Anxiety Awareness

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind.  If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.”–Arthur Somers Roche

Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.”– Kahlil Gibran

When I was in fourth grade, I had the privilege of traveling with my grandparents and a cousin. We had taken a train to Washington DC, and I have a dream like remembrance of riding in a taxi transporting us towards an airport from the train station.  It was the first time I had ever traveled in major city traffic.  We were propelled with what seemed like great velocity through busy traffic, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic, bright lights of oncoming and passing vehicles playing tag in the dark of an evening.  

The route took us through a menacing tunnel with blazing lights for the evening rush hour.  This was my first experience in such a claustrophobic, wreck-inducing, our-lives-were-about-to-end, multi-lane, city tunnel. We were hurtling through a tube of neon lights, clamorous noises, and untold dangers surrounded and threatened our yellow tin can.  My heart was racing; I felt simultaneously scared and angry.  

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Danger! Danger!  We. Were. Out. of. Control.  We were going to die in a fiery collision of metal upon metal.

Like projectile shot from a military caliber cannon, we emerged unscathed from the tunnel, and signs indicated the airport was near.  That was when I saw the vwoop, vwoop, vwoop of the rotating light of the airport beacon.  That circling source of luminescence became the focus of my vision, my heart rate began to slow, and my rate of respiration resumed to more normal levels.  Safety was within sight.  I was calm again–although my poor Grandmother, I am quite certain, based upon her wide-eyes and ever-rubbing hands, was not. 

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As I think back on that experience, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to feel that way ALL of the time.  In fact, I am told that feeling is quite similar to how someone with an anxiety disorder feels daily. In fact, generalized anxiety disorder, and its fraternal twin, depression, and the other siblings in this family of mental anguish including: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and their cousins of related illnesses often manifested and/or co-occurring with these disabling siblings, affect more than 40 million adults in the US alone.  Without including the population 18 years or younger, these illnesses affect 18.1% of the population– and that statistic was determined before COVID.  Sadly, it is estimated that nearly 80% of those affected by GAD, or other related disorder(s), do not seek professional help.

Like my first recollection of anxiety, it is perfectly normal to experience bouts of situational anxiety from time-to-time. However, it is when symptoms are persistent and pervasive, affecting day-to-day life, that anxiety can become a significant issue.  Unfortunately, because anxiety can express itself in numerous ways, many people may not realize that they are experiencing chronic anxiety.  Researching and preparing for this column, I soon discovered that I had very little understanding of this frequently occurring mental health issue.

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While I did know there was a genetic component to anxiety, I did not realize that anxiety was twice as likely to occur in women than men.  Additionally, I understood that there was a relationship between anxiety and depression; however, I did not realize anxiety can cause memory problems and issues with anger.  Furthermore, I realized years ago that anxiety can cause physical symptoms, but I did not fully understand the way anxiety can increase one’s risk for health complications.  I also learned that those experiencing anxiety as adults, often begin experiencing this suffering in their childhood, and it is often misdiagnosed and treated as ADHD.

As an educator, I have anecdotally observed a rise in anxiety-related issues in students.  This fact bears out statistically according to the CDC which notes that a rise in anxiety, and related disorders, began to be observed between the years of 2007 to 2012. Additionally, according to the American Psychological Association in an article published in 2019, there was a significant rise in anxiety disorders among young adults during the decade between 2010 and 2020, well before the pandemic.

Numerous factors have been attributed to cause this increase of mental distress, including the rise of social media; however, the purpose of this writing is not to point a finger at sources.  Additionally, I am not trying to parade as an expert on the subject, because I am most certainly not.  Instead, I humbly write as someone who now realizes that not only have I experienced very real bouts of anxiety, but I have also witnessed countless others suffer from anxiety, and all of its variants, especially over the past few years. I hope my few words can shine a light on what can be done to help, support, and understand the very real anguish anxiety creates.

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One tip I repeatedly read is the importance of remaining calm, accepting, and patient with those experiencing anxiety with applying pressure to “get over it.”  Do not dismiss their fears with logic or rational arguments as this can feel belittling. This is especially important for those in the midst of a panic attack.  Additionally, listen openly without judgement and without offering advice, but instead ask if there is something that you can do.

If a friend or loved one is experiencing a panic attack, no matter how upsetting it is to witness, remain a calm presence.  Let the person know you are there.  Remind him or her to breathe deeply and slowly.  Stay with the person until they are calm; and again, it is okay to ask what she or he needs.  They may not need anything, but by simply asking the question, allows the person to know you care and encourages him or her to focus on the question rather than the sensations coursing through their body.  For some people, it may help to ask them to name one thing they can feel, see, hear, taste, and smell.  Panic attacks, however, are not the time for preaching, setting ultimatums, or any other perceived negative or judgmental behaviors.

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Try to understand.  Read as much as you can on the subject.  Ask questions regarding what you can do to better help and/or support them, especially if they are prone to panic attacks.  Simply having a plan in place can offer assurance to both you and the person for whom you are supporting.

Additionally, encourage your friend or loved one to seek professional help.  Be willing to call and schedule the first appointment for them.  You may even need to help them figure out what to say to the doctor or therapist. Offer to drive and/or go with them to appointments in a show of support.  Be willing to attend therapy sessions with them to learn what you can do to help.  Group support, acupuncture, mindfulness techniques, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so forth, may also be helpful for the person experiencing anxiety.  Likewise, medications may be useful in order to better manage it. 

