"Not all anxiety is created equal."
December 4, 2014 10:06 AM   Subscribe

9 things I wish people understood about anxiety.

In a deeply descriptive and surprisingly helpful article, Vox's Kady Morrison details some of the most crucial elements people should (but usually don't) understand about anxiety.
posted by ourt (59 comments total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thank you.
posted by Splunge at 10:13 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's what I wish people would understand:

I am anxious all the time. There is never a time when I am not anxious. My entire life is moving from one bit of anxiety to the next, and if I am merely sorta anxious I feel great about that. So, if you are noticing that I'm anxious or it has risen to the point of me saying that I'm having a hard time with it? This is a level of anxiety that would be absolutely crushing people without an anxiety disorder. You would be puking in the toilet and not coming out for the rest of the day. So, when I'm talking about my anxiety please don't give me helpful advice or try to tell me how it's not that bad. If it weren't that bad we wouldn't be discussing it.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:13 AM on December 4, 2014 [88 favorites]


I am a lifelong anxiety disorder sufferer with a healthy dash of depression thrown in just for fun. My husband and I call my anxiety-ridden and doom'n'gloom shadow inner voice Crazy Brain. (Apologies if that offends fellow sufferers.) It's used in a lighthearted tone that sometimes works to distract whatever is upsetting me at the moment. I hate that 80% of all my fears/worries are incredibly irrational. I hate that I can't explain that to people who don't understand why it's horrible and terrible for me without them judging me or giving me an answer that basically amounts to "Pssht! You're nuts! Why would you worry about stuff like that?"

Believe me, if I could shed myself of having frequent panic attacks, paralyzing fears, or the occasional bout of sleeplessness and live an anxiety disorder-free life, I totally totally would.
posted by Kitteh at 10:23 AM on December 4, 2014 [16 favorites]


I go to a university where a LOT of people have either diagnosed severe anxiety or have a level of anxiety that would unequivocally be diagnosed if it were to be professionally examined, myself included. It's tough being told to "just calm down already" or being treated in a way that clearly doesn't understand that my thoughts and feelings are (a) irrational, no matter how much someone tries to persuade me otherwise; (b) hard to control, no matter how much they ask me to keep them under control; (c) often depressing, no matter how much they ask me to "cheer up" and "take it easy" and so on.

I'm honestly considering just linking this to anybody and everybody who wants to get into any kind of emotional connection with me.

Also, it's frustrating to have people tell me they, too, have anxiety, only to not understand why I'm so stressed and anxious over "nothing" later on. Like, ??????
posted by ourt at 10:24 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


That entire thing is absolutely spot on and articulates beautifully a lot of things I've been struggling to explain to other people.
posted by holborne at 10:26 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't have anxiety disorder, and as a result, I don't understand it all that well. I can, however, still do my best to deal with it well (in others), and so this is valuable information that I will read with my full attention.
posted by Too-Ticky at 10:32 AM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ooh, this made me cry. So comforting, thank you for posting it.

"Anxiety is not rational, and boy, do we know it" -- preach. There's nothing more infuriating than having a balls-out panic attack and being told that I'm perfectly healthy and everything is fine, so if I would just calm down and think a little more clearly, I would obviously stop feeling like I'm literally about to die. My anxiety is so physiological, so deeply rooted in the body... there's no engineering that will fix it, and no reasoning that can lift me out of it. I get that it's frustrating when you're telling someone to calm down and you think it seems like they won't, but it's important to remember that maybe they can't.

Here's what I wish people would understand:

I am anxious all the time. There is never a time when I am not anxious.


YES. It's like having a tickle at the back of my brain that never gets relieved. Whenever I go to the doctor with some new random health quirk, 99% of the time, my battery of tests comes back all clear and my doctor helpfully informs me that I am experiencing psychosomatic breakthrough symptoms while assuring me that everything will go back to normal if I can just eliminate some of the stress in my life and relax. Relax? The fuck is that, something you do when you're dead? I've never been relaxed, ever, not for a second, not when I was a child and certainly not as an adolescent or adult. I thrum with nervous tension at all times. I'm constantly making myself literally sick with worry and fear. I shake all night in bed and I sleep so lightly that another person's breath will wake me, so I've always slept alone. I can't let people touch me. I can't trust anyone. And I'm happier, luckier, and healthier than I've ever been in my life. Same shit, different day.

The thing I wish people understood about anxiety is that it is indeed possible to be an extrovert with social anxiety that is so severe that I sometimes need to hide away from the world for days on end, knowing all the while that I want nothing more than to go out and be near people, to talk to them and eat and drink with them and listen to their wonderful stories. "Anxious extrovert" seems like a contradiction in terms, but I can assure you, it's a very real thing, it's deeply uncomfortable and often frankly distressing, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.
posted by divined by radio at 10:33 AM on December 4, 2014 [53 favorites]


Anxious extrovert" seems like a contradiction in terms, but I can assure you, it's a very real thing, it's deeply uncomfortable and often frankly distressing, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

So unbelievably true.
posted by ourt at 10:35 AM on December 4, 2014


This is a level of anxiety that would be absolutely crushing people without an anxiety disorder. You would be puking in the toilet and not coming out for the rest of the day.

