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. 

     

  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.

     

  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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147 Comments

Shannon McE

I just skimmed through this but it is great to know there are some people out there that understand and that you can put it into words that other might be able to think about at least.

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Marian

You nailed it! Amazing!

I’ve suffered from severe anxiety for at least 50 years; its totally self consuming/destructive and most people (including myself for decades), think I’m just a wack job.

I also have severe depression from not being able to do the things I’d like to do.

People are always on me about how I need to get out, need to travel etc etc… They laugh and think I’m joking when I say I can’t even go across town (15 minute drive) to go to Walmart without taking xanax and drinking a beer first.

My life has and still is a constant explanation of why I can’t do something and hoping they’ll understand… But they don’t and I get ridiculed and teased to the point that I just stay home with my 3 cats… They understand.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Marian for sharing this. You could have no idea how many people will read this and think ‘Yes! Me too!’. Anxiety can make you feel like you’re the only one going through it, but know that you’re not – you’re so not. And yes, pets are pretty great aren’t they, the way they always understand no matter what.

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Kez

I tried explaining it to my younger brother like “it’s as if someone is saying to you-come here i am going to hurt you,but you go anyway, even though everything inside you is screaming to not go….”

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Caf

Omgosh this made me cry! I thought i was the only person that felt like this. Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

Oh Caf you’re so not the only one! I’m so pleased this article found it’s way to you! And thank you so much for commenting – now other people will know they aren’t the only ones too.

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eddie

Thankyou so much I try to understand my son but just dont that short article cleared a ton of stuff sothankyou very much

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome! Anxiety can be difficult to understand from the outside can’t it. I’m so pleased this article has made sense of some things for you.

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Sharon

tbis is a great article really helps out I to perspective the flux of anxiety far better than other pieces I have read. Great tool to help friends and students and to be kinder to myself thank you

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Karen

I sometimes try to get from other people the understanding of what i’m feeling, but i cannot. It seems that i’m the only one having these feelings and being so desperate while everybody else can focus and enjoy life.
Most days are just a struggle to pass by. I cannot plan holiday trips or even to take my kids to the beach! Everything i think builds up to a big weight on my chest and i can hardly breath or think clear.
I just wish i could live the joy of life with all the excitement i had when i was a little girl and not afraid of every little thing!

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Hey Sigmund

Karen I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling like this. Have you thought about speaking to a doctor or counsellor? Anxiety is manageable, but sometimes it’s about finding the specific thing that works for you. Not everything will work for everyone, just like not every counsellor will work for everyone, but there are a lot of options that a counsellor or doctor can talk to you about. If one thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean the next thing won’t – although I know it can feel like that. There’s a more joyful, happier version of you – I can hear from your comment that it’s in you – just have to find the way through. Thank you for connecting with me.

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Jen

I loved this article. Anxiety can feel
so overwhelming and isolating and it is reassuring to know that there are people out there who understand how hard it can be. Anxiety and courage – so true!!

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Jen! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. And yes – anxiety and courage – they really do exist together don’t they.

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Deanne

Wow. This article describes my craziness. Thanks for the encouraging way you describe my everyday life, thoughts…

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Hayley Ross

Thanks Karen. Its really uplifting to have someone turn the negatives into positives for a change.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Hayley. You’re very welcome. I know that it might be not feel as though there are many positives to having anxiety (I get that!), but for those who are close to you there would be a ton!

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Asha

Thank you so much for this article! It is an accurate description of a complicated illness. There is so much kindness here.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Asha. There’s so much more to anxiety than a bunch of symptoms isn’t there. I’m pleased we’re talking about it – thank you for adding your voice.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Adam – thank you! Anxiety can be so difficult to understand can’t it, unless you’ve struggled with it yourself or loved someone who has. I’m pleased this resonates.

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Rose

Thank you so much ,I have needed someone to say {it’s all right} for so long,,,,this is great and so easy to under stand. Rose

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Rose. I’m pleased you were able to take from this something that you’ve needed – it’s so okay to feel whatever it is you’re feeling and be whoever it is you are. There will be people who appreciate and love you for exactly those reasons.

