Anxiety: Insight into a Troubled Mind

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Those who know me well know I've struggled fiercely with anxiety since I was a child. It runs in my family. I don't know why some people have a tendency toward anxiety while others don't. I don't know whether it's programmed into a person's very DNA, present from the moment of conception, or developed during childhood, the product of some sort of environmental influence. While I think it can be managed, I don't think it can ever be cured. I've often thought that maybe it began as an evolutionary advantage. Surely being anxious made one more aware of their surroundings, or perhaps it made for hyper-vigilant food gathering. However, that which ensures survival does not necessarily translate to a happy life.

For those who don't really struggle with anxiety, it can be hard to imagine what it's like for those who do. Why can't they simply put things out of their minds? Why can't they just relax? Why can't they appreciate the logical evidence that discredits their worries? It's one of the hardest things to explain, because it really just doesn't make sense. People have already tried to describe what anxiety is like in a thousand ways on the internet. I'm going to try again. 

The mind of a person who suffers from anxiety is at best a bustling crowd of benign ideas competing for space and attention, and at worst a carnival of horrors. Getting trapped there on a good day usually just results in a bit of scatterbrain and fatigue. Getting trapped there on a bad day results in a form of internal panic that physically manifests itself into your breathing, your appetite, and your heart beat.

Most adults who suffer from anxiety had very active imaginations as children. I spent the majority of my childhood with my nose stuck in a book. I read fiction almost exclusively, especially fantasy. My love of fiction continues to this day. I have the ability to become so engrossed in a book, that at some point, the subconscious line between reality and make-believe begins to blur, and I will actually forget that the characters are fictional. It takes a conscious effort on my part to sort out what's real and what's pretend. While this makes for a great entertainment experience, it exacerbates the turmoil of anxiety. The same principle that makes reading so fun operates against the nervous mind. 

People who worry incessantly are fundamentally incapable of separating fact from fiction. The mere possibility that something might go wrong immediately becomes the reality in their minds. They may even behave as if it already has happened, often to their detriment. Understand that this is practically involuntary. They have very little control over it.

When something bad happens to you in real life, you have an emotional reaction to it. This is when the horrible feeling is at its worst. After that moment has passed, you can start getting over it. People who suffer from worrying about that bad thing happening cannot get over it, since it hasn't actually happened. Therefore, they remain trapped in the limbo of uncertainty, doomed to repeat that peak-level awfulness over and over again. That's why they may begin to behave as if the horrible thing already has happened, in a desperate and futile attempt to try and "move on" from it. Often when someone tells me that something terrible has happened to them, I say, "Well, at the very least you don't have to dread that it will happen any longer." In a strange way, for a person with anxiety, this is a significant consolation. 

A positive side of anxiety is that people who suffer from it tend to think things through very thoroughly. When they make a decision to do something, you better believe that they've thought about all, and I mean ALL of the horrible things that could go wrong. Talk about calculated risks! Anxiety sufferers are often great students, as long as they are able to keep their test-taking anxiety under control enough to perform. (I'm convinced I almost had a heart-attack during the bar exam.) They are motivated by an intense fear of failure. They are also excellent multi-taskers. They tend to work quickly, because getting a job done relieves them of the stress of knowing that the job needs to be done and hasn't been done.

In addition to having an overactive mind, a person with anxiety also struggles with thought permanence. Their mind functions like a crab pot for negative thoughts. Easy to get in, nearly impossible to get out. Trying to "forget" a worry is as ineffective as trying to dump the crabs out by shaking the cage upside down. For those who have never used a crab-pot, it doesn't work. The only way to get them out is to take apart the cage.

My mind does not have a trashcan or a window where speculations can simply be tossed out. The only escape hatch for my worries is a tiny drain hole no bigger than the eye of a needle. I've spent many hours ruminating over troubling thoughts, masticating them in my mind until they are dissolved into tiny bits and liquefied, so that their primary constituents are finally revealed and capable of microscopic analysis. It is only when they are in this form that I can decide whether they must be swallowed and reborn (whereby the awful process repeats itself), or expectorated, where they then drip slowly down the drain until they are out of my mind forever. This is the only way that I'm able to process my worries. As you can imagine, this takes a great deal of time and energy. Being trapped inside your own head can also be very lonely.

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So what can you do? The worst thing you can do to help someone with anxiety is to tell them to stop worrying. Trust me, if they knew how to stop worrying, they would. They also know it's annoying, so they will often try to hide it. Rarely will they ever succeed. The best thing you can do to help someone having an anxious meltdown is help them expedite their own mental process. Allow me to explain. 

Imagine having a very messy house, that's gotten so bad, you feel overwhelmed with the idea of cleaning it. Nevertheless, when someone comes in to help you clean it, the tasks go more quickly. Decisions are more easily made about what to throw away and how to organize what you keep. The job no longer seems insurmountable. Cleaning out your mind is much the same. Your inner demons know you better than you know yourself, so their intimidation strategies are specifically catered to your own fears and insecurities. That's why it's so hard to drive them out yourself. On the other hand, someone else may be totally immune to the same tactics that have thwarted you in the past. Often, when I expose some horrible thought I've had to someone else, I am able to process it much more quickly and get rid of it. Perspective is a very powerful weapon against anxiety, and costs nothing but a little of your time and attention. Show some love to your anxious friends. You never know how much it may mean to them. 

Thanks for Reading!

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