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Inside the Anxious Mind
The day begins with fear. You wake up hours before class to your first alarm (making sure to switch off the four backups you set) and lay there for at least thirty minutes contemplating the day. What classes do you have again? You know that you know, but can’t convince yourself not to check the schedule lying on your dresser, the calendar in your phone, and the official class schedule online (just to be safe.) Is it Tuesday? You reassure yourself, checking over the calendar three times. You remind yourself again what classes you have, and go through the checklist of everything you must do that day, then prepare to move on to the next step – will you shower today?
It really does depend – sometimes the germs squirming around your body are too much – you must rigorously scrub every inch raw, hours of soap and water, never feeling clean enough. Sometimes it’s not the germs on you though, but those in the shower that cause your heart to race. How many people touched it? How many stepped through that exact place and put their hands on that very handle? You know you’ve scrubbed it down with a cocktail of cleaners, but can’t rid yourself of the nagging feeling that everything but your own flesh is crawling with contaminants. Often, it’s not even that about the shower that bugs you, but simply the change of state – dry to wet to dry again all in a small course of time. You’d prefer to stay one or the other.
You decide to start today with breakfast.
Some mornings you can’t even eat it, as you wonder where it came from, what’s in it exactly, who packaged it and whether they washed their hands, and obsess over portion down to the ounce. Today however is a good day and your biggest breakfast obstacle is deciding what to eat. You pace the kitchen back and forth, opening, closing, opening, closing, refrigerator, pantry, freezer… Why does it always seem that there’s nothing right to eat?
By the time you settle on something, it’s too late to change your mind on the shower. You wonder how many people will notice your unclean hair and decide it’s definitely a hat kind of day. After choosing a hat, you switch into clean clothes and notice the time. You’re leaving late. Your heart speeds up as you throw your backpack over your shoulder and hurry toward the door – stopping to do a mental check. Do you have all your things? Yes, you packed your bag last night. You open it and look anyway just to be safe, and find all your books right where you left them. Phone? Check. Keys? Check. You run back to double check the lights are all off. Once satisfied, you open the door, locking it behind you, then checking the lock.
About halfway to class you stop and open your backpack, just to make sure you have everything you need.
Once you get to class the fear really rises. You always sit on the outside of a row – you can’t be enclosed between two people. You need to be able to escape. You try to sit as far away from everyone else as possible, but not so far as it looks as if you’re purposefully avoiding them.
It’s usually about this time the dread washes over you. I’m going to fail this class, you tell yourself, fully aware of your 4.0 GPA. You know you’ve dutifully finished every assignment to the tee, following every instruction and rule as if your life depended on it, and yet… I’m no good. I don’t even think any of them like me. You smile and nod as a classmate says hello. Then, as the teacher begins to speak, another big fear – Oh God, what if she CALLS on me?
Walking from class you count your steps in ¾ time and obediently avoid every crack and every peering eye. You’re certain they’re watching you. But as you go to each lesson, you can lose yourself in learning, enjoying that seat at the back where nobody pays attention to you and you can observe without really having to participate. The worst days are when you have to participate.
Back at home you begin your homework and the dread arises again. It’s a feeling you can only describe as utter hopelessness as you look at the tasks of the next week. You push it away and curl up on the couch hugging your head, clawing at your skin, bursting with frustration you cannot understand when suddenly something in the back of your mind peeps up hey, why don’t you go get that kitchen knife and stab yourself.
You tell yourself not tonight.
You wonder, why can’t you be normal?
You think it’s your fault really. Other people can handle these things.
Then, just as fast as it began, the panic subsides and you pick up your homework and begin to unquestioningly push through, one thing at a time.
Around bedtime you always wish you’d made your way here sooner. The later it gets, the worse it is. Some nights you can’t even turn out the light. You push yourself into the far back corner of the bed. From here you can see your whole room. Your eyes dart back and forth, watching, waiting, you don’t know what for. You feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and look quickly behind you to see a blank wall. Your head swivels around to the front again, sure something will pop up as soon as you look away. You’ve envisioned a million “monsters” of all kinds – demonic creatures with deformed elongated limbs, almost, but not quite human– and as soon as you close your eyes you can see them hiding, lurking there. They live inside you. You lay curled up in the corner, whispering prayers for salvation, eyes wide open, for fear of what will happen if you close them, until exhaustion overpowers you and your lids reluctantly drop shut.