Oh man, this. This so much.
posted by corb at 10:40 AM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


WHY DON'T YOU JUST RELAX? RELAX! WHY AREN'T YOU RELAXED BY MY COMFORTING PRESENCE SO CLOSE TO YOU INSISTING THAT YOU RELAX?!?
posted by Invisible Green Time-Lapse Peloton at 10:41 AM on December 4, 2014 [41 favorites]


Relax? The fuck is that, something you do when you're dead? I've never been relaxed, ever, not for a second, not when I was a child and certainly not as an adolescent or adult. >

QFT. I treated myself to a nice massage at a spa on my birthday and while it was enjoyable, it was not as awesome as I wanted because my brain could not turn itself off with other stuff to worry about. I kept overthinking it. I have yet to find an activity that soothes me the way my brain needs to be soothed, but damn if I don't just keep on trying.

Oh, yes, I forgot to add the hypochondria stuff divined by radio related above. This is also a forever constant in my life and it is the worst.
posted by Kitteh at 10:45 AM on December 4, 2014


Alan Watts was fond of a book titled "YOU MUST RELAX", because its title illustrated what squares we are, I guess.
posted by thelonius at 10:46 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Anxiety and intrusive thoughts is another fun one too. /s
posted by Talez at 10:52 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Relax? The fuck is that, something you do when you're dead? I've never been relaxed, ever, not for a second, not when I was a child and certainly not as an adolescent or adult.

I sometimes get a hard time for being a workaolic, or as we term it in our house "Drinking the workahol." But it is literally a more enjoyable thing for me to run a side business in my off hours than attempt to "relax". Sitting and watching a movie is just me sitting captive while my brain rattles off every single thing I should be anxious about. At least when I'm doing something, I can stay busy enough to ignore it. A little. Mostly.
posted by stoneweaver at 10:57 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


This was a great read. I count myself lucky that my anxiety is mostly limited to some specific aspects of my life that for the most part I can just avoid. One of the reasons I am mostly just a lurker here on Metafilter, despite its importance in my life, is because of my social anxiety is particularity pronounced for online interactions. Lots of you reading this out there (people that I respect) gives me plenty of scope to fall down the ridiculous imagined outcomes hole. I'll probably spend most of the rest of this morning wondering how this comment was read by others. My sympathies (for whatever that is worth) for those of you who struggle with anxiety in more aspects of their life.
posted by jzed at 11:02 AM on December 4, 2014 [61 favorites]


"Anxiety is not rational, and boy, do we know it" -- preach. There's nothing more infuriating than having a balls-out panic attack and being told that I'm perfectly healthy and everything is fine, so if I would just calm down and think a little more clearly, I would obviously stop feeling like I'm literally about to die. My anxiety is so physiological, so deeply rooted in the body... there's no engineering that will fix it, and no reasoning that can lift me out of it. I get that it's frustrating when you're telling someone to calm down and you think it seems like they won't, but it's important to remember that maybe they can't.

There's a common fantasy trope where the scary thing gets power from the shape of our nightmares, and is easily dispelled by the power of doubt or imaginative reframing. And that always struck me as a bit too glib. Deconstructing the delusion (or hallucination) and dispelling it are two separate things for me.

I suspect it's a part of my current religious shift. By-the-bootstraps meditation wasn't working for me.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 11:14 AM on December 4, 2014


Yeah, but at 3 a.m., anxiety's voice sure seems rational. Jzed, there are some judge-y folks on MeFi, but it's mostly a nice community. try a meetup some time, if you can. I've met some really terrific people.
posted by theora55 at 11:17 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


theora55, yup, I've done a couple of meetups (although I bailed at the last minute on the opportunity to meet Matt at one). I even have my wonderful job and some good friends as a result of a meet up. None of that good stuff manages to offset the anxiety - because the anxiety is just not rational.
posted by jzed at 11:25 AM on December 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's interesting, because my anxieties are not rational, and I definitely can't be reasoned out of them, but there are some specific things that I can do to keep them a little bit at bay. I used to have terrible anxiety-related insomnia, and I mostly have it under control at this point. (Knock wood. I feel like saying that is going to jinx me.) Things like limiting my drinking, getting regular exercise, and distracting myself before I get into a total anxiety spiral can help me manage it, although it's still an issue. But yeah, reasoning with me doesn't work, which I think is really frustrating to my friends and family.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:26 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


A very interesting read. I really feel like my generalized anxiety is a part of me too and that has really impacted my decision about whether or not to take medication to help tone it down. By doing so, am I negating an essential part of my personality?

The decision ultimately came down to the fact that being anxious all the time is just darn unpleasant. I can't relax and really enjoy things. There's always another hurdle to leap and mountain to climb. This has been going on for years and years.

I guess my hope is that medication will help me find some kind of middle ground where I'm still the same person but not wound up all of the time, that I would have some oasis of calmness that it's easier to find. We'll see!
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:28 AM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


The minority view: I have had bad anxiety and I appreciated unsolicited help and advice from people. I wouldn't have wanted to hear from strangers, but the people sharing life with me were thinking more clearly and wanted to help me. Anxiety is something that's alleviated by help, re-assurance and rest and those things are pretty hard to get by yourself when you are an adult with responsibilities. I am very thankful to a few people who insisted on making things easier for me to manage and much better today because of them.
posted by michaelh at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I have had depression all my life but lucky me that seems to have been replaced by pure anxiety. It honestly is worse than depression for me. I know how to handle no energy, not leaving the house cause what is the point. I have no idea how to handle the sheer terror that comes with my anxiety. The constant fear of doing something wrong or saying something that will make everyone hate me or laugh or the fear that this headache is cancer or panicking to the point I end up in the ER sure it is a heart attack.

