Statistics show that anxiety (in various levels) affects about 18 percent of adults in the United States. That averages out to about 40 million people. No other emotional disorder even comes close anxiety’s reach. In 2010 forty six million prescriptions were written to treat anxiety issues. With many it’s an acute condition. With others it’s more a subtle. In the majority of cases anxiety is a highly functional disorder. It’s unlikely an observer would ever recognize the signs of anxiety. Unless you suffer from it yourself, or live with someone who does, it will usually go unnoticed. As a result, most people suffer anxiety alone. Many people simply bury it assuming their issue doesn’t rise to the level of concern. Behind the eyes of very stable and productive people there often exists a torrent of emotional pain. Often these people with hearts and minds stuck in panic mode are too afraid to open their mouths. Of course, this isolation is unnecessary. No one needs to remain silent no matter their level of pain. There are ways to serve and care for those suffering anxiety that actually help the sufferer. As always, care begins with compassion and compassion begins with understanding. How does anxiety work? What is it like to walk in Anxiety’s shoes? Let’s see if we can get you as close to the sensation as possible.
Imagine for a moment you’re in a serious car accident. One night while making a left hand turn you pull in front of an oncoming car. Just before impact you see the vehicle out of the corner of your eye. In that moment, the sensation is sheer terror. Your brain translates a thousand pieces of data in the blink of an eye (the angle of your car, the rate of speed of the oncoming car, combined curb weight of both vehicles, etc.) your emergency response system sends a shock wave of panic to your body. You automatically brace for impact closing your eyes, holding your breath, clinching your teeth and turning your head. As the car rolls you’re disoriented and blinded by shock. Your hands like vices involuntarily clamp onto the steering wheel in a vain attempt to hold your body in place. In the few seconds of the accident time stands still and lurches forward at the same time. In this flash of chaos you are completely helpless.
What comes to the very center of your mind – what walks right up to the very edge of your soul – is the worst horror imaginable. Your wife and children are in the car with you. Agonizing emotional panic cuts into you as a tragedy begins to form in your mind. When the vehicle finally comes to a stop the senses are bombarded. There is a smell of smoke and fuel. The feel of shattered glass and scattered debris. The ticking of an engine. The taste of dust and fumes. For a brief second all is strangely and frighteningly quiet. And then the sound of three crying voices breaks the silence behind you. And, as if on the other side of a door, you can hear the muffled sound of your wife calling your name. Relief breaks in on you. You let go of the wheel.
Incredibly, your precious family crawls from the wreckage mainly unharmed. A few bumps and bruises, but safe and alive. Later that evening, with all of your children in your bed tucked safely between mom and dad, everyone finally falls asleep. Everyone, but you. In the quiet of the night, balancing on the edge of your overpopulated bed, you turn to the wall and begin to sob uncontrollably. The lives of everyone in that pile beside you flash before your eyes on an unending loop of catastrophe. Your brain incessantly projects “what could have happened” in vivid color. Deep emotional pain rolls over you in waves. You brain gets stuck in a cycle re-living the experience from the moment of impact to the horror of fears that followed. There will be no real sleep for days. The same sensation begins to invade the daylight. Without warning in unexpected places a sense panic paralyses you. You can’t get your brain to let go of it. When riding in someone else’s car you constantly depress the non-existent brake on the passenger side and reaching for the dashboard. You’re experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and it is a completely normal reaction to trauma. You are going to be okay. It will eventually stop.
Now imagine there’s no accident. No left-hand turn in front of an oncoming car. No collision. There is no traumatic experience, but there is every spine tingling emotion that comes with one. Your brain starts reacting to normal situations in the exact same manner as if some trauma has actually occurred. Anxiety is normal. Worry is a part of life. In certain instances, like when you sense an oncoming car, anxiety is a helpful sort of warning system. But when that reaction happens in the face of normal realities and gets stuck in the on position it becomes acute anxiety. This degree of anxiety is very different than normal worry. It’s like suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for something that never happened, but might. Someone defined it as a mind that has the capacity to “spin every slightest situation into a catastrophe.”
Concerns that any “ordinary person” would have about normal things – children, finances, career, relationships, health – skyrocket. Your mind immediately imagines the worst possible outcomes of reasonable concerns. A loop of anxiety that begins with an initial surge of panic and ends in the replay of catastrophic outcomes runs in your mind. This cycle is repeated dozens of times in a given day and you cannot make it stop. As much as you try, you’re unable to let go of things “like normal people do.” Once your mind locks on to something its nearly impossible to get it loose. Someone captured the sensation of acute anxiety as a relentless “embracing of dread.” It comes complete with physiological effects; shortness of breathe, increased heart rate, disorientation, exhaustion. In some instances, it can be paralyzing. Specialists refer to these as “panic attacks.” When you find yourself suffering a panic attack the gig is up. Whatever anxiety you’ve been burying behind the functional façade of your life spills out into the open. When this happens friends are usually caught off guard. They had no idea. The question sufferers have been too afraid to ask emerges, “Have I gone crazy?” The answer is “No. You’re simply human.”
Community Bible Church: The Loved & Loving Series