What you just read above is a narrative describing what living in the mind of someone with an anxiety disorder may feel like. The narrative was created using understanding from a compilation of testimonies from a number of documentaries (listed in the works cited), a basic understanding of how anxiety disorders affect people, personal experience, and through common symptoms throughout many different types of anxiety disorders. However, to really understand the mind of an anxious person, we must first understand this:
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety Disorders, which effect about 18% of American adults in any given year, is any kind of excessive anxiety that effects a person’s day to day life (National Institution of Health). While anxiety in small amounts is actually very normal and most people will get nervous at some point or another – when you have a big test coming up, on your first date, or before giving a speech are all very common times for people to feel increased anxiety – having an anxiety disorder is living in a world where that feeling of uncertainty and dread in the pit of your stomach develops at even the slightest negative stimulation. What that stimulation is though, really depends on the type of disorder.
Some of the major types of anxiety disorders include: Panic Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and General Anxiety Disorder (NIH). Commonality among the disorders tends to be mostly the physical symptoms – rapid heart beat, sweating, nervousness, dry mouth, fidgeting, dizziness, nausea… essentially everything you feel in a bad case of stage fright, or when you get a good scare, except for someone with an anxiety disorder, the panic never really stops (“Acutely Anxious”).
For some, like those with Panic Disorder, the thought of their particular fear sends them into full-blown panic attacks, sometimes even putting them into a catatonic state for as long as the attack lasts, and many fear they are dying, especially as symptoms of panic attack can mimic heart attacks. When a person has a panic attack, they often then fear going back to the place it happened because they believe it might happen again. Because of this, people with Panic Disorder often avoid going out at all, terrified that if they’re somewhere in a public space they may have a panic attack and that nobody there will be able to help them. At this point, people with Panic Disorder usually also develop agoraphobia, which is essentially a fear of going outside, especially alone and in places they feel as if they can’t escape (“Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia…”).
For others, like those with Social Anxiety Disorder, the fear is more inwardly focused. Most people with Social Anxiety Disorder so strongly believe that they will make a mistake, or say or do something silly, or offend someone, or be wrong, that being around people who will witness this mistake terrifies them. This differs from shyness because it keeps those affected from functioning properly in their day to day life (Randall Productions). People with Social Anxiety also often develop of fear of going out, but this fear differs from that which sometimes accompanies Panic Disorder because, unlike in Agoraphobia, it is not the place that scares the socially anxious, but the people (“Acutely Anxious”). However, the worry has the same effect, often leaving the socially anxious unwilling to leave their homes. Sometimes, social anxiety in children can manifest itself further and turn into it’s ugly counterpart – Selective Mutism, which is a social anxiety disorder that creates such strong fear in a child that he or she is consistantly unable to speak in certain situations (Randall Productions).
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder differs a little from the rest of the common anxiety disorders in that there is always a particular event that causes it – that’s the “traumatic-stress” part. When people experience a traumatic situation – war, the death of a family member, natural disasters, torture, abuse, accidents, etc. – it is natural to feel stress, and even be afraid for a time after. However, for some individuals, the fears simply never fade (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”). People with PTSD will re-experience the symptoms over and over through things like flash-backs, dreams, or thoughts. They will also avoid anything that reminds them of the event and are easily startled and constantly on edge (NIH). For these people, the world can be terrifying because they feel as if they are constantly in the situation that caused them extreme terror.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has many similarities with Social Anxiety Disorder, in that the feelings associated with the disorder are almost all inwardly focused. People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder have repeated disturbing thoughts that they can’t get rid of – the obsessive part – and somewhere inside, their ill mind develops tasks and tricks that it then forces them to do to rid themselves of the thoughts – the compulsive side (“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”). The obsessions and compulsions could be related: Say if the person believes everything to be dirty, he or she may be a compulsive cleaner. OCD is not always related to organization and tidiness, however. The obsessions could be anything from believing you will or have harmed or killed someone, to a constant nagging thought that you have or will contract a terrible illness, to a suddenly and repeatedly occurring vision of yourself having sexual relations with a child. (“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”). The most common obsessions usually relate to either contamination, a loss of control, perfectionism, sexual thoughts, or religion (“Obsessions and Compulsions”). The person with OCD usually then believes that because they have this thought, they subconsciously want this to happen and that they must be a bad person because of it. In reality it’s quite normal for people to have out of place, disturbing thoughts from time to time, and this does not mean that they necessarily believe those thoughts to be good or right. The person with OCD then engages in a number of repetitive behaviors to try to rid themselves of the bad thoughts. These compulsions could be hand washing, counting, organizing, repetitive checking, praying, collecting (hoarding is usually a result of OCD), and more (“Obsessions and Compulsions”). The obsessions and compulsions could be related, or totally unrelated to one another.
