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How to Support a Loved One Through the Physical Effects of Anxiety

She is light on her feet, always smiling, friendly, happy. People like her. There is no other conclusion one can draw when they see her in a crowd. She is a “people person.”

Except she’s not.

Don’t take that the wrong way. It’s not that she doesn’t like people. She likes them just fine, knows they genuinely like her, knows they are truly nice individuals who would love to spend time with her.

What no one sees is what happens when the music stops, everyone goes home and it’s just her and me. The effort to sustain the façade of “I’m OK” has completely exhausted her.

Read that last sentence again. OK, you read it. But, unless you live with the same condition, you likely didn’t understand it. You understood the language, and maybe even graciously granted some amount of acceptance and condolence for what you thought I was saying. But it’s hard to truly comprehend another person’s experience.

Her simply having that conversation with you at the Christmas party has depleted every ounce of every energy she has. And it didn’t start when you saw her and said hello, although the anxiety curve definitely spiked at that moment. So when did it start? Let’s go back in time.

A few hours before the social event started, she was trying on clothes and changing over and over to decide what she would wear. And it exhausted her.

She was in front of the mirror straightening her hair. And it exhausted her. 

She walked downstairs to get in car. And every step exhausted her. 

When she arrived, she sat in the car for 10 minutes dreading walking in. And it exhausted her.

But still, this is not when it started.

It would be a logical conclusion that the anxiety began the moment I told her we were committed to attend the event. Once again, the anxiety curve did hit a peak at that moment. What is interesting is that even if the event was her idea (say, attending a concert she really wants to see), the anxiety curve looks exactly the same. So don’t be offended that her anxiety piqued when she found out she was going to be socializing with you. It’s not about you. (Remember that point, I will come back to it at the end.)

So if the anxiety over the Christmas Party (at which you had a wonderful, friendly conversation with someone who wanted nothing more than to throw up and crawl in a hole) didn’t start when she found out it was going to happen, when did it start? The truth is, it started when she had her first conscious thought at birth. There truly was no starting point. The anxiety curve hits its highest point every moment of her life. Because she never knows when I am going to tell her about the next social event. Or when she will suddenly decide to buy tickets to something knowing she will regret it and dread every second until it is over and she is back home. All of this boils down to this: she is anxious all the time, about everything that has never happened (and may never happen).

So we should really be visualizing two anxiety curves. The one she lives with every day, which is already off the charts. And the other tracks her anxiety relative to what the world thinks is logical. The one that spikes when she finds out about the party, or starts to get ready, or gets in the car, or gets out of the car to walk in, or when you said hello. The real point is, that curve is irrelevant because anxiety is not logical. The curve that is relevant is the one you can’t see because it is sitting at infinity… all the time.

And back to the exhaustion. I don’t just mean tired. I mean tired to the point of appearing near death. And sleep is the only outwardly visible symptom. And it is likely the least negative physical response, since is the only one she has a remedy for. The truth is that the exhaustion goes so deep it affects every muscle fiber. Just getting up to get a drink of water is enough to make her go thirsty. It may take hours or it may take days before she is back to “normal.” But remember, normal for her is the line on the anxiety chart that hovers at infinity.

It is not about you. Many times when we are involved in these social situations, she needs a break. Maybe she will go to another room for a while. Maybe she will make an excuse to need to run to the store (also full of people and anxiety triggers). Maybe she will hide in the bathroom. In those moments, people express to me how they hope she knows they like her… and they hope she knows she can feel comfortable around them…  and they don’t understand why she feels that way  around them. You have to understand — it is not about you. This is about her and what she needs to function in society. Don’t make it about you.

In fact, the physical toll she pays when she chooses to engage socially is so high that when she chooses to pay that price to be with you, you can feel honored. That is her way to show love and acceptance, and the price is heavy. So the next time she disappears from view for a while, now you know. And when she comes back into view, you don’t need to rush over to see if she is OK. She is OK in her own way. Respect her space. She will come to you when the time is right. That is like a gift, because what she is sacrificing to engage with you for that two-hour Christmas party is likely more than what many others would sacrifice for their closest friends.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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