Over the last week I have been made aware of three different people who are dealing with anxiety — one whose symptoms are quite severe. I have no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and all the media hype is an enormous contributing factor. Everyone is “wigged out,” but some people unfortunately have either additional medical or environmental conditions that have pushed them over anxiety’s edge.
As one who has dealt with clinical anxiety for several years, I thought I would try — difficult as it may be — to help the rest of you gain some insight into what your friends and loved ones with anxiety are feeling. Then, at least, you can love them with quiet compassion and understand how your own seemingly harmless words and actions can actually make things much worse, very quickly. For example, I have a friend who is in the medical industry. This person daily takes to social media with cute little sayings and memes to “sober” people into staying home, social distancing and wearing a mask. What this person doesn’t understand is that people have already made up their minds about these measures and their posts are only adding another daily layer of fear. As someone with anxiety, I have had to remove this person from my friends list. I genuinely love them, but I will not be adding them back. And I’ve talked to others who are doing the same kinds of things.
One thing I’d like to address very directly is how often well-meaning comments are actually triggers for worse anxiety. I remember a routine by commedian Jim Gaffigan where he talks about what it’s like to have a fourth child. “Do you want to know what it’s like to have a fourth child? Just imagine you’re drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.” Parents with multiple kids get it. So do people with anxiety. When someone is trying to manage anxiety — or worse, prevent what they are sensing is an immanent eruption — saying, “Just stop worrying about it” or “You just have to have more faith” or “We all have tough times” are the equivalent of pouring gasoline on their emotional fire. Anxiety is not something they choose or can control. Anxiety is not a matter of one’s faith. And those who have anxiety issues know full well what normal “tough times” feel like — and this isn’t it.
I want to paint a picture for you. I’ve been building this illustration in my mind for several days. It may not make any sense to you at all, but I want to at least try to give you a glimpse into our reality. I really appreciate you giving this some thought. Honestly.
Picture in your mind a room. The room itself is calm and quiet. The room just feels peaceful. This room has two doors — one marked IN and one marked OUT. Both of these doors open inward. This room also has one set of shelves: Good and sturdy, but limited space for storage. This room has three electrical outlets, each with only one open plug. Finally, this room is filled with oxygen, but with the doors closed, there is no additional airflow so the oxygen is limited (think: being inside a refrigerator for example). So there you go. That’s my world. Now let’s live in it.
On “normal” days, thoughts knock on the IN door and want me to deal with them. On “normal” days I open the door, invite the thought in, and I make decisions about the thought. I can plug the thought in so that it is actively part of my life (the room – like a lamp giving it light). I can put the thought on the shelf to address it at a more appropriate time. Or I can conclude that it’s either not helpful or needed and invite it to leave out the OUT door. On any given “normal” day, I do this process hundreds if not thousands of times, never over taxing my outlets or overflowing my shelves.
But for me, some days are not at all normal. And for others — particularly those for whom clinical anxiety is a new experience — ALL days are not normal.
On “not normal” days (or for sufferers of anxiety, should I say typical days?), thoughts do not politely knock on the door. They just barge in. Thoughts demand my attention, but at a rate and multitude at which I cannot give them the time needed to process them. The room is filling up. Bully-like thoughts are plugging themselves into my outlets — while at the same time unplugging the thoughts I have chosen to plug in — and are draining the power of my room. Other thoughts are shelving themselves — overwhelming the limited space my shelf has for storage. Further, the room is filling so fast that the OUT door can no longer be opened (remember, it opens inward) and then I realize that all these extra thoughts are stealing my air so that nearly all my oxygen is being depleted. If I cannot get to one of the doors, I will continue to smother. And THIS begins as soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning and continues well beyond bedtime until I finally fall asleep from utter mental exhaustion or from medication.
People with anxiety often fixate on a particular thought (usually negative, but can be positive). I’m not a psychologist, but I think we do this because its the one thing we NEED to plug into an outlet to return the room to peace. But there are no available outlets in the room.
Overwhelmed. Overtaxed. Can’t breathe. Can’t escape. Can’t “plug in” our most critical thought. Every. Single. Day.
I am grateful for a God that answers prayer. I am grateful for wonderful doctors and therapists – and I have no hesitation recommending either. I am grateful for medication — when I need it, it’s like a miracle, seriously. But what I am most thankful for is my family and friends. God has graced me with a bride, kids and a few incredibly insightful and prayerful friends who have taken the time to understand what’s happening inside of me when an eruption occurs. Some sufferers of anxiety are not so blessed. Some sufferers of anxiety have to endure platitudes from well-meaning people. Other sufferers of anxiety live with people who just want to “fix” them. Still others are actually corrected or even berated for not having enough faith or being “too sensitive.” How awful.
My prayer is that this little illustration has at least given you some insight into those in your life who are in the hell of anxiety. I genuinely thank you for reading it. Love them. Intercede for them. Encourage them to get the help of a doctor or counselor. And if you’re brave enough, ask them to help you understand what they’re feeling. They may or may not be able to express it. But at some point, the Lord may give you the opportunity to be the one who helps them “plug in” that one thought that will start them back on the cycle toward peace.