I lie in bed with my brain racing a mile a minute. As someone with a tendency to worry and overthink things, this isn’t unusual for me. But suddenly, my chest feels tight and my breathing quickens; I am slightly lightheaded, and I don’t understand what is going on. I feel scared, panicked and alone. Maybe I’m going crazy. Later, I realize I’d experienced anxiety for the first time.
Recognizing anxiety for what it is can be valuable in learning how to deal with it. If you’ve never felt it before, I hope you can glean some wisdom from some things I’ve learned through experiencing it.
It’s mental and physical
I over-analyze things constantly, not only concerned about current problems, but about potential future problems too. I’m exhausted. I’m frustrated. I know my spinning thoughts are irrational, but I can’t stop the anxious feelings from washing over me like a tidal wave.
I feel like I should be able to control what’s going on in my own brain, but I can’t. Sometimes, I don’t even know why I’m anxious. This can be especially confusing to the people close to me, because they want to understand, but I can’t explain something I don’t fully comprehend myself.
Anxiety isn’t just “worrying too much”; worry is often about more realistic concerns and can at times be addressed with problem solving. Anxiety, on the other hand, is irrational and uncontrollable. It’s a mental disorder, but it has physical repercussions as well. It’s the body’s way of dealing with danger, but like a smoke alarm that keeps going off for burnt toast, it becomes a problem when the danger is not real. When you’re anxious, you might experience a rapid heartbeat, sweating, nausea, dizziness, a tight chest or numbness.
It’s different for different people
One of my friends responds to her anxiety by making lists. When her worries collide in her head, she gets them all out onto a piece of paper. This can be helpful, because it allows her to see the things she’s accomplished as she completes tasks. But it can also be debilitating, because she keeps adding to the list — and adding, and adding.
While my friend runs around in circles in response to her anxiety, fretting over the things she can’t get done, I respond to it by shutting down. I feel like I’m in a constant state of turmoil and exhaustion; I don’t eat, I question my self-worth, and my ability to process information is inhibited. I crawl into the safety of my room, trying to keep myself distracted from the twisted concerns of my mind with anything from work to TV or video games.
Everyone’s experience of anxiety is different. Yours may not look like mine, and you may find your own ways to cope.
It’s not your fault
I feel guilty because I want control over my thoughts and emotions. The Bible is constantly telling us not to worry, and that by doing so we’re not trusting God. People will often cite Matthew 6:25 to encourage the anxious: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…”
The problem with referring to this verse is it’s dismissive of anxiety as a mental disorder. Believe me, I want to hand over my anxiety to God, just like the person with cancer wants to hand over their illness. But clinical anxiety is not overcome; it is managed. Support from loved ones, a healthy diet, sleep, exercise, spending time with God, counseling and medication are all things that may help with that. But blaming yourself because you’re not trusting God enough isn’t the solution.
It’s a burden
When a friend asks me, “How are you?” sometimes I reply with, “I’m OK” out of fear. I’m afraid if I mention I’m struggling with anxiety a second time, or a fourth, or a tenth, she’ll get tired of hearing about it. I’m afraid she won’t see me as a calm, fun person anymore. I’m afraid of being a burden when she has her own worries to deal with. I’m afraid she may feel responsible, like it’s her job to fix me, to do or say the “right” things to avoid making me anxious. I’m afraid of being abandoned.
I can understand someone not wanting to deal with another’s anxious emotions, especially because my anxiety can stem from worries associated with those closest to me. The reality is, anxiety distorts whatever is going on my life, and it has nothing to do with them, even though it might appear to.
Those fears can keep me from speaking up, even though communicating is important for the support I need. Anxiety isn’t easily recognizable to other people. And if I don’t explain what I’m going through, it will show up in unhealthy ways like passive aggression, damaging relationships with people who want to understand what I’m going through.
It’s not a definition
Anxiety might be a weakness, but I am not weak because of it. God reminds us that when we are weak, we’re strong (2 Corinthians 12:10), an oxymoron that makes complete sense to anxious people.
There are some in your life who will define you by your anxiety. There may even be people who leave you because of it. But just as your anxiety doesn’t define you, neither do the people who reject you. There are people in the world who get it, and there is a God who suffers with you during your lowest of lows.
Copyright 2017 Allison Barron. All rights reserved.