When people think of anxiety, people often think of panic attacks, a racing heart, and a “hamster wheel” of thoughts going through a person’s mind. And it can be these things. It often is. But not always.
In fact, I was 39 years old before I realized the way anxiety was impacting my life. Sure, I knew I had a propensity to get a little more stressed than most people (I’ve been told to “just relax” on more than one occasion). Truth be told, I had worrying down to a science. But I had never experienced the racing heart or panic attacks that I had always associated with anxiety.
It wasn’t until I saw a therapist, started taking Xanax, and reading more about the myriad ways anxiety can play out in our lives, that I realized the hold it has had over me. Because while it can show up as panic attacks, a fluttery heart, or a racing mind, anxiety — especially high-functioning anxiety — doesn’t always manifest itself that way. It can rear its ugly head in other subtler or more insidious ways. Anxiety can lie hidden inside habits and traits often considered to be personality flaws or weaknesses.
And it’s different for everyone.
Anxiety might be sleepless nights and staring at the glow of a clock for 30 minutes or 2 hours because your mind is playing out a series of hypotheticals and worst-case scenarios and what-ifs.
Anxiety can be worrying about everyday “calamities” like being late to work or why a friend hasn’t texted back. It is also worrying about actual disasters like plane crashes and world hunger and becoming absolutely convinced that your husband is late from work because he was involved in a serious car accident when, in reality, he just got stuck in a never-ending meeting.
Anxiety is worrying about good things, too, even though logically you know that makes absolutely no sense. It is wanting to be invited to parties and girls’ nights out, but not actually wanting to go to those events because the fear of fitting in and wondering if you’ll say the wrong thing is too exhausting.
Anxiety is second-guessing yourself all the damn time. It is replaying events in your head, over and over and over again, developing alternate responses and finding all the things you said wrong and the ways you should have acted differently.
Anxiety is becoming convinced two hours into a weekend-long road trip that you left the oven on or forgot to turn off the hose.
Anxiety can be shaky knees and stomachaches. It might be a bouncing your leg, tapping your foot, or twirling your hair nonstop. Or drumming your fingers and biting your nails down to the quick.
Anxiety is feeling like the air has been sucked out of your lungs.
Anxiety can feel like anger and frustration. It is a bubble of red-hot rage about things like string cheese wrappers in the couch cushions and dirty dishes on the kitchen counter and wet towels on the bedroom floor. It is screaming and losing your shit, and then immediately collapsing into a puddle of tears because you know instantly that you overreacted and feel so incredibly out of control.
Anxiety is feeling annoyed for no reason at all.
Anxiety is being overwhelmed all the damn time — with the beauty and cruelty of the world all at the same time — because there is so much good in the world and you don’t know how to take it all in. And there is so much bad in the world, and you don’t know how to fix it.
Anxiety is wanting so badly to do something, but being paralyzed with uncertainty about where to start. It is staring at your to-do list unable to make the decision about whether to go grocery shopping because the thought of picking out cereal with two whiny kids is way too daunting. And it is fretting about whether to take the garbage out or unload the dishwasher first.
Anxiety is being tired all the time, because dealing with the stress and never-ending worries is utterly exhausting.
Anxiety is thinking that there is something wrong with you, that you are less-than or inadequate or not good enough — until you finally get the help you need and realize that there wasn’t anything “wrong” with you.
Anxiety is a mental illness. It is not a flaw or a weakness.
Anxiety means learning how to deal with the symptoms and manifestations through medication, therapy, and some good old-fashioned TLC.
And if you, or someone you love has anxiety, it means being gentle with yourself and others. It means finding grace, forgiveness, and patience because anxiety requires a fair amount of badassery. It means remembering that everyone’s got something they are dealing with.
I deal with anxiety. Maybe you do too. There is nothing is wrong with me, and there is nothing wrong with you either.