In the end, anxiety is not a simple matter of stress.  It is a very real mental disorder that affects millions of people daily, making even the most seemingly simple task a stress-inducing event.  Anxiety can be manifested in a wide variety of ways; and therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all form of treatment.  However, all expressions of anxiety require both personal and professional support.  If you, or a loved one, are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, know that you are not alone.  Help is available, and it is typically either a phone call or a click away.

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“Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

“We are often more frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than reality.”–Seneca 

“Of all the liars in the world, sometimes the worst are our own fears.”–Rudyard Kipling

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FEAR:  False Evidence Appearing Real.  But is it really false?  Does the body truly know what is real versus perceived? 

Panic, anxiety, stress, depression, lethargy, mania . . . this is the vocabulary that describes very real reactions to F. E. A. R. 

Fight. Flight. Freeze.  Three words that seem perfectly harmless . . .until linked with the word, fear.

There are other words too:  cancer, stroke, heart disease, COVID, Rheumatoid arthritis, muscular dystrophy, aging, dying, murder, divorce, accident, fire, flood, hurricane . . .  and even the word, change–when viewed in isolation–not attached to oneself or a loved one–are words that can seem likewise benign, or at the very least, distant.

What do all of these words have in common?  They all have the potential to strike fear in both the recipient(s) and/or the supporting loved one(s) often triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response.  

Fear is a four-letter word that is often the king or queen of many minds, including my own, if left unchecked.  It can often be the source of increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, racing thoughts, sleepless nights, shortness of breath, tightness in chest or other parts of the body, excessive worry, loss or increase of appetite, fatigue, headaches, and the list goes on.  None of us are immune.  Sometimes the fear is real and valid, other times, while it is still valid, it is often exacerbated by one’s mind.

Lack. Of. Control.  Fear creates a threat, and when the body/mind feels threatened, our nervous systems (sympathetic and parasympathetic) respond automatically in one of three ways:  fight, flight, or freeze. Fight-flight-or-freeze is not a conscious decision.  It is an automatic reaction for which you have little to no control. 

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Recently, I viewed the documentary, Robin’s Wish.  This short film, a little over an hour long, alternates scenes of honoring/remembering Williams the actor and friend, as well as reflections/responses to his decline.  Ultimately, it wraps up with events from his tragic death, and the discovery that what was initially diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease was actually Lewy body dementia, the third most common type of dementia according to the Alzheimer’s Association, shedding new light and greater understanding for William’s untimely death.  It concludes with a note of hope:  Robin’s wish . . .

“I want to help people be less afraid,”–Robin Williams

As the film revealed, Williams battled various forms of fear his entire life.  Thus, learning that he wanted to help others be less afraid struck a heart note within me.  Williams brought laughter, joy, and mirth to audiences throughout the entirety of his prodigious career.  Through his comedic words and actions, Williams helped many feel less fearful–even if only for a short moment.

Personally, I understand battling fears as I am often filled with many sundry fears.  It is hard for me to recall being without them–although I have been told that I was fearless as a youngster.  Perhaps, it is my overactive imagination, my sensitive nature, or the unique hard-wiring of my brain, but feeling fearful has been a large part of my life.  

Most days, I “fake it ‘til I make it,” moving throughout life as if I don’t possess one single shred of fearfulness; and, it usually works.  I am able to take the fearful part of myself, box it, bound it up tightly, and store it far away in the attic of my inner world in hopes that it won’t escape.  Days, weeks, sometimes, months can go by, and not a tremor of fear is felt.  Then, like unexpected heavy rains in the middle of the night, the drip, drip, drip of fear begins to leak into my life.

It is those very fears that inspired me to write.  Beginning in those angsty middle school years, when I was fearful or did not understand something, I wrote.  Over those young years of my life, pages of journals and notebooks were filled; and then, I stopped.  My writing began to feel meaningless, trite, and purposeless; and therefore, not worth the effort. 

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Decades later, my fears grew heavy once more, threatening to consume me if I didn’t do something.  I attempted to keep boxing them, rewrapping them, and shelving them here and there within the messy recesses of my being, but they kept slipping their binds.  Ironically, I could not give them a voice–I could not articulate them–just felt them in my body:  deep belly aches/flutters, pounding heart, accelerated thoughts, and worries–constant, constant worries.

Then, at the gentle, but dogged, nudging of a friend, I began writing again.  I wrote for no one in particular–just to work out the kinks, find my voice, and learn to once more articulate–at least through the written word. Sure enough, the fears began to loosen–not per se, leave, but at least they were becoming more tame–most days!

Reading Williams’ succinctly summed up quote, I realized that my own drive to not only write, but to share my words with others, is because I, too, want to help people feel less afraid and more focused on the positive.  In fact, I realize that was an underlying factor for likewise becoming an educator–to help children feel less afraid.  I am not sure if I have achieved either of these goals, and I know for certain that I have not, nor will not achieve to the level of Williams’ success.  Still, I can try to make a difference.  Even if I am only able to help one reader, or one student, feel they are not alone–reassure someone that they can “do hard things,” they can persevere, and they can live with fear without it ruling their life–then, I have achieved my goal.  While my writing, or teaching, will not earn an academy award, nor lead to fame or fortune, if it leaves a small mark within a life or two, then that is enough reward.

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Recently, I was making my way down the Ritter Park path.  It was riddled with puddles after days of rain.  Unless you like mud-soaked shoes and ankles, you had to work with others to navigate through and around the numerous soggy patches of earth.  That is what life is about, working with others to get through the sloppy times.  Some of us do that on a large-scale, such as Robin Williams, and the rest of us have opportunities and moments in life in which we can help one another navigate through and around rough patches, using whatever gifts God has given us. 

Don’t ever think you are alone in your fears, Dear Reader.  You are not, and you can persist in spite of them. 

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