Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me

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The Things I've Learned About Anxiety - That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me

There are some things that all the books, lectures, courses and research just can’t teach. They’re the things that come from people – the ones we talk to, listen to, connect with, acquaint with, like a little, love a lot or fight with.

So much is known about anxiety, but then there’s the human side. Science is awesome but even with everything it’s able to tell us, when it comes to that human thing we do, there are some things that can’t be properly understood until they’re experienced, touched, felt or seen – for real, not just through words of theory or a computer screen or the stark white pages of a straight-talking book.

The points that follow may not be relevant to every person with anxiety, but neither is the list of symptoms. Humans aren’t ‘boxable’ – we know that. We’re complex, fascinating, frustrating and between the heart and the head, there are countless versions of the human experience. 

Here are the things that I would not have known – could not have known – were it not for those who have experienced anxiety from the front line. 

  1. Anxiety is the fuel of contradictions.

    Sometimes feelings that are on opposite ends of the feeling spectrum, and which seem separated by the fact that any co-existence would be, you know, impossible, actually do co-exist. Sometimes they even feel the same.

    The first is craving solitude and craving people all at once. The second is having a fear of being seen and a fear of not being seen, at the same time. If you’ve ever known or loved anyone with anxiety and found yourself saying to them, ‘But I just don’t understand what you want.’ Don’t worry. Chances are they aren’t quite sure either. And that’s completely okay. Be grateful for the opportunity to practice being comfortable with uncertainty. 

  2. They’re wise – so wise – about who they choose to be part of their tribe.

    Anxiety comes from a hair-trigger threat sensor, remember, and the threat of psychological harm (humiliation, rejection, shame) can feel just as real as the threat of physical harm. Because interacting with people can be so anxiety inducing, people with anxiety are choosey about who they let close. They’re not rude about putting up the wall to those who don’t quite make the cut – not at all – but they’re decisive. If you’re one of the ones for whom the fortress is lowered, feel blessed, because you are. There’s something about you that feels safe and lovely to be around. 

  3. They’re awesome to have in your tribe too.

    Why? Because they’ll always have your back, your front and for the things you don’t see coming, don’t worry, because they’ll have them too.

    People with anxiety are some of the most emotionally intelligent people I’ve met – they’re funny, kind, thoughtful and strong. They’re also very sensitive to what’s around them – it’s part of having a heightened threat sensor – and that sensitivity also extends to you and anyone else they’re around. They’ll think about what’s okay to say and what’s not okay to say, what needs to be done and what you might want.

    Anxiety has a way of persuading people to try for as much control as possible over the ‘unknowns’ in order to avoid potential chaos. This means they’ll be the ones who make sure everyone knows exactly where to meet, what time to leave to get there on time, what to take and the best way to get there. They’ll be the ones with the spare jumper, the spare coins and the spare phone charger. And if you need to make a call to let a bunch of people know you’re both running 20 minutes late to dinner, but your phone is out of charge, don’t worry, their phone will have plenty – you won’t need it though because they’ll already have sent the text to let them know. See. Way ahead of you. Just don’t forget to let you know how much you love them for it.

  4. Thoughts have more pull than knowledge. Yep. They run the mothership.

    The thoughts that are stoked by anxiety can be frightening, frustrating and suffocating. Above all else, they’re powerful. They’re more powerful than a lifetime of knowledge and the collective knowledge of a group, so don’t even bother trying to reason – it’s pointless. ‘Knowing’ that there’s nothing to worry about isn’t enough. Once fearful thoughts are in full swing, they will run the show. They’ll drive behaviour and bring feelings (fear, panic, anxiety) to life. All the knowledge in the world about what’s valid, real or likely won’t make any difference to those thoughts that are swelling. It’s the power of the mind against the mind. 

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  5. Head and stomach. Sometimes it feels like it’s all about the head and the stomach.

    Anxiety can have a way of putting flashing lights around the head and stomach, as though they’re running the show – which, in that space of high anxiety, they kind of are. When anxiety is ‘on’, it’s as though the head and stomach are the only parts of the body capable of feeling, responding and being and every other body part is there to make them mobile and stop them dragging along the ground.

  6. ‘Everyday’, as in ‘everyday things’ means something different.

    ‘Everyday’ doesn’t always mean ‘no big deal’. No. It doesn’t. With anxiety on board, everything can feel like the biggest deal. What everyday means is ‘every day’, as in the things you do every day – today, tomorrow and the next day. As in, ‘Yes I know I should be okay with it because I do it every day, but I’m not.’ Anxiety doesn’t tend to keep a journal.

