The points that follow may not be relevant to every person with anxiety, but neither is the list of symptoms. Humans are complex, fascinating and frustrating, and between the heart and the head, there are countless versions of the human experience.
There are some things that all the books, lectures, courses and research just can’t teach us about anxiety. They’re the things that come from people – the ones we talk to, listen to, connect with, acquaint with, like a little, love a lot or fight with.
Here are the things that I wouldn’t have known – couldn’t have known – were it not for those who have experienced anxiety from the front line.
Sometimes feelings that are on opposite ends of the feeling spectrum actually do coexist. Sometimes they even feel the same.
The first is craving solitude and craving people all at once. The second is having a fear of being seen and a fear of not being seen at the same time. If you’ve ever known or loved anyone with anxiety and found yourself saying to them, “But I just don’t understand what you want,” don’t worry. Chances are they aren’t quite sure either. And that’s completely OK. Be grateful for the opportunity to practice being comfortable with uncertainty.
Anxiety comes from a heightened threat sensor, and the threat of psychological harm (humiliation, rejection, shame) can feel just as real as the threat of physical harm. Because interacting with people can be so anxiety-inducing, people with anxiety are choosey about who they let close. They’re not rude about putting up the wall to those who don’t quite make the cut – not at all – but they’re decisive. If you’re one of the ones for whom the fortress is lowered, feel blessed, because you are. There’s something about you that feels safe and lovely to be around.
3. They’re awesome to have in your tribe, too.
People with anxiety are some of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve met – they’re funny, kind, thoughtful and strong. They’re also very sensitive to what’s around them – it’s part of having a heightened threat sensor – and that sensitivity also extends to you and anyone else they’re around. They’ll think about what’s OK to say and what’s not OK to say, what needs to be done and what you might want.
Anxiety has a way of persuading people to try for as much control as possible over the “unknowns” in order to avoid potential chaos. This means they’ll be the ones who make sure everyone knows exactly where to meet, what time to leave to get there on time, what to take and the best way to get there. They’ll be the ones with the spare jumper, the spare coins and the spare phone charger. Just don’t forget to let you know how much you love them for it.
4. Thoughts have more pull than knowledge. Yep. They can run the mothership.
Thoughts stoked by anxiety can be frightening, frustrating and suffocating. Above all else, they’re powerful. They’re more powerful than a lifetime of knowledge and the collective knowledge of a group, so don’t even bother trying to reason – it’s pointless. “Knowing” there’s nothing to worry about isn’t enough. Once fearful thoughts are in full swing, they’ll run the show. They’ll drive behavior and bring feelings (fear, panic, anxiety) to life. All the knowledge in the world about what’s valid, real or likely won’t make any difference to those thoughts that are swelling. It’s the power of the mind against the mind.
5. Sometimes it feels like it’s all about the head and the stomach.
Anxiety can have a way of putting flashing lights around the head and stomach, as though they’re running the show – which, in that space of high anxiety, they kind of are. When anxiety is “on,” it can feel like the head and stomach are the only parts of the body capable of feeling, responding and being.
6. “Everyday,” as in “everyday things,” means something different.
“Everyday” doesn’t always mean “no big deal.” With anxiety on board, everything can feel like the biggest deal. What everyday means is “every day,” as in the things you do every day – today, tomorrow and the next day. As in, “Yes, I know I should be OK with it because I do it every day, but I’m not.” Anxiety doesn’t tend to keep a journal.
7. Thoughts that begin as little thoughts can change the entire day.
Did I lock the door? What if I forget his name? What if there’s an accident? What if we’re late? What if the restaurant runs out of tables under the heater? … It doesn’t matter how much effort is put into preparation; once there’s a worry, it can white-knuckle for grip. The thoughts are often rational, plausible and possible, but anxiety makes them overwhelming.
8. “There’s nothing to worry about” is the best thing to hear. Wait. No. It’s not.
You’d think it would be comforting to hear that there’s nothing to worry about, but it can actually be isolating.
Think of it like this: Imagine being at the side of a wide road you need to cross. Everyone is telling you it’s fine to cross and they’re all doing it, but you see trucks, cars, buses and bikes barreling from the left and the right. Nobody else can see them. You know the road is OK to cross, but you can’t – you just can’t. That traffic! So, not only do you feel panicked but you also feel like you’re in it on your own. It can feel like nobody else really understands, which they might not – otherwise they wouldn’t be telling you there’s nothing to worry about.
The truth is, when it comes to anxiety, it can be difficult for people who have never experienced it to understand – but that’s OK. You don’t need to fully understand something to be a comforting presence through the unfolding of it.
9. Anxiety and courage exist together.
When it comes to courage, anxious people have it in truckloads. Just getting through the day can call on enormous reservoirs of courage that the rest of us might only need to draw on now and then. Anxiety and courage always exist together. They have to. You can’t get through day after day with anxiety blocking the path, without having courage to help push a way through.
10. Stimulation or isolation? Sometimes I’ll take isolation.
Anxiety can force isolation. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – people with anxiety would rather sit outside in the cold on their own than inside with their favorite people, the noise and the lights. It has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside and everything to do with the quantity.
11. Sometimes “I’m sick” and “I’m fine” means “I’m panicking. Don’t ask.”
Anxiety hates attention. When anxiety is triggered, the normal human response if you’re the concerned other is, “Are you OK?” or “What’s wrong?” If you have to ask, then no, chances are they’re not OK. Don’t worry – just be a strong, confident, loving presence. You’ll probably be told, “I’m fine” or “I’m sick.” It’s not a brush-off, it’s a protection. Don’t keep pushing it – just give a gentle “I’m here” squeeze of their arm or hand and move on.
12. Just because someone’s tired doesn’t mean sleep comes easily.
Anxiety is tiring, but sleep doesn’t necessarily come easily. Tiredness makes anxiety worse and anxiety makes tiredness worse – you would think it would be a union made in heaven, but no. It can look at little like this: “I have to get to sleep, otherwise I’m going to be out of my mind with tiredness in the morning, so I just have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t get to sleep? But I have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t?? Anxious yet?
As with any part of the human experience, there are so many things about anxiety that can only be understood by having it. If you love someone with anxiety, it’s important to pay attention. There will be wisdom and knowledge that only they can give you. Be open, and be grateful.
A longer version of this post originally appeared on Hey Sigmund.
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