The Anxiety Experience
“Anxiety is like fighting a war where the enemy’s strategy is to convince you that the war isn’t actually happening.”
a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.
synonyms:worry, concern, apprehension, apprehensiveness, uneasiness, unease, fearfulness, fear, disquiet, disquietude, inquietude, perturbation, agitation, angst, misgiving, nervousness, nerves, tension, tenseness
Everyone experiences anxiety in some form or another. It’s normal and healthy to feel worried or jittery before a big presentation, a flight or other innocuous events. This is a natural, biological process that allows the primitive part of our brain to communicate with other parts of our brain the anticipation of challenges and concern about potential negative outcomes. Essentially, anxiety, in its mild form, is our brain throwing up a yellow flag that says ‘proceed…. but proceed with caution.’ Most people can wave a slight ‘hello’- acknowledge the warning and continue on. For people who live with an anxiety disorder, this is not the case. An anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent and excessive worry, fear or panic. The worry is out of proportion to the actual circumstance, is difficult to control, and exists despite the presence of contradictory information.
There are some common errors about what anxiety really means in its disordered state that leads to difficulty in understanding for the uninitiated. These misunderstandings often create challenges for those suffering from severe anxiety to both understand their own fear, as well as, explain their experience to others. It is my hope to put a dent in this barrier by providing some alternative ways to both explain and understand anxiety disorders.
1. It’s like running on a treadmill
Imagine running on a treadmill enclosed in a clear box. The belt of the machine continues to move, and you continue to run. You are exhausted from the miles and miles you have covered. You look for the bright red “STOP” button- but there isn’t one. You can’t get off the treadmill, because you are trapped by the sides of the clear box. So, you continue to run. You glace out and see other people looking calm and relaxed walking out of their clear box with ease and getting on with their day. You think to yourself, “why can they get out?” “why am I still stuck?”
It’s like when you are watching a scary movie and you are positive that scene is coming up- the one where someone jumps out and scares you…but it doesn’t. So, you just keep watching-waiting for it to happen.
2. It’s not just “Worry”
“Anxiety” sounds like a rather benign word. It sounds simple-small-controllable…like a choice. But anxiety, in its disordered state, is usually not a choice. It is not something that can be easily overcame by “letting it go” or “just calming down” or “getting over it.” Experiencing severe anxiety can feellike a tripwire in your brain has gone off, leaving you without access to more adaptive ways of reacting to a challenge. It feels like the highway has no exits, and your ONLY option is to keep driving down the panic expressway.
3. Just because a worry is irrational, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have authority
One of the most difficult things to explain and understand about anxiety disorders is that the fear exists despite rational, contradictory information. Just because you rationally know you have a much greater chance of getting hit by a car then experiencing a plane crash, does not reduce the power of the anxiety producing thoughts flying triggers. This is because our brain has two parts; the rational thinking brain- which operates purely on facts; and our emotional brain- which operates purely on emotions. Our thinking brainmay be able to looks at the facts and make a logical conclusion. “You are not in danger; the loud noise is thunder- this makes sense because it’s storming and lightening.” However, that doesn’t mean that our emotional brainisn’t shouting though a megaphone “DANGER…RUN!!” Just because you know it’s true, doesn’t mean it feels true.
4. It’s all about safety
Anxiety and panic are based in fear and our natural adrenal response to escape perceived danger and seek safety. Regardless of the type of anxiety disorder experienced, there are always safety seeking behaviors. Behaviors that attempt to reduce anxiety and restore a feltsense of safety. One of the most common safety seeking behaviors is avoidance. Obsessive Compulsive suffers develop rituals to avoid anxiety by engaging in various rituals. Individuals with social anxiety may abstain from social engagements and isolate themselves to avoid the intrusive thoughts about being judged by others. Those with phobias may avoid anxiety by steering clear of snakes, heights etc. These behaviors provide short term relief but ultimately helps to maintain anxiety over the long term.
The truth is – those who suffer from anxiety are not “crazy” or “over dramatic” or “making it up.” These individuals are more acute to circumstances, behavior, vibrations in a room. It’s not that they imagine it, it’s that they feel it where others don’t. There is some good news for those of us who suffer from anxiety- we are not alone. By gaining a deeper understanding of our own experiences and acquiring the language to seek support and explain it to others is the first step towards escaping the glass box.