Anyone who has anxiety or knows someone who has it knows that it’s not an easy thing, especially if there are panic attacks involved. There is so much that you can do to manage it, which is great, and it feels pretty good to find a management strategy that keeps you at a pretty even keel.
Anxiety is sneaky, though. It’s only now that I’ve got the big stuff pretty under control that I’m starting to see all of the little ways it shows up in relationships – and I’m not just talking about romantic ones. As I was writing this I was thinking about examples from all types of relationships in my past and present: friends, family, romantic… So here are some basic things so be on the lookout for. If you’re struggling to articulate to a friend or partner what anxiety is like or how something that they’re doing doesn’t help, this might be useful. (This might be, too.)
Anxiety makes me think about EVERYTHING. A LOT. I’ll be the first to admit that I overreact sometimes, which is part anxiety, part HSP. Fair enough. I’m also highly emotionally intelligent, sensitive to the moods of others, and, well, anxious sometimes. And you know what anxiety loves? Ruminating. A lot of people think of ruminating as going over and over a big problem or continuously worrying about it. And they’re right. The thing is that when you’re dealing with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, anything has the potential to be a big problem. I can’t tell you how many times someone has made an offhand comment that has had me thinking and worrying and in my own head for hours, and sometimes days. I’m not saying that everyone needs to walk on eggshells or can’t be honest for fear of sending me into a spiral; I don’t want that. I’m just saying that something that may seem innocuous to someone else – and probably, in all actuality, is – has the potential to affect my mood for a while, and it’s great when people recognize that. The dude is so awesome at letting me know that he thinks about the potential power of his words and actions, and checking in with me to see if I ended up ruminating about something. He thinks about how he wants to say things in order to minimize any potential anxiety but still also says the thing, and I love him for it. He doesn’t shy away from bringing it up if I’m clearly spiraling or if I’m out of line, and I need that because I honestly don’t even realize it sometimes. There have been multiple instances where I’m been anxious or sensitive about something, and had no idea until he brought up it. He’s helping me learn to recognize the more subtle shifts and then to deal with it in the moment so that I’m not ruminating about it. He’s also helping me learn to separate my sensitivity and my reaction to it. It’s a work in progress, but I feel so lucky to have a partner that doesn’t just let that stuff go by.
Anxiety makes me brave. Anxiety is, at its core, an ancient biological response over which we have little control. We can absolutely mitigate it and partake in things like therapy and self-care that help to bring our over-all levels down, but really, we’re at the mercy of our amydala. I don’t know about you, but to me, staring down the abyss of something that’s developed over millennia and going “I can change that” is one of the the bravest things there is. For those of us who really and truly want to understand our anxiety – what it does to our bodies, the mechanisms in our brains, the insidious ways it can be basically everywhere – that work is HARD. I’ve done some pretty brave stuff(moving to Australia against the advice of many springs to mind) but by far the bravest thing I’ve ever done is to start going to therapy. Getting married and becoming a parent will be right up there, too, but none of that would be possible without my having gone to therapy, and I think it’ll stay in that number one spot for a long time.
Anxiety skews my world view. Every so often when the dude and I are having a conversation about future stuff, I find myself starting to spiral. For instance, sometimes we talk about places we’d like to live other than New York, and my brain immediately starts screaming: you don’t have the money for a car. How are you going to get a teaching job? What if something goes wrong when you’re pregnant and you’re not near your mom, sister, Bird, or the dude’s mom? WHAT IS THE FUTURE GOING TO BE LIKE SO I CAN PLAN NOW?!?!?!?! DON’T LEAVE HERE, YOU’RE SAFE AND COMFORTABLE!! A lot of times I let that dictate what I’m saying to the dude. Only recently have I been able to go “Ok, I think what I just said was my fear talking,” or to hear it when he points it out. I get pretty defensive, sometimes without knowing it, and often start subscribing to this anxiety-tainted worldview. We’re learning how to deal with those things when they come up in our conversation and just concentrate on what we’re actually talking about. And sometimes even that isn’t attainable; there have definitely been times where someone has asked me a question and in my head I’m like How the fuck should I know how I feel? It’s really hard, guys. I’m learning that not every question needs to be answered right away and that some things are unknowable, but that discomfort is tough. Not knowing is tough. Because of that, sometimes my brain jumps ahead and tries to answer the questions so that I can start planning and feel safe and form expectations, but that’s a booby trap because I end up making assumptions – and decisions – based on things I’ve gotten wrong. It changes the way that I see things because I don’t always know what I think I know, or I’m worrying about something that has a .00000001% chance of happening. I’m getting better at catching myself, but oof. So tough.