I seriously would switch back to my depression if I could because at least then I am not making phone calls cause I don't give a fuck instead of being so irrational and scared of talking to someone .
posted by kanata at 11:33 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Also — and man, do I wish this went without saying — it's never okay to talk to about someone else's mental health issues with a third party, unless you've been given explicit permission to do so, or if your relationship with that third party is one involving legally enforceable confidentiality (your therapist, your lawyer, et cetera).

I get this, and I get the issue: it's never good to blab about someone else's problems, especially without permission.

This, however, excludes important coping mechanisms for people in the community of those with anxiety.

Being around someone with (and dealing with the fallout of) anxiety can be very stressful. I, myself, do not have anxiety issues. I do,however, have problems created by having to interact with such a person. It is daily for me. It's serious enough that I have had repeated, literal nightmares about the situation. Others have had their own breakdowns. Real problems have been created that have cost (many) real dollars to fix. The situation appears to be continuing; there is no way I or others can not deal with this person.

I need to talk about this. My wife is too frequently on the receiving end of it. Other folks and I need to talk about it. Sometimes it takes entire days to do so. We have to be sensitive to the person themselves, but spill-over behaviour turns some entire days into damage control operations.

I can't deal with all these problems alone. I don't have a lot of experience with mental health issues myself or in my immediate family. I need to talk to others to recalibrate (is this thing really a problem?), but most importantly I (and those other who have high levels of involvement) need to talk about it to deal with it, to lessen our own stress and to come up with ways to deal sensitively and effectively with the centre of the issues.

I don't know any other way to deal with how best to deal with someone with severe anxiety than to talk about others whom I trust. I don't discuss this with strangers, or with folks whom I don't know and trust, but there has to be some room outside of the absolute condition that folks can't talk about stuff that affects them directly, so that they can stay sane too.
posted by bonehead at 11:34 AM on December 4, 2014 [13 favorites]


In #2, she says she knows it's irrational. Sometimes she probably does, but ultimately, she doesn't. She may know that what she's worried about is unlikely--even extremely unlikely--but that's not the same as impossible. It could happen. Unlikely things happen all the time. Every time a lottery winner is chosen, it was extremely unlikely. And who doesn't know of someone, even just someone in the newspapers, who met an unlikely fate? And if you ignore the unlikely, you make it more likely because you're unprepared. So you need to worry about it. You need to take it seriously. Not think of it as a disease that makes no sense.

So when she says "we know it's irrational" she really means "Don't try to argue me out if it. I already accept your premise. Really, shut up. It's not helping."

You can't argue against the improbable. Fear isn't a calculation. And the fear as formulated isn't even the real fear. The fear of her best friend dying because she lost her car keys is really a fear of helplessness in the face of disaster. That's the form it takes with the car keys but it will be replaced with a different helplessness with a different disaster down the road. And we are all, ultimately helpless against some disasters. There's no argument against that.

You could say worrying about the improbable in advance isn't going to help. But that's not true. It's obvious that being aware is better than being taken by surprise. If you're prepared, you have some chance to do something and some chance is better than none at all.

When you come down to it, anxiety is the most rational position to take toward the world.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:38 AM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


So this is verging into AskMe territory, but how would I (as someone who does not experience anxiety) best handle my son's very obvious problems with anxiety? Or more to the point, how do we help him handle his anxiety?

The main problem is that, at 9 years old, his language and cognitive abilities are severely delayed. It's frustrating trying to interact with him when he is anxious but it's probably doubly so on his side of the equation.
posted by smcniven at 11:47 AM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Anxiety is the most rational position to take toward the world.

As someone with anxiety, my opinion is that it's not rational, but it certainly feels that way.
posted by longdaysjourney at 11:47 AM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Zoloft is great stuff.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 12:00 PM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


You can't argue against the improbable. Fear isn't a calculation.

Logic is just a kind of linguistic math. It's a way of route finding from assumption to conclusion.

If assumptions are driven by unrealistic fears, logic can take you strange places. And you won't agree with people who start from other places.

Logic, in my view, is only useful in an argument if you both agree on a starting place, or if someone can change their views to agree. Otherwise, logic is pretty useless as a conversational tool.
posted by bonehead at 12:06 PM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


You could say worrying about the improbable in advance isn't going to help. But that's not true. It's obvious that being aware is better than being taken by surprise. If you're prepared, you have some chance to do something and some chance is better than none at all.

When you come down to it, anxiety is the most rational position to take toward the world.

This makes no sense at all. The number of potential things that could go wrong is infinite. Trying to "prepare" so you can "do something" is a fool's errand, except when it comes to things that have a high enough likelihood of actually occurring that it makes sense to take some action or make some plan in advance, like having a fire evacuation plan.

But even though some situations do require advance preparation, none requires advance worrying. The anxiety is, in every case, extra. I am not trying to invalidate anybody's feelings. I'm just pointing out that anxiety in relation to future negative events is at best useless and at worst actively detrimental to preparing for those events.

In truth, the anxiety is actually not even related to the future event, except opportunistically. First, there is anxiety. It seeks an object from the facts of the particular person's life. It attaches to that object and the person worries "about" that thing, but if it wasn't that it would be something else. This is the irrational nature of anxiety. Part of dealing with it is understanding and accepting its irrational nature, rather than fighting it or feeling one should be able to dominate it with rational thought. Keep Calm and Carry On is bad advice, but it is helpful for a person with anxiety to develop compassion for themselves, as they would for a friend who suffered from a similar condition.
posted by haricotvert at 12:13 PM on December 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Zoloft is great stuff.

