In my past writings about mental health, I’ve mostly discussed depression and suicide. I’ve been meaning to add ‘anxiety’ to that list of topics, but have been waiting until I could write about it from the first person. One of the peculiar things about my personal struggles with mental illness is that when I’m feeling well, it’s really hard to remember what it’s like to be feeling poorly. The inverse is also true, which is why it’s possible to feel suicidal after just a few hours of depression; I can’t imagine what it felt like yesterday when I’d been feeling fine for months on end.
I’ve got a great handle on what I need to do in my life to deal with, prevent, and accommodate for my depressive, suicidal, and bipolar tendencies. I’ve also made great strides in reducing anxiety levels, but, for me, anxiety is a more difficult beast to tame. The following was written a few days ago when I was in the middle of a high-anxiety experience (not an anxiety attack). I’ve edited it a bit for grammar (typing on a phone is a horrible experience), but it’s mostly straight from the heart. I hope it illustrates what anxiety feels like to those who have not experienced it, so you can support those in your life who are suffering. I would also like it to demonstrate to those who may not be aware that they are dealing with anxiety that their symptoms are treatable, and perhaps you will seek further help. And, as always, I want those of you who deal with anxiety on a regular basis to remember that you are not alone.
From Inside Anxiety
Let me tell you what anxiety feels like. It feels like being on a small rock amidst a boiling vat of lava. I have to type this on a phone because the laptop in the other room is no less inaccessible than if I had to jump a giant ravine. Anxiety is fear, pure simple fear. But it’s not normal fear; anxiety is fear of the normal.
Have you ever experienced an adrenaline rush? Some threatening situation: the grill of an oncoming bus, falling down the stairs, being approached by a thug with knife in hand, slipping on ice, a shove from behind, a car accident?
Anxiety is that same feeling, but all the time. Every step is a slip, every car is going to hit you, all your friends and co-workers are thugs with knives. The worst part is that the brain can see that these sensations are not true. I’m not imagining real lava around the bed. I can see the perfectly safe carpet. But my legs feel like numb jello and I cannot step onto it. I’m not hallucinating that all the people outside my street want to kill me. I’m afraid of them even though I know they have no interest in me at all. I know in my mind that my office is full of people I can trust and rely on, yet my body is reacting as though I will be entering a war zone, every sense alert, every muscle tensed against the next attack.
Once upon a time, I lived the majority of my life’s moments in such a constant state of heightened awareness. Fear. It was exhausting. I am lucky that days like this are now rare. I am lucky that today, my anxiety is not accompanied by depression (it’s hard to feel worthy when you spend all your time hiding in bed.).
Some people look for adrenaline rushes outside their normal state of being. They sky dive, they become immersed in video games or movie thrillers, they join extreme sports. While they do this, I look for quiet rooms, I meditate, I practice yoga. Anything to calm the blood down. I will experience the same thrill climbing into the shower this morning that you feel jumping out of that plane. I will feel the same fear walking into my office today that you feel as you step onto a public stage.
And here’s the kicker: nobody thinks I’m brave. My walk to work today will mirror an Indian Jones escape sequence or Aladdin’s carpet ride out of the Cave Of Wonders. I’ll walk into my office and be surrounded by people who do that kind of thing every day. Anxiety is living your life inside a thriller movie. The music is always loud, rushing your heart beat. Something awful is always going to happen around the next corner. This movie doesn’t end and you can’t walk out of the theater.
The world is going to end if I don’t get out of bed and into the shower. How much is a world worth?
Dealing With Anxiety
I have had less success in defeating anxiety than I have had with depression. There are a few types of treatments to deal with it, and you should consult with a medical professional to work out what the best one is for you. The two things that have had the greatest success in taming (if not controlling, yet) my anxiety have been yoga/meditation, and exposure therapy. The latter isn’t as bad as it sounds, although like many cures, it’s not always pleasant. The heart of exposure therapy is, as you can expect from the name, placing yourself in situations that cause anxiety. However, there are a few caveats. You have to place yourself in such situations until you become comfortable with them. If you exit an anxiety-inducing situation while you still feel afraid, you will have reinforced that this is a fearful situation, and that “fight or flight” is an appropriate response.
Instead, you need to pick situations that only cause a small amount of anxiety. A good way to do this is to make a list of as many situations as you can think of that cause anxiety, and then rank them in order of how frightening they are. Over the course of a year or so, put yourself into the easiest situations and work your way up the chain. It’s slow progress, but it’s measurable, and the feedback you give yourself from one encounter can help you refine your technique in a later one.
I’ve been utilizing this technique for three years. As illustrated above, I still have days with a lot of anxiety. However, I lead a functional life, now. I used to work from home, I now work for a high-profile company and I’m doing well at it. I used to avoid all social situations, I now regularly go out with friends or even strangers and generally have a good time. I used to be especially afraid to interact with single women; I’m now in a stable, loving relationship. There are still a few things on my list, such as presenting at conferences and dealing better with conflict, but for the most part my coping skills are better than many people who are considered not to have psychological disorders. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.