Anxiety makes me critical. Oh man. This is a big one. I really try hard to not be judgey and to find empathy, but sometimes that just does not happen. Usually it’s for one of two reasons: either I’m anxious about something and thinking with my emotions and not actually being objective, or I’m seeing something that I also happen to see in myself and that just makes me feel feelings. This happens most often when someone is behaving in a way that I know I do and that I hate: for instance, it drives me up the wall when people interrupt me, but I do that to the dude and therapist all the time and I really am trying not to do that as much. Or when someone is being really critical, controlling, and/or stubborn; I can also be all of those things, and I just hate it. I know that sometimes they can be good, but I detest the idea that I’m making someone feel devalued and small by behaving that way, especially because there are people in my life who do that to me. I’ve had many long conversations with myself trying to figure out how much of that is anxiety and how much of it is my personality, and I honestly think it’s a mix. I think I come by those things naturally and I’m also anxious about being that way because I know what it feels like to be on the other side.
Anxiety makes me want to shut down. This one is constant. It shows up it so many ways: when I’m out with a group of people and I stop talking or I talk only to the dude. When I say no to friends and family because I just can’t. When I hide in my classroom instead of hanging out with my colleagues and growing our relationships. I’ve been trying so hard to say yes more, and I’m doing a pretty good job. It’s just that sometimes yes isn’t the best thing; sometimes I know that if I say yes, especially because I feel like I “should”, I’ll pay for it later. I’ll be tired or upset or god forbid I have a panic attack. Anxiety keeps me from saying yes because I want to protect myself, and saying yes can trigger it or make it worse. It’s a delicate balance and I still haven’t really figured it out.
Anxiety makes me so. tired. I mean, we’re all tired for one reason or another, but something that can be hard for people to understand is that anxiety is constantly syphoning off your resources. Even if it’s effects are negligible during the day, I know that if I’m not getting adequate down time and/or sleep, I’m asking for trouble. Anxiety can be a cumulative thing: one to many days of missed yoga practice or nights of poor sleep, and I’ve got a one-way ticket to panic town. Also I spend all day dealing with teenagers and their emotions and while I love the work, it’s a little rough on my own experience. I know I chose it, and I also know I need to be considerate of myself and make sure I take the time to just be.
Anxiety hurts. Research shows that emotion and physical pain activate similar regions in your brain, and well that’s just super fun. Anxiety means that I’m constantly battling headaches – unless I’m doing well with my yoga routine – and it sucks. It’s so hard to be good at my job, a good partner, or a good friend when I’m in pain. It’s draining, it’s feels shitty, and it inhibits the part of my brain that would care more or say things more nicely. And often that pain/anxiety combo makes me want to cry, so then I’m fighting back tears and adding another layer of tension when that’s the last thing I need. For some people, it’s a different kind of pain in a different part of their body. I think one of the things that’s hardest to explain is how endless it can seem, and how it often feels like nothing works, especially when you can alleviate the emotion side of it. I’m so lucky that I have a partner who will pick up my slack when this is happening. I honestly don’t remember how I got through headaches without him.
TL;DR: anxiety sucks for a lot of reasons and it’s annoying, but there are ways to manage it.