Anxiety as anyone who has experienced it, which most of us have intermittently, can be rough. When it doesn’t go away it becomes a mental illness rather than a mere short-lived symptom and can be debilitating as you attempt to do the things others do.
Wading through mud is how we experience life is one way people with anxiety describe the feeling.
Watching others able to do things without hesitation, then attempting it yourself and finding it akin to holding your breath for a prolonged period of time, or experiencing a heart attack, makes living with anxiety an isolating hardship.
Typically people who experience anxiety keep quiet about it, due to social stigma and the embarrassment of admitting that they are anxious about something that others do not appear to be.
Some people who experience anxiety are able to work through it and ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ and because of their success, it may lead others who are not able to follow at the same speed, to feel like they have failed. But there are many layers and degrees to anxiety and this will always impact a person’s ability and how far their efforts take them.
Picture this; It is possible to be standing still trying with every pore of your being and yet not appear that you are (trying) to anyone else.
Picture this; It is possible to do something without trying and thus, expend no effort whilst someone with anxiety has to work ten times as hard to produce the same outcome.
Working ten times harder to do something is pretty exhausting. It can lead you to feel inferior because you perceive others finding things easy, and you conclude, therefore it’s me there is something wrong with. I am weak.
But anxiety is no joke and living with anxiety is a daily battle for those who do not respond to medication or therapy and/or have found the long-term side-effects of medication unacceptable.
We’ve all heard how anxious people are more prone to certain diseases (heart disease primarily) and struggle with jobs that are high-stress as so many of ours are these days. Anxiety can impact academic performance, test-taking, public-speaking, relationships, communication, authenticity and sleep. Often people can only tell we are anxious when we confess, otherwise they may perceive us to simply be avoidant, aloof, quiet or shy.
Shyness and anxiety can go hand in hand but one does not beget the other. The ‘bad rap’ both get in American society especially, is unfortunate. Just as the world does not need to be completely filled with extroverts, we should not expect shy people to become outgoing nor anxious people to stop existing in favor of daring people. Diversity is a good thing, that includes the types of people we are. Anxiety only ever becomes a problem when it begins to rule you and dictate to you, rather than the other way around, some anxiety is natural and we all experience it. In fact, the only people who experience almost no anxiety are psychopaths and sociopathic, meaning, if you have a conscience you invariably experience some anxiety and that’s a sign of being balanced.
Mental illness is when something becomes too much that it controls behavior in a detrimental way. I see it like the snake and the snake-charmer, the mental illness is the charmer, the result is the hypnotic snake that lulls us into altered behavior. In the case of anxiety this can manifest in our missing out on things we might actually like to do.
The first port of call is to establish, are you overly anxious and is it negatively impacting your life? If you are simply an introvert who loves your own company or smaller groups of people, and would prefer to read than say, go to a party, that is not a mental illness it’s a great choice and you will probably be very successful! If you are not going out because you are paralyzed by social anxiety that’s cutting the pleasure out of your life and something should be done about it.
Fortunately unlike some other mental illnesses, anxiety is relatively treatable. That does not mean everyone with anxiety will benefit from treatment but the success rate of treatment is higher with anxiety than any other mental illness. Nobody knows why this is for sure, but some reasons could include, responding well to medication and better options for therapy. Equally, in the milder forms of anxiety there is less morbidity, meaning some mental illness is very intrenched and hard to treat.
For some however, anxiety does not dissipate and this is true of all treatments there are those who do not respond. It’s not their fault, and it makes it very hard for them because it acts as a double-whammy, firstly they have something they see others may not, secondly they do not respond to treatment, two negatives. If you know someone like that, consider the impact of a flippant remark like “you may be anxious but just relax” and how that could add to feelings of inadequacy and error.
Anxiety is heightened by stress and what constitutes one person’s stress differs from another. Personally, the work place was my stressor. I related it subconsciously and consciously to stress because of bad experiences. Anxiety is often ‘the fear of what could or may happen’ rather than what’s happening right now. You can experience anxiety in the moment, but often it’s more of a preview feeling. In the case of work place anxiety, you can get very anxious on say., a Sunday night, imagining the potential stressors Monday morning.
Unfortunately whilst therapy can help you become aware of your ‘internal scripts’ and dialogue and seek to change how you self-talk by changing the meaning of what you internalize, it’s not a certain cure. I can tell myself, Monday may not be bad, Monday could be good, one bad experience does not equate to all bad experiences. And I may logically believe that, but emotionally it is harder to translate the logic to the emotion. The pathway is often fraught with long-learned anxiety triggers and it’s almost a battle of the wills.
Sometimes you hear that someone has been ‘strong enough’ to over-come their negative self-talk and I say, good on you if you’re one of them. Equally, this can lead to feelings of failure for those who are unable to quit the long learned script in their head that manifests dread. Sometimes it’s not even a palpable ‘fear’ so much as a generalized anxiety and it can manifest in more ways than an internal script. Anxious people often sweat, have trouble sleeping, may seek drink/drugs/bad habits to assuage their anxiety without even being aware of it, may increase their heart rate or worse case scenario have a panic attack.
All these things are symptoms of an anxiety disorder that can if left unchecked, control and dominate the strongest people. Whilst much can be done and should be done to limit anxiety, there is always going to be a difference between a laid-back person and an anxious person. This is as much as anything, personality, life-experience, coping, DNA and possibly even biology. The latter because anxiety can be learned, and can run in families (inherited) through a mixture of biological and social traits. Depending on how much is biological it may be impossible to completely eradicate.
Epigenetics is the study of whether something is biological in origin or ‘learned’ (socialization) with the belief being, it is a mixture of the two, and by understanding the relationship between two, you can better predict and understand, outcome. Studies done on twins show that whilst they have the same DNA their ‘life experiences’ and where they live and with whom, influence their outcomes. This is true about every facet in life, including what we eat (we are what we eat) how many children we have and tons of other little nuances. Epigenetics is complex and we can never know for sure, how many factors make up the differences and similarities in people and studied populations.
Whilst a researcher may need to generalize to create a working theory, within that generalization are many differences that do not get picked up by mass studies, this is true of the layers of anxiety and each person will vary in their response to treatment and cause. What may cause anxiety in one, does not in another, but equally, they may become anxious about something else entirely. Ensuring we are sensitive to those who experience anxiety will obviously decrease their anxiety! Thus, we can be the change we want to see!