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Tiffany

Thank you for the insight. My husband suffers from anxiety; and unless you have it, you cannot fully understand how it can control their lives, and the lives of those who love them.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Tiffany. Absolutely – anxiety is so difficult to understand from the outside isn’t it. Anything that can help with understanding it will strengthen a relationship. Your husband is lucky to have you.

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David

My little guy (11) has anxiety and being a parent who is trying to understand is frustrating. This article nailed it. This is my little buddy to a ‘T’ . Thank you for the insight. Now as a dad I have to “fix” it, because that’s what dads do… But I can’t

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Hey Sigmund

David, you’re so welcome. You might have already read this article but just in case … https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ – it’s how to help kids with anxiety. (I know what you mean about dads and fixing things. You know that to your little man, you’re his hero whatever you do, in the same way, I expect, that he’s yours.)

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Marilyn

Thanks for reminding me that by just being a supportive presence we are helping. As a mom the desire to fix gets in the way so much. I like the positive spin on this subject.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Marilyn – you’re very welcome. It’s so hard isn’t it to ever let go of wanting to fix things for our kids – I really get that. You are doing more than you could ever know just by being there. The warmth and healing power of a mum’s strong, steady presence – there’s nothing like it.

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RS

It’s soo frustrating! Spent what should have been a great night with my sister worrying and anxious the whole time 🙁 this is getting old.

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Hey Sigmund

Oh no! It sounds like you’ve had a pretty intense ‘but-what-if’ time of things with your sister. This is one of the awful things about anxiety – not only does it effect the people it holds on to, but also the people who love them. Your sister is lucky to have you.

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Jill

“It’s the power of the mind against the mind.” Great quote because that’s how it feels. Very good article.

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Belinda

Thanks so much for this article – my daughter goes through so much of this. Have you got any good ideas or info on how to improve sleep as my daughter’s sleep is very affected with bad dreams, worries and sleep walking? You’re right about the vicious cycle of anxiety and tiredness! Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Belinda. Dreams are the brain’s way of sorting through emotions, memories and issues from waking time. The more anxious someone is during waking time, the more work the brain has to do at night time to process that, so anything you can do at bedtime to help your daughter relax will be important.

Here is an article on dealing with bad dreams that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/putting-the-halt-on-nightmares/

And another one on ways to ease anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/managing-anxiety/ . Try the progressive muscle relaxation, breathing and mindfulness before bed (technically mindfulness is best not to be done at bedtime but it’s really useful at bedtime to bring on relaxation, and the more relaxed your daughter can be at bedtime, the better). To get her used to it, try rubbing her legs, arms, hands or back so she can keep coming back to your touch when her thoughts start to stray. Anxiety is worrying about the future, so the more she can train herself to bring her thinking back to the present when she needs to (which is why mindfulness is so powerful) the better.

Just another thought but there is some research that has found bed position can make a difference. The research has found that people tend to sleep better when they can see the door from their bed. This is evolutionary and leftover from the days when people had to be ready to respond to predators while they slept. Our circumstances have changed because we live in locked houses now and not open caves, but our wiring hasn’t. If there is a way you can position the bed so that your daughter can see the actual doorway (and the window if there is one, but door is more important) from the bed, it might be worth a try (if it isn’t already). This means having it against a wall that isn’t the same as the door.

Other things that might help are getting enough exercise during the day, falling asleep with a heat pack, spraying lavender around the room and falling asleep with music. (The list of the 10 most relaxing songs (proven by research) are in this article https://www.heysigmund.com/6-ways-to-reduce-your-stress-now/.)

Hope this helps.