  7. Thoughts that begin as little thoughts can change the entire day.

    Did I lock the door? What if I forget his name? What if there’s an accident? What if we’re late? Or get lost on the way? What if the restaurant runs out of tables under the heater? … It doesn’t matter how much effort is put into preparation, organisation (and generally with anxious people there’s plenty!) once there’s a worry, it can white-knuckle for grip. You can practically see the imprint in their skin. The thoughts are often rational, plausible and possible, but anxiety makes them overwhelming.

  8. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’ The best thing to hear. Wait. No. It’s not.

    You would think it would be comforting to hear that there’s nothing to worry about, but it can actually be isolating.

    Think of it like this: Imagine being at the side of a wide road you need to cross. Everyone is telling you it’s fine to cross and they’re all doing it, but you see trucks, cars, buses and bikes barrelling from the left and the right. Nobody else can see them. You know the road is okay to cross, but you can’t – you just can’t. That traffic! So, not only do you feel panicked but you also feel like you’re in it on your own. It can feel like nobody else really understands, which they kind of don’t – otherwise they wouldn’t be telling you there’s nothing to worry about.

    The truth is, when it comes to anxiety, it can be difficult for people who have never experienced it to understand – but that’s okay. You don’t need to fully understand something to be a comforting presence through the unfolding of it.

  9. Anxiety and Courage. They exist together. 

    When it comes to courage, anxious people have it in truckloads. Just getting through the day can call on enormous reservoirs of courage that the rest of us would only need to draw on now and then. Anxiety and courage always exist together. They have to. You can’t get through day after day with anxiety blocking the path, without having courage to help push a way through.

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  10. Stimulation or isolation. I’ll take isolation.

    Anxiety can force isolation. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – people with anxiety would rather sit outside in the cold on their own, than inside with their favourite people, the noise and the lights. It has nothing to do with the quality of what’s inside and everything to do with the quantity. 

  11. Sometimes ‘I’m sick’ and ‘I’m fine’ means ‘I’m panicking. Don’t ask.’

    Anxiety hates attention. When anxiety is triggered, the normal human response if you’re the concerned other is, ‘Are you okay?’, or ‘What’s wrong’? If you have to ask, then no, chances are they’re not okay. They might be a lot of things in that moment, but okay won’t be one of them. Don’t worry – just be a strong, confident, loving presence. You’ll probably be told, ‘I’m fine’, or ‘I’m sick.’  It’s not a brush off, it’s a protection. Anxiety can really quickly go from manageable to out of control in a matter of seconds, or in the matter of an ‘are you okay?’ Don’t keep pushing it – just give a gentle ‘I’m here’ squeeze of their arm or hand and move on. 

  12. Sleep is a natural human function … yeah no.

    Anxiety is tiring – that constant bracing – but sleep doesn’t necessarily come easily. Tiredness makes anxiety worse and anxiety makes tiredness worse – you would think it would be a union made in doona heaven, but no. It can look at little like this: ‘I have to get to sleep, otherwise I’m going to be out of my mind with tiredness in the morning, so I just have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t get to sleep? But I have to go to sleep. But what if I can’t?’ Anxious yet?

As with any part of the human experience, there are so many things about anxiety that can only be understood by having it. If you love someone with anxiety, it’s important to pay attention. There will  be  wisdom and knowledge that only they can give you. Be open, and be grateful.

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145 Comments

Viki

At times I get so anxious about things I find it easier to completely abandon the will to control the situation and I literally walk away saying “I can’t cope with this”.
And if I can’t do that (because I’m on my own with the children or driving or have to be somewhere on time etc) I really suffer and have to reach deep to keep going. It’s exhausting.
I never thought of it as being courageous but phrasing it that way will help me from now on.
Thank you for that!

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kathy

All of that is so true. It is good to see it in words that I could never express. Thank you

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Em

I have never read a more insightful affirming article on my day to day life. Tears run down my face- sent it to my tribe and those who are on the outskirts of my tribe. Their response was so grateful that after 20+ years of friendship this article explained more about me than any conversation. Thank you and blessings to you- so grateful!

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Vic

I’m always afraid of saying something wrong, or doing something wrong so that when I actually do something wrong and I’m called on it – no matter how intense – mild or harsh – my mind goes crazy and it’s difficult for me to get over that kind of anxiety. It’s like I have this continuous feeling of being slightly afraid. I see a lot of myself in many of the situations described and it’s interesting it’s actually put in words. Thank you, it helps.

