Imagine you’re taking your calculus test when suddenly and inexplicably, you’re covered in spiders. They’re crawling into your sleeves, they’re in your hair, they’re brushing against your eyelashes, there’s a leg in your mouth. You can feel a thousand little legs working their way across your skin.
But you have to focus on your test. You’re expected to do just as well as the people who were not covered in spiders.
Imagine if every time you leave the house, there’s a wasp there waiting for you. As soon as you step outside he starts to harass you. He buzzes around your head. You cannot escape it. You run but it just follows you, landing on the side of your neck or on your cheek every now and again. You’re expected to ignore this wasp and carry about your business as if it isn’t there. Maybe you’d be better off just staying inside where the wasp doesn’t bother you.
Spiders and wasps induce anxiety in perfectly normal people. For some people, the exact same feelings are induced by harmless things or even nothing at all. It’s distracting. It’s stressful. It’s exhausting. And it absolutely will have an impact on your ability to focus and succeed.
EDIT: Woo hoo! I’ve been gilded! Thank you! I hope I’ve helped someone get a little more insight into what someone they love is dealing with.
Anxiety affects everyone differently, but for me it’s a plague of the what if’s. My biggest fear is looking out of place in society or being unprepared for something. So say, for example, I need to drive to the store. What if I forget my wallet? What if I lock my keys in the car? What if I get the wrong items? What if I get in a car accident on the way? What if I forgot my phone? What if my car broke down on the side of the road? What if I’m mugged? All the bad things that could happen, no matter how plausible, pile up and start to look like reality, until going to the store seems like a massive challenge. At night, I can’t sleep because I’m running over everything I said or did during the day and thinking about all the bad things that could result from them. It becomes easier to isolate yourself, and avoid any situation that could cause consequences, including work. Not to mention the panic attacks- that fear that can grip you at any time and make you unable to breathe, make your heart rate go up. A full-blown panic attack is comparable to the terror of leaning over the edge of a cliff. When you get one it’s hard to do anything but curl up on the floor and wait for it to pass. Anxiety is a debilitating illness. Please be kind and understanding to anyone struggling with it.
One of the most frustrating things about having anxiety is that we fully recognize how illogical it is to be afraid to go to the store to buy some milk, or meet a friend for coffee, or call and make a doctor’s appointment, etc. But despite knowing that logically things will most likely be fine, it doesn’t stop us from going into fight or flight mode. So performing everyday tasks can be like having to walk through a lion’s den full of very hungry lions while trying to convince yourself that the lion’s aren’t going to eat you. Some days you can do it, and some days the lion’s scare you away and you can’t leave your house, or your bedroom.
Anytime I’m on the subway and the lights flicker for a second, or the train stops momentarily in the tunnel, I immediately start to panic thinking “THIS IS GOING TO TURN INTO THE MOVIE ‘DAYLIGHT’ STARRING SYLVESTER STALLONE!!”
Also anxiety is usually comorbid with other mental illnesses like depression, ADD/ADHD, and OCD. So it’s likely that someone with anxiety is dealing with more than just anxiety (which on it’s own makes life very difficult). I promise you it’s a package deal that is WAY worse than any of your cable provider’s bundle plans.
Anxiety is a little like your body’s immune system.
When you have an allergy it’s sort of like your immune system has decided something boring (dust, cat spit, Mitch McConnell’s face) is actually a dangerous invading force and responds as such.
Anxiety is your brain’s normal response to dangerous situations. Sometimes, though, your brain has decided something boring (driving, social interaction, Mitch McConnell’s face) is actually something dangerous and responds with a wonderful cascade of stress hormones.
Just like with allergies, different people’s anxieties can be more or less severe. While I can usually muddle my way through a stressful social encounter without freaking out too much, some people will literally hyperventilate at the thought of talking to another person. No fun!
Weird psych fact: non-human animals display anxiety, too. If you take a rat and teach it to press a lever for food, it will press it a lot. Every time you put it in the box, it will press the lever. This is kind of like someone going about their day like a “normal person”: we do our jobs to get food and stuff.
Let’s add another part to the experiment: a red light that we can turn on and off. If we turn the light on, the rat doesn’t seem to care; he just goes about his day, pushing the lever and getting food. The light doesn’t mean anything to him yet.
Now, let’s add in one final part: after the light has been on for a full minute, we then turn the light off and give the rat a shock. Basically, the light being on means that a shock is coming.
At first, the rat’s behavior doesn’t change. He doesn’t like the shock, and he jumps when it happens, but he keeps on pressing the lever and getting food. After more and more trials, though, he learns what the light means: you are going to be shocked, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Over time, turning on the light causes him to press the lever slower and slower, until eventually he stops pressing it altogether.
Okay, so what if we take away the shocking part, so that the light doesn’t mean anything anymore? Eventually, the rat goes back to normal, but it takes a while. For a time, whenever the light is turned on, he slows or stops his lever-pressing.
There are a couple of important things to keep in mind. First, the rat can’t avoid the shock. No matter what he does, as soon as the light turns off, he gets shocked. If he learns that some sort of behavior avoids it (like, for instance, a platform where he can be safe), he will choose to do that whenever the light turns on instead. Second, people aren’t rats. Language and culture can make humans do weird stuff that other animals simply don’t do. Third, this experiment doesn’t explain why anxiety happens, just how it works. Why is a trickier question, and behavioral psych doesn’t like to talk about those sorts of things very much.
However, the experiment, which has been conducted and verified numerous times across many species since the 1940s, is helpful when thinking about how to help people with anxiety. A psychiatrist or therapist could help a person identify their own “red lights,” help a person find “safe platforms,” or help a person unlearn the “red light-shock” relationship.
Source: a behavioral psych class. The original experiment (which used tones, not lights) is: Estes, W. K., and Skinner, B. F. (1941). Some quantitative properties of anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 29, pp. 390-400.