Spotlight on understanding and coping with anxiety disorders.
“Why don’t you just relax?” a well-intentioned friend asks me. “There’s no reason to be so nervous.”
If only the problem were simple nerves. How easy it would be to get past tiny butterflies in my stomach.
My companion forgets there is a vast distance between being nervous and having an anxiety disorder. Here are a few ways the two differ, and how you can better cope with your disorder.
We all get nervous. Whether it’s public speaking, starting a new job, or going on a first date — there are many reasons to get the jitters. These common life events make sense as triggers for unpleasant emotions.
Anxiety disorders don’t need a trigger. It can be a perfectly normal day and suddenly fear and panic overtake you. Anxiety doesn’t care what day of the week it is or what you might have planned. Something flips an internal switch, and anxiety overwhelms you.
For most life events, experiencing nervousness is uncomfortable but hardly so severe it stops life. An anxiety disorder can bring everything to a screeching halt.
Spiders, Snakes, and Clowns
Think about what scares you. It could be heights, spiders, snakes, or even clowns. Yes, coulrophobia is an actual thing.
Thank you, Stephen King.
Think for a moment how you feel when you come face-to-face with your nemesis. When a spider crawls over your shoulder or you see the clown in the distance, your breath may catch and your stomach tighten. Depending on the intensity of your fear, your discomfort can be mild to severe.
If it’s severe, you have a sense of the panic you feel with an anxiety disorder. It’s your worst fear imagined and presented right in front of you.
The problem is, there’s usually nothing to cause the fear. There is no spider or snake or scary clown.
Feeling nervous is uncomfortable. It can cause intestinal distress, headaches, and stiff muscles. It’s annoying but not life threatening.
Anxiety disorders frequently induce panic attacks. These attacks can be so severe they are mistaken as heart attacks.
When an anxiety disorder takes over your life, it takes everything. You may sweat uncontrollably and shake all over.
You might feel pain and tightness is your chest and have trouble breathing. Physically, it feels like you are dying.
As bad as the physical symptoms can be, what happens in your mind is even worse. Your head becomes a swirling vortex of words and images. Feelings of imminent doom permeates you.
It’s irrational fear, but during an attack, your mind can’t reason on it. During my worst attacks, I have sought safety under my desk or in a closet. Yes, it really can be that scary.
Having to speak publicly makes most people feel nervous. As mentioned above, the nervousness can cause physical symptoms but rarely disrupts your plans.
An anxiety attack stops everything. The intensity can make it impossible to leave your house or even your bedroom.
Panic attacks are like Chicken Little screaming in warning, “The sky is falling!” There doesn’t have to be any truth or rationality to it. Once started, he’ll keep running wild in your head.
The sense of an imminent catastrophe literally cripples you. Many times, anxiety has stopped me from going places or calling friends. Even talking becomes difficult.
Feeling nervous won’t change much about your day other than some minor physical discomfort. Contrast that with an anxiety disorder, and in an instant you’re dropped into an unfamiliar world.
Your senses may become overexcited. In a flash, lights are too bright, noises too loud, and every person is a reason to be afraid.
While it doesn’t happen every time, this hyper awareness is devastating in its own right. Everything around you attacks your senses. The overstimulation multiplies your need to run and hide.
The only thing outside of a panic attack that has ever felt similar was a migraine headache. If you experience migraines, you know about sensory hyper awareness. Now add intense fear to it.
As bad as these symptoms sound, there are things you can do to improve your life with an anxiety disorder.
Successfully Cope With Anxiety Disorders
If I could show you a way to “just relax” and overcome an anxiety disorder, I would become one of the most popular men in the world. Unfortunately, there’s nothing so easy.
Since panic attacks can trigger without rational, there’s not a simple solution. PTSD, chemical imbalances, and severe insomnia can also cause anxiety disorders.
Yet, there are things you can do to improve your life. Here are three of them.
1. Learn your triggers
Much of the time, a panic attack appears to come out of nowhere. You may be enjoying a sunny day. You hear birds chirping and gaze peacefully at fluffy white clouds meandering overhead.
Boom! Like a thunderclap, your internal skies darken with torrential storm winds blowing your thoughts out of control.
While it feels like nothing triggered the change, there might be a pattern you can recognize. Start keeping track of your anxiety. Pay special attention to what you were doing, where you were, and how you were feeling immediately before the storm started.
Write these facts down, and you may find there are common trends. There may be situations, sounds, smells, or people that are a prelude to your anxiety onslaught. Knowing this can help you plan for future events.
Not to pick on clowns, but if you know they’re an anxiety trigger, then you need to prepare yourself when you’ll be seeing one. Even a child’s party is an unbearable situation amid a panic attack.
Again, there’s often no discernable trigger, but by keeping track over time, you may find similarities.
2. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the act of being present in the moment. It’s a practice of conscious thought of what you are feeling and thinking.
While some may equate mindfulness with meditation, they are different.
Mindfulness can be as simple as taking 30 to 60 seconds to close your eyes and breathe slow, deep breaths. In those seconds, focus on what’s going on inside of you. Engage your senses. What do you hear, feel, smell, or taste?
This deliberate slowing down helps you to breathe better, and proper oxygen intake is beneficial for dealing with anxiety.
3. Seek professional help
I hate seeing doctors as much as the next person, but chemical imbalances can cause anxiety disorders. The only way to correct this obstacle is to get appropriate professional help.
PTSD and C-PTSD both trigger anxiety disorders. Since the cause of the trauma is deep-seated, it often requires a trained physician for best results.
Many people learn to control their anxiety by engaging in talk therapy. My therapist taught me useful skills for recognizing my triggers and decreasing the length of a panic attack. Yet, I also need medication to keep my mental health stable.
Many fear taking medications because they think it will turn them into a drooling zombie. Maybe that was true of sedatives 30 years ago, but today’s medical options are much safer and less disruptive.
Frequently, proper medications simply take the edge off so you can continue functioning. You may still feel a little nervous, but the freeze-you-in-your-tracks panic will subside.
Anxiety Disorder is not the Same
Being nervous is unpleasant. An upset stomach, stiff neck, or headache in response to an upcoming situation will make life uncomfortable. None of us like it, but stress is a part of life.
Anxiety disorders are very different. Their severity, intensity, and triggers exist on a wholly distinctive plane. They can completely cripple you and make living your normal life impossible.
If you have a friend with an anxiety disorder, please understand it is not as simple as just relaxing. The trigger may be unreasonable or unknowable. The sufferer may feel incapable of doing anything or going anywhere.
That’s not something for you to judge.
It’s hard enough to cope with an anxiety disorder. The last thing you need is friends telling you to “just get over it.”
Instead, try to be understanding and supportive. Be nearby if that’s what your friend needs, or keep your distance if preferred.
As disruptive as panic attacks can be, anxiety doesn’t have to stop your life. By learning your triggers, practicing mindfulness, and getting professional help, you will continue to live a full life.
The most important thing is that you never give up. With time and practice, you will harness your anxiety disorder.
This story first appeared on Medium.