Anxiety is a Smoldering Flame That Can Easily Ignite
How can we control the worries of the unknown and manage our anxiety?
Anxiety is no joke. It is the one emotional challenge that, probably everyone, has at one time or another, and at varying levels. Every individual who has anxiety disorders have their own unique triggers that cause a flame to ignite, sparking the anxious path to an inferno. I have been dealing with anxiety since my childhood, without ever realizing it. As an adult I know it’s there, and am working on managing it.
The Silent Fire
The thing about anxiety that most people have in common, is that it’s a silent affliction. Anxiety doesn’t allow you to voice your feelings or the words that match what your body is going through. In many cases, no one else knows if someone is having an anxiety attack, because it is a subtle, paralyzing struggle that typically creates an inability to speak out.
During the highest points of my anxiety, and my worse days, my meltdowns were in private. I tend to go to my car, or to the washroom and try to compose myself before anyone notices that I am struggling. This can be helpful if you are someone who is able to manage the illness, however, if you are unable to cope, it can make the anxiety elevate to new levels.
Think of a time when you were in a situation that created your mind to spiral into anxious thoughts. What triggered it? Could you manage it, or did it take a dangerously worse turn?
I have had both happen, personally.
During a visit to Walmart a few years ago, I had a full-on breakdown. I had been quietly shopping mid-morning, with a basket on my arm. I had been filling it with necessities, like deodorant, toothpaste, and a few odds and ends. I needed some large containers to sort my pantry out at home, and found myself staring at multiple shelves of various types of bins.
Before I knew what was happening, the lights in the store seemed blinding, the music from the speakers sounded distorted and overbearing, and the voices of the few people around me seemed like they were in my ears, echoing.
Without thinking, I put the basket on the floor, and ran out of the store, as fast as I could. I sat in the driver's seat of my car and shook, before breaking down into bone wracking sobs. This was not my finest moment. My flame of anxiety burst into an inferno that I lost control of.
No one would have guessed what was going on with me. Even passersby, had they seen my crying, would never have known what just transpired. Hell, I didn’t even know what had happened. It was all just too much for me to handle.
These are extremely alarming statistics, and throughout 2020, more and more people are developing high anxiety due to the pandemic and the state of our economies.
The 6 Types of Anxiety
Maybe one or more of these seem familiar:
- Separation Anxiety Disorder- Often children have this disorder when they are away from their parents. When adults have this type of anxiety it is typically because they fear being alone, and they rely heavily on their spouse, partner, or family members to function normally. Pets will often show signs of this type of anxiety, particularly when they are new to their homes, or if they have suffered trauma.
- Specific Phobia- This is the type of anxiety that horror movies base their premises on. This type of anxiety is the fear of encountering a specific fear. Examples of this are spiders, snakes, hurricanes, clowns, or even people you deem as a threat or an enemy. Many people have specific phobias of a variety of things, like enclosed spaces, or heights, but when it is mixed with an anxious mind, it can become paralyzing.
- Social Anxiety Disorder (Social Phobia)- This is one of the most common types of anxiety. Having Social Anxiety is what causes you to feel awkward, or even invisible around other people. When you have social anxiety, the fear is that people will judge you, dislike you or not notice you. Most people with anxiety disorders struggle with social situations often. The fear of this type of anxiety is the perception of how others think of you. More often than not, a socially anxious person will cancel plans and gatherings, for fear of being uncomfortable.
- Panic Disorder- Panic disorder has an ironic twist. This is the fear of having panic attacks. People who suffer with this, base their fears on their experiences of having panic attacks in the past. They fear that they will begin to have a meltdown because they become embarrassed by the vulnerability, and what happens to their appearance if an attack should occur. In some cases, a panic attack could cause extreme shaking, sweating, or even wetting or soiling your pants. When someone with anxiety has endured panic attacks that cause themselves embarrassment, it becomes one of their greatest fears.
- Agoraphobia- This could very well be the most common disorder of 2020. This is the fear of going outside the safety of your home. With COVID-19 fears, this is one of the more understandable and relevant disorders. I have suffered from this myself, being told to stay home and fearing the germs of others, in the outside world. This disorder can cause further complications such as hoarding, weight gain, eating disorders, and other health issues. Agoraphobia tells the anxious person that it is safer and better to stay in your home because the world is a scary place, which could lead to panic attacks.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder- This disorder is a combination pack of any or all of the above. The predominant component of GAD is WORRY. You worry all the time, about things like money, disasters, family members, friends, what people think of you, and other fears that are triggered by random day to day events or situations. It is extremely common for GAD to cause or be accompanied by depression, because the worrying strips you of your ability to be positive or happy.
What Anxiety Feels Like
When you are in a situation that causes anxiety, a few things happen to your mind and body, most likely before you even realize it. At first, you just feel annoyed or irked by something that has triggered you. It could be noise, an odor, a word, an environment, or simply a thought. It could be chaos in an environment, or silence at home that sends you into an anxiety attack.
You begin to feel agitated, and you may feel trembling or an increased heart rate, or both. Often this is followed by a feeling of being too hot, or sometimes too cold. You lose the feeling of comfort before you begin to understand what is happening. It is also important to note that not everyone feels the same when they have an anxiety attack, or in the way they feel anxiety disorders.
Internally, your brain begins to match the racing of your heart, and thoughts begin to process rapidly through your brain. You feel the Flight, Fight or Freeze response ignite, before you look around to see if anyone else is noticing that you have been triggered. Sometimes you become short of breath and feel like you are panting or suffocating, and you struggle to calm yourself down. You might begin to feel dizzy, and your palms sweat as you feel panic trying to seep in.