Not when you're misdiagnosed bipolar!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 12:32 PM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Anxiety is the most rational position to take toward the world.

As someone with anxiety, my opinion is that it's not rational, but it certainly feels that way.


If it feels that way, your opinion is a lie.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:00 PM on December 4, 2014


While trying to make my ladyfriend feel less self-conscious about her (self-described) poor typing & spelling skills, I realized that I was only near-perfect (comparatively) because I constantly rewrote what I typed. Always. Because Judging Mother was always present, criticizing me, along with Kid-Hating Bitch-Ass Nuns.

And then I realized that, in the four lines it took me to text her that idea, I had completely rewritten two lines.

Not gonna tell you how many ccorrections I've made in this poinost. DAMMIT.

ANXI*ETY IS MY 24/7 NORMAL STATE!
posted by IAmBroom at 1:21 PM on December 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


Obscure Reference: You could say worrying about the improbable in advance isn't going to help. But that's not true. It's obvious that being aware is better than being taken by surprise. If you're prepared, you have some chance to do something and some chance is better than none at all.
This thinking is seductive, but wrong. It falsely conflates "worrying about the improbable in advance" (and anxiety, which is subtly different) with "being aware" and "prepared".

"Anxiety": compulsively thinking that you might need a bugout bag, which distracts you from your current surroundings and needs.

"Worrying about the improbable in advance": thinking that you might need a bugout bag, because you believe something bad may happen if you don't.

"Being aware" and "prepared": buying a bugout bag.

The first two steps can be skipped through in relatively short order on the way to the third, or to abandoning the idea altogether. That is a normal, not-dysfunctional usage of anxiety (regardless whether or not the bugout bag is "needed").

When the human stalls out at step 1, A LOT, OFTEN, they have a problem with anxiety (IANAPsych). This reaction really isn't the same as the pathway to #3, because it never gets there. Anxious people stop themselves short of "mindful" action, to engage in unproductive, fear-based actions (ask my fingernails about this).
Obscure Reference: And we are all, ultimately helpless against some disasters. There's no argument against that.
You yourself brought up the other reason your argument is wrong: worrying about some things is perfectly useless. And yet we do. THAT is dysfunctional. If I could retrieve all those times spent worrying about sharks while in freshwater pools and lakes...
posted by IAmBroom at 1:41 PM on December 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


If it feels that way, your opinion is a lie.

I'm a broken record on this, but I think that a lot of mental health issues are obfuscated by the fact that we use the same words for completely reasonable emotional reactions and major mood disorders. To use an example:

Anxiety: My supervisor puts me on the spot regarding a task that I hadn't examined in planning for the meeting. I get a rush of adrenaline, my heart rate goes up, I frantically start putting what I know together, and cobble together the information she needs and a "to-do" of the followup. Minutes later, I'm back to normal, whatever that is.

Anxiety Disorder: I'm put on the spot in an unscheduled meeting and fumble my way through an impromptu speech. Because I'm having a very bad month, this triggers two hours of heart-pounding confusion, fixation, and worry until I excuse myself from work.

Panic: Someone shouts "boo" at a haunted house. Five minutes later, I'm giggling uncontrollably.

Panic Attack: Tachycardia, ringing ears, and fear in a crowded shop, followed by jittery nerves for hours after.

Take the physiological effects of speed, combine it with the emotional affect of a weepy drunk, and the tendency to fixate that that many people get on weed, and that's how I experience anxiety disorder on a bad day. It really is an altered state of consciousness.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:45 PM on December 4, 2014 [25 favorites]


In my early- to mid-grad school days, I developed panic attacks. I didn't have any sort of small triggering events like losing car keys or forgetting an appointment. It was the massive combination of taking on a new house while first dealing with my elder daughter's premature birth followed by her childhood cancer shortly after the second daughter was born at the same time trying to prepare for my qualifying and preliminary written exams and completing courses around my full-time job in which I had just been asked to manage my group. The panic attacks weren't triggered by specific events, but rather just a collapsing around my ears of my confidence and energy that turned me into a fearful mouse frozen in place with a 150BPM heart rate by an unnamed and unknowable dread. Alcohol and weed did not help. Eventually, I sought care, but by the time that happened, I had passed my exams with flying colors, my daughter didn't die and her hair grew back, my younger daughter seemed to be unscarred by her neglect, and my job turned out to be a fulfilling thing where they gave me time to work on my dissertation. The panic attacks just disappeared before I received any therapy and, mercifully, never returned. But I never, ever tell that someone who is having such attacks that they can just snap themselves out of it, because that is impossible. All the things you use to allay normal anxiety when it wells up—whether it's controlling your breathing, meditating, yoga, exercise, a stiff drink, or a little doobie—work. The underlying causes need to be identified and eradicated or blunted.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:58 PM on December 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I sometimes get a hard time for being a workaolic, or as we term it in our house "Drinking the workahol." But it is literally a more enjoyable thing for me to run a side business in my off hours than attempt to "relax".

Boy do I wish I could channel my anxiety this way, but I actually love attempting to relax! It just isn't effective. And when it is effective, it's often not helpful, because often the thing that made me feel nervous (e.g., a medical bill) is still lurking out there, yet I've gotten a nice reward by, say, not opening the envelope and watching three hours of fluff instead. And it's not like I end up rejuvenated, in the same way you might by exercising or meditating or something.

