In the spirit of #MentalHealthAwareness month I’m going way out of my comfort zone and I’m attempting to describe anxiety.
I couldn’t find an apt depiction of anxiety. Nor a fitting description. Anxiety comes in so many forms and takes so many shapes, it’s really a unique and special son of a bitch in that way. I doubt you’d find two people experiencing anxiety in the same way. However, I feel obligated to share my thoughts to raise awareness for mental health to let the ones suffering know that they’re not alone and everyone else understand it a little better.
To suffer an anxiety attack takes a mental, physical and emotional toll. First, you need to understand that anxiety attacks appear out of thin air often enough. Sure, there are triggers (more on that later) but sometimes it hits you like a brick in the face from nowhere.
Anxiety stems from the inability to banish negative thoughts, so they say. To suffer from anxiety means that you are taken over by the worst thoughts you can imagine for absolutely no sane or rational reason and you have absolutely no defense against them. In order to try and explain anxiety, I’ll describe the different facets of an attack to the best of my ability.
An anxiety attack triggers the fight/flight response physically, much like you’re facing a raging mountain lion which no one can see and has no good reason for attacking you and you have no way of getting away from it. It’s an insane thing to experience.
The mental part
You’re painfully aware of the fact that you’ll be attacked any second and you’ll just have to endure it. There are many mental aspects of an anxiety attack.
First, an anxiety attack is confusing – especially the first few times. Your thoughts dissipate and it’s incredibly difficult to concentrate on what’s happening around you. Mentally you are incapacitated, confused, scattered. You cannot control your thoughts and you definitely can’t keep bad thoughts away. Your body is reacting to your mental state in a way you can’t understand at that moment, adding to your mental confusion. While you are dealing with your body’s response, bad thoughts that are shouting in your head and a million different trains of thought, you’re often also busy worrying about trying to make it stop, not endangering yourself, trying to appear normal in company, not letting anyone with you see how you’re coming apart for no reason they can fathom, trying to gauge your own physiological state. In this state of complete chaos you often just give up trying to control your mind too and let your thoughts run rampant.
The second mental effect takes its toll between attacks and becomes a daily companion. This is the part where you constantly anticipate the next attack, worrying when it’ll happen again and how you’ll handle it when it does. Ironically, this brings about a constant state of unease and make you anxious. Yeah, that sounds fucking fantastic.
The physiological effect
In a full blown panic attack, you experience a range of confusing physical effects. Your body enters battle mode to face the non-existent lion. The effects include hampered vision, where you are unable to focus on anything other that what immediately surrounds you. You’re often nauseated, shaking, sweating, heart pounding and given your mental state coupled with confusing physical reactions you’re definitely crying at this point. At worst you’re throwing up and at best you have watery unfocused eyes. You go weak and numb, your face goes numb, your blood turns icy cold, your hands are shaking. You become super sensitive to sensory input, noises, lights or touch. It feels like your body is betraying you, or attacking you, or failing you by falling apart. Physically you’re also under attack.
You may hurt yourself physically amidst your panic. Clawing at yourself to escape from your own body that is confusing you so badly. Clawing at yourself because it feels like you’re literally falling apart, trying to keep the pieces together. Not being able to stand touch because your skin is crawling. You feel all of these things at the same time or at different stages of an attack. Unfortunately, you’re painfully aware of what you must look like and therefor trying your best to act natural or appear fine or to hide the signs.
The life effect
Suffering from anxiety attacks has a creeping impact on your life. It happens slowly and subtly and you often only realise the effect until it’s too late to easily fix it. It’s the smallest changes that has bigger effects – I used to get so stressed that I developed a habit of scratching/clawing at my upper arms until I had hurt myself by accident, leaving bleeding scratches on my upper arm. So I abandoned many of my favourite shirts in favour of shirts that cover the marks on my arms, to name but one example.
Given the fact that anxiety attacks often come out of nowhere, you start changing your lifestyle to avoid situations presenting even the slightest danger of triggering an attack. You decline invitations to new places and rarely venture out in the world, after a while finding yourself isolated and becoming even less used to managing stressful experiences. (Imagine trying to date under these circumstances – it’s a fucking nightmare.) So it creeps in and disturbs your life in the tiniest, most inconvenient ways it can possibly find.
Honestly, this depiction of anxiety definitely doesn’t add to the body of knowledge on mental health and anxiety. It’s just one person’s account, aiming to offer a small and simplified and insignificant glimpse into how they experience anxiety.
P.S. – From the sidelines
If you know someone suffering from anxiety attacks, the best advice would be to talk to them about how they experience anxiety. Under no circumstances must you pretend to understand unless you have suffered it too and under no circumstances are you allowed to tell them to “just relax”. If someone close to you is having an anxiety attack and you don’t know exactly what they’re experiencing and what they need to feel better, for the love of god just stay away from them until it has passed because you’ll guaranteed end up making everything worse. For example – if the person having an attack feels the need to be held tight in order to keep them from feeling like they’re falling to pieces and you witness their attack while keeping your distance, you’re only adding to their discomfort and distress. If someone can’t bear to be touched while having an attack and you try to constantly pet them, you’re definitely hurting more than helping. I’ll repeat – know how to deal with it, or stay away from them. The great part is that if you do know how to deal with their attack, you can make it easier, shorter and better for them if you want.