Anxiety makes daily life a real pain in the ass for everyone involved. We all feel anxious from time to time, but people with anxiety disorders have a hard time controlling it. There are at least 40 million American adults living with an anxiety disorder (source: National Institute of Mental Health). It might be helpful to know a few things about us anxious folks, since we are everywhere. My assumption is that you want to help someone you love if you are reading this – if you’ve never experienced it, you will probably never understand anxiety and that’s okay. You can still be helpful through the unfolding of it. Keep in mind that no experience is the same. I’m not speaking for everyone with anxiety, just doing my part to increase awareness. If I scare the shit out of you, you’re welcome.
1. It has nothing to do with you
Our anxiety has nothing to do with you, however directed at you it may seem. Anxiety is a constant mental battle that manifests physically, or does it start in our bodies? Either way, being miserable in our own skin makes it hard to be pleasant sometimes – and we might not even realize what’s happening. Irritability is a near constant in my world, so while it’s possible I’m annoyed with YOU, don’t take it too personally. Hopefully I don’t seem like a complete asshole, but if I do, just be happy you’re not me.
2. We know we’re irrational
The epitome of anxiety is this: Knowing, as you’re freaking out, that there’s no reason to be freaked out, but you can’t shut it down. Some of the emotions we entertain are like the fruit flies currently invading my kitchen – they’re tiny, annoying, and useless, yet we can’t seem to take our focus off of them until they’re all dead and gone. Sometimes a worry can start being legit, but we take it to an epic and destructive level.
3. Anxiety hurts
The physical toll anxiety takes on my body is the most frustrating aspect of anxiety for me. Anxiety is really physically uncomfortable – it doesn’t hurt the same way for everyone.
- Hot and cold flashes – When I was working in customer service, I ran into my favorite teacher from 3rd grade! Rather than act like a normal person, my body flushed over in a cold wave of terror and then I was instantly a hot mess of dripping, beastly sweat, a stuttering fool with horrific red blotches on my chest. Awkward. That was bullshit – I experience similar moments regularly.
- Racing heartbeat, palpitations – Heart palpitations feel like having a goldfish flopping around in my chest. I even visualize the scaly thing in there and start to wig out even more. There have been several times when I’ve been close to dialing 911, but instead I sit in paranoid silence, waiting it out, realizing I’m not ready to die.
- Feeling restless or on edge – If you see me in the same spot for more than 20 minutes and I don’t look like I’m in agony, consider it a small miracle.
- Easily tired – I’m always spent. There are multiple reasons for this, but anxiety is one of them. Fighting anxiety is like being in a constant state of fight or flight and takes its toll daily. I rarely get to take naps with two small kids all up in my grill, but when the opportunity knocks, I indulge and it feels so luxurious.
- Muscle tension and pain – My jaw is so buff from clenching my teeth, I’d put a pit bull to shame. My chest, shoulders, and neck are always tense. Massages can be helpful, but I’m so paranoid about letting one fly, I don’t get very relaxed.
- Intestinal shit – Speaking of letting one fly, I can be a gassy gal. 1 part genes, 1 part anxiety. I probably have IBS. This is a overshare, but my husband can tell when I am constipated. Isn’t that nice? Sometimes, if I’m a bit unruly, he’ll ask, “Have you pooped lately?” At least he pays attention.
- Knots and stomach butterflies – I eat to cover them up and then I don’t shit them out. Good stuff.
- Dizzy, light-headed – Makes me feel incapable at times.
- Numb or tingly – Usually my arms or legs get pins and needles and that’s when I recognize I need to sit down for a few minutes and chill.
Many thoughts, emotions, and behaviors revolve around anxiety. I’m too exhausted from listing the physical symptoms to delve into these much, but here are some common symptoms:
- Obsessive thinking
- Compulsive behavior
- Difficulty concentrating – I don’t play cards or board games because I just can’t focus.
- Memory problems – Sometimes I have a hard time forming thoughts because my brain and body are so concentrated on the sustained anxiety. This is why I can’t tell a story to save my life, turn into an inarticulate moron during job interviews, and repeatedly ask if anyone has seen my phone. I go blank during any type of confrontation and could never EVER be in a debate club, no matter how passionate I am.
4. Social situations can be torture
Although avoidance can lessen anxiety in the short-term, it doesn’t work for actually living life. I’d probably be a hermit most of the time if I could. I’d just sit in my house, back out of plans, and be happy as a clam doing so. Back in my drinking days I’d “pre-funk” before every type of social event so I was loose, less self-conscious, and more outgoing. Now that I’m sober, my pre-funks consist of mostly internal freak-out sessions over shit that will never happen. I secretly hope shit gets cancelled all the time and would even welcome a hearty cold if it meant I could stay home.
Because interacting with people can be so anxiety-inducing, we are picky about who we let close. We put up walls for those who don’t make the cut to keep ourselves safe.
5. Don’t try to talk us out of it
The worst feeling in the world is when someone tells me to “get over it” or “just relax.” These statements make me feel like I’m broken and alone, and show a blatant misunderstanding of the nature of anxiety. Believe me, if it was that simple, I would have done it already. More often than not, there is no logical reason for my anxiety, it just is. There’s a fine line between talking me out of it and helping me. “Let’s get down to the bottom of this, why are you anxious?” That’s what my well-intentioned husband says, trying to get me to put it into words so he can help. It has helped a few times, but most often my mind goes blank, my body gets tighter, and I feel even more like a freak, especially since I was trying to hide my anxiety in the first place and got called out on it.