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Kimberly

Thank you for this article! My daughter has anxiety & I can’t wait to share this with her so she knows she is not alone. I understand her & have it myself but her dad is in denial of her having it. Hoping he will read this too so maybe he will start to understand it & see how real it is.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Kimberly, I’m so pleased this article found it’s way to you, and now to your daughter. There are so many people struggling with anxiety. You’re daughter is lucky to have you by her side and to help her feel a little less alone in it all. It’s so difficult to understand when you don’t have it. I wish it wasn’t – it would make it infinitely easier for the people going through it if the world could understand more about anxiety and the power of the blocks it puts up. I hope this article is able to help your daughter feel more understood.

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Michelle

Really touched me and hit home, some lovely thoughts that had never occurred to me, helps to feel not so alone … I’m going to share it with my partner and family ,
Thank you Michelle

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Michelle, I’m so pleased this article has helped you. You’re certainly not alone – there are so many people struggling with anxiety. Thank you for taking the time to comment – it will help other people who read it to know that they aren’t the only ones too.

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V

I wish this condition had a less pejorative title. i wish someone understood confidentiality.
Not every trigger is physical. I hate failing. I have been able to meet my obligations by finding the edge. Learning and applying new to the job. Doing what others would not do. By sleeping every third or fourth night.
I am lucky. Work helps. I can function, not everyone can. You do not get to choose.
However, once a thing is known, it never becomes unknown. The only way to maintain a confidence is to whisper it down a well at midnight, in a snowstorm, and say ‘nothing’. People cannot be trusted to “say nothing”.

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Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though you have been let down by somebody who betrayed your confidence. I’m sorry that happened to you. Nobody deserves to have the confidence betrayed, especially when trusting someone takes courage and vulnerability and is something special for the one who is trusted. I’m pleased you have found a way to function within your anxiety. I agree with you that it’s a pity that ‘anxiety’ has come to mean something more negative than it deserves to be. It why it’s important to surround yourself with people who look beyond it and see that you are so much more than a bunch of symptoms. You’ll always be more than that.

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Amber

After years of focusing on my depression, it’s now the less debilitating of the anxiety & depression duo. Often I chastise myself when anxiety hits me. I tell myself that I’m too sensitive, I over-react, I’m making the feelings up in my head. I scold myself that others go through the same things I do, but they aren’t reacting with the same anxiety, panic, dread, and worry. I feel that I should be able to “handle” life better, without the internal drama. After reading this article, it has helped me realize that I’m not the only person with these same feelings and reactions to life situations. That I’m not the “only” person that has the same feelings and experiences described in this article – no matter what my brain tells me. That these feelings and experiences do exist for others and are just as debilitating. It’s nice to have tangible evidence that my internal critic is just doing its thing. This article will most certainly help me through my next experience in that I’ll be able to knock away that “second arrow” of self-criticism much easier. Thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

Amber, I’m so pleased this article has helped you to feel less alone. There are so many people who are going through exactly what you’re going through. Everybody has their ‘stuff’ – their worries, their sensitivities, their fears, their insecurities and the things about themselves that they wish they could change. It’s just that anxiety is something that’s more difficult to hide away – and that’s completely okay. Thank you for sharing your story. There will be people who read it who will feel a little less alone because of it.

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Janna Winnim

This is such a great article for those with anxiety and those trying to understand them. Right now I’m getting help from someone using tapping or EFT for my anxiety fueled insomnia and will let you know how it works.
On another note, I’d like to see pictures of women representing a broad range of normal, old overweight, homely, etc. in other words, not models. The photos you provide are beautiful, but not comforting at all when I’m struggling.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Janna, I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. I really take your point about the photos. Finding the right photos is an ongoing struggle I have. Because of copyright, and to make sure everything is legal, all the photos I use are stock photos that come with a licence to use them. The problem with this is that they are generally models – beautiful photos but I also get to the point where I want to see a wider representation of women. (The last time I took photos I walked away with half of what I paid for because of this very issue!) I really want people to feel empowered and confident when they leave this site and I hope that the writing is able to do this. I’ll keep looking for better solutions on this one. In the meantime, I hope that you keep coming to Hey Sigmund and are able to find strength and love from the articles and the writing when you need it.

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