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Lisa

Wow! Thank you for putting anxiety into the words that I have been looking for. I was diagnosed with anxiety due to PTSD a year and a half ago. So, number 4 is what I deal with the most and have struggled to explain to my friends. The phrase I use is, “In this moment…” It doesn’t matter how many times I have successfully completed a task, in the moment of a panic attack, reason leaves and feelings of fear take over. It truly is the mind against the mind.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Lisa. I’m pleased it helped make sense of things. I completely understand what you are saying – thoughts in that moment can be so powerful can’t they. Hope you’re doing okay.

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Debbie

I’ve read many articles regarding stress, and it many of them they talk about strong and courageous. You totally helped me to understand that I am just that. The world I live in right now is pure chaos, but I DO have the strength and courage to go on one day at a time. I don’t really have a tribe, so to speak, but I have a daughter that will listen and I am grateful for that. Even though on the inside of me, I feel like I’m going insane, I am still able to get up every day and face what is coming. I always felt weak and fragile – sometimes even ‘out of it’ but when you put it into words, we are strong because we just keep moving on. Thank you so much for this article. God leads us to special people.

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Hey Sigmund

Debbie I’m so pleased you found this article. I hope you keep this article close to you to remind you of the strength and courage with which you live every day. Anxiety can feel insane – I really understand that, but there is nothing insane, weak or fragile about the people who have to live with it. You have a warm, strong, generous heart. Thank you for your comment – it means a lot to me.

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Kacey

Spot. On. Sending this to my closest friends and family. I’ve tried and tried to help them understand my beautifully complicated mind. I am constantly either creating a masterpiece or a monster, and so often the monster likes to take over and invite all his friends. Haha! I wouldn’t wish anxiety on even my worst enemy! ♡

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Lee

I started to cry when I read.. just give a gentle “I’m here”. I isolate because life with anxiety gets so overwhelming. I don’t want to be alone & it would be so great to get an “I’m here” from someone. It’s nothing fancy but so powerful. Thank you.

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Katherine

I just briefly read this article to my 7 year old son. He is highly intelligent. He has ADHD and takes medication for it. He was also diagnosed with anxiety. The doctor chose ?NOT to treat for this, although both axis 1 and 2 were completely equal. I’m wondering if the decision to NOT treat the anxiety was a mistake. My son can’t sleep, is sick every day before school or any event, he worries about directions, the kids on the bus, missing his lunch, etc. the worries never seem to stop. He agreed with so much in this article! It brought tears of recognition to my eyes! Especially the part that explains why trying to tell a person ‘it’s okay’ does ?NOT make the cars crossing the road disappear! So insightful and helpful for both me, the mom with a son experiencing anxiety, as well as for my son whom has anxiety. Do you know of child providers I. Michigan? What’s the best form of treatment if I can’t get a psychiatrist on board? What type of therepist should I look for? Thanks for this article!

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Hey Sigmund

Katherine this is such a difficult issue. I understand your frustration and I also understand why the doctor has chosen not to medicate. Medicating for anxiety should always be a very last resort. One of the reasons is because we are still trying to be sure that there are no long term effects for children, particularly when it is given with other medication (such as for ADHD). With children, their brains are developing and growing at such a rate, and they will be more vulnerable to any side effects than an adult might be. Having said this, I know how difficult and painful anxiety can be for both the kids going through it and their parents. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for medication – sometimes it can be the best option. It’s just a decision that has to be made very carefully and when all other options have been exhausted. Even if medication is the best option, it generally isn’t a long term solution and it is still important to learn coping skills and strategies to manage it. Here are some articles that will give you some strategies to try.

>> Anxiety in Kids: How to Turn it Around and Protect Them For Life http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/
>> Building Emotional Intelligence: What to Say to Children When They Are Anxious http://www.heysigmund.com/building-emotional-intelligence-what-to-say-to-children-with-anxiety/
>> 18 Things Kids With Anxiety Need to Know http://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/
>> Mindfulness for Children http://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/

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Heidi

I wish I could have read this article ten years ago it would have saved me a lot of pain. It’s been a long road but understanding anxiety and how to cope takes time. Through lifestyle changes and running, lots and lots of running, I have come to grips with my anxiety. Thank you for writing this.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome Heidi. Thankfully we’re coming to know more and more about anxiety so hopefully the road will get easier. It’s great that you have found healthy ways to manage your anxiety that work for you.

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tanya

WOW! I prayed for favor with other humans and that God would lead me to an article about me, not the regular body science stuff about toxic anxiety. . . Here it is! Thank you so much For caring Enough to sit and write this-it is me and many unfortunately, others. BUT this helped in too many ways to explain here. I plan to share this with those who poke fun at me(“family”) AND my fellow sufferers everywhere! God Bless You and this site!!!

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Hey Sigmund

Tanya I’m so pleased you found this article! I hope that every time you read it you are able to feel more understood and less alone in your experience.

