortable in very new situations and doesn’t enjoy a lot of people in social situations at one time. He is still struggling academically in terms of panicking when he receives new material, but he has some tutors and help.

Has he accepted that he does indeed have an anxiety disorder?

He knows that he has anxiety. He does not realize the impact that it has on his life.

How do you deal with his outbursts?

I always listen very attentively and force myself not to respond too quickly or with alarm. I answer with short responses and try to get him to work it out himself, although I guide him in the right direction. I keep stressing that he is capable of figuring things out. It’s important that he learn to cope with his overwhelming feelings and I have learnt that what seems very serious and dramatic to him, usually is not that bad and has a solution.

What advice would you give to people who have a loved one suffering from anxiety?

Seek professional advice on how to deal with the disorder. There are ways to cope that make it easier for everyone. As well, get help for the person suffering as soon as possible. It can be managed, but tools need to be learnt and used. AMI-Quebec is a great resource.

The following is an actual conversation that took place between me and my 23-year-old son who has an anxiety disorder. It was sent via text (of course!), by him, out of nowhere and in the middle of a workday.

Note the importance of not responding with more anxiety, as well as the ability to respond gently while downplaying the drama of the situation. This is what I have had to learn to use as a tool in helping him manage his anxiety disorder. Although this is humorous, it is a challenge as what starts out as one select problem often becomes magnified and brought out of proportion into something much larger because of anxiety.

Son; I really don’t know what to do about this class. I literally can’t do this assignment-I keep trying and I can’t get it done. And it’s very frustrating becuz it seems like everyone around me is able to do it on their own.

Mother; Can u perhaps get some extra help with a tutor?

Son; I’m trying but it’s late, like I’m still trying to finish the last assignment, but need to get working on the next one. I don’t know what to do, I want to drop the class but it’s too late to drop.

Mother; So what’s the worst case if you don’t get this assignment done?

Son; Nothin really, just I don’t want to be at Concordia till I’m 27 years old. I go to my program department for help and they send me to disability centre. I go to disability and they send me to my program department. No one wants to deal.

Mother; I have faith you’ll figure it out-you’re smart…think what your options are.

Son; I don’t even care if I need it or not. It’s just lousy like I’ve been keeping up with the course, I studied hard for the midterm and did relatively well and now the end of the semester and I can’t finish the course.

Mother; Sounds frustrating…think about your options.

Son; I don’t know where to find another tutor. I don’t get why I have so much trouble. I literally can’t do anything myself for any class. I can’t do anything and need help with anything and everything. I can’t do this stuff, even my other classes-like I have to do a research design case…what in the world is that??

By the way, what’s for dinner??

And so the world of anxiety goes…