Living With Anxiety Disorders, Worried Sick

No More Constant Fear

“No matter how bad things seem, you were meant to win.”

Wills MurrayWills Murray is a golf coach in Orlando, Florida.

Wills Murray, who suffered for most of his life with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and panic attacks, describes here how he sought help to turn his life around.

My earliest childhood memories are of constant fear. A skinny kid with crooked teeth, somewhat shy and reserved with social anxiety, I was an easy target for bullies, which made my issues even more difficult to handle. I never spoke to anyone about my feelings because I felt they were my fault.

At the age of five I started playing baseball. As I got older it became clear I was very gifted. I saw the joy that my family and peers got when I played well, and for the first time I found a place where I wasn’t scared and didn’t feel inferior. I didn’t understand that my self-worth shouldn’t depend on other people. Baseball was my key to happiness and making people like me. I had friends, my family was happy, and everything was great as long as baseball was going well.


Going into my senior year of high school, I was highly recruited to play college baseball. But in December of that year I suffered a knee injury that ended my baseball career.

My key to happiness was gone. The feelings I had covered up for years returned—and much worse than ever. I turned to alcohol, even though I didn’t really enjoy drinking. I stayed in my room with no lights on for days at a time. Sometimes I slept for three days, sometimes 18 hours a day. During this period my grandfather passed away, my best friend was sent to jail, and I saw no hope of ever having a meaningful life. I reached the point of feeling that everyone would be better off, including myself, if I wasn’t around anymore. I tried to end my life with alcohol and prescription drugs.

Rebuilding Myself

Thankfully, I chose to get help through a counselor. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) including panic attacks. I discovered that my feelings were coming from a subconscious thought of always expecting a crisis to occur. I was preparing my body for some sort of emotional trauma, which caused a problem with my fight – or flight-response. Once I learned to rationally look at my surroundings and myself, I became capable of controlling my emotions and my reactions to these emotions.

And I began the process of rebuilding myself by taking up golf. And I decided that being a golf coach would be my platform to reach people. My first golf coach, the late Barry McCann, had told me that I had a special gift and I should go after my dream of being a PGA tour coach. I moved to Orlando, Florida, to learn from Sean Foley, a coach I admired more than anybody. He has become a great friend and mentor and he has taught me many lessons to help me understand that my thinking about myself was the key to everything. The well-known sports coach Paul Dewland has also helped me understand how thinking creates feeling.

Golf is my platform to tell this story. No matter how bad things seem, you were meant to win. With faith, people who care, professional help, and the desire to change, anything is possible. Take it from someone who once no longer wanted to live and who now loves every single day.
—Courtesy of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America

If you have an anxiety disorder, you’re not alone. Each year, tens of millions of Americans of all ages suffer from long-term anxiety. Among children, anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness—one they may carry into adulthood.

Anxiety is an uneasy feeling that something may harm you or a loved one. This feeling can be normal and sometimes even helpful. If you’re starting a new job or taking a test, it might make you more alert and ready for action. But sometimes anxiety can linger or become overwhelming. When it gets in the way of good health and peace of mind, it’s called an anxiety disorder.

“Everybody has anxiety,” says Dr. Daniel Pine, a psychiatrist and an NIH neuroscientist. “The tricky part is how to tell the difference between normal and abnormal anxiety.”

“For those with anxiety disorders, fears, worries, and anxieties can cause so much distress that they interfere with daily life. The anxiety grows out of proportion to the stressful situation or occurs when there is no real danger.

Anxiety activates the body’s stress response. Nearly all the cells, tissues, and organs in your body go on high alert. This stress response can wear your body down over time. People with chronic (long-term) anxiety have a higher risk of both physical and mental health problems. Some people visit their doctors because of headaches, racing heart, or other physical complaints without realizing that these symptoms may be connected to how anxious they feel.

NIH-funded researchers are working to learn more about anxiety disorders. They have discovered that these conditions are caused by some combination of your genes and your environment. However, the precise events that lead to anxiety disorders are still unknown. Scientists are also searching for better ways to diagnose, prevent, and treat these conditions.

Treatment for anxiety disorders usually includes both medication and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of talk therapy. It helps people change both the thinking patterns that support their fears and the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations. Current treatments can be highly effective for most people.

“These disorders put a huge burden on the individual, the family, and society,” Bishop says. “Anxiety disorders are one of the most common reasons that people visit their primary healthcare provider.”

Dr. Denise Chavira, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, works with anxious youth in underserved, rural areas. Her team is studying ways to make CBT more accessible to these children, who may have trouble getting to therapy sessions. To help make up for the lack of in-person contact, the researchers are examining telephone and self-help approaches that focus on teaching parents how to use CBT skills with their children.

In one study, the scientists are comparing CBT training delivered to parents by phone versus in-person CBT provided to anxious youth and their parents. With a therapist’s help, parents and kids create lists of anxiety-producing situations. They learn how to face their fears gradually while using CBT coping skills. Both methods encourage parents to model brave behaviors for kids, and to let kids learn how to be independent.

NIH-funded researchers are also using advanced imaging tools to pinpoint the areas in the brain that underlie anxiety disorders. Still in its very early stages, this approach represents a major shift from how doctors usually diagnose mental illness, which is by looking at symptoms and behaviors. Using an imaging technique called functional MRI (fMRI), scientists are scanning the brain in action as it thinks, remembers, feels emotion, and regulates the body’s reactions to things that cause anxiety.

Dr. Sonia Bishop of the University of California, Berkeley, uses fMRI to study people at high risk for anxiety disorders. Her team hopes to prevent anxiety disorders before patients enter a downward spiral. The researchers are working to develop a new type of CBT-related treatment that helps to retrain how patients regulate their emotions and attention.

“These disorders put a huge burden on the individual, the family, and society,” Bishop says. “Anxiety disorders are one of the most common reasons that people visit their primary health care provider.”

If you are troubled by anxiety, the first person to see is your family doctor or nurse practitioner. He or she can check for any underlying physical illness or a related condition. You may be referred to a mental health specialist, who might help to identify the specific type of anxiety disorder and the appropriate treatment. With proper care, most people with anxiety disorders can lead normal, fulfilling lives.



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