I write this blog for one of two reasons: 1. To help others with mental/physical illnesses understand more about their condition(s) and 2. To help those who don’t know much about mental/physical illnesses, or for those who wish to help someone they know with a specific condition. This post falls in the latter category––I want to break anxiety down into simpler terms for those who don’t struggle with it and are willing to understand more about it.
Myths vs. facts
First, we’re all socialized to believe certain things, and mental illness is no exception, according to Psychology Today. Due to your own life experiences or things other people have said, you probably have some misconceptions (negative stigma) about anxiety.
Here’s an infographic from the ADAA with myths and corrections. Feel free to put this on your phone or print it out for future reference. Pay particular attention to the third one; I’ve had several people tell me that I can’t possibly handle high-stress situations due to my anxiety. They’re wrong, and this infographic contains the correct answer. Plus, dealing with stressful situations isn’t one of my triggers––unless we’re talking about academic assignments––because I have performance anxiety (which is actually minor now that I’ve worked through my fear of imperfection).
Also note the final myth here. I actually haven’t really had a problem with people being too encouraging; on the other hand, I’ve had people say things that are too harsh. You need to have a balanced response. Give some tough love, but in a respectful way. An example of this is, “I get you’re feeling upset about making mistakes at work, but have you told your manager ways they can help you?” As the previous answer states, you DO need to face your fears and stop avoiding situations that make you fearful. Personally, I take a step forward and back in this area––I don’t avoid people or situations that make me anxious, but sometimes I do have minor panic attacks if I still feel like I’m not doing something well enough or am not “good enough” for someone.
Now that you’ve taken a look at some of these truths vs. myths, let’s look at what goes on in the mind of someone with anxiety.
The anxiety cycle
This isn’t the most comprehensive diagram, but it will suffice. My therapist often gave me a diagram just like this, but blank, so I could fill in my own thoughts, triggers, feelings, and behaviors. As you can see, the majority of anxiety and panic attacks start with a trigger (AKA a fear), which leads to a thought, then intense feelings, and behaviors that result from those thoughts and feelings. Most people have what’s called “the critic” in their head, according to Anne-Marie Hearne. This is a voice that tells you everything that’s wrong with you as a person––your flaws and insecurities. I’ve been working on shutting mine off throughout this year.
As I filled out this diagram with my third therapist last fall, I realized that you can often change this cycle around. Let’s look at my performance anxiety as an example.
- Thought: I always screw things up. Feeling: I feel like a failure. Behavior: Staying silent when someone tries to comfort me.
- Feeling: I feel upset because I messed something up again. Thought: I’ll never do anything right. Behavior: retreating to my room and feeling down about myself.
- Behavior: Beating myself up for a mistake I made. Thought: Will I ever make anyone happy? Feeling: I’m worthless.
Clearly, this cycle has nuances, so if you can identify someone’s thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, you can probably get to the root of their anxiety. Try asking some of these questions if you’re unsure about how to help someone, according to WebMD.
- How often do you feel this way/ how many times have you gone through something like this?
- What happened that made you feel this way?
- What did you think would happen?
You can also say some of things things from Health Central.
- Your fears are understandable (so, validating their emotions).
- I am here to support you.
- How can I help you?
- Everything will get better––you can get through this, it’s okay.
- What strategies help best when you feel anxious? (This can also help them resource their anxiety-management strategies if they’re not actively using them).
- We can get through this together.
Looking at the responses above, the best things you can do are A) provide support B) stay with the person and C) offer solidarity. There are definitely some things you want to avoid (check out the post I previously wrote about that here), but I’ll revisit some of them.
Things to AVOID doing:
- Invalidating their feelings. Regardless of whether or not you agree with the person’s feelings, they need your support. Since anxiety happens when someone’s flight or fight system isn’t working properly, their emotions are heightened during anxiety/panic attacks. Therefore, invalidating their emotions will only make them defensive and feel like you’re not listening. I understand many people think they’re helping by saying things like, “You really need to get over your fears,” but wait until after the person calms down. This way, their rational thinking returns, and they most likely won’t be on guard.
- Trying to make them talk too soon. Anxiety and panic attacks come with many physical symptoms, according to Health Guide: shortness of breath, hyperventilating, irritability, difficulty concentrating, feelings of dread, dizziness, muscle tension, headaches, sweating, and a pounding heart. Clearly, they’re a bit unstable at this point. Trying to make someone talk when they’re experiencing these things doesn’t really work because they can’t speak very well; it’s difficult to understand someone when they’re blubbering and hyperventilating. Wait until they feel better––it usually only takes probably about 10 minutes or so. It’ll feel like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not too long.
- Attacking them I don’t really even need to explain this one. The moment you make someone feel ashamed about their anxiety, they won’t trust you, and they’ll stand up for themselves because they’re used to others being judgmental towards them. You may not personally struggle with it, or you may think they’re being irrational, but at least try to see things from their perspective if you really care about them. If nothing else, go find someone else who you think can really help them.
While I’m thinking about it, asking someone to write down or draw out their feelings during anxious moments will help tremendously! This way, you’re not frustrated about their lack of communication, and they don’t feel pressured to physically vocalize their feelings. It’s a win-win.
Types of anxiety and triggers
Anxiety is not a cookie-cutter condition. Just like there are many varieties of cakes, there are also many varieties of anxiety. Most people think all anxiety is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), where people feel anxious about pretty much everything––and although GAD is common, a lot of anxiety sufferers only feel anxious when their specific fears are triggered.
Here are some different types (from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services):
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder––characterized by chronic anxiety, even when there’s really no cause for it.
- Panic Disorder (which I have)––characterized by repeated episodes of intense fear, accompanied by physical symptoms.
- OCD––characterized by intense thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors (a compulsion to do or feel something).
- Social Anxiety––overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in social situations
- PTSD––develops after exposure to a traumatic event.
So, you see, it’s hard to understand anxiety until you know about these different disorders. Someone could be anxious about the need to wash their hands all the time. Others may be afraid of talking to others and become mute. Some may feel anxious anywhere they go. Others may feel anxious when they’re in a situation that reminds them of the abuse they faced as a child (emotional or physical). Some may be anxious only when it comes to work or school performance (ergo, me). Everyone’s different.
Ultimately, anything can become a trigger, but these are some common ones (from Healthline).
- Health issues
- Caffeine (this may work differently for those who have ADHD, like me. It actually helps my anxiety).
- Skipping meals
- Negative thinking
- Financial concerns
- Parties/social events
- Public events or performances
- Personal triggers––traumatic events, songs, places, or anything that reminds you of a bad memory.
I personally can check off the following: health issues, skipping meals, negative thinking, finances, conflict, performance situations, and bad memories.
Here’s how those play out in my personal life.
When my gastritis/GERD were at their worst, I became incredibly anxious (with severe panic attacks every-other-day) because I was almost at the point where I needed to be fed with an IV tube because I literally couldn’t eat anything without being in tremendous pain.
I become anxious when I skip meals because I’m hypoglycemic, so I already need to eat something every couple of hours. If I don’t, I become incredibly tired and don’t have the energy I need to push through the day.
I’m notorious for negative thinking, and this makes me anxious because those thoughts plague me all day. It’s like a mixtape in my head that never shuts off, and it makes me feel physically exhausted. That’s why it’s so important for me to process negative thoughts.
Regarding finances, this isn’t normally a trigger for me, but it can be because I’m often compelled to work over 30 hours a week to pay off my student loans.
I recently discovered that conflict is a MAJOR trigger for me. I generally don’t experience conflict because I’m an easygoing person, but I do occasionally. I recently went through a conflict, where I felt like I wasn’t being listened to and wasn’t given grace for my mistakes. Instead of dealing with it immediately, I decided to ignore it and hoped it would become better. That didn’t happen. Instead, I became frustrated and everything blew up in my face. Lesson learned: deal with the issue before you become frustrated and, in turn, make someone else feel frustrated toward you.
Performance is a bit different for me––I explained my triggers earlier, so I won’t rehash them here.
Lastly, personal triggers. Mine come from bad memories––specifically when I was bullied in high school and when I experienced several rejections from the campus newspaper and magazine in college, despite my professors telling me I was a talented writer. Due to these experiences, I often get flashbacks when people tell me I always make mistakes, hold my mistakes against me, or say that I’ll never be good enough to do “x thing.” It’s similar to PTSD, but not as severe.
Why people with anxiety feel emotions so intensely
It’s no surprise that mainly feelers struggle with anxiety. After all, if thoughts and emotions usually cause the physical manifestations, then it makes sense. Thinkers don’t generally struggle with it as much because they’re very rational and don’t rely on their emotions too often––strong emotions are generally uncomfortable for them. Feelers, on the other hand, trust their emotions and often physically feel them. Those who internalize these emotions: they’re called empaths.
Healthy Place provides an excellent definition of an empath:
Empaths are individuals who are unconsciously affected by other people’s moods, desires, thoughts, and energies. They can, literally, feel the emotions of others in their bodies and attempt to carry these emotions on their shoulders without ever being asked. It’s for this reason that there are often anxious empaths.
I literally feel other people’s emotions (which is why I can become upset with people who try to lie to me about their emotions, especially their emotions toward me) and, as a result, feel emotions very intensely. That’s how I developed gastritis: my body literally internalized stress to the point where I eroded my stomach and esophagus.
Anyways, I’m an INFJ––with 80 percent feeling––AND an empath. That’s a perfect combination for an anxiety disorder, unfortunately. So, because I feel things so intensely, any “overwhelming” feelings (grief, frustration, stress) impact me severely to the point where I can emotionally overload and shut down. After anxiety attacks, I often feel “numb” because I’m that spent. Also, I know exactly how other people feel about me just by taking in their tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. They don’t even have to say anything––I just know because I can feel it. Therefore, I hate it when people lie to me about the way they feel, especially if they have a problem with me.
So, taking this all into account, this is something to look for in those who struggle with anxiety. Find out what their Myers-Briggs is and if they’re an empath. Then you’ll understand why they feel the way they do and see that their problem isn’t really that big, but it seems big to them because of the emotions they’re feeling.
Feeling-type personalities may also be Highly Sensitive People (HSPs), so they are very sensitive and dealing with unmanaged emotions wears them out. Although they can find ways to feel less sensitive, they’re still probably more sensitive than the average person, myself included. Therefore, if you think someone is overly sensitive, just work with them and try to find less-harmful words or phrases.
According to Managing Anxiety and Stress by James Archer, feelers often manage their anxiety best by talking about their feelings with others, feeling understood by others, and by expressing their feelings. This is especially important for HSPs, who can easily become overwhelmed if they bottle up pain or hard emotions inside them and then let them all out in frustration or anger. If you want to learn more about this from a Christian perspective, I suggest reading The Gifting of Highly Sensitive Burden Bearers .
On that note, I want you to know that being an HSP isn’t a bad thing––I believe God created these people to become counselors, psychologists, teachers, as well as fulfill other roles that require emotional sensitivity. However, left unmanaged, it can become destructive. I’ve become aware of this, but I’m also not perfect. I try not to overreact, but I will become upset if someone I trust/respect hurts me. All that to say, if you encounter an HSP, don’t chastise them for being sensitive. That’s discrediting who God created them as. What you can do is say, “Hey, I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m sorry. What’s another way I could say [fill in the blank] so your feelings don’t get hurt?”
I get it; anxiety is a difficult territory to navigate. It’s frustrating for those who don’t personally deal with it, and it comes with lots of complications. However, once you finally understand how someone experiences anxiety and what their triggers are, everything will become more manageable.
Spend more time with that person and really get to know what makes them tick, whether that’s over coffee, just hanging out, or going on a walk together. You might be surprised at what you find out. Specifically ask them what their childhood was like, what their fears are, and significant events that have shaped their life. Knowing all this information will help you “decode” that person. In addition, ask them what their personality type is. I always try to figure out a person’s Myers-Briggs personality type because it helps me understand them better.
According to the ADAA, 18.1 percent of adults struggle with anxiety. In a room with 22 people, that’s approximately four. It breaks down differently between each disorder:
- GAD: 3.1 percent, 6.8 million people.
- PD: 2.7, 6 m.
- Soc. AD: 6.8, 15 m.
- OCD: 1, 2.2m.
- PTSD: 3.5, 7.7
Furthermore, chances are you’re a college student or know someone who is. Want to know how many college students struggle with anxiety disorders? 1 in 5, according to The Conversation. That’s 20 percent. Yikes. According to Time Magazine, a record number of college students are seeking counseling, and schools can’t keep up with the demand. So, I hope this post helps some of you understand what it is you’re feeling.
Taking these statistics into account, anxiety disorders are probably more common than you originally thought. I hope this post has opened your eyes to the breadth and depth of anxiety, but also given you some clarification. If you have any questions, feel free to ask away in the comments.