Photo by Sarah L. Robison Photography
I don’t pretend to know what every case of anxiety looks like. But having been with Brian for a couple of years, I’ve experienced with him in a small way what life is like for someone with anxiety. He did not know that he had anxiety until he was in his 20s and a counselor told him. So most of his life has been lived without medication and unaware that what he was experiencing was not like everyone else.
Since learning that what he feels has a name, Brian has experimented with medication and mindfulness meditation, has completed a college degree, married me, and got his first post-school job as a professional writer. After we got married, he talked to me about wanting to go off his medication.
Anxiety can be passed from parent to child and is a lifelong condition. And while I can’t necessarily write a post about living with anxiety, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned as well as thoughts and observations I’ve had about anxiety.
Anxious people are not broken
Anxiety is not a single term that can define the anxious person. Brian is kind, good looking, thoughtful, a poet, a Star Trek and superhero fan, a reader, a fountain pen and handwriting enthusiast. He likes funny videos and doing things outdoors. Anxiety is something that colors how he interacts with the world, but it does not make up the entirety of his personality. When he is anxious, he is still kind. When he is anxious, he is still loyal. He still has control of his words, his temper, and actions. Though anxiety can make him feel extremely low or stressed, his loves and passions return in full force when the anxiety passes. He’s not damaged goods because of his anxiety. He’s just someone living with a different burden than me, just like every person I meet or hear about has a different set of struggles, hardships, and passions than I do.
Medication may not always be a quick, full fix
As wonderful as science and medication are, they do not, at this point, have all the answers we’d like. And while medication certainly helped Brian, he didn’t feel like it took away his anxiety so much as took the edge off. Finding a medication that works for someone can be a process of trial and error more than a quick fix, each one coming with different side effects as well. So while medication can be very helpful and there is no shame in taking it, those with anxiety shouldn’t be expected to be “better” as soon as they start it. They may still deal with some of the anxiety, but have more help.
Anxiety does not always look one way
When imagining those with anxiety, some people may picture someone sitting in a corner, their knees pulled into their chest or head set on their knees, shaking. But anxiety can look like the person sitting in the next car over at a red light, their gaze locked on the car in front of them. It can look like someone who is stressed over school or a project at work. Sometimes anxiety might look like sadness. And yes, sometimes it can look like hands pressed against the side of their face as they experience the overwhelming feelings rolling around inside of them. It’s just not always easy to recognize.
Anxiety can give people empathy
Brian’s anxiety and his experience with how real and terrifying emotions can be has caused him to look at others’ emotions in a different way. He is validating when I feel low. He recognizes that he sometimes goes to those dark places too. He doesn’t write off how I feel or say things to insinuate that my feelings don’t matter or are all in my head. Instead, he tries to assure me that how I feel is real and important.
Anxiety is not a personality trait that people develop and can therefore cast off or strengthen at their choosing. But it can help them develop positive ways of interacting with others. Brian has experienced how powerful emotions can be and how difficult it can be is to shake them. But what we feel does matter, even when not based on accurate information, because it affects how we interact with the world, how we’re able to function in it.
People with anxiety can, through their experiences, become loved ones who take a breath before judging the experience of others, perhaps because they know what it is like to be judged, but also because they know what it is like to be in those tough places, and they don’t assume things about the experiences of others.
Maybe those who do not have anxiety could learn something from that.
People with anxiety can help others
Having anxiety means that, at least to an extent, Brian knows what others are going through. He knows that some people’s anxiety is much more difficult than his. But as he and I look at the future and what our genetics could mean for our children, Brian has his personal experience with anxiety to guide how he would approach our children’s struggle, should they have to walk the same path as their dad.
For those who are in the midst of their struggle with anxiety, hearing or reading from people like Brian has the potential to help, even if it is just to give hope. Rather than people who do not have anxiety talking about it, Brian and others can speak from the battlefield or share lessons they’ve learned in the past.
Brian is also able to counsel with his 10-year-old sister as she struggles with anxiety, sharing from experience what he has seen happen in his life and his ability to slowly expand the boundaries of his comfort zone, despite living with the added burden of anxiety. I’ve heard her, when Brian is not around, share how he’s taught her this. And maybe that piece of hope will help her in a way that Brian was not able to learn from someone he loved, but which he had to learn on his own. It’s something I maybe could not have taught her with the same confidence, but Brian could because of his unique experience.
Anxiety can change
For Brian and his level of anxiety, change is possible. He has seen how dating in college helped him to become more flexible and spontaneous as he allowed women in his life to become a part of his schedule. Of course, this is something he is able to view in hindsight, and loosening anxiety’s grip is could involve discomfort for the person who attempts it. But it can happen as the anxious person takes small steps beyond his or her comfort zone in search of happiness and fulfillment.
You cannot fix their anxiety
Sometimes you run into bouts of anxiety that can be shaken off by distraction. Other times it is not so easy. Brian and I have tried different techniques, but eventually there comes a time when I have no power but to be there and love him. He knows I am there. The anxiety will all eventually pass, even if that knowledge does not always make it easier to weather.
People with anxiety do not have all the answers
Asking your loved one questions about how they feel can be good, but sometimes they just don’t know why they feel the way they do. Maybe his or her emotions seem to have been triggered by an event or a conversation, but other times it really may just come down to those biological differences in their brain.
Brian has only had the label “anxiety” for a fraction of his life. He understands the basic biology of anxiety and he may recognize certain things that cause his anxiety to rear its head. But he doesn’t know every trigger. And besides, sometimes anxiety may hit him over something that will not bother him the next day.
In these moments when you and your loved one don’t have all the answers, just love them. Remember (and remind them) that they will not feel the way they do forever. It will pass, and life will regain the calm that was once there.
I will not pretend that anxiety is easy for the person who experiences it (like Brian) or the person who has watch it do its worst (like me). But hopefully those who read this will think twice before their instinct kicks in to define those with anxiety by that one struggle alone. Hopefully friends, family members, strangers, and those who find love in the arms of someone with anxiety will pause before writing them off, seeing them as weak, or forgetting all their other traits that make them a whole, rounded human being.
What are some of the things you’ve learned as you’ve lived with anxiety or watched a loved one struggle with it? Feel free to share in the comments.