Do you have anxiety? Seems like a dumb question really doesn’t it… I think most adults feel anxious at some point. Obviously. Inevitably. Definitely.
Life is complicated and difficult. Sometimes even terrible, horrible and no good. It would be strange if you didn’t feel anxious over job interviews, first dates, breakups, doctor’s appointments, your children, your parents, your friends.
What I’m asking, more specifically, is do you ever feel anxious for no apparent reason?
This week I have felt anxiety. Anxious anxiety.
The kind of anxiety that feels, in the pit of my stomach, like my airplane has just suddenly dropped 100 feet. The kind of anxiety that tightens round my throat and won’t let go, so that it hurts to swallow. I think the colder weather and incessant rain was part of why it started. I felt even more insecure and worthless than I usually do and that spiralled out of control.
That is probably the most overwhelmingly strong sensation- that I am not in control of my thoughts or impulses. Unlike depression, which I have also experienced, this feels like a constant adrenaline rush, careening towards some sort of crash. My way of managing this whirling energy is to eat, which makes me feel both calmer and more dejected. My appetite becomes boundless, and my irritability and inability to concentrate quickly follows. The Pixies ‘Where is my mind’ captures pretty well what it feels like inside my head.
As Michael says in the Atlantic article This is Anxiety : ‘I learned to forgive myself for my actions stemming from the anxiety. (…) Think of it as a typhoon management system: you use experience to figure out when a typhoon is coming, and you rebuild immediately as soon as the typhoon passes.’ Except I am really sick of apologising to people I love and knowing that I often more work than I am fun… where is my mind…
For one of my friends, their anxiety shows up as a weird jittery feeling that makes their legs twitch and feet tap, as if amped up on litres of coffee. For another friend it feels like a panic attack. They are completely unable to properly catch their breath and feel dizzy for days.
Maybe you also get this mystery, unattributable anxiety but it feels different? How does it feel for you? Do you have any tips for dealing with it?
From the 19th century until the mid 20th century, anxiety was called ‘pantophobia’ or ‘anxiety neurosis’ and covered mental anxiety and panic attacks. It wasn’t until the 1980 and the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that mental anxiety and physical anxiety were separated into Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and panic disorder and recognised as distinct psychological issues.
Since then anxiety has gained more and more attention and coverage, in the press, in culture and in medical research. You have probably read about it, talked about it or seen something about the topic this week, and probably do most weeks. If you live in Europe or North America, anxiety seems to be in the air and on the tip of our tongues at all times.
You probably also have a friend or family member who has said this sentence: ‘Anxiety never used to be such a thing, it’s just fashionable right now.’ Or something like it. I know I’ve had that conversation lots of times- are we imagining ourselves into knots, is this mass hysteria Abigail Williams style? Did we always struggle with GAD and we just didn’t have an official name for it? Or do we have good reasons to be more anxious now than we were 50 years ago?
I don’t know the answer to the question, ‘What causes anxiety?’. I wish I did. I do know that if FEELS real to me. And I believe that it feels real for my friends too. I once read an article, I can’t remember where, that said that in a disagreement you should say, ‘I feel like…’ because no one can disagree with how you feel. It’s subjective and almost impossible to disprove. So I understand that evoking ‘feelings’ can be frustating to those who don’t experience generalised anxiety. It sounds like trying to get attention and win the argument with a trick- an invisible wound.
I understand that dealing with anxiety can be very tricky for partners, friends and family. You often can’t even really use physical signs as indicators of rising anxiety. At least not in my case. Although I can now recognise my physical symptoms- heart racing, restlessness, headaches, insomnia, mood swings- I’m not sure they are noticeable to others. (Okay, maybe the mood swings… Sorry.)
Wikipedia tells me that Generalised Anxiety Disorder is ‘characterized by excessive, uncontrollable and often irrational worry about events or activities’ and can include symptoms like nausea, dizziness, irritability, difficult concentrating, restlessness, sleeping difficulties, hot flashes, vomiting and on. These are all terrible things to live with and they are also difficult to observe and diagnose.
I recently devoured John Green’s brilliant Turtles All the Way Down, whose main character Aza suffers with obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours. Compared to what she goes through, I know that my anxiety and compulsions could be much worse and I am very grateful. Still I wish that I knew how to stop the feeling once it starts, how to prevent it ever happening again.
Anxiety is not a choice. Don't tell people with anxiety to "stop worrying." Do reassure them. Don't leave them alone. Talk about your anxiety with friends and family. Be attuned and empathetic to it in others.
Apart from eating, and sometimes going out walking, I haven’t found any good ways to deal with my anxiety. But I do totally agree with James Hamblin, who, in his Atlantic article, says: ‘Anxiety is not a choice. Don’t tell people with anxiety to “stop worrying.” Do reassure them. Don’t leave them alone. Talk about your anxiety with friends and family. Be attuned and empathetic to it in others.’
Definitely don’t say ‘stop worrying’. I can’t second that enough. Often what I want to hear is simply, ‘I’m sorry that really sucks’ and ‘How can I help?’, (which is what inspired me to make these postcards!). Knowing that someone accepts me helps me to accept myself, and usually helps me to withstand the anxiety even if it doesn’t stop it or prevent it. So, how can I help?
In the photos of me above, I’m wearing a t-shirt by the amazing Chloe May Roberts whose work you can find at @maydayembroidery and her Etsy shop May Day Embroidery. This t-shirt is in aid of the Samaritans and perfectly sums it all up- ‘It’s complicated. Let’s talk!’