Anxiety is not universally experienced.
This is how I understand and manage my anxiety as a bipolar person.
Anxiety is a BIG topic. It’s unique to every person. For some, “reasonable” levels of anxiety are normal, and for others, anxiety is a debilitating mental health disorder. So I am going to describe anxiety from my own lived experience. And my hope is that if you suffer from anxiety you will now have additional tools to describe how you feel when you’re drowning in worry, explaining fear, or even experiencing a panic attack. If you’re reading this and you do not suffer from serious anxiety, I hope to provide some insight into what we mean by anxiety and how to spot signs of anxiety in those you love.
‘Supposedly’ anxiety and fear are cousins. If fear is an emotional response to a definite threat, anxiety is an emotional (and physical) response to an indefinite threat. The term “anxiety disorder” refers to a range psychiatric disorders that involve extreme fear or worry, and includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety, and specific phobias (source: Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
1. American Psychological Association (APA) – an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.
2. Anxiety.org – Anxiety is the mind and body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It’s the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event.
3. Mayo Clinic – A mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities.
Ok. So now that we have the definitions out of the way. How do I experience anxiety?
When I am in a depressive state, I do not suffer from nearly as much anxiety because generally speaking I am more blase’ about life. I just don’t care enough to worry. However, as my depression lifts, anxiety settles in.
When you are “recovering” or coming out from a depressive state, you start to really feel emotions and the experience of life becomes much more intense, which includes anxiety. And yes, this takes time. It’s not a switch that flips; you don’t have depression one day and anxiety the next. But over time, you’ll notice you start worrying again, particularly about things that seem farfetched, even unrealistic, but usually connected to something of personal significance – health, home, family, friends, work, etc. So I would say in my most “balanced” state as someone with bipolar disorder, my anxiety is actually at its height.
What if we go to the party and the house catches on fire and the dog can’t get out?
Resolution: I can’t go to the party or leave the house.
What if someone breaks into our house while we are on vacation and steals everything?
Resolution: Pack everything up and bring it to my parents’ house when we go on a trip.
What if I make a mistake at work or they simply don’t like me? They’re probably going to fire me today.
Resolution: Be perfect at work.
The above are three examples of thoughts I have LITERALLY had this week. I could probably think of dozens more. I talk to my cognitive therapist about this anxiety and I’m told to challenge these thoughts as they are, objectively, irrational and highly unlikely. But here’s the thing, that doesn’t make them any. less. real.
You can tell me my husband keeps our house safe and updated, but I still worry because I have been worrying about fires for years. I like to think there are triggers to these specific worries. One year I was living outside NYC and we had terrible fires in the area, so maybe that stuck with me. But the others, I don’t know their origin. I do know, that in my mind they are just as likely to happen as for the house to be perfectly fine while we are on holiday or to go to work and have a totally normal day.
So if my anxious thoughts are unrealistic and irrational, that’s fine. I know my anxiety is irrational because I have spent many many years in therapy and they’ve told me the same thing. But does that mean I should just “let it go”?
Anxiety & Frustration
We have all these definitions and types of anxiety but when you break it down, it’s being trapped. You’re trapped with this fear that you perceive to be real, even though outsiders tell you it’s not. And you have to live with it. Fight it. Power through it. Drown in it. HIDE IT. All the while, you’re frustrated because you don’t want to feel weak. You don’t want to feel like an “indefinite threat” has control over you. You’re a strong person?! Right?
So much of anxiety is frustration. I don’t want to be debilitated by my own emotions and thoughts. I don’t want to…I am going to use the dangerous word…”burden” those around me with my outlandish worry and uncontrollable panic attacks.
So, what to do?
This is important: when you have anxiety you have a choice. You aren’t a complete victim here. You can challenge the thoughts that arise as a result of anxiety. You can say, what is the % chance the house will catch fire if we take care of it? What is the % chance I am going to get fired if I am a good employee and work hard?
What most people don’t know is that I do in fact challenge and ignore anxious thoughts 90% of the time. I travel, go to parties, leave the house, go to work, etc. BUT what about when I can’t? When I cannot challenge the thoughts, what then? Which is why I go back to my earlier point. I would say, anxiety and fear are more alike than different, because my interpretation of my anxiety is fear. It’s primitive and real. And I cope with my anxiety and fear by trying to solve for the situation. Yes, this has caused me to develop OCD, but it helps me move past the anxiety, at least temporarily.
I can’t find another word so I am going to continue to say “solve” for the anxiety. You’re worried about the house catching on fire or someone breaking in while you are on holiday? Get someone to house sit so they can ensure nothing happens. You’re worried about getting fired, always have a go-bag and be on the job hunt so you have an exit strategy.
You are not challenging the thoughts or taking the rational approach. But you are managing the anxiety by finding workarounds.
Winning The Battle, Living The War – Anxiety
The fix to anxiety is NOT to pretend like it doesn’t exist. It’s really not that helpful to tell someone with anxiety to “not let those thoughts control you,” because if that were the case, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Anxiety is the elephant in the room. You know it’s there. You are probably acting a bit off if it’s bad, and you’re fighting back a panic attack. And you definitely can’t ignore the elephant sitting on your chest – a common description for how anxiety weighs physically on the body.
So go to the party. Go on holiday. Go to work. Make sure you are getting treatment for your specific type of anxiety. Let those around you know when you are in a situation that is truly anxiety-inducing so you can leave. Leaving is fine. It’s not weak. It’s not rude. In that moment, you are “solving.” A potential worst case scenario is a complete breakdown at an event that isn’t about you. And we all know the guilt we feel afterwards if that does happen. Now it’s the worry, “will they think I did that cause everything has to be about me?” So leave before it gets to that point.
And one day, when you’re ready, try to NOT leave. Challenge those anxious thoughts IF YOU CAN (research Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for more details). But take it step-by-step. And forgive yourself if things don’t go to plan.
I bet I seem like I’m rambling, right? Yea, because THAT IS ANXIETY. As we conflate events, emotions, and feelings, we build this entire narrative around all the things that could go wrong.
My advice to you: be kind to yourself. Try to push yourself, sure, but be kind. Don’t solve for everything at once. The more open the conversation with those around you, the easier it will be to solve for the anxiety. Let others help. Again, it’s not weak. (And this coming from someone who spent a loooonnngg time not asking for help for fear of being stigmatized or being a burden). Have that exit strategy ready, but try to not use it. Over time, you will be more adept at managing your anxiety. Soon enough, stand in your strength, stare anxiety in the face, and try to stay. When you get home, and the house is in-tact, that’s one battle won in the mental war against anxiety.