6. Panic attacks are real
I remember when I thought that people who had panic attacks were legitimately crazy. How can you be so whacked-out that you lose bodily control in a terrorized panic over nothing?! This is where there’s a huge disconnect – it can make sufferers and their loved ones really frustrated. It’s really hard to understand and even harder to describe. A panic attack can come out of nowhere or it can be fear-induced. You can maybe feel it coming or suddenly it’s happening, taking your breath away. Either way, once you’ve experienced one of these bad boys, it’s like a mission in life to never ever have another. Panic attacks are so scary! To me, it feels like my body is completely out of control – sweating, fuzzy headed, pounding heart, blurred vision, shaking, gonna shit myself – sheer terror. I had my first panic attack at a grocery store in my early 20s and it was so unexpected and terrifying, I felt like I’d lost a bit of my sanity, never to be found again.
7. We have moments of brilliance
When we are aware of our anxiety and working on it, we experience glowing moments of perfection. These moments come and go and sometimes we shock the hell out of ourselves with our amazingness. I’m not always a total freak. Especially since I’m getting older and caring a little less about what people think of me. I’ve managed to reduce the frequency of some of my more useless agonies, like the torture of walking through the cafeteria at work to get some damn food. Sometimes I can actually get in and out of there without feeling a thousand eyes upon me, waiting for me to trip or shoot a boogie out of my nose… I consider these moments huge successes for me. Don’t always assume we are having anxiety. The last thing we want is for you to approach us like wigged-out weaklings, plus it could totally deter a brilliant moment or just piss us off. If we have shared some triggers with you, then it’s cool to be mindful of them, otherwise, let us be. And don’t push us to get better. We are handling it and always trying to be better.
8. We are grateful people
We are grateful for our moments of brilliance – for every time we overcome a situation – we experience intense relief and these moments accumulate. We are also grateful for those people in our lives who try to understand and work with us. I never take for granted those who are there for me and are genuinely interested in my well-being and happiness. My circle may be tiny, but it’s solid. I’m most grateful for my mom’s unwavering support and for my husband’s patience and commitment to me.
9. We know living with us is hard
As long as you know that we know, and we’re working on it constantly, you need to allow the process. We know how much of a burden our anxiety is, and we do not need a reminder. I know the consequences of my anxiety are annoying, frustrating, and sometimes hurtful. Try being me. There may never come a day when I’m fully composed or uninhibited – that ship sunk when I got sober. I consider myself a positive person, but anxiety breeds negativity – it just does. Again, take a step back and be grateful you aren’t me. Your patience and compassion are appreciated. Remember we are always working on it and we are worth it.
10. We want you to learn more
Whatever you can do to learn more about what anxiety looks and feels like in someone’s everyday life, the better. You don’t have to be able to relate to us, in fact I’d rather not subject you to that – a general understanding will do. Compassion goes a long way.
Here are some ways you could potentially help someone with anxiety:
- Be mindful – Knowing some of their triggers may be helpful. When we’re dining at a restaurant, my husband takes the seat that’s facing the crowd, so I can either look at a wall or fewer people. It makes me nervous seeing people and eating in front of them, so he shuts it down every time. I appreciate it every time.
- Be proactive – Take steps to help mitigate the anxiety or lighten the load. My husband does a lot of the talking in social situations and helps me out when I’m fumbling for words (except for when Roger Goodell asked me how I liked the NFL and I froze like a fool, LIKE A FOOL! – I’ll agonize about that until the day I die!). Actually, he talks more than anyone I’ve ever known and rarely shuts up – I’m almost always grateful for it.
- Find compassion – If you can’t find compassion, keep your thoughts to yourself. I don’t like to hear negative shit about people who struggle with this shit like I do. When people like us hear you judging so-and-so for not wanting to hang out or for being weird or socially retarded, we’re subconsciously understanding that it’s not okay that we’re that way. So, no matter how whacked someone may seem, maybe if you just let it go and move on with your life, we’ll all be a little lighter. It’s sometimes second nature to make fun of shit we don’t understand, just consider your audience. If we do it, it’s okay though. 😉
- Compromise – We aren’t as social as my husband would like to be and he doesn’t complain about it – having said that, he’s a social freak and that shit needs to get locked down anyway. I need my down time and he knows that’s important to me. I can’t always be “up”. It’s not in my nature and doesn’t serve me.
- Touch us – My husband often rubs my hand while we are driving around in the car, knowing the extreme effect it has on my well-being. Ahhhh. It can change who I am in a moment. Touch is powerful. Touch is survival. I need more of it.
- Remind us to breathe – “Take a deep breath” – My mom is so good at reminding me to do this. One deep breath can completely turn a moment around. I need this reminder more often.
- Laughter is the best medicine – We are always winning when we’re laughing! I find it soothing to watch mindless comedy on TV. Being gassy comes in handy, too. Sometimes I act a fool, like a giggling, immature school girl…you might not get it, but I do, so let me have it! Sit down with your anxious friend and watch some good ‘ol Tommy Boy or I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Light moments are fun.
There are no cures for anxiety disorders, but there are many ways to find some relief. No one disorder or management of it looks the same as another. I hope you learned something new about people with anxiety, I know I did by putting it into words for the first time. If you struggle, I hope you find the help you’re looking for. If you suffer from knowing one of us, don’t be a dick and try harder to understand. If you question something, ask me. I’ll tell you what I know after I’ve obsessed about it and rehearsed my answer for a few months, then spell-checked it and re-rehearsed and then contemplated if it was too late to answer. 😉
Thanks for reading,