Most people understand the notion of anxiety. They understand it in the abstract ‘I’ve read the dictionary definition’ kind of way. Sort of like when someone says “I understand Michael Bolton’s sex appeal” They understand the basics (money?) but ask them to elaborate on the details of why any woman would lust after that curly mullet of finest spun gold and they would be lost for words, or make up a bunch of shit to look smart and deep.
People have their misconception about anxiety, about its very existence all the way through to how you (the person with anxiety) should be handling it. From the point of view of the anxious person we/I would like it if you (the royal you, not you the reader. I’m not having a go man, don’t get all shitty at me) would shut the hell up for a bit and try listening to what we need rather than telling us what we should do.
So in the name of every confused partner, sensitive sibling and castigated friend I will attempt to explain a few basics that most anxious people wish you knew before delving into the challenge of accommodating our compulsions.
Misconceptions; anxiety is not…
Just whinging. We are not just a bunch of pussies who can’t deal with the stresses of modern life. I often think that if an un mentally affiliated person tried to live with a generalised anxiety disorder for one week they would very likely end up in a blubbering mess on the kitchen floor, snot bubbles oozing out their noses while in the throes of an hysterical cry/panic.
It is not like a sticky remote. We cannot turn it on or off. Don’t bang us on the back with your palm or attempt to get the batteries out and bite them. We haven’t ‘gone all mental’ to spite you or to make your life hard or awkward. We don’t anxiety AT someone to make your life a drag.
An excuse. We get tired; please don’t think we are sick or just lazy. Anxiety is like having an additional full time job which exists only in your mind. We have an extra 10-15 thoughts if not more on top of the normal flow of life people go through day to day. You think “hmm I’m hungry I need to go to the staff room and warm up my lunch in the microwave”. We think “Hmm am I hungry? Do I have something to eat which won’t make me sick? Should I go buy something from the shop? No I’m too scared to walk down the road. I can feel a panic attack coming on and there is nowhere to hide between here and the bakery. I could go to the staff room but who will be in there? Will I have to talk to people I don’t know? Will I make a fool of myself in front of someone who is important but whom I don’t know is important yet because they are new and then when I apply for a job in a year or two they will be interviewing me and all they will be thinking the whole time is about that time I made an off colour comment a year ago and have disliked me ever since and now I won’t get the better job and I will end up on the street with a crack addiction having to prostitute my scabby face to survive.“ After all that I think I deserve a nap.
When we do go out on a limb and try to explain how best you might help or support us please don’t try to offer other strategies, tell us we are wrong or try to bend it to suit your needs. We are not trying to be difficult but WE know what is best for us from years of practice being a big grown up and dealing with grown up things. Trying to ‘fix us’ with a simple idea and flick of your hand makes us feel like retarded children. Chances are we have tried every single possible thing you could think of and about a hundred more in the past and only we know what works best for us under the circumstances. If we do need advice/extra learning we will get it from professionals who know what they are talking about.
But if you do offer advice to someone about how they should deal with their anxiety, don’t get all offended if they try to explain why it won’t work. We are not being obstinate or unwilling to find an answer. We are not sitting at home in our PJ’s trying to avoid working on our issues like a recalcitrant child. It’s just that your ways of handling life may not work for us because you may not understand how anxiety works in the mind of a severely anxious person.
We don’t expect you to remember every issue which affects us or what we need to do to manage them but when you are reminded try to retain that information for the extent of the scary time i.e. the train journey, flight, lecture, car ride, doctor’s visit etc. Also know that the side effects of a panic attack don’t just disappear after 5 minutes. If you’d just been attacked by a zombie great white shark with Jean Claude Van Dam’s legs grafted on (to make with the fast running after you) you’d be exhausted as well, perhaps a little emotional and in need of a hug/cup of tea and a square or 6 of chocolate.
Anxiety is not just a nastier version of butterflies in your tummy. It is not something that “everyone has a bit of”, that is like saying everyone has a bit of Multiple Sclerosis. Anxiety is a disorder just like any other, it is not something that a good talking to will fix or ‘bucking up your ideas’ will take away.
Love will not fix anxiety. However happy you make someone you can’t solve anxiety, it’s not a computer game, there is no clocking it. You can manage it with medication, counselling and techniques but saying ‘if you loved me you’d be happy’ will not make it better, just much much worse.
That an anxious person is less capable at their job than a non anxious person. Yes, we deal with our own shit all day everyday but it is unlikely to stop most of us from doing our work. Most anxious people, including myself, are super stubborn. They will work at something until it is almost if not totally perfect. As Scott Stossel has just outlined in his new book (My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind) often the most high achieving people are of an anxious disposition. Frequently we worry so much about what will happen if we don’t do enough we will usually do more than your average person to calm the nagging voice in our head.
That we would run away when things get hard. Not true! Your average anxious person goes through more emotional turmoil on a daily basis than you would experience in a year so a difficult situation is just a regular occurrence for us. Often we are the ones with the contingency plans and the management abilities to deal with other people in panic or crisis as we know what it is like and guard against it like the plague.
Anxiety is not something we made up to answer for our own faults. Often anxiety is a hereditary disorder. My family are absolutely RIDDLED with it. I think the only person who doesn’t have it is my very kind, super patient, long suffering Mum who looks after the rest of us and our lineage of nerves, vapours and panic attacks.
Fodder to win an argument. Don’t discount our feeling, emotions or opinions just because ‘oh it’s just your anxiety talking’ this is a bullshit tactic of a crappy debater. Anxiety doesn’t mean you are right all the time.
On the other hand; anxiety is…
A sign that you are open to emotions and a thoughtful human being. It may (if you let it and work on managing your attacks) make you a more empathetic and moral person. Look to the left and you will notice your anxious friend; he/she will be the first to look after you when you are sick, had a baby, need a lift or a shoulder to cry on. We are the first class lounge of friends, ready with a comfy seat which turns into a bed and a continuous supply of booze in little bottles. We get how hard life is and we generally want to help take some of that burden away for our friends and loved ones. Some of the kindness is pure anxiety. We may fear we are always the one taking or needing help and we may fear we don’t give back enough. On the other hand a whole lot of this thought and effort is just plain old human kindness which springs up like a rainbow coloured well with sparkles at the centre of the swirling whirl pool filled with sea monsters and snakes and sea sickness and vomit.
Proof that we can overcome stress and difficult situations. Remember that time at work when everything went wrong and you fixed it? And now you can feel proud and tell managers at interviews of your amazeballs problem solving skills? That is what it is like for an anxious person every day. We are BRAVE AS FUCK. If you felt in fear for your life everyday you’d get pretty damn tough as well. We have the emotional stoicism of a returned soldier who has spent a year living under fire in a damp tent with bitey bugs and dysentery with no loo paper or spare knickers.
Gives you excellent planning skills! It takes a lot of planning to leave the house if you have agoraphobia and it may seem weird to you but you’ll be glad when we are the ones with extra band aids, painkillers, Valium, towel and change of clothes in the car!
Anxiety, like many mental health ailments is misunderstood by many people but often not in the way you would think. People on the whole are kind of empathetic about your issues but very very few people really understand the extent to which is moulds your behaviours and daily choices. Anxiety is not who we are but it is something we have to react to, like a nuclear bomb explosion.