Finding a vocabulary for anxiety

When anxiety first started to get really bad for me in 2014, I struggled with finding the words to describe what was happening to me. How was I supposed to explain the complete batshit craziness of what was happening? How was I supposed to explain that I was terrified for no reason? That I was both intensely aware of what was happening but also totally outside my body and in this weird other state? And let’s not even talk about all of the insane physical stuff that happens.

When I first experienced anxiety in middle school, I couldn’t even identify it as anxiety. I had no idea why I was waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe (spoiler: because my family had moved away from everything and everyone I’d ever known). All of the episodes between then and adulthood I could pretty much chalk up to stress about a major life event: my first semester at an extremely difficult university, moving halfway across the world, relationships ending, etc. There were a few episodes in 2013 that were pretty bad, but still, no clue that I had an anxiety disorder. It wasn’t until my first panic attacks that I really realized what was happening, and even though I’d had years of experience with anxiety at that point, I struggled to put even the simplest sensations into words. It felt like there were no words because no one had ever experienced it before. I’d never heard anyone, anywhere, talk about a panic attack and what it was like. I’d never heard my family talk about their own experiences; I didn’t know yet that my sister gets anxious when she flies or that my dad got hives from anxiety during med school. I didn’t know that this was a thing that people I knew and loved were dealing with because I didn’t know how physical anxiety could be, so I never made the connection. It also didn’t help that we never talked about it. What I did know about anxiety was basically just the different stigmas that I had seen expressed in the media and in the course of living. Even if I could have identified what was happening to me as anxiety, I’m not sure I would have wanted to at that point.

Even when I did finally figure out what was happening, I spent a lot of time denying it, except when I was in session with my therapist. At that time, for me, anxiety meant that I was weak. I was flawed in a way that I should be able to control. I was broken and it was because I wasn’t good enough/smart enough/enough. It wasn’t until I started working with my therapist and meditating using Headspace’s anxiety series that I realized: this is just biology. When I feel like this, it’s my brain trying to tell me that there’s danger – whether there actually is or not. I started to realize that the division between me and anxiety is like the division between the mind and the brain: they’re technically the same structure, but the brain(anxiety) is simply biological, chemical, and electrical processes and the mind, me, is bigger than that. It makes decisions and has interests and emotions and does more than just this one thing. When I realized that, I started to shift the way I talk and think about it to the anxiety I feel and not my anxiety. Because while it does happen in my brain, it’s not mine. It happens in me, in my body, but it’s not part of who I am. It’s not an aspect of my personality in the way that my humor and my stubbornness are. It’s a thing that happens to me. I don’t choose it or ask for it; I can work to manage it and I can work to prevent it.

Calling it my anxiety makes it feel – both to me and to others – like it’s a thing I can control. Like I should be able to “get better”. NEWS FLASH: I won’t ever “get better” and I’ll never be “cured”. That’s not how mental health works – it’s a lifelong process. It may look like I don’t experience anxiety anymore because I’m effectively managing it, but I will. I always will. And because it will always be there I need to create a little distance between myself and it. I need to be able to think about it as a thing outside of myself so that I can analyze it and parse it and figure out how to manage it. So that I can experience it without feeling like I’ve somehow failed. Calling it Lenny helps me to do this, and reinforces the idea that it’s got a whole agenda that’s different from mine and that I’m not always going to be able to control.

This is the biggest shift I’ve made with the language I use around anxiety, but there are others as well. I try to describe myself as a person who experiences anxiety and not as an anxious person. I try to at least give a level of how anxious I’m feeling, especially if I can’t identify what’s making me feel anxious. “Kind of anxious” is usually a feeling of being slightly on edge and wanting to keep to myself, but I can rally and the feeling will go away as soon as I start doing something. “Pretty anxious” means I’m having some symptoms like nausea and/or bathroom stuff and that I might need a little time before I can be around people. “Really anxious” usually means that I’m likely to start crying at any moment AND I’m having stomach stuff AND I don’t want anyone to touch me AND I’m ready to jump out of my skin. These differences are subtle and no one but me really knows the exact meaning of each level, but having a gradient and a common language helps the dude adjust his response and it helps me figure out what I need to do. He knows if I tell him I’m feeling really anxious that we may need to adjust our plans or he may need to go wherever we were planning to go without me. Having to communicate about it also forces me to stop and really think about what I’m experiencing. Is it as bad as I think it is? Or am I kind of working myself up about it and if I take a ginger pill I’ll be fine?

Taking a look at the language I used around anxiety seemed like such a small, insignificant thing at first. How could changing a word or two change my whole relationship with this thing that has the power to upend my life? But that’s also it: language is important. The words we use matter. A lot. There’s a well-documented study of the power of language: people watched footage of a car accident and were then asked to estimate how fast they thought the cars were going when they made contact. The researchers varied the language; for some of the group, they asked how fast people thought the cars were going when they hit each other. For another group, they asked how fast people thought the cars were going when they smashed into each other. The group that heard “smashed” consistently estimated higher speeds. Words matter.

So when I say that “I’m feeling some anxiety” or “there’s some anxiety happening”, it indicates both to me and to the person I’m talking to a lot of things: that I’m feeling this thing, that I’m not in control of it, that it’s not part of my personality, and that it will pass. If I said “I’m anxious”, that could indicate that I’m always slightly on edge, this is part of my personality, etc. It also brings to mind all of those terms that are a polite way of indicating that we disapprove of and want to invalidate someone’s feelings because they’re not what we’re feeling. Words like “sensitive” and “overreacting”. I get so upset when someone says I’m being dramatic or a drama queen or I’m overreacting because this person is negating my feelings. They’re telling me that what I’m feeling is wrong and that I don’t have a right to feel it. They’re invalidating the thing that is invariably mine: my emotions. Just because you’re not angry or sad or you don’t think this thing is a big deal doesn’t mean that it isn’t or that I can’t feel those things. Yes, I do use hyperbole and yes, I’m a good storyteller so there’s your grain of salt, but for the most part, the emotion behind those things is genuine. I’m not “being dramatic”; I am actually upset about this thing.

All of this is not to say that I don’t still feel totally at the mercy of anxiety sometimes, usually when I’m not really expecting it. During those times it’s incredibly hard not to say my anxiety because I’m feeling it so intensely that not claiming it seems preposterous. But denying that it belongs to me, creating space and separation from it, is so helpful and so necessary. I am not anxiety, and it is not me.

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2 thoughts on “Finding a vocabulary for anxiety

  1. Pingback: Weekend Links, #17 – Rachel, Striving

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