- Mental Health
Understanding a Very Anxious Person
The Picture of an Anxious Person
Life tests us all. None of us are exempt from the knocks of life. We are not always prepared to deal with a trauma, be it emotional or physical, and the impact can be life changing, especially if one trauma is followed by another and another with no time to adjust in between. Indeed, some of us may consider ourselves to be nervous 'by nature', having suffered with anxiety since childhood.
Very anxious people can appear complicated, stubborn, difficult and even depressing. They know this! Living with chronic or severe anxiety can be extremely debilitating and lead to a myriad of very testing disorders. No one wants to be a worrier or appear weaker in some way than others, and I would imagine everyone would like to believe they are strong, brave, resilient, and in control. Sadly, severe and longstanding anxiety problems can leave us feeling very much out of control and so fragile that we 'live in fear'.
I suffered myself with crippling anxiety disorders for many years, and I know all too well that it was a lonely existence in many ways. I knew when people were 'being kind', when they didn't know what to say, and I knew when they were embarrassed by my behaviour. I encountered impatience and strange glances right through to plain mockery. I made allowances. I didn't want sympathy, just a little understanding and acceptance. The people who understood me most were those that suffered themselves.
By writing this article I hope to be able to help the people who are trying to understand a loved one or a friend who suffers with a chronic anxiety problem.
The Root of Anxiety is Fear
I think it is important to recognise that fear drives an anxious person. It's not the useful kind of fear that we all encounter from time to time. We need that to prompt us into action when there is a real danger. No, this kind of fear is irrational. Even when very anxious people recognise that irrationality, they seem powerless to make it go away.
Fear is fear, and whether it is rational or irrational, the effects are much the same. A steady constant outpouring of adrenaline as a result of fear, can produce such strange physical effects. If the danger or threat is real, as you would imagine when trying to run away from a wild tiger for example, that fast beating heart, dry mouth, and shakiness is the last thing on your mind. For sure we will all panic at some point in our lives, but for a person who is panicking regularly and irrationally, those physical symptoms themselves become something to be feared too.
I Don't Want to - I Can't - What If?
Anxious people tend to practice avoidance in their everyday lives. You may be excited about that party, that wedding invitation, or that shopping spree with a friend. An anxious person may dread it, even to the point of declining such invitations. How sad is that? How sad it is to miss out on what so many of us take for granted - a social life. How upsetting it must feel to need some things from the shops but be too afraid to go.
This avoidance behaviour can seem anti-social to some people, or it may be felt that the person 'just isn't making an effort'. Please be sure that the sufferer isn't enjoying self-alienation.
- What if I need to leave the party quickly?
- What if I panic and look a fool?
- What if they can see me shaking?
- What if I don't know what to say?
- What if my friend leaves me on my own?
A very anxious person simply doesn't feel completely safe in so many situations.
How an Anxious Person Thinks
I mentioned avoidance and this is important. Avoidance is the enemy but feels like a comfort pillow, but the more a sufferer avoids the worse it all gets. Along with avoidance, safety behaviours are common. We all have a built in instinct to survive, and because a very anxious person constantly feels under threat, and despite the irrationality of it all, they will do anything in their power to make sure they are safe. Some common examples are:
- Making sure their mobile phone is with them at all times in case they need help
- Having taxi cab numbers at the ready to get to somewhere quickly and to return quickly
- Making sure they sit near exits for easy escape
For those who avoid too long and rely on safety behaviours, their world will become smaller with time. Agoraphobia can set in and many can get to the stage where they fear leaving the house at all. The biggest fear is having a massive panic attack and feeling there is no escape.
Description of a Panic Attack
When Panic Strikes
I suffered with panic attacks for decades and even now I can get flashbacks to how it all feels. Here is a description of what it actually feels like from my own experience.
I avoided as much as possible but occasionally I would attempt to go into town to pick up a few things from the shops. The fear would begin before I even set off as I anticipated panicking somewhere and not getting home quickly and safely. I ordered a taxi as it was the quickest way to get from A to B.
On arrival in the shopping centre my fear was perhaps a 6/10. Walking in a shop would quickly rise to an 8/10. I would think:
- Are there too many people in here?
- Dare I go to the end of the store in case I need to get out quickly
- What if I have a full blown panic attack here and embarrass myself
I often left the store without getting what I needed or out of pure fear of getting stuck in there, so when I emerged into the street amongst other shoppers my eyesight would be slightly blurry, my mouth and throat bone dry, and I would be shaky with jelly-legs! I would then focus on 'how I felt' which of course made everything ten times worse and more pronounced. That's when thoughts such as, 'I might fall, faint, embarrass myself, be unable to get home' set in. Anxiety level now 10/10.
Escape to my home (my safer place) became imperative. I would phone a taxi immediately. The shopping trip may have only lasted 20-30 minutes.
I felt like this in most social situations - shopping, going to the doctors or hospital, visiting a friend, family gatherings etc. Unfortunately, even though I called home my safest place, I could panic all day long in there too!
Good Advice When Your Friend of Loved One is Having a Panic Attack
Meaningless Advice for Anxiety Sufferers
So there is your wife, your sister, your husband or your friend, anxious to the hilt, worrying to excess and showing signs of irrationality. Frustrating isn't it when they can't just switch it all off? I can understand how tiresome it all must seem when you feel you are trying to understand and offer rational advice, but is the advice really helping?
'Worrying never helped anything' - so how do you turn it off then?
'Don't worry, it will never happen' - hmm, but it might!
'Pull yourself together' - that just means stop it
'Go and lie down' - to think about how anxious I am?
Attitude About Anxious People
How do you see anxiety sufferers and their disorders?
What to Say to an Anxious Person
Looking back, I think I would have found it much more helpful if people around me said things like:
'I am here and you are safe'
'I will phone you to see if you are doing okay'
'If you want to have therapy I will come with you so I can understand better'
BUT...... whilst being a shoulder and a good listener is all good, cosseting and over pampering an anxious person can actually make them worse.
- Encouragement is the key word. Encourage the sufferer to seek proper help and take responsibility for helping themselves to a degree. Encourage them gently to face their fears with your assistance or that of a counsellor/therapist.
- Communicate. Don't assume they don't want to talk about the anxiety and its effects. Most would like to share how they feel and why.
- Remind them of the rational when irrationality is prevalent...with tact!
- Distract sometimes. Distraction isn't a cure all but it certainly can take the edge off things for a while.
Severely anxious people will feel -
- Loss of control to a degree
- Irrational - whether it's accepted or not
- Depressed or have a low mood
- At times desperate
- A need to be accepted and understood