Anxiety isn’t always fear related. This post examines many different ways that anxiety shows up in the lives of people who are prone to it with descriptions to let others relate better to the experiences of those who deal with significant anxiety. There are also a few suggestions to help with anxiety.
One thing a lot of people don’t understand – is that anxiety and fear are not always the same thing. Anxiety can mean just being “keyed up”. While being keyed up, you might not even be thinking about anything in particular that you are being afraid of, you just have this feeling – I describe it as not having any emotional skin. In the past when I felt this way I felt like I was walking around with no skin, so if someone pokes me, they are just poking right in between my muscles, or right on my veins. To someone who doesn’t deal with anxiety – can you imagine what that would feel like – to walk around without skin on having someone poking at you at your bare nerves and veins on your arms, or wedge their fingernail between your muscles? It is not even that I am walking around “oh I am afraid someone will poke at me” or emotionally cause me to have a flair up, it is not fear, it is just raw-ness, feeling very raw.
Another type is when I am getting hypomanic and sometimes the anxiety can build up but it is just this restlessness, this sort of flurry of emotional stuff, not afraid, just stirred up, restless, and jumpy. It’s not that I am jumpy because I am afraid somebody is going to terrify me (or do something to me), I am just jumpy because at that moment, I am biologically that way. I’m not even thinking thoughts that are related to being afraid – my mind is empty, even my subconscious mind might be empty, but I am still feeling very jumpy because I have some anxiety going on in a biochemical level. I wish there was a better descriptive. Anxiety can be worry and it can be fear, but sometimes, it is neither.
People with bipolar, it might take some time of your being on bipolar medicine to even out the anxiety that can come with your bipolar disorder. As my psychiatrist has repetitively told me, every year you are stable your brain gets healthier and healthier.
Anxiety can also be the feeling of being “frozen up”, like everything is too overwhelming and even simple decision-making is difficult. When I feel this way sometimes, I am not feeling afraid. It’s just that I am feeling very stuck for the minute. Sometimes you can start to feel like you are walking in slow motion and that things seem to take forever and your thoughts won’t stick together, you can’t retrieve things from your memory and lots of time can pass without you realizing it. Shopping or even preparing a meal can be very difficult in this state. In the past I have had trouble scanning things (like how you scan a tray of Legos to find the red ones) and grocery shopping in particular can be difficult because scanning the isles to find particular food items (like cereal in the cereal isle) can be hard for the brain to do.
Another manifestation that anxiety can sometimes take is that feeling like you can’t keep your cool or it can seem like if people were to do a certain minor thing you are going to snap – it is just going to be too much for you emotionally. This can be a traumatizing feeling if you are in a situation where you can’t escape to get a breather. What makes it worse is when people don’t stop something when you ask them to or minimize your concerns. One instance is this: I was in a long car trip and I felt like if the music wasn’t changed I couldn’t bear it. It seems like a little thing but it was a huge deal for me at the time. Sometimes it is hard for people to trust others when they wrestle with this unless the other person has proved themselves to be a “safe” person.
Now there are some forms of anxiety that are related to fear like specific phobias and panic attacks. Panic attacks can be related to a general overall built-up stress is someone’s life or just might be something that someone is prone to for other reasons. Often, it is not easily controllable when the attack arises. Panic attacks can make the person feel like they are having a heart attack, their heart starts racing out of their chest, they start breathing fast or feel like they can’t breathe. It is a horrible feeling, it can happen at the most inconvenient times, while driving for example, and the person usually needs to pull over. There are a variety of therapies for panic attacks.
Now I don’t think I have had a full blown panic attack but I did have something that made me sympathize with people who do have them. I was visting a church and I was sitting near the middle aisle of the church, sitting by myself. They had earlier made an announcement to not exit down the middle aisle. The sermon was long and near the end I got this horrible feeling and I felt like I had to get out but I was stuck and it was very rough. If I went back there I would definitely be inclined to sit in a place where I could easily exit if need be. I don’t know why I felt so panicky then but it really made me not want to go back, even if it wasn’t the church’s fault at all, I just felt traumatized remembering that feeling and even looking at the pew where it happened. People with severe anxiety problems have more barriers in getting into community and church or social situations where they feel like they can’t escape if needed. However, all of us need to be connected with other Christians and get spiritual nourishment, even if for a season it is not within a traditional setting.
In the interview I did with my friend who has Asperger’s Syndrome he talked about social anxiety. He described the type of social anxiety he experiences as “feeling my skin crawl” when certain types of unexpected things happen, like someone hugging him without giving warning or if he accidentally made eye contact with someone in a crowd. He would prepare a lot for going even to just a convenience store sometimes, in case anything would happen. He would only take what he needed in case he would get robbed or something, preparing for different scenarios. Sometimes, people like this take awhile to “psych themselves up” to do something, maybe the entire night before, maybe days.
