In a society that moves fast and is constantly saturated with conversation, those of us with anxiety often feel like we are hiding in the shadows. Whenever we try to talk about how we’re feeling, things usually go one of two ways. Either someone responds with, “anxiety, everyone’s got that nowadays,” or “what do you have to be anxious about? Your life is good.” And so, we keep quiet, we make life work behind the scenes, because that’s the area in which we shine the most. It’s sad, but true. As someone who suffers with anxiety, I’m here to describe a few things to you that people with anxiety rarely share, but often wish they could. We’re just looking for a kindred spirit, someone that we can talk to who won’t judge us or try to make light of our feelings. If we could find that one person who would listen in the way that we need, here are a few of the things we might say:
1. We Tend to Overthink a Lot, and We’re Often Painfully Aware of It
I am a chronic overthinker. I know that I overthink everything, but it is because I have found that if I don’t overthink something, then I either end up messing it up, or something bad happens. So, I usually plan far enough ahead that I can handle with adverse circumstances, should they arise, or I can plan around them so they don’t happen at all. That being said, when us folks with anxiety make even a small mistake, we beat ourselves up over it for years. More often than not, we catastrophize the situation and make it out to be worse than it really is. And it’s not that we’re being dramatic, it’s that our brains are just wired that way. For instance, “Oh crap, I forgot to mail that bill that I needed to send in today. It’s due in fifteen days. But, the mail is slow sometimes, and knowing my luck, if I mail it at five o’clock today, it’ll get lost, and then the debt collectors will come after me, etc.” Or, in a more extreme scenario, “Oh no, I forgot to turn the Christmas Tree lights on before I left for home, I hope my house didn’t burn down.” It’s not that we’re worry-warts either, it’s that our overthinking is often a coping mechanism, at least it is for me. The more that I have time to overthink a situation, the more that I can reflect on the “worst case scenario,” and can plan how I will handle it should worst case scenario actually come to pass. That way, I’m not completely blindsided if the worst does happen. I have a plan of action in place, and it won’t destroy me. Of course, my overthinking also tends to stress me out a little bit.
Sometimes, I can’t see any other possibility but the worst case scenario, so then I tend to dwell on it more than I should. And of course, the more I dwell on it, the more anxious I become. And then I tell myself, “you’re overthinking it, stop it, there’s a simple solution.” So then I do the thing that is the simple solution, but then I still fret and worry about it until I have the actual result. Or, I start to say things like, “stop overthinking it and just relax,” which then of course inevitably leads to the “what is wrong with me? I’m not normal…” train of thought. Fun times.
2. We Can’t Turn our Anxiety Off
The one thing that I wish people would understand is that anxiety is not like a television. You can’t change the channel or turn it off if you don’t like what you’re seeing or hearing. Anxiety is raw and real, and while many of us have tried to turn it off, it’s ultimately impossible. Oftentimes, our thoughts run away with us and become flights of fancy, or they just become troublesome nightmares that we can’t seem to shake. For example, if we’re in a situation where we feel uncomfortable, even if everyone else around us feels perfectly fine, we can’t shake that feeling that something isn’t right; and the longer we stay in that situation, the worse our anxiety gets until it ultimately erupts into a fit of tears or anger, depending on the situation.
Oftentimes, I’ll say, “I’m worried that we’re going to be late to this event.” And then someone says, “We’ll make it, don’t worry.” And then with every second that goes by, I’m sitting there internally thinking to myself, “We’re going to be late, we’re going to be late.” Usually, even if we are late, no one is ever angry with us, but of course, I don’t see it that way. I just see it as, “Oh my gosh, we’re being rude, we’re late…” or “We’re going to be in trouble for being late.”
Lately, my classic thing that I can’t seem to turn off is the “We’re going to get evicted” worry. We have a great landlord and excellent neighbors. And I try to be as courteous to everyone as possible, but sometimes I think I can be a bit excessive. Sometimes, I have to run the dishwasher or take a shower at 8:00 at night, and I worry that it’s going to be too loud for our downstairs neighbors, since we’re on the top floor, and that we’re going to get evicted. But no one ever complains. Sometimes we play our music loudly or watch fairly loud videos, and again I worry that the volume will bother our neighbors, but it never seems to. However, the biggest one in this category is with my loud friends. Oftentimes, their voices exceed normal decibel limits with how excited or frustrated they get with the games they are playing or the jokes we are telling, and I often have to remind them to keep it down, because we live in an apartment and I don’t want to get evicted. Usually, they’ll say something along the lines of, “I don’t care, it’s not my place…” which I immediately follow up with, “but I’m your friend, and it’s my place. You should care if what you’re doing ultimately ends up with me getting evicted.” Surprisingly, we haven’t had a single complaint against us, but that thought is always there, nagging at me in the back of my mind. Would I love to turn it off and just go with the flow? Of course, but that’s impossible.
