Everyone experiences anxiety to some degree--that surge of adrenaline released after the mind has detected something to panic about. Your hands shake, breathing increases, your stomach turns, eyes dilate and you start to sweat. But then it passes. Logic prevails, you take a deep breath, and then you move on with your life. Unfortunately, for those with an anxiety disorder, the wheels never stop spinning and peace is nigh impossible to achieve.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) several years ago, but the reality is that it's been an ever-present companion my entire life. Living with GAD means that, essentially, I am wired to be anxious about everything, and nothing, all the time. The other aspects of my mental illness slowly emerged into my late teen years, but anxiety and depression have been with me since the very beginning. As such, it should come as no surprise that anxiety has been one of the most difficult things for me to find healthy coping mechanisms for. I call it the "energizer bunny brain" because I'll be damned if my brain ever stops going and going.
It's difficult to describe how the brain of someone with an anxiety disorder can take one simple comment or situation, and spin it to where it feels like a disaster is unavoidably imminent. For instance, relationships (both friendship and romantic) can be incredibly difficult to navigate. And the more you like the person, the worse it gets.
Let's take the example of not hearing from someone for several days. It happens to all of us, it's annoying, you think to yourself, "Ugh, they're always on their phone--why aren't they texting me," and then you shrug and move on, right? Au contraire, my friends--not so easy with those with the anxious brain. Less healthy coping mechanisms emerge, such as drinking, sleeping too much, not eating, self-harm, and isolating. If you don't believe me, this is an actual series of events that has occurred to me due to my anxiety over something as seemingly innocuous of an unreturned text:
1. First, there's the obvious action of checking your phone constantly to see if you somehow missed the notification.
2. Then you restart the phone because maybe turning it off and back on again will help the situation. Nada.
3. You send the oh-so-casual text of, "Hey, haven't heard from you in a bit; hope everything is OK." (then repeat steps 1-2)
4. For the rest of the day, you attempt to read a book (but can't focus), and instead watch Netflix because that requires less brain power. Your mom calls and you talk to her about something, but you can't remember what, because your brain is still working on where the missing person is.
5. Attempt to fall asleep early that night, but instead spend several hours lying awake ruminating over all of the possible things you could have done to drive the person away from you.
6. You've finally fallen asleep, but then you have to wake up to pee (damn, shouldn't have drank that cup of tea before bed). You check your phone for any notifications, see nothing, and then spend another hour or so trying to fall back asleep.
7. Wake up groggy the next morning, check notifications, turn phone on and off again, and then drag yourself to the coffee pot. Because coffee is good for anxiety, said no one ever.
8. Try to eat breakfast but since your stomach and intestines have managed to work their way into knots, you feel nauseous.
9. Spend 15 minutes stalking all of the person's social media accounts looking for activity. If there is activity, and they still haven't texted you back, skip to step #16 to begin the moping process. If there is nothing, continue to #10.
10. Spend significant amount of time on makeup and outfit, for fear of looking anything less than perfectly functional. Waterproof eyeliner and mascara are a must.
11. Arrive on time to work, and then sit at your computer staring at the screen for an hour while your brain continues to analyze and pick apart various possible scenarios. Your co-workers look at you with concern, but know better than to ask, unless you start crying.
12. You start sniffling and finally give in to what seems like the only option, short of physically stalking the person out (because that would be weird, duh). That's right, it's time to search the obituaries and news for that person's name. Cue spending another hour digging through the Internet--only to come up with nothing.
13. Somehow you zombie it through the rest of the day, with maybe some minor crying spells in between (and repeats of steps 1 and 2), and you arrive home.
14. Decide to take an early shower while listening to some music. A remotely emotional song comes on and you lose it--end up spending 30 minutes sitting in your bathtub sobbing while the water rains down on you. Eventually you pull yourself together, dry off, and bundle into your cozy sweats.
15. A friend finds out you're under the weather and encourages you to come out to happy hour with them. Well, fuck, now you have to get yourself all made up again to look functional. Can't do anything fancy with the eyeliner because your hands are shaking.
16. You drag yourself to the bar, put on the show of being "fine," and down your first drink a tad too quickly. Before you know it, you're completely drunk, hitting on anything that moves, and then end up crying. Thankfully, you have a good friend that makes sure you get home safe, and drink some water and take ibuprofen. You wake up the next morning, hungover, exhausted, and bemoaning your anxious brain.
By the end of that scenario, it doesn't matter whether you actually hear from the person again or not, because the anxious brain has already taken over. Anxiety disorders convince someone that the worst-case scenario will happen, and to such a point that it is impossible to convince oneself that, logically, that scenario will not occur. Logic has no place when an anxiety disorder is running the show and panic is wreaking havoc. Unfortunately, for me, if I'm in a state of constant heightened anxiety, eventually my brain numbs out in a last-ditch effort to protect my sanity. It's a defense mechanism that essentially seeks to shut down all emotions, reactions, and having expectations of people and myself, but enables me to survive and work.
One of the hallmarks of a mental illness is that it prevents you from functioning, working, getting out of bed, eating, showering, etc. An untreated anxiety disorder can be devastating because it is a continuous dysfunctional state that rips apart your life, while the transient state of being anxious is a normal human emotion. Much like other mental illnesses, therapy and counseling can help to retrain the brain, and medications can be immensely helpful. With the help of both, I am able to function, process stressors, and talk myself down from anxiety that would have previously decimated me. It will always be a prominent factor, but it is no longer one of the constant defining elements of my personality. I am more than what my anxiety disorder would reduce me to. I am not broken.
If you care for someone with an anxiety disorder, don't tell them that they're being silly and that obviously that situation won't happen. Instead say something along the lines of, "I understand why you feel that way, but I really don't think that will happen because of this evidence." People with anxiety disorders don't have much empathy extended to them, so a little bit can go a long way. It helps to know that someone supportive is in their corner to assist with fighting their personal demons. Furthermore, keep the anxiety disorder in mind when interacting with the person--not necessarily to cater to it, but even just to go the extra mile to help their mental status. Encourage them to see a therapist and/or psychiatrist, and reassure them that you don't think they're crazy. Let them know that, while they can't see it right now, you know without a shadow of a doubt that they are more than what the anxiety disorder would reduce them to.