Anxiety is an interesting thing. It is a normal part of coping with stress. It can be a symptom of other issues, everything from an undiagnosed medical condition or concern about managing a known problem to attention deficit issues or even Alzheimer’s disease. It can be a short-term condition affecting us in times of grief or loss or change. Everyone experiences some degree of anxiety periodically; it’s part of being human. It’s our body’s way of dealing with difficult situations, keeping us alert and ready to respond. It’s often a good thing. Anxiety becomes a problem of its own when it doesn’t subside once the problem has resolved, when the physical responses meant to help you through a crisis are randomly activated or when, once activated, they do not subside even once the crisis has passed.
If you haven’t experienced anxiety, or you don’t know if you have, the following is a composite of what living with chronic anxiety can be like. Some people experience all of these things, some experience only one or two, but if you are dealing with chronic anxiety, you will see yourself here. It might help you understand what a friend or loved one living with anxiety is going through.
Anxiety is a low-voltage electrical current running through you all the time. It causes your jaw to tighten and your forehead to furrow and your gut to churn and ache and a tremor or fidget to occasionally surface. In the mornings, you can sometimes feel your jaw pulsate as it relaxes ever so slightly from its nighttime clenching. Most of the time, the current is not strong enough to cause you to cry out, gasp for air, or run for the hills, but the potential for such events is ever-present. You feel as though one more thing might do it, as though you are always on the edge of panic. You wonder if anyone else can see it happening, or if your subtle discharging of energy by chewing the inside of your cheek or incessantly rubbing your pen, or your smile and occasional laughter, are enough to mask it. You wonder if others can sense the anxiety coursing through your veins, undulating through your muscles, all but ripping your skin wide open. You feel radioactive.
In a meeting, it looks like a storm is about to rage, with your vision narrowed to a tunnel from your keen efforts to pay attention, the lights dim, and the hum in your ears is almost deafening. You cannot hear the speaker. Then you focus on her lips and you can hear her, but you cannot hold onto the conversation. You nod so she thinks all is well. What did she say? Something about a pending project. Oh yes, you remember reading about that in an email yesterday. Then you realize she is not talking about the project anymore and you are lost. The shuffling of papers by the entire staff cues you that the topic has changed, but to what you have no idea. It is as if the comments from your colleagues are floating past you, and you understand, but you cannot connect. You rewrite notes that you have already written to try to bring you back to the moment, to keep yourself from bolting from your chair. The group laughs, and you wonder what you missed or if the joke is on you. You feel panic because you are here but you are not here. You breathe deeply. You wiggle your feet. You are desperate for air.
When called upon, you know the information, but it is frozen in your brain. You cannot spit it out. You cannot find your notes. You panic. You give a tentative answer that is usually correct, yet despite your careful preparation you are a nervous wreck. The electrical current makes you ever uncertain. You cannot string two thoughts together. Something comes, you start talking, and then it is gone again before you can finish. You reread the notes in front of you eight, ten, twelve times, willing your mind to open up and give you the answers that your boss wants, to no avail. You know that you know the answers, but they will not come. You guess. Your mind has become a clean white board and someone has stolen the markers. When it is over, relief is immediate, and despair is right behind it.
You rehearse for presentations in your office or at home at night, reviewing your notes and lecturing your dogs or your imaginary audience. Without your notes, you cannot remember a single point you need to make. They are locked in your mind, you know they are because you have written them in an outline for the presentation and in the handouts, and you previously rehearsed your lecture. Yet you cannot remember the details of how you know what you know. Information goes in but you can’t get it back out. Your brain is foggy and your muscles are sizzling. You look down to see that your phone is in your hand and it is open to your contacts, but you cannot remember who you were going to call or why.
On a good day, the tunnel vision will subside and for a few glorious moments, maybe an hour, maybe all afternoon if you are lucky, you will see and hear everything and be able to respond. The room is in full color and the lights are bright and you can actually take in what is being said and say something intelligible in response. These are the best times, when you feel as though you can do anything, conquer any problem. Everything is possible. Then, the light gives way to the dim again and the buzzing in your ears returns. Your throat is dry. You need to escape but there is nowhere to go because the problem is inside you, the problem is you. Sleep comes easy from sheer exhaustion, but staying asleep is another matter entirely. It is not unusual to see the clock at every hour after midnight, and to awake cranky when your alarm announces the start of your day, or to be lying awake waiting for the alarm to sound.
Only when you have a day to rest do you realize the extent of your condition and the toll it is taking, as your muscles slowly begin to untangle from the now-perpetual knots and a deep ache sets in. You take a drive and somewhere on the interstate you suddenly don’t know where you are. Sheer panic takes over. The GPS, which you use because your memory is no longer reliable, is silent. An audio book is droning on, the voice soothing, the words unknown. You try desperately to remember where you are, where you were going. You wonder if you missed your exit because nothing looks familiar. This lasts a couple of minutes as you think “stay calm, stay calm,” until you see a sign that rings a distant mental bell and then you begin to remember. Even the GPS seems confused, failing to prompt you to take the exit that you now recognize as the one you should take, and you wonder if your faulty electrical current didn’t fry your phone’s brain, too.
This is anxiety.