3. We Typically have Very Low Self-Esteem
Because of our anxiety, we’re already “different” from the rest of the group. We don’t meet the status quo, so we’re outsiders, and we know that. However, because we know that, we tend to internalize many, many things. For instance, the biggest thing that I internalize are things related to my faith. If I mess up even in the slightest, I feel like I am a terrible example of a Christian, and I will keep praying for forgiveness over and over again and listening to Christian music until I feel better. It’s sad, and I know that’s not what God wants for me. He wants me to be free to enjoy this wonderful life that he has given me. Fortunately, now that I have a new job with better hours, higher pay, and nicer people, I am starting to learn how to do that. It is a slow process, but one that I hope continues.
In general, we tend to struggle with believing in ourselves. When we say that we want to do something, someone close to us will ask, “well, why don’t you?” And then we list off all the reasons why it’ll never work, and ultimately talk ourselves out of it. Or, conversely, we often allow ourselves to be talked out of something by others because we either take their criticisms to heart, or we do what they ask just to get them to leave us alone. Again, this is no way to live, and we know this, and it is because we know this that we feel there is something wrong with us. Pointing out the fact that we worry too much just adds fuel to the fire–it’s another thing on the list of “things I need to fix.” And then we stress ourselves out trying to fix it. I personally am guilty of this type of frustration. I often find myself getting annoyed, because someone asks me to do something, I do it, and then they get upset because I did it. Or I find out that they don’t like what I’m doing, so I stop, and then get told to just be myself and not care what others think.
Be yourself, they say. So I act like my little old self, with my seemingly old-fashioned beliefs, my strong convictions, my likes and dislikes, and so forth. Then I get told that some of those things are downright terrible, or that I shouldn’t say certain things or behave in a certain way. So I try to correct those things, and then when I correct them, I get told that it doesn’t matter what others say–that I should just do what makes me happy. What do you want from me, society? Make up your mind! I’m just one person! I can’t do everything or be everything! Like Hawk Nelson says in their song: Everything You Ever Wanted: “I tried to be perfect, tried to be honest, tried to be everything that you ever wanted. I tried to be stronger, tried to be smarter, tried to be everything but you.”
4. We Actually Want to Get Out and Try New Things
As much as we get anxiety in new situations, we also crave fun and adventure. We want to try things that take us outside of our comfort zone, but we want to be able to do those things on our terms. If someone forces us into a new or unique situation, we will generally balk at it, get frustrated, or decide that we want no part of it. However, if it’s an idea that we come to on our own, decide, “hey, this would be fun to try,” and are able to do it with a group of friends, in an environment that makes us feel comfortable and where no one is judging us or laughing at us, then we are generally ok with the new activity.
One example of the above-described situation is this: I hate public speaking. I am not good at it at all. I can communicate much more eloquently in writing than I can when speaking. When I speak, I often lose my train of thought, stammer, stutter, and the like. It’s not a pleasant thing at all. However, when speaking about something that I am passionate about, I can go on for hours. For instance, if I were leading a Christian seminar for teenagers or young adults, I think I would be good at that and would really enjoy it. Or if I were talking about horses or my favorite movies with a complete stranger–I could go on at length about it. However, if someone were to stick me and a random stranger together and say, “you’ve got an hour to learn about each other,” it would be an extremely awkward situation for me. I wouldn’t even begin to know what to say, except for making small talk. It would be something along the lines of, “so, what are your favorite animals?” “Oh, well I love horses and wolves, though I don’t own a horse; but I have a kitty cat.” “Oh, really? I’m more of a dog person, but cats are cool.” “Oh yeah? That’s nice. Well, what are your favorite movies..” But of course, there would be random, long, awkward silences in there as well. It just wouldn’t be fun. However, if I initiate the conversation, then I think it would be different. However, even then, I get in my head too much. When my husband and I went to a comic-con a few weeks ago, there was a girl there who had a really neat tattoo. Every time I’d see her, I’d want to go up and compliment her on her tattoo, but then I thought that she’d look at me funny or think I was weird, so I just didn’t say anything to her. In retrospect, I wish I would have. It might have opened the door to an interesting conversation about tattoos in general. Oh well, what’s done is done. C’est la vie, right?
So, anxiety isn’t what a lot of people think it is. In fact, many of us don’t talk about it, because we know that we won’t be understood or taken seriously. The next time someone brings up their anxiety to you, don’t downplay what they’re saying, but actually take the time to hear them out. The more willing you are to listen to them, the more they might surprise you, and the better you may be able to understand them and be the support that they need.