On Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is an interesting ailment.

I often liken it to the rain: sometimes heavy, sometimes light. Sometimes it can be like living in a place that has a consistent rainy season. You always know that it’s there, that it could come.  The anxiety (or rain) is consistent but you can still go about your business because you are prepared. Sometimes it comes on like a roaring Tornado, little to know warning but so big and fast that all you can do is take cover. Other times it’s more like a hurricane. You know you are entering a season that will bring storms and the hurricanes come and go with varying powerful forces. Depending on how close you are to the center of the storm you experience different effects of the hurricane. Sometimes they hit directly and others you know it exists, but you are thankful you weren’t in the eye of the storm.

Anxiety is much like these storms: Seasonal, Acute or Long standing.

Regardless of how it affects you, you still get wet. 

I was doing laundry the first time my anxiety storm hit. There weren’t any signs and we were both caught extremely off guard. Keith was about to take his first trip after we had been married (maybe about 6 months at that point) and I would be alone for a few days. I didn’t know what was happening to me…but it turns out that most people don’t when anxiety hits for the very first time. 

I found myself getting angrier and angrier that I was doing his laundry. Then I got mad that I had to put his clothes away. Then I slammed a drawer. When Keith asked me what was wrong I burst into tears. “I’m so mad at you!” I shouted. “Why?” He responded, obviously caught off guard. “You are leaving!” I cried back and then dissolved into a puddle of tears and sobs on the bed. 

It took me almost ten years to realize that I was having an anxiety response to him leaving. I was anxious because I would be alone in a new city, new apartment with no friends and no support. My new husband, my safe and secure attachment, would be leaving me for three days. I was so worried about what would happen my fear manifested as anger and what was really underneath all of that was anxiety. In the moment, I was having a panic attack.

It would be easy to brush this off as circumstantial and even dismiss it as “cute” or “sweet” that I would miss my new husband so much but understanding the history that I was bringing to his trip away is so helpful in putting the appropriate framework around my reaction. Unfortunately, no one knew that then and I was laughed off or encouraged to pull it together because it, “wasn’t a big deal.” This made me think that something was wrong with me. That I needed to be better in order to not suffer in this way, but deep down I knew that something else was going on. I was deeply afraid of him leaving and it was causing me to dissolve into tears prior to his departure. 

The American Association of Anxiety and Depression speaks to this stigma when they state, “Many people don't know that their disorder is real and highly responsive to treatment. Some are afraid or embarrassed to tell anyone, including their doctors and loved ones, about what they experience for fear of being considered a hypochondriac. Instead they suffer in silence, distancing themselves from friends, family, and others who could be helpful or supportive.”

When clients come to me suffering with anxiety they are often confused because, “life is good...” this belief that we can’t suffer when things are going well is also a grave misunderstanding of mental illness. Anxiety can often times manifest itself in the best of circumstances, a new job, a new season of life (like getting married or a new baby), moving to a new city. Even if you want all of those things, the change can produce anxiety and that is what makes it so hard to distinguish, especially if it isn’t accompanied by depression…which it often time is not. 

So how do you distinguish between normal life stressors and true anxiety? Well, there are multiple types of anxiety, but the usual indicator is type of onset, duration, and consistency. All of these things should be taken into consideration by your therapist as you explain your own unique symptoms to them. 

But that is only if you talk to someone. 

At the time, I didn’t have any knowledge of anxiety disorders or that what I was experiencing was in fact a panic attack. Life was good, I was happy, and I was going to miss my husband. What could really be wrong with me? At least those were my dismissive thoughts then, by myself and the community I found myself in. I wasn’t really suffering from anything was I?

Yes, I was, I just didn’t know it. But again, I know so much more now, and people weren’t really having the conversation 15 years ago like they are now. 

What I realize now was that episode was the beginning of multiple recurrent events where I would have a high spike in anxiety, often manifested in anger or lashing out that was directly related to an attachment wound. Keith was so safe for me that when I felt unsafe without him, I would have anxious episodes. I can’t tell you how many people I let classify me as “uptight” or “Type A” without even working to understand the depths of what was going on. In many ways this is a huge factor in the work I do today. 

There is always something more going on beneath the surface.

If you or someone you know is hurting, ask them about it. 

The whole story provides such a deeper context and all of the events that led me to that moment (growing up in an alcoholic home, a traumatic high school experience marked with bullying and severe acne, and the resulting belief that I was alone and had to make it by myself in order to survive) all help to me to NOW understand the manifestation of anxiety as a result of those wounds. But at the time, they were independent pieces of a story that didn’t yet fit together.

Nothing really made sense, except the fact that I wasn’t going to make this go away on my own.

There was no “getting over this.” I needed help and thankfully I was about to get some.