One of the other things that I've had to learn from unfortunate experience is that anxiety is not really "looking out for you." I have a really hard time not believing that on some level, to personify it, my anxiety sort of has my "best interest" in mind, that it keeps me from doing things that are harmful. But obeying your anxiety doesn't just mean you actually live a less risky life -- it can actually make your life more dangerous! Washing your hands too frequently can set you up for painful skin abrasions and infections. Avoiding things like opening a bill can lead to something going to collections, when you could have dealt with it and saved your credit. Avoiding the social awkwardness of writing an e-mail asking for your security deposit back means that you never get the money back. Anxiety about social interactions can lead you into having three beers in quick succession, both to lower your inhibition and even just to have something to occupy your mouth and hands. And so forth.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:09 PM on December 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Anxiety is not rational...

...one of the most frustrating things about having an anxiety disorder: knowing as you're freaking out that there's no reason to be freaked out...


I thought "rational" had mostly been evicted from the therapeutic/mental health patois in the '60s and '70s, but it seems to be coming around more these days. Don't like that too much.
posted by batfish at 2:14 PM on December 4, 2014


"Anxiety": compulsively thinking that you might need a bugout bag, which distracts you from your current surroundings and needs.
...
"Being aware" and "prepared": buying a bugout bag.


That was well said, IAmBroom. Realizing that first thing has been incredibly motivating to me in wanting to improve how I manage my anxiety. When it occurred to me that worrying about improbable stuff was distracting me from very probable, practically certain stuff that I needed to be more aware of, at first I got that anxious feeling, like, oh no, what should I be worried about that I'm not even aware of? But in the long run, focusing my anxiety in that direction--what's going on right here and now? Ack! Ack! I need to know!--is a way to use the anxiety to motivate me to do the boring old relaxation techniques and other coping skills that eventually do help clear the air. Unfortunately, hearing "be here now" from anyone else is as unhelpful as "calm down" or "you're being irrational" or any other variations.

One of the best things another person can do is to help move me from compulsively thinking about something to doing something about it. It doesn't work for everything. But if they're hearing me rant about how I might need a bugout bag, they could say "let's go shopping on Saturday and get one for each of us, and fill it up."
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:17 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


As an "anxious person" (according to my therapist), I really appreciated this article. I thankfully don't get physiological effects (now that I wear a biteguard at night), but I see a lot of myself here.

Two things: I hate being told to calm down. In my younger, angrier days, it would make me lash out. Now it just makes me sad, tired, and gives me a feeling of being misunderstood. (Much better to distract or redirect; for the commenter above with the 9 year old, learning good ways to redirect is a good idea--for me math puzzles or thinky observations work well, but I suspect this is pretty individual. Additionally I can't really discuss it in-the-moment, but I feel more respected if once I am in a better headspace I can talk it out.)

But I disagree about the rationality question. I don't think the problem is that my anxiety is irrational.. some of it is undeniably accurate (I will inevitably die someday, and more importantly, so will the universe as we know it). The problem is that it isn't *useful*. (The universe e.g. will change that dramatically over the course of 10 billion years, so cowering about it for an hour now isn't really getting me anywhere, even if in an existential perspective cowering is a completely rational response).
posted by nat at 2:28 PM on December 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


That thing where you don't get a chance to talk to a certain friend often because of life or whatever, and then they're like "We should hang out some time!" at a party and you're all "Definitely!" and then you don't contact them for months because now it's a whole thing and there are expectations and every moment you don't contact them makes it even more of a thing and eventually you just straight up lose contact and fall off of their radar - gotta say, not my favorite part of anxiety.
posted by jason_steakums at 2:31 PM on December 4, 2014 [25 favorites]


This thinking is seductive, but wrong. It falsely conflates "worrying about the improbable in advance" (and anxiety, which is subtly different) with "being aware" and "prepared".

Try telling that to an anxious person and see how much it helps. You won't seduce them away because you perceive a difference that they can't or won't. Anxiety makes sense to the anxious, if they're being honest with themselves. Arguments otherwise from the outside are just people who don't understand and make the sufferer feel just that much more alone. It's like arguing with a depressed person, the futility of which I'm sure you know. At best, they'll buy your argument in your presence, because they feel taken care of for a moment. Or they'll want to feel taken care of.
That it's safe to relax and turn away from the threat with you there. That's your best bet at counter-seduction, but it will leave when you do.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:47 PM on December 4, 2014


Boy do I wish I could channel my anxiety this way, but I actually love attempting to relax! It just isn't effective. And when it is effective, it's often not helpful, because often the thing that made me feel nervous (e.g., a medical bill) is still lurking out there, yet I've gotten a nice reward by, say, not opening the envelope and watching three hours of fluff instead. And it's not like I end up rejuvenated, in the same way you might by exercising or meditating or something.

Let it not be said that I am effective. The medical bill, or whatever thing is ACTUALLY making me anxious just stays undone. I am laterally productive. Sometimes it all works out in the end where I make a nice triangle shape: Avoid Dishes -> Start paying bills -> Avoid paying bills by doing Other Paperwork -> Avoid Paperwork by doing dishes.

Somehow, all that misdirection makes me forget that there's that one pan I am sure I am going to wash wrong and need to avoid FOREVER. Because at least it's not as scary as Other Paperwork.

