What It Means to Have 'Secondhand Anxiety’


Anxiety has been something I have dealt with for literally my whole life. It affects so many aspects of my being, every single day.

From leaving my bed, to eating and having a bath, all the way through getting my chores done and trying to live just an ounce of the life I have; I can tell you, being an adult is seriously difficult when you have to deal with anxiety.

Anxiety is like a persistent little demon on my shoulder, who I wish would just let me live. I’ve always been this person who errs on the side of caution and preparation.

I suppose I just see more of the bad in society than good, though does that really make me a pessimist? I just want to survive the best I can in this utterly terrifying world.

Until recently, I swore anxiety was just something I would deal with alone and from my own actions. If it couldn’t hurt me, why should I worry, right? I just wanted to make sure I was safe because I always felt vulnerable. But, recently this has become bigger than just protecting my own skin — my anxiety is growing and attaching itself to other people.

I was sitting on my bed recently and I knew my partner had to make a phone call. I kept saying in my head, “please don’t make the call;” I just couldn’t handle the idea of it. I felt nauseated, like I could throw up over him and his phone; not that I said anything. But lo and behold, he made his call and it made me feel just as nervous as when I am on the phone; it’s one of my biggest fears.

Every part of me wanted to tell him to leave the room or that I should leave instead, but ironically, anxiety made me freeze on the spot. So tell me, why does something that does not pose a risk to me and certainly does not affect my life make me so nervous? It’s not just the phone; if I see or hear someone answer the door, I worry. It’s also people I see on the street or TV. Basically, if someone is doing something I feel unable to do because of my anxiety, I just can’t watch (or listen) unless I want to accept an impending panic attack.

I must look strange when I have to cover my ears and close my eyes, just to calm my anxiety down. I call it “secondhand anxiety,” though I am sure there is a real and scientific name for this. I’ve never really looked into it. It just seems to best fit the situation. It feels a bit like when a person is not doing something to intentionally harm you, but it does.

Or even, when someone is in danger and so you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach? Except this is over everyday tasks and not to do with people being in at actual risk, though I’d be anxious if they were too.

It really shows how powerful anxiety is — how it is more than a concern for your safety or fears you may have. It’s so consuming and controlling and I wish people could see that. If an illness can take power over every angle of your existence, shouldn’t that be seen as serious, as a reason for more awareness and research to actually allow people to live a good quality of life?

When I posted about my “secondhand anxiety” on Twitter, it had a huge response from so many people who claimed to get that same feeling and how they swore they were alone in this. People even mentioned that it related a lot to secondhand embarrassment, something we can all probably understand! It felt good to know I was not alone, but did highlight as to how little we are talking about these things.

Could it maybe be that I just feel protective of others? I know how these things make me feel, and a byproduct of that is that I don’t want them to feel that way either — a bit like a really overbearing mother who just wants to save her kin.

Maybe it is more to do with our inner empathy and knowledge; maybe there is a shred of humanity inside of us that lets us know when someone does perhaps feel just the same as you do. Anxiety is common, after all. Is it just my ability to notice other people’s emotions? Like I am literally feeling other peoples anxieties?

All I know is this, mental illness is far more complex than what is shared by society. And if you are feeling a little bit embarrassed over your anxiety for other people, you’re not alone and it turns out, it seems to be pretty “normal.”

Photo by Gades Photography on Unsplash


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