Almost 2 years ago I experienced a terrible panic attack that shook me to the core as it seemingly came out of nowhere. In the aftermath I became antisocial, anxious about everyday activities, and dependent on my family to help me emotionally through the roughest period of my life. I became deathly afraid of things I used to love to do like driving, flying, meeting new people, or going anywhere with large crowds. I became agoraphobic which caused me greater anxiety, and down the rabbit hole of depression and cyclical thoughts we go. In that time period there were people in my life that became safety blankets for me because of their demeanor, their knowledge of me, and the things they said when I was around them.
This week Lindsay Holmes at the Huffington Post published an article titled
…and it made me happy to be reassured that I was not alone in my anxiety and emotions. Her piece covers some of the most basic things about anxiety that you truly can’t understand unless you are one of the millions suffering from this disorder, and I’d like to expand on it to share what did and didn’t help from those around me when I was in the thick of the fight.
I like to think people are naturally helpful and so when we see a problem we either try to fix it or find someone who can. My mother-in-law embodies this philosophy and is a genuine listener who then offers advice. For people living with an anxiety disorder…this doesn’t work. The human reaction to seeing someone freak out (out of nowhere) is to say things like “calm down,” or “take it easy,” or my least favorite “get a hold of yourself.” I heard all these things from many people in the early days after my panic attack and they became the triggers that sent my anxiety spiraling further out of control…because I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get a hold of myself. I didn’t understand why I was so scared of everything…and when I couldn’t get a hold of myself I became afraid that I was broken, un-fixable, dying, and useless. My mother-in-law saw this and instead of trying to fix me she started asking me simple questions like, “Can you tell me what you are afraid of right now?” That simple question allowed me to vocalize my anxiety as opposed to trying to internalize it…and it made all the difference in the world. Those early days, weeks, and months after my panic attack was like a dam overflowing after heavy rains. I’d open up the flow valve, let the emotions spill out of me till levels returned to “normal,” and then do it again once things started spilling over.
Telling some one to “take it easy” is asking them to internalize something that needs to be jettisoned. Asking them what they are feeling is an invitation to vet the poisonous thoughts. When those thoughts and emotions come spilling through the flow valve the best thing you can do as the person listening…is just listen. Don’t try to fix someone’s anxiety…just listen.
In it Dr. Brown discusses the differences between sympathy and empathy and how empathy drives human connection.
Empathy is the number 1 tool people should use when they are confronted with someone who suffers from anxiety. Empathy shows that you are a person we can be ourselves around and you won’t judge us for the silly things we may say. I’m afraid of being alone while at the same time afraid of being around people…this is a conundrum. I’m happiest at work where I can be around people but alone in my own bubble, or at home chilling out with my wife but lost in my own thought. Empathy is the greatest tool you can use when speaking to someone suffering from anxiety because you are telling us we are not alone…when we feel completely alone.
In Holmes’ Huffington Post piece she talks about the physical symptoms and how real they are. I’ve had IBS my whole life and in the past 2 years I’ve come to appreciate (and almost fully understand) the connection between my GI Tract, my migraines, and my anxiety. They are all linked. The onset of a situation that causes me anxiety elicits real stomach flu symptoms that are much more serious than “butterflies in your stomach.” Knowing this, and being empathetic to the situation, is a great help. For people without anxiety disorders the logical solution to a migraine is a pain killer, GI issues get an Immodium, and reflux take an antacid. However, most people I know living with anxiety disorders are scared to take any kind of medication. I’m scared of Advil and have to read the bottle over and over again before taking the right dosage if I deem the timing to be right, such as near a meal. Nowadays I take a Beta Blocker every morning and a Clonazepam every night for my anxiety…and it took me over a year to get past the anxiety of taking anti-anxiety pills! Why? Because people like me think in cycles. We get stuck on something…a thought that rolls around and around till it becomes a fear. Its illogical…but to us the progression to conclusion is fully logical.
Here is where it gets tricky: The part that struck a chord with me the most in Holmes’ piece was the differences between feeling anxious and stressed out. All of us knows what it feels like to be stressed out, overwhelmed, and emotional…which is why people try to act empathetic towards someone with anxiety. However, this just further makes us feel “broken” because we ask ourselves (in a cyclical thought), “Why can’t I just get over this like they do?” We can’t…at least not in that moment. Telling someone who suffers from anxiety that you “know how they feel” because you got overwhelmed and stressed out by a situation is actually hurtful to us. Its insulting. Its like telling someone with insomnia to count sheep. Being “stressed out” and suffering from an anxiety disorder are massively different. While this is an empathic act it is relating your feeling of stress to our feeling of anxiety. I found out that a few of my friends had gone through similar battles of anxiety. One of my closest and best friends had an experience almost identical to mine…and when he told me that 2 years ago, I thought he was trying to be empathic but couldn’t possibly understand how I felt. Last night the two of us went to a baseball game and talked about our anxiety together and it was amazing to hear someone who had gone through the same stuff as me and I got to hear what worked for him and I told him what worked for me. This is where empathy works. Two people who can relate about anxiety. Comradery. Knowing you are not alone.
Sympathy, as Dr. Brown puts it, is attempting to put a silver lining on a situation. I have anxiety about this flight. “At least you get to fly.” I’m afraid of being alone. “At least you get to be alone.” I’m afraid of having a stroke and think every headache is my last moment of life. “At least you’ve had a good run.” That doesn’t do anyone any good.
If someone you know is living with anxiety, don’t tell them about the things that are good in their life or what the “bright side” of the situation is…allow yourself to be vulnerable like them and ask what they are feeling. Don’t try to fix them…listen to them. Don’t get frustrated with their physical symptoms…they’re very real. Don’t confuse stress with anxiety…you can take measures to relieve stress, anxiety disorders require more help. One of the things I found to be a common thread among everyone I have ever met out there with an anxiety disorder is that we scour the internet looking for “The Answer.” The breathing technique, the arsenic in our drinking water, the pollutant in the air, the fire retardant materials building up in breast milk being passed on to newborns, climate control, fracking, WWIII, flying monkeys, government conspiracies…ANYTHING!!! Anything that is the single answer to make our anxiety go away or explain why we have it. It doesn’t exist. For me I swore it was artificial sweeteners. It wasn’t. It was me. I was built this way…for whatever reason. This is who I am.
Here is what I can tell you: (1) My friend was right…it gets better. Its amazing how much better it can get with the right help, tools, and support. (2) CBT therapy seems like a joke at first…but it works. (3) Medications help. Some people take nothing, some take a little, some take a lot. If you were diagnosed with cancer you’d seek help and take medications. Sometimes you need a crutch while you build mental tools and sometimes you need something to help you function better. Its okay. (4) Anxiety can take you on a journey of self discovery…which can be scary…but it can also be freeing. (5) Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, etc…it all works. Even if you don’t believe in it, you learn how to tell your brain to “shut up!” (6) Empathy. You’ll learn more than you ever knew about empathy. You’ll find that most people, once you let down your guard and allow them to see you be vulnerable, will be empathetic to you. (7) If you haven’t found that empathic comradery with other people who have an anxiety disorder, comment on this post or anything on this site and I will listen to you. To quote Dr. Brene Brown, “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” I’m happy to be that connection and let you know…you are not alone.
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