Other times the triangle of workahol just leads to hiding in the covers because everything everything everything is terrifying.
posted by stoneweaver at 2:49 PM on December 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


I've got the great kind of social anxiety where I'm actually great in social situation, I can be charming, urbane and appropriate to the situation, BUUUUUUUUUUUUUUT afterwards when I'm lying in bed I'm rethinking every moment of the night and how people could interpret crazy things from that. That I'm terrible and said something wrong and that I've made a fool of myself and that everyone will think less of me. I don't avoid social situations because I don't like them I avoid them because I don't like the after effect. I actually quite enjoy being social, that's the worst part.

It's very good at confusing people about what social anxiety is.
posted by Ferreous at 3:35 PM on December 4, 2014 [25 favorites]


It's also tough, as mentioned above, to love and care for someone who is anxious, Especially when you have your own issues. My husband and son are both anxious kinds of people. I am a depressed kind of person.

When my husband would get upset at consistently getting red lights or someone driving slow in front of him, and then start muttering under his breath, or cursing out the drivers in front of him (with the windows up, they couldn't hear him), I used to try to soothe him (I thought) by reminding him that we had plenty of time, and stupid drivers are going to drive stupidly, etc., and there was no reason to let it get to him. This did not help him at all, and I am sure a number of people in this thread are cringing, because my saying essentially, "Hey, don't get so stressed! It's no big deal!" just made him more aware of how stressed and anxious he was,.

Meanwhile, though, him being stressed and anxious makes me feel physically uncomfortable, and my chest starts to hurt, because I have it socially ingrained in me, as the youngest child and a girl to boot, that I am the Diplomat and everyone getting along with each other and enjoying themselves is somehow my responsibility. So I internalize him obviously being so stressed as me doing something wrong (iI should know the right thing to say to make him feel better, and EVERYONE! IS! HAPPY! ALL THE TIME!, But I can't do anything right, because I am a such a loser, blah blah negative thoughts).

So we are both working on this, because neither of us wants to make the other person feel bad, both each of us wants to help because, hey, other person I care about seems stressed!

I have managed to find some work-arounds that help. I am the Planner, for instance, so My spouse does not have to stress over reservations and tickets and flights, etc.

how would I (as someone who does not experience anxiety) best handle my son's very obvious problems with anxiety? Or more to the point, how do we help him handle his anxiety?

I think you will learn these things as you raise your son, because his anxiety will manifest in specific ways for him, and as his parent you will begin to recognize the patterns.

Just accepting and respecting who he is and that some things that would not bother me are very tough for him, and the coping mechanisms I use for myself are not right for him, has helped me help my older, more anxious son, quite a bit.

I am the type, when I have to go to the doctor to get a shot or have blood work done or some other task that I don't like, to make sure I am prepared and know exactly what to expect when I get there to do the Bad Thing. Then I might plan something I don't usually do for myself, like go to the bookstore, after the Bad Thing, so I would have something to look forward to.

With my youngest, though his temperament is different than mine, this strategy nevertheless worked well.

But if my oldest son knew something unpleasant was coming up, he would worry about it until he nearly made himself sick, and though the dreading of the Bad Thing was almost always worse than the Bad Thing, because anxiety is not always rational he would still dread Bad Thing just as much the next time it came around. Telling him he had to go get a flu shot or whatever next week did not give him more time to prepare, it just gave him more time to be anxious. His whole week leading up to Bad Thing could be ruined by that anxiety.

And I am not one for just springing surprises on unwary people (because sometimes you DO need to get in the mental space where you can handle challenging situations, and as an introvert, not wanting to look foolish in front of people is something I also understand).

What's more, when Bad Thing was over, he didn't want to do anything else, even something he liked, because worrying about Bad Thing had completely worn him out. So putting Good Thing after Bad Thing? Just made Good Thing less good, because he would associate it with Bad Thing. So my usual coping strategy helped him not at all.

So, okay, new strategy required!

I learned I had to go against my own nature to try to gently prepare him, as I would have wanted to be prepared, for Bad Things, and instead found a sweet spot of telling him when I picked him up from school, "We need to go to the doctor now, because you are due for a shot, and then we can go home just like always" (because a routine was comforting for him, too). The ride generally gave him enough time to accept, but not too much time to dwell on, Bad Thing, and sometimes I could distract him from worrying about Bad Thing entirely until we got to the doctor's office.

So yeah, I think you help by mitigating anxious situations when he is young, and helping him to recognize them himself as he gets older. Which is obviously best done not while he is panicking. It is also not so good to tackle out of the blue, though, because then you run the risk of creating a new anxiety.

So maybe you talk through some of this after the anxiety or panic attack has passed and he is in a place to look back and reflect (rather than look forward, dread and catastrophize).
posted by misha at 4:06 PM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


So this is verging into AskMe territory, but how would I (as someone who does not experience anxiety) best handle my son's very obvious problems with anxiety? Or more to the point, how do we help him handle his anxiety?

The main problem is that, at 9 years old, his language and cognitive abilities are severely delayed. It's frustrating trying to interact with him when he is anxious but it's probably doubly so on his side of the equation.


If it were me, I would: talk to him at a time when his anxiety is not high, and brainstorm a list of things that help him feel less anxious or calmer (not "not anxious" or "calm," just "less anxious" or "calmer"). Write all of them down. If he's stuck, suggest things that you've seen help, but phrase them as questions (e.g., "What about reading? Does that help you feel calmer?"). Ideally you'll have a list of 30 or so things, probably including things like talking to his parents, talking to his friends, being by himself, watching tv, playing a videogame, going outside, hibernating in bed, drawing a picture, breaking things, running around, etc.

