Shall I count the ways?
Yesterday I was visiting a couple of friends in my hometown and a guy I hadn’t seen in around 20 years was there. We were discussing different types of anxiety remedies and this guy gave me a somewhat baffled look and said, “What on Earth do you have to be anxious about?”
I know he meant well and I’m not writing this to call him to task.
The truth is, I get this question a lot.
In my experience, people ask this question as though my anxiety is something I chose and something I can control. Believe me, I understand why people might question my constant stream of anxious thoughts. I’m white (read: privileged), relatively young, intelligent, own my own home, have a decent career in the software industry and am not completely disgusting to look at, so I can see why, from the outside, it probably looks like I have my life together and enough advantages that I should have nothing to worry about.
Here’s the thing…
Having my life together is actually a coping mechanism I’ve adopted in order to manage my anxiety.
What is anxiety exactly?
“Generalized anxiety disorder involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or problems sleeping. Often the worries focus on everyday things such as job responsibilities, family health or minor matters such as chores, car repairs, or appointments.”
There are many potential causes of anxiety disorders, most of which are not entirely understood yet by the medical community at large.
The Mayo Clinic identifies some of the known risk factors for developing an anxiety disorder as follows:
- Trauma. Children who endured abuse or trauma or witnessed traumatic events are at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder at some point in life. Adults who experience a traumatic event also can develop anxiety disorders.
- Stress due to an illness. Having a health condition or serious illness can cause significant worry about issues such as your treatment and your future.
- Stress build-up. A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or ongoing worry about finances.
- Personality. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.
- Other mental health disorders.People with other mental health disorders, such as depression, often also have an anxiety disorder.
- Having blood relatives with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders can run in families.
- Drugs or alcohol. Drug or alcohol use or abuse or withdrawal can cause or worsen anxiety.
In “The Role of Childhood Trauma in the Neurobiology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders: Preclinical and Clinical Studies,” Charles Nemeroff and Christine Heim explain, “Compelling evidence from a variety of studies suggests that early life stress constitutes a major risk factor for the development and persistence of mental disorders.”
There are many things we could define as “traumatic” and this varies greatly among individuals. Some examples of events that could have the potential to be traumatic in childhood are abuse, bullying, neglect, religious beliefs, and social influences.
While someone may look put together from the outside, they may be experiencing an inner dialogue shaped by past traumas that created the negative self-image with which they now identify.
So, for example, you may look at someone and think, “he/she really looks great!”
But that person’s inner dialogue could still be repeating something they were told in the 9th grade such as, “You’re a poor, fat, ugly, and worthless pig with no value.”
That is to say that the person you perceive someone to be may not be the same person they believe they are themselves, and it can take years of therapy, medications, and re-processing of old thought patterns to move past some of these traumas.
Of course, anxiety does have its advantages (if you want to call them that).
Recently one of my close friends and I were discussing how the two of us seem to be doing well in life compared to several of the people we hung out with when we were younger. Some of them have faced and/or are still facing addiction, extreme poverty, and other life complications while we are both educated non-addicts who pay our bills on time and remain gainfully employed.
Generally, things are pretty damn good for both of us — if you don’t count the constant nagging worry and negative self-talk running on a constant loop in our through our anxiety-addled brains.
The positive byproduct we realized we both experience is the drive to do whatever we can at all times in order to improve our situations. Having our lives together is something we each feel we can take direct control over, whereas everything happening outside of ourselves feels so dangerously out of our control.
Being in a constant state of anticipating the worst is certainly no picnic.
My anxiety consistently reminds me of all of my weaknesses, faults, and flaws (real or perceived) to the point that ever finding a sense of contentment seems impossible. To my, having my shit together seems more like a farce than a fact, and I worry that at any minute someone will reveal the truth of who I really am.
And while I know that the thoughts racing through my heads aren’t at all rational, they still infiltrate my sense of identity and make managing life a real struggle.
So, what do I have to be anxious about?
Everything. Literally everything.
I’m anxious about the way I look.
I know that logically, I am average looking and not the monstrous beast my inner-child would have me believe. Yet that fat, awkward girl in the back of my head still reminds me that the mean kids in school told me I was “fat and disgusting,” and that therefore I must somehow still be “fat and disgusting.”
I’m anxious that people won’t like me.
Deep down I don’t give a crap about whether or not people like me, yet I still feel a nagging sense of worry in regard to social situations.
I’m even anxious when people dolike me.
I worry that maybe I somehow misled them into believing I’m someone I’m not.
I’m anxious that I’m going to lose my job.
I know that I’m seriously good at my job and that I’m well-liked at my place of employment, however, I am always on pins and needles wondering when I’m going to be revealed as the fraud I truly am and get canned.
I’m anxious that I’m not a “good enough” mother.
I worry constantly that my child is going to grow up completely screwed up and anxious because I am a crappy mother. Deep down I know that’s not true and that I’m doing the best I can as a single parent, but I still worry about it.
I even get anxious because I am anxious.
And don’t even get me started on my anxiety around dating.
I know I am a good catch. I can literally list off all of the reasons why I am a great catch. That being said, I’m genuinely surprised when anyone shows an ounce of romantic interest in me. My first reaction is almost always, “What is wrong with them, that they like me?” or “How did I unintentionally misrepresent myself in order to make them like me?”
My first thought is never that they might simply like me because of the many reasons I could list to explain why I’m a good catch.
This is, of course, assuming I even realize it when someone is interested in me in that way. I generally assume someone just wants to be my friend unless they directly state otherwise. Subtle hints are always lost on me.
I’ve been in several situations where I was crushing on a guy, only to have him eventually get pissed off at me and ask why I never gave him a chance, after which I’m like, “Ummm… Because you never told me you wanted one?”
Just tell me if you want to date me! It’s not that difficult!
(Says the person who rarely has the courage to do the so herself.)
If you suffer from anxiety like me, here are my thoughts regarding how you can respond when people ask you the same question.
1. Be conscious of the fact that people who don’t have extreme bouts of anxiety don’t understand what it’s like.
They may think they do, but they just don’t. Being anxious during a job interview or when speaking in front of people is in no way comparable to living with a true anxiety disorder.
2. View it as a teaching opportunity.
I’m not even remotely private about my experiences with anxiety. They’re just not something I feel a need to hide or be ashamed of, so for me, it’s simply a chance to explain what it is I go through every day by offering a general summary of what it feels like to live in a state of frequent rumination and the thought-processes that invade my brain all too often.
3. Have a standardized, go-to summary for those times when erring on the side of brevity seems best.
Detailed explanations make some people feel uncomfortable, so they’re not the right option for every person or in every situation.
In my own most recent encounter with this question, I simply answered, “Sometimes I get overly paranoid about people and situations.”
That’s obviously an extreme oversimplification, but I didn’t have the time or opportunity to go into details and I didn’t feel it was appropriate or necessary to discuss my inner turmoil with a casual acquaintance.
4. Identify some great resources you can refer people to.
Remember that if discussing your anxiety puts you in danger of exacerbating your symptoms, there’s no need for you to go into a thorough explanation even with a close friend or family member. If you don’t feel comfortable answering such personal questions, you can direct people to particular sites you believe do a solid job representing your take on the matter, or suggest they do a thorough search for themselves on the matter. You might even find it beneficial be prepared with some specific articles you’ve checked out and bookmarked in advance that resonate with your experience.
I know I don’t speak for everyone with anxiety. This is just my experience.
But I hope that by sharing it, I may help someone gain some insight and understanding into why anxious people are the way that we are.