I work with some residents on an Alzheimer’s wing of an assisted living facility and we have two people with profound social anxiety. One is only in her room or she sits near the window. The other will come to social events but usually just for 15 min or so and always wants to be sure she has an easy exit if needed.
It is difficult to be on the edge of canceling something because you don’t think you can hold it together. When people with anxiety cancel last minute it can seem like they are irresponsible. When that happens, we need to remind ourselves that is not the case. Sometimes, for some people it takes a lot of energy just to survive.
For some people with anxiety, others will say “why can’t you do this simple little thing?” Well, at times if the thing is high enough on the anxiety level it can be like someone encouraging a person to run into a lion enclosure at the zoo (near a enclosure of baboons) and grab a cell phone under a bush. The person with the anxiety is standing there at the door and strategizing. The other person who does not have anxiety says to them “How hard can it be – just run in, grab it and run out!” But they are thinking, if the lion goes this way, I can climb the tree, but then I might drop the cell phone and they would stomp on it which would be worse than it being in the bush. Or I could grab hold of that and pull myself up the wall if it charged at me, but then what if I didn’t make it? Or I could hide under the bush and hope it didn’t see me before I could make a charge for the gate, but the lock/latch looks tricky what if I couldn’t open the gate fast enough? If I stay under the bush I think they could claw through the bush. The person might stand at the gate trying to muster up the energy and waiting for it to come, or waiting for the lion to fall asleep (while being afraid they might alarm the baboons which would wake it up), etc.
Anyway that is what it feels like sometimes to the person with the type of anxiety that makes them always want to think over things in detail before they attempt them.
All this is to say that people dealing with anxiety are coping with a lot more than others think and those who don’t understand need to be patient with them. There is treatment for panic disorder, including where they can teach you to use your brain to physically calm down your body through biofeedback. It is “the use of electronic monitoring of a normally automatic bodily function in order to train someone to acquire voluntary control of that function” (the answer google automatically gives you). In biofeedback you get hooked up to a machine and watch brain waves and body attributes on a screen and learn how to control symptoms. For panic disorder you can learn to voluntarily control your heart rate, breathing, etc, in order to slow down and stop the panic attack within minutes of it starting.
Additionally, of course, there is as-needed and long term medicinal treatments for anxiety but be careful this can lead to prescription drug abuse sometimes. There are many different types of therapy including slow exposure methods, self-calming strategies, and of course relaxation techniques. Prayer can help so much but we have to be careful we are not praying ourselves into a tizzy as I call it, praying in a way that gets us more worked up. Telling people what you are dealing with so they can pray is huge – especially people who take prayer very seriously.
Speaking Scripture out loud to ourselves and confessing truth or just telling it in our minds can also really help; so can using music including worship. Physical calming sensations like cool running water on your hands, or the feel of your breath blowing in and out can help sometimes. A lot of people, like my friend with Asperger’s, keep earbuds or headphones with them so they can “tune out” and calm down on the spot if they need it. I should have had them with me on that long trip with a bunch of other people rather than getting stressed about the music they were playing.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be very useful (see my post on Tackling Negative Thinking), and many people have found Joyce Myers’ book “Battlefield of the Mind” to be helpful. One more note for those of us who deal with this – while feelings of anxiety that crop up immediately and almost automatically is not always sinful in themselves (until we entertain the fear), however worry specifically is a sin; I’m not afraid to say it. I had a breakthrough when my mom finally talked to me about it after days of dealing with my college-related anxiety when I was at home. After patiently bearing with me for days she finally told me worry was a sin and posted verses about it everywhere in the house – on my closet door, on the mirror in the bathroom, everywhere. And I had a breakthrough.
So, if worry is a factor then you can repent to God and meditate on these verses (among others): Philippians 4:64-9, Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-32, Psalm 139, and I Corinthians 10:13. Matthew 10:19-20 and Mark 13:11 and Luke 12:11 are reporting on Jesus telling the disciples not to worry about what they will say beforehand but that the Holy Spirit would give them the words.
You can think about God’s faithfulness, that he is Jehovah Jireh (YHWH-Yireh) who provides all of our needs. It is important to meditate on the character of God and that he loves us completely, is sovereign/powerful and in control, and we can trust him to not let us go. We live by grace and not by works and that means that his grace is always there to catch us even if we make mistakes (see my post “The Role of Good Actions”).
To read another post I did on anxiety check out ““When You Feel Paralyzed By Anxiety” for more tips on when you get overwhelmed or am tempted to freak out or panic, as well as “Pursuing an Anxiety-Free Vacation”, which is written for people who do not have profound social anxiety but more people who are afraid something bad will happen on their vacation due to their own oversights.