You keep using that word.
I do not think it means what you think it means.
“Anxiety” is a bit of a buzzword right now. I’m seeing it in a lot of memes, a lot of people are sharing their experiences and struggles on social media. I see it in headlines, in casual conversation, and in my own home. All of the talk has brought anxiety out of the mental health closet and into the more accepting light of the mainstream. People are more comfortable with admitting their inner battles and are acknowledging that they’re fallible. Anxiety has become increasingly discussed, increasingly common, and, I dare say, increasingly misrepresented.
In all of our freedom to discuss anxiety, we’ve watered the true meaning down from a diagnosis to a discomfort.
So what is anxiety, really? Well, first I’ll tell you what it’s not.
Anxiety is not just worry. It is excessive worry. Consuming worry. Worry to the point of terror or impending doom. Worry over situations that may happen, that haven’t happened, that will probably never happen. Worry over seemingly innocuous situations. Worry over the most catastrophic of situations. It’s dread. Anger. Hypervigilance. It’s not nervousness. Butterflies are not anxiety. Anxiety is being unable to stop the fear, oftentimes without anything having triggered the fear… or even anything specific to fear.
Anxiety is not stress. Anxiety causes great stress, and it is distressing. But feeling the weight of an upcoming project or bill does not an anxiety diagnosis amount to. Anxiety and stress are not mutually exclusive, but one can very much exist without the other. Whereas stress fades with the task at hand, anxiety is a chemical reaction or imbalance that will remain long after clicking the “submit” button.
Anxiety is NOT insecurity. Who knows if it’s the rise of social media, Photoshop, or the general public getting ahold of contouring, but we have become an image-obsessed and insecurity-driven society. Confidence has become such an exception that it’s often met with contempt. We have come to accept insecurity as such a norm that we joke about it, bond over it, and rather than build one another up we often resort to comparing our perceived flaws. This isn’t anxiety.
Anxiety cannot be turned off with happy thoughts. I cannot stress this enough. This is the main difference between situations that can cause anxious feelings and actual anxiety. Someone in the throes of anxiety cannot just “cheer up”, “find the silver lining”, “have a little faith”, “trust that everything will be alright”, or – and especially – “calm down”. When someone can’t breathe because their body is in the midst of an anxiety attack or when a child is overtaken by a fear they can’t explain, telling them to “calm down” is about as helpful as throwing a bucket of water on a wildfire. If only an anxious person had that kind of control over their reaction!
So what is anxiety?
It’s many things.
There are different types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, various phobias…. Did you know hoarding is an anxiety disorder? Did you know children can be diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders? Anxiety is not one specific thing and is rarely the same for any two people suffering from it.
Anxiety can be triggered by anything… or nothing at all. Anxiety can be chemical, a misfiring of the brain – or even an imbalance of hormones – that causes an anxiety reaction. It can be situational, such as the fear of heights, crowds, spiders, germs. There are various techniques, therapies, treatments for anxiety, and results will vary by individual. The beginnings and ends are often unknown.
Your anxiety may not look like my anxiety. Some sufferers are able to calm their bodies with breathing exercises and distraction. Some are in need of medication to slow their body’s response to perceived danger. Some meet with professionals frequently, some require in-patient therapy, and some are so overwhelmed by the paralyzing fear that they have built their lives around avoiding any and all potential triggers. Some anxiety is eventually outgrown, some sticks around and wages war for a lifetime.
Anxiety often doesn’t look like what you think it does. My own counseling degree still left me completely taken by surprise when I encountered anxiety in someone who wasn’t just rocking in a corner, breathing and counting to 10. Especially in children, anxiety can manifest as anger, rage, irritability. My son’s principal described him as walking through the halls looking like a wounded dog, ready to snap in defense. What you see as a defiant child can be a kid whose body is telling him he’s in danger and he is instinctively lashing out in self-preservation. Where you see a pack rat, someone with a hoarding disorder sees all of the possible bad things that could happen if they let go of an object, all of the what ifs and eventualities they have covered by keeping something they may need or by giving in to their desire to acquire. What you may perceive as laziness, flakiness, or indifference to a friendship could very well be someone who is crippled by social anxiety or agoraphobia, who is terrified of going new places, crowded places, any places. Anxiety doesn’t always look like someone shrinking back against a wall or breathing into a paper bag. It looks like someone who feels a total loss of control over their world, like someone whose body is telling them to fight, like someone who feels the urge to run, or freeze, or avoid. It looks like someone who is exhausted, who can’t rest, who only wants to rest. Someone who makes frequent trips to the bathroom or who doesn’t want to leave it altogether. Anxiety can look like stomach aches, restlessness, rage, chest pains. It can look like a child who makes frequent trips to the nurse or the mom who can’t turn off her brain long enough to fall asleep. Anxiety is a shapeshifting, deceptive cloud that can masquerade as many things – no paper bag-breathing required.
Anxiety is one size fits all. While some populations and people are more likely to experience anxiety, none are immune. Anxiety affects men. It afflicts Christians. It travels down generations or pops up unexpectedly. Diet, age, weight, social class, gender, race, faith, level of education – none of these are safeguards against anxiety. Young people are often dismissed as “being too young to worry” or “not having anything real to worry about”. Wealthy people are often regarded as having nothing to worry about, as though you could pay anxiety off. Church members suffering from anxiety can be thought of as having little faith. Men experiencing anxiety can be viewed as weak. The reality is that anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere, from any background, and anyone’s opinion of their experience does nothing to help them overcome it.
Someone’s disbelief in the sincerity or seriousness of anxiety does jack squat. You can’t disagree someone’s anxiety away. You can’t tell them to stop worrying and expect it to work. Reminding someone of all the good in their lives doesn’t heal them, either. “Calm down” doesn’t negate anxiety. Listing off facts about non-venomous spiders doesn’t quell arachnophobia, nor do statistics about plane crashes when flying. Your words and beliefs can’t and won’t dismiss anxiety, but….
You can help. Someone who is overwhelmed with anxious feelings or thoughts is hurting. They’re panicked. They need to feel safe, grounded, and heard. Whether you understand their fears or not, it’s important that they not be made to feel like a sideshow for them. The best thing you can do for someone you care about when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is to say, “I hear you. I’m here. You can keep talking to me if you want.” Not everyone remembers their breathing exercises (in the nose, out the mouth) when they’re crippled by dread. Medication can take a while to take effect. If you can help the person leave the situation that is triggering their feelings, do it. Keep them talking, keep them breathing. Don’t force anything, don’t rush anything. If they need to stay and put their back against a wall, shield them from judging eyes. If they need to talk about their worst fears, don’t cut them off with your rebuttals and statements of how unlikely they are. If they need a hug, give it. If they need space, provide it. They won’t die from the fear, but they’re not always convinced of this, so stay with them, breathe with them, be an anchor so they know they’re not going to float away.
More than anything, anxiety is not weakness. It is not an inability to control oneself, it is not a lack of faith or gratitude, it is not a measure of intelligence. It is not the fault of the anxious and cannot be dismissed by the disbelieving. Anxiety is hard. It’s a battle, and those fighting it are warriors. To live in fear and still step out takes a lot of guts, a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of (perceived) risk. Be proud of those you know who are fighting their battle, who are honest about their feelings, who work so dang hard at just getting through the day sometimes. It’s not easy living your life when your body is convincing you it could end at any moment. Anxiety is not weakness. It’s not trendy. It’s not made-up, attention-seeking, or frivolous. It’s real, it sucks, and someone you know is suffering from it.