Anxiety. We all have some of it. Anxiety over tests, over flying, over not getting homework done or waking up late for work. The list goes on, and on, and on. It’s talked to death about in psychology journals, on television, and in our daily lives.
I don’t have some anxiety. I don’t experience panic and concern sometimes.
When I tell people I have anxiety, they always underestimate what I mean. They joke with me about it and ask what makes me anxious and what I do. Some people make fun of me for it, or they get angry when I start to fall into a panic. When I start asking questions like, “where are we going?” “when will we get there?” “what time is it?” “what stop again?” “what if I don’t find my phone?” “what if something goes wrong?”
What if, what if.
This past week I was in New York city. Fantastic city. Was there for a model UN.
For most people in my group, New York was an amazing escape from our tiny little college town in Northern Idaho. They went out drinking, had a great time, stayed in the city until 4 am, partied, and were excited by every little thing.
For me, New York was a cesspool of anxiety. I spent the entire week panicking over silly things, like what would happen if someone climbed to the 15th floor of the hotel room where we stayed, broke in and stole my binder for the conference? What if people got in trouble for drinking? Not what if I got in trouble for drinking, but everyone else. What if I upset someone, or if I walked to close to someone in Times Square and got yelled at. What if I was annoying everyone. What if I got mugged. What if I ran out of money. What if….
What if is the biggest question I ask. What if what if. These questions float around in my mind every second of every day and I think about everything. Even right now, writing this, sitting with my friend, I’m freaking out because what if I get to close to him? What if he’s annoyed by me sitting here? Doesn’t matter that he sat next to me, or that he’s never complained before or anything. I worry about it, and I freak out about it. I constantly shift and think about how close I am to him.
So in New York, a city filled with people and loud noises, two of my biggest triggers, I absolutely flipped. There was no safe place, I had no room of my own, I had to share a bed, buy food in crowded places, I met hundreds of new people, and I wasn’t sleeping.
Only a few people understood.
“Lin, you need to calm the f*ck down.”
I heard that so many times. Not necessarily like that, but different versions of it. A few people kept me level headed. One of the girls I was rooming with understood my anxiety and she did her best to keep me calm. When we visited the UN, she kept reminding me that it was okay, and that we weren’t going to die on the subway. She told me it was okay to calm down and take a deep breath, not that I needed to.
She got it. A lot of my friends got it. My best friends know my anxiety and even when it clearly annoys them, they help me out. And I worry about that. I worry that I’m annoying them, or when I have a panic attack I’m inconveniencing them. I had a panic attack yesterday. A friend threw a hershey’s kiss at the couch next to me. His aim sucks. So he hit me instead. It didn’t hurt, it wasn’t scary, but it set off a panic attack and I bolted from the room. Full on. Just said I needed to get out and ran because I didn’t want to worry people.
Yet all of that worrying about my anxiety makes me more anxious.
To the people who understand, I thank you. To those who think that my anxiety is a ploy for attention? Who get angry with me without considering why I might be upset? And to those who have told me, to my face, that it’s all in my head and it’s easy to calm down, here’s what it’s like to have anxiety:
You’re sitting in a room. It’s empty and you’re calm. Your mind is whirring, asking questions about life, about what you’re going to do for dinner, about how loud you’re being, and so on. Pretty normal things. Then someone enters. A person you know. The questions grow.
What are they doing? Are they okay? What if they need to talk? Should I put off my homework? How loud is it going to be?
They say hello and turn on their computer. They play some music.
Are we going to get in trouble? Are we annoying the person above us? Next to us?
You smile and keep talking to them. Everything is going fine. Someone else joins and they sit close to you. Too close. They don’t realize you’re shrinking away and they’re acting like normal. You don’t want to ask them to move, but you’re having trouble breathing.
What if they hate me? I don’t want to annoy them. This is normal for them, right? This is what people do? Why can’t I just calm down? Why do I keep thinking about this? It’s normal to want to be touched. It’s normal. Why can’t I be normal?
More people come down. It’s the common area. You aren’t surprised. Before long everyone is laughing and joking around. You give up on your homework.
What if I don’t get it done in time? Will the teacher know I stayed up late to do this? What if I get an F? What if I sleep in? What if I can’t figure it out on my own and I need help but no one is awake to help me?
You’re trying to stay calm but small things are getting to you. Someone laughs and you flinch. Someone moves too fast and you curl into a ball. You want to find the corner and hide. You’re scared and upset but you can’t show anyone. You keep smiling. You keep laughing.
I don’t want to annoy anyone. Anxiety is stupid. It should just go away. Just calm down. Calm down. Calm down. Calm down.
The repetition isn’t helping. It’s making it worse. All you can think about is what happens if people notice you panicking. If they see you flinch and make fun of you for it. If they find it annoying that you’re on the verge of tears. You don’t want to cry. You want your breathing to go back to normal. You’re tired of forcing the smile.
But you can’t. All you want to do is calm down and to stop thinking. All those stupid questions, you want them gone. You want to take a minute to sit in silence. Absolute silence. No questions. No internal monologue going on about what might happen. You want to feel secure in your friendships and in your life.
But you can’t.
And you know you can’t.
And you know it’s wrong.
You know it’s messed up.
So you panic.
All eyes are on you. People are asking if you’re alright. They’re concerned, but a voice in your head is telling you they’re annoyed and they hate you. They want you to shut up and stop wasting their time. Somewhere in the back you know it’s wrong. These people care about you.
Logic means nothing.
You’re overcome by fear. You’re shaking, and crying, and you can’t breathe. All of your mind is focused toward escaping. You need to escape. You need to get out.
I go through this almost every day. It’s not always as extreme, but the questions are there. The panic is there. If something goes wrong I can’t focus on anything but that. It doesn’t matter what I do, or what people say. No amount of concern helps. Nothing helps.
But I live with it.
But what if one day I can’t?
The burning question always present in my mind. What if one day it becomes too much.
And that in itself is anxiety. A never ending cycle of fear that you know is wrong. You know rationally there’s no reason to be afraid.
It’s a shame, truly, that logic is overwhelmed by emotion.
So all I can do is manage.