Some people feel weak or tired, while others feel like a surge of energy is zapping them from within. You are unable to focus or concentrate and everything around you seems distorted, too light, or even too dark, and you begin to worry. There may be feelings of impending doom, or in some cases, you fear everything around you. This is when you make the decision to stay, frozen, to deal with it, or feel the need to run. Some people who have intense anxiety will fight their way out of situations if people are too close to them or impeded their escape path.
Once the anxiety has sparked the fire, it becomes critical to determine the trigger and the emotions that have flared. Is it fear? Worry? Stress? Judgement? The environment? What was the moment that caused this feeling?
Before the fire rages out of control inside you, try and take some deep breaths, sitting in a quiet spot, and remind yourself that you are safe. If you need to cry, then cry. If you feel the urge to yell and scream, I encourage you to try and let it out, but go somewhere where you can be in private, or around trustworthy people. As you breathe through it, try visualization, like imagining a safe, beautiful, peaceful place. Sip some water to stay hydrated and to allow your mouth to feel something. This will distract your brain. There are more tips and tricks to work through your worry and fear that emblazes your inner fire. You can read more about these strategies here.
Some people with anxiety have even advised eating a salt packet, or sugar packet, or drinking something fizzy, like soda, to engage your taste buds into distraction. Most people find this effective. Others will wear an elastic band around their wrist and snap it to trigger themselves back to the present with a bit of pain. I don't recommend this technique, personally, but others find it works for them.
Once you begin to calm down, take a moment to look around you, and intentionally absorb where you are to become grounded and present again. This will help your focus come back, and keep your breathing steady. Look at the cars or trees near you. Watch people walk by, and feel the seat beneath you. Take the time you need to recompose.
After you have time to regroup, try and talk it out with a trusted person, a therapist, or at least make a point of journaling what occurred. It is super important to get a grasp on what triggers your anxiety, in order to understand and manage it. If you are unable to comprehend what is happening, the coals of fire that smolder away inside of you can become a blazing fire, and become out of control, spiraling you into depression, addiction, or even suicidal thoughts.
My Anxiety is Like an Invisible Chain
I cannot tell you how many events I have missed in my lifetime due to my anxiety. I have missed family and high school reunions, trips, concerts, shows, dates, dinners with friends, and on and on. It is like I am chained to the safety of my house.
Why? Because of fear and worry, that’s why. Because of made-up scenarios in my anxious head, and because of the crippling impending doom of my own self-esteem and value. It is ridiculous how soul-crushing this illness can be.
One very valuable lesson I have learned with mental health is this:
Anxiety is rooted by your future.
Depression is rooted from your past.
Read that again, and think about it.
Depression comes from trauma or struggles that you have experienced and carry with you. If you are unable to let the emotional side effects of trauma, you cannot fight through depression in a healthy manner.
With anxiety, you fear what the future holds. Often, this is partnered with the experiences from your past, that have caused depression. Anxiety is the thought process of predicting the future.
For example, “I cannot attend that party because everyone will laugh at me”.
“I am unable to go to the store because the last time I went, I had a meltdown. I know it will happen again”.
This is a future prediction, and we don’t actually know how true it is, or how things will unfold for us until we do it. Anxiety, however, has other plans for us. Anxiety will keep us from doing things that are uncomfortable, or potentially damaging to our value or self-esteem. Anxiety draws pictures in our minds of what situations or events will look like, making worse case scenarios come alive, so that we avoid doing things to feel emotionally, or in some cases, physically safe. We honestly learn to use anxiety as a crutch to keep us in comfort zones that pose no risks.
The thing about fear and worry, however, is that it’s not REAL. Just because we think it “might” happen, doesn’t mean it will. In fact, because we come up with worse case scenarios, in order to avoid taking part in events and situations, we “should” be prepared for anything. Instead, the scenarios scare us into freezing and avoiding plans and commitments.
In working with my therapist, I have learned an acronym for fear, and it fits anxiety perfectly:
Or… False Evidence Appearing Real
How accurate is that?
Isn’t that what anxiety is, in a nutshell? It is False evidence that we believe is the reality of situations. We get the evidence from the worries in our brains, based on experiences, or based on what we imagine will happen, and it becomes the reality that keeps us from partaking in uncomfortable environments. But it’s false.
Knowing this has helped me tremendously, as far as going out and being uncomfortable in situations goes. I remind myself, if I have a visual of the worst-case scenarios, or the false evidence, that it’s not real. It’s not fact.
That typically helps me get out the door.
My Fire Still Burns
I still have anxiety-daily. This world has maxed my anxious brain for me with all the new fears and the continual pressure to avoid people. You would think that someone like me would be relieved that I don’t have to go out into stores and businesses and that it is encouraged NOT to go out, yet it fuels the anxiety flames even more.
I am medicated now, after discussions with my therapist and physician, and it “seems” to help somewhat. However, the thought of going out to stores with restrictions, and the potential for standing in lines to get in, along with the fear of COVID itself, breathes life into the fire that is my anxiety.
The best advice I can offer is to find ways to keep your anxiety from igniting into a full blown blaze. Learn to take deep cleansing breaths and count backward from 100 if you have to. Take the time to understand what triggers your worries and fears, and try to find solutions for worse case scenarios before you take steps out the door. Meditate, work out, and get enough sleep at night. It all helps.
Each step is a step. Each day is a new day. Stay present as much as you possibly can by purposefully absorbing your surrounding environment. Don’t use your past or false evidence as a guide to what you “might” encounter.
One day at a time, one step at a time, and one new uncomfortable moment at a time.
Snuff out the flames of your anxiety, and hopefully, over time, it will stop smoldering in the pit of your gut.
If you want further information about these disorders, check out this website: