My anxiety spiked bigtime last Sunday. But what does that mean? What does that feel like? Thanks for asking. Let’s look at that together. I live with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. For me, that means I will just suddenly be in a panic, with no warning, about nothing in particular. The panic will have no specific subject for me. I won’t be panicked about something. Just panicked. I have blogged a bit about this before: Meet Dave: My Anxiety Vampire » Can’t Juggle (cantjuggle.com).
In this post, I would like to help educate those who don’t suffer from this type of disorder; hopefully increasing understanding and chipping away at the stigma that surrounds mental disorders in general. In the process, I am also hoping to help those who have dealt with anxiety/panic, beyond what the more neuro-typical members of our species face, to feel less alone.
We all experience anxiety
We have all experienced anxiety in our lives. When you are nervous before a date or a big presentation at work or school? Anxiety. When you are hosting family over the holidays and feel some stress over wanting everything to go well… Anxiety.
Basically, although perhaps a bit over-simplified, when it makes sense that you are nervous or stressed, and these feelings are an annoyance, but you are able to push through them without too much effort, then you are likely having a neuro-typical experience of anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal response to threat, and the discomfort it creates is meant to capture attention and stimulate a protective response.“The Biology of Anxiety” page of Psychology Today website
We don’t all have anxiety disorders
If your anxiety/panic doesn’t seem to fit your situation, if it is out of proportion, if you cannot make sense of what it’s about, if it creates major obstacles for your daily life or even forces you to make different life choices in order to get around it, then it is likely not a neuro-typical experience of anxiety.
There’s a huge difference between having sweaty palms and an increased heart rate while teaching a room of 100+ people about databases (been there, done that) and pulling out of public speaking altogether because you feel outright terror about just being in a room with even 5 people (been there, done that).
But too often, the anxiety is excessive, or sustained, or inappropriate to what set it off, and it interferes with every-day functioning—or sets in motion maladaptive behaviors, from avoidance of threat-generating situations to substance use, to avoid the discomfort of anxiety.“The Biology of Anxiety” page of Psychology Today website
This is not to say that anyone who experiences a period of intense anxiety has an anxiety disorder. Some of us, though, experience them frequently and sometimes for much longer durations that our more neuro-typical friends.
Anxiety is mental AND physical
Anxiety often involves thoughts or feelings, and even sometimes the lack of one or the other.
- Racing thoughts that come fast and fly by too quickly to deal with
- A single thought that is just so huge and so insistent that you have no energy of attention for anything else
- Catastrophizing (those what-if scenarios of impending doom for you or loved ones or EVERYONE)
- The intense desire/need to defend yourself or run away
All of those and more can be mental experiences of anxiety. Sometimes, our brains (without our conscious decision to do so) may just say, NOPE, and shut out everything so we aren’t seeing, hearing, feeling anything around us (dissociation). This is rather like the “burying your head in the sand” analogy, trying to make something go away by removing it from our lived experience.
From a biological perspective, anxiety triggers several physical changes. This includes:
- The amygdala perceives a threat sounds the alarm
- Adrenal glands flood the body with norepinephrine (adrenaline)
- The pre-frontal cortex of the brain, which controls reasoning and decision make, and usually keeps the amygdala in check, is circumvented
- [more science stuff]
- The body prepares all systems for the fight or flight for very survival
The bypassing of the pre-frontal cortex is HUGE. Your brain actually shuts down your ability to reason, think, make rational decisions. This is why it is useless and just plain cruel to tell someone having an attack or anxiety/panic to “calm down.” It just makes no sense and, beyond providing less than zero help, may make them want to beat the shit out of you on top of everything else. Instead, before doing/saying anything, image that person set you on fire and then expects you to do long division. Then, with that scenario in mind, proceed from a place of empathy/compassion.
What anxiety/panic feels like for me
You’ve been startled before. Probably many times. Do you recall that tingling sensation that spikes just for a split second? That very brief, but very intense FUCK! that your body and mind experience? For me, anxiety/panic is almost identical…. except it can last for an hour or two or three… I don’t wish it on ANYONE.
And that is just DURING the attack. Because of the physical aspects of anxiety above, it leaves me utterly exhausted. My body had readied itself to fight or flight for survival; the fact that it didn’t NEED to do that is irrelevant.
I have never done drugs. So, not THAT acid.
I am a data professional. That means working with databases and tools for helping people make the best use of the information at their disposal. In database systems, there is a concept of a transaction: a collection of steps/tasks that must adhere to certain principals known as ACID in order to guarantee validity, among other things. A full discussion of ACID is beyond my scope here. I will focus just on one:
Atomicity: All the steps, parts of the transaction must either SUCCEED together or FAIL together as a unit.
A common way of learning about transactions is by thinking of a banking transaction. Suppose you want to transfer $100 from your Savings account to your Checking account. There are two pieces to this process:
- Withdrawing $100 from Savings
- Depositing $100 into Checking
It is really important for BOTH of these steps to occur. If the first step happens, but the second step does not, ACID properties of the transaction, as implemented by your bank, will put the $100 back into your savings. You lose nothing.
Anxiety doesn’t give a fuck about ACID properties of transactions. So, when it readies your body and mind for action, withdrawing that $100 from Savings, it doesn’t matter if you end up using that readiness to actually fight/flight for your life or not. It’s gone. You can recover over time, depositing other money into your savings account, but that $100 is lost.
When my anxiety spiked last Sunday, even though I had my medication and coping skills to help, it kicked my ass. I ended up missing work on Monday. And I didn’t feel a whole lot better until Thursday. It is THAT profoundly draining. That’s it. I hope someone finds this helpful. And if not, I won’t worry about it… maybe.