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cherris

when I am in my panic,I have been called CRAZY,How do i respond to this..I have others say I was not discussed(GOSIPED) about.But i know I have.

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Hey Sigmund

Cherris – you are certainly NOT crazy! Anxiety can be difficult for people to understand if they haven’t been through it themselves, and it may be that the people in your life who call you crazy don’t understand the damage they do by saying this. Are you able to have the conversation with them to let them know? No relationship is perfect, but it is important to choose your tribe wisely and to be with people who feel good to be around, or who at least try to be good for you.

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Jaime

Anxiety is the fuel of contradictions – this really hit home to me. I have been battling with why I want human interaction but avoid it at the same time. Thank you for your well-written insight.

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Jan

Wow I have lived with anxiety and depression for 18 yrs , and always felt isolated, I now understand, thanks for the writing this

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Sue

I really need help. I am failing at lying to people that I am fine. I am surrounded by people who don’t understand what it feels like to continuously live under the fear of having a heart attack. How difficult it is to sleep due to suffocation and severe indigestion. It’s dreadful trying to stop a panick attack in public.
I sometimes get the thought of just ending all of this once and for all.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Sue I hear you. Anxiety is difficult for some people to understand, but there are many who will understand exactly what you’re going through. I understand how isolating anxiety can be, but know that you aren’t alone. Have you spoken to your doctor? If you haven’t, please find a doctor you can speak with. Anxiety is manageable and sometimes it’s about experimenting with a few different things to find what works for you. Keep fighting for you. There are people who will understand what you’re going through and who will be so committed to making things better for you.

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Denise

I can relate to all of these points you mentioned. I’ve had many people tell me I’m an “old sould”. Maybe it’s the additional awareness or cautiousness that comes with anxiety. At 26, I’ve been told I’m wise beyond my years.
I also prefer time alone as opposed to being surrounded by people. During the warm month I enjoy nature walks. Also, despite getting cold easily I spend a lot of time out in the cold with myself. When I meet other people with anxiety I feel a connection and allow very few people to be close. Honestly, I only have 1 or 2 close friends that don’t have a mental illness. Also, sleep. The struggle is real.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Denise what you are describing makes so much sense. People with anxiety often have so much wisdom. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sure there will be plenty of people who read this who will relate.

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Lora Lietz

Thank you for spelling this out. This explains my husband of 26 years. It has been difficult on me over and over but i know he is suffering much much more than me. I just hope he keeps staying with me as he tries to push me out or leave too often. Its exhausting and extremely hurtful but in time he comes around. I am not sure who is fooling who during these times. Thanks again for insight.

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Nita

Lora,

I too am the spouse; my husband of 17 years has anxiety. I reply directly to you because I hope that you have helpful advise to share from your perspective. As a vital part of their tribe, we need support too. I battle resentment daily so because I want to be in relationship with him. But it gets overwhelming. Is there an online forum you frequent? What’s the biggest piece of advise you’d share? Thank u <3

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Christine

After reading this I finally realise I’m not mad.. I’m anxious, I fear the things that should make me happy because something will go wrong, crazy things, things that will never happen but at the moment that they come into me head they are so real and I’m so scared and it’s so real that I can’t breathe!

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angus

the bit about sometime when i say i am fine it means, ‘im panicking, dont ask’ is so true for me

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Rey

An Aha moment.

I started anxiety medication about 2 years ago and before then, a number of years before then.. I used to wonder about my thoughts and emotions. I seemed to be always feeling and thinking too much. In my twetnies I spent a lot of time crying in my bath tub after work, I use to have difficulty sitting in the same room watching tv with my family. In romantic relatioships I tend to be in the extremes, I truly believed that I was simply a crazy person. Thank you so much for all the articles. They have finally made me understand my life in retrospect.

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Jane

Why is it that SO many people suffer with anxiety?

What makes people so incredibly sensitive that they feel constantly threatened and frightened by their thoughts?

What has gone wrong?

We all have a level of anxiety – we need it to get by and survive but why has it gotten out of control?

My daughter is a sufferer. It has become linked to OCD compulsions. She has linked her anxiety to certain people who don’t cope very well, are forgetful and accident prone, irresponsible, uncommunicative and need a bit or organizing and looking after. Surely this is just stimulating the anxiety – especially when the people may play on it because they like to feel someone is taking care of them?
Before this she had a heightened anxiety level but something that appeared more “sensible”.
The cycle now seems endless and its very hard to watch such unhealthy co-dependency as well as the anxiety and OCD become worse.

I guess we are all learning to live with it now instead of expecting it to be cured somehow. All we want for her is a life of contentment – I’m not sure this will ever be possible?

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