Post the list someplace visible, in his room or on the fridge. The next time he's feeling anxious, ask if there's something on the list he'd like to try. If it doesn't work, ask if there's something else he'd like to try.

If he's able to, maybe put frowny faces next to an activity every time it doesn't seem to work, and smiley faces next to it every time it does seem to work.

Add things to the list as he thinks of them. Don't ever ever ever use something on the list as punishment, or command him to do it because you're frustrated. These should be opt-in activities. If you think, for example, a walk would help, then you can ask him if he'd like to go on a walk with you, but you have to take "No" as an answer.

As a parent, it's good to remember that someone experiencing anxiety physically cannot rationally work through cause-and-effect or other cognitive tasks until the anxiety is under control. Anxiety highjacks the brain. So the goal would be to help him figure out ways to lower the anxiety and then come back and deal with the original anxiety-provoking problem, if necessary.
posted by jaguar at 4:23 PM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


(The existence of the written list helps people recognize that they have coping skills, and helps them remember them when they're in need of them. The smiley/frowny faces basically work as a feedback system to remind people that just because one thing didn't help, that doesn't mean nothing will help. It can also be helpful as a subtle reminder that it's ok to be wrong about thinking X will help when apparently X never helps; it's a push back against the perfectionism that often accompanies anxiety.)
posted by jaguar at 4:26 PM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I sometimes get a hard time for being a workaolic, or as we term it in our house "Drinking the workahol." But it is literally a more enjoyable thing for me to run a side business in my off hours than attempt to "relax".

While it's definitely not the same thing as anxiety, your description reminded me of this recent article:

Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.

These things are on a spectrum, not binary, and there are ways that having some (comparatively mild) anxiety and ADHD-ish tendencies helps. Needing that novelty and stimulus, and worrying about problems endlessly, cause me some real problems, but it also means that I do incredibly well at the aspects of my work where I control the environment and can both establish and solve complicated problems. (The parts of my job that involve sitting still and slowly grinding out detail-oriented stuff like spreadsheets, however, get put off and put off and put off...)

Sort of like how there are claims that keeping our environment too clean causes our immune systems go wonky and cause problems, but when there is the right amount of dirt and parasites the immune system can do its job and stay under control, I've found that "self medicating" with complex problems and deadlines helps keep things in my brain under control and focused productively rather than destructively.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:37 PM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ferreous: It's very good at confusing people about what social anxiety is.
Word.

As for the "being aware" thing, that's the trap for me. As a teen I folded, "A samurai is never surprised," into my personality and extracting it has proved extremely difficult.
posted by ob1quixote at 4:42 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Anxiety disorder is a disease, not an outtake from Curb Your Enthusiasm
posted by Renoroc at 5:30 PM on December 4, 2014


I have a really hard time not believing that on some level, to personify it, my anxiety sort of has my "best interest" in mind, that it keeps me from doing things that are harmful. But obeying your anxiety doesn't just mean you actually live a less risky life -- it can actually make your life more dangerous!

I like to think of anxiety like parenting, where there's a spectrum from "negligent" through "helpful" onto "overbearing and infantilizing."

Trying to cope with the world with no guidance system would be unsafe. Some degree of "Hey, watch out for sharp corners!" guidance from my brain is useful. An overprotective helicopter-parent guidance system hovering over me constantly shrieking "WATCH OUT WATCH OUT WATCH OUT WATCH OUT!!!!!!" interferes with my ability to live as a functional independent adult.
posted by jaguar at 6:30 PM on December 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


I think it's a good metaphor jaguar, but even then, though I feel like the most helicoptery of helicopter parents would be telling me stuff like "DID YOU LOOK AT YR BANK ACCT YET, NO TV UNTIL YOU DO", whereas anxiety tells me something more like "NO DON'T LOOK AT BANK ACCT YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW, WATCH 5 SEASONS OF ANTM INSTEAD."
posted by en forme de poire at 7:31 PM on December 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


I don't think the problem is that my anxiety is irrational.. some of it is undeniably accurate (I will inevitably die someday, and more importantly, so will the universe as we know it). The problem is that it isn't *useful*. (The universe e.g. will change that dramatically over the course of 10 billion years, so cowering about it for an hour now isn't really getting me anywhere, even if in an existential perspective cowering is a completely rational response).

But cowering is not a rational response precisely because it is not useful. Anxiety is not useful now; it will not be useful when you are on your death bed. It will never be useful. If you had a choice about when to be anxious, when would you choose anxiety? Would you say, "Oh -- big meeting coming up! I better start having some anxiety before this one!" "My doctor has given me a week to live -- I think this would be a great time to hit myself with a wave of anxiety!" "How can I possibly be a vigilant parent if I don't administer a constant sensation of tightness and burning to my chest and stomach area?" If anxiety were subject to rationality, nobody would ever feel it, because it is never rational to want to do so.

But anxiety has nothing to do with rationality. It is the body's stress response to things that aren't actually happening. True, some of the things that aren't happening could happen. Some almost certainly will happen. But when they do, you won't be anxious about them. When you're in the big, important meeting, you're not anxious about being in the meeting. You're anxious about being humiliated in the big, important meeting. If you then actually are humiliated in the meeting, you are no longer anxious about that, either, anymore. But your anxiety lives on, irrationally! It just grabs on to whatever is next: "Maybe I'll be fired!" "Maybe I'm no good!" "Maybe they hate me!" Or whatever it may be.

To argue that anxiety is rational is to attempt to justify it, which is to hold onto it as having some value, in some situations. But it has no value ever. It is an affliction -- that's all. And as others have pointed out, there are steps that can be helpful to alleviate the symptoms of the affliction and to address its causes. For me, meditation has been transformative. Cognitive behavioral therapy was useful for my panic attacks. But in order to address it, I think it's important to really see it for the irrational response to imaginary events that it always is.
posted by haricotvert at 7:53 PM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have said on a few occasions that there are no emotions, there is only anxiety and the lack of anxiety. I know that in some sense this is an unhealthy observation about the world, but for me it is an essential way to process complex emotions.

Yes, I have anxiety, and as I get older I know why I had meltdowns as a child, but I also now know my limits. I can communicate to my wife that I have a limit to the amount of time I can spend in IKEA on a Sunday. I know that it's not my fault that I don't like parties. I know that I like the music that I like because it turns down the volume on the world, and I know that concept isn't understood by many people. I know that I crave extreme/Intense experiences because they turn down the volume of the world. I also have learned how and why my desire for those experiences can be used for good or bad.

I also know if the shit hits the fan, I am the guy you want in the foxhole next to you, because I have anxiety.
posted by Divest_Abstraction at 8:25 PM on December 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


I think it's a good metaphor jaguar, but even then, though I feel like the most helicoptery of helicopter parents would be telling me stuff like "DID YOU LOOK AT YR BANK ACCT YET, NO TV UNTIL YOU DO", whereas anxiety tells me something more like "NO DON'T LOOK AT BANK ACCT YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW, WATCH 5 SEASONS OF ANTM INSTEAD."

Hmmmm.... in such cases, I guess I think of helicopter-parent anxiety as saying "BANK ACCOUNT! YOU NEED TO LOOK AT YOUR BANK ACCOUNT!!! BANK ACCOUNT!!!!!! WHAT IF YOU HAVE NO MONEY!!!! YOU HAVE TO CHECK!!!! CHECK!!!!" and it's the rebellious kid in me who responds to that with "I can't even, you're not the boss of me!" and copes with the yelling by going to watch an ANTM marathon. (Also, are we the same person?)
posted by jaguar at 8:30 PM on December 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Given the vagaries of SSRIs and individual brain chemistries, I know this is pretty selectively useless advice, but I went on Lexapro last year (20mg a day) and it gave me enough breathing room in my anxiety issues that I have been able to get some other coping mechanisms in place. (Including, hilariously, being able to smoke weed again, which used to trigger attacks but now mostly calms me down.) I even dealt with a lot of stupid shit at work this week and didn't have a meltdown.

The only reason I mention it: I had tried several other SSRIs in the past and they didn't just not help, but they made things immediately and noticeably worse. I went for 35 years without a prescription, then found one that helped. So...good luck?
posted by Joel Johnson at 8:35 PM on December 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


I feel oddly relieved by seeing item 5, in particular, expressed by someone other than me, and also by reading the comments in this thread.
posted by busted_crayons at 9:39 PM on December 4, 2014


jaguar, reading that, it is totally possible we are the same person.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:34 PM on December 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


6) Anxiety and depression are linked

... We the anxious are typically super aware of the fact that there's a link between anxiety and depression, and — shockingly — it's safe to assume we're pretty anxious about it.


Welp, there's the last ten or fifteen years of my life in an nutshell.

jzed: One of the reasons I am mostly just a lurker here on Metafilter, despite its importance in my life, is because of my social anxiety is particularity pronounced for online interactions.

It's a relief to hear someone else say that. I am socially anxious both online and off, but finding fixes for the online kind seems to be a much slower process. Since 'everyone knows' the internet is a haven for socially awkward, geeky types, where superficial stuff doesn't matter and you can show your 'true self', I felt confused and ashamed for years about my anxiety surrounding it. Showing my 'true self' was/is a pretty terrifying concept!

I've been more outgoing on the internet this last year and made the acquaintance of some brilliant people (I want to say made friends with, but of course I am too nervous to do so, because what if they don't feel the same way?). But then I had to quit Tumblr, at least temporarily, because it was making me far too anxious — both the social aspects and the ever-refreshing feed, which played into my compulsive tendencies in an unhelpful way. One step forward, one step back.
posted by daisyk at 11:53 PM on December 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


I really appreciated this article. It's accurate and has useful advice for people who care about someone with an anxiety disorder. I'm on medication for mine, and although I will always be an anxious person it is no longer wrecking my health and wearing down my relationships.

Re: anxious kids. Give them specific reassurance that you love them and guidelines for judging the reality of a situation. We have a hard time telling if we've done something right or not, if someone is happy with us or not. And sometimes a debriefing after a stressful situation is useful: compare what they thought would happen with what actually happened, not to prove them wrong but to show that even if they feel anxious they should take action anyway.

Really, all my meds have done is given me breathing room to learn how to do all the sensible things people are supposed to do when faced with situations that would cause anyone to feel a bit anxious. Stuff like meditation, exercise, distraction, self-soothing, taking action on small things before they get bigger. If you can teach an anxious kid good habits for dealing with routine stress, you'll save them a lot of work later in life.
posted by harriet vane at 4:56 AM on December 6, 2014


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