General Anxiety Disorder is a hodge-podge of fears. Unlike the other major anxiety disorders, there is not one specific thing that gets someone with General Anxiety Disorder to feel nervous, but instead they feel intense worry about a number of things throughout the day, often preventing them from doing things. The fears people with General Anxiety Disorder tend to hold are usually normal fears such as health and money, however the effected individuals take their worry to extreme levels (NIH).
But what causes some people’s own minds to turn against them?
For many, Anxiety Disorders are genetic predispositions that they’re simply born with – a hereditary chemical imbalance in the brain (Randall Productions). For others, such as those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the fears develop as the result of a traumatic experience in the individual’s past (“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: When the Memories Won’t Go Away”). Environment can have an effect on the development of anxiety disorders as well; Doctors consider the home environment, stress factors, pollution, and even diet as possible causes of anxiety (NIH). Interestingly, the Documentary “Afraid of People” points to a study by Dr. Jerome Kagan, in which four month old babies were shown a brand new mobile that they’d never seen before. The visual stimulation caused a range of reaction in the infants from contented interest, to restlessness and tears. Those who reacted excitably to the stimulation were not the babies who were likely to become outgoing individuals, but those predisposed to develop shy personalities or even an anxiety disorder. Even as children, the minds of these individuals have a tendency to overreact to new stimuli, causing them distress. This study, though it is now a few years old, effectively demonstrates how the chemical makeup of some people’s brains makes them more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder over others.
So, what is it like to live in an anxious mind?
If the mind is your home, that riddled with anxiety has been taken over by the least desirable roommate – the kind who invades your space, uses your stuff, insists on everything going her way, and then still tries to push in and be your best – only- friend. Do you really want to immediately count the lights when you enter a room? No, but she said so, and she’s mastered the art of manipulation. Do you enjoy secluding yourself from your friends and family? Of course not, but you’ve got anxiety, do you really need anyone else?
There comes a point in which you and your wicked roommate become inseparable and indistinguishable. It’s no longer that you like to go out, but your anxiety keeps you in, but that you yourself don’t feel as if you enjoy it. If you’re afraid, things begin to lose their appeal. The bond becomes so tightly woven that even you have trouble separating yourself from her. You can’t tell whose thought it was, but then she tells you it doesn’t matter. You’re one in the same.
At this point, does your mind, your most personal and private place, even belong to you anymore?
ABC News Productions, Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Films Media Group. “Case Studies in Childhood Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” New York, NY: Films Media Group. 2009. Film. Texas Woman’s University Libraries Catalog. October 29, 2013.
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Films Media Group, Multimedia Group of Canada. “Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia when Fear takes Control.” New York, NY: Films Media Group. 2001. Film. Texas Woman’s University Libraries Catalog. October 29, 2013.
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Films Media Group, Multimedia Group of Canada. “Post-traumatic stress disorder: when memories won’t go away.” New York, NY: Films Media Group. 2000. Film. Texas Woman’s University Libraries Catalog. October 29, 2013.
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Films Media Group, TVF International (Firm). “Acutely Anxious.” New York, NY: Films Media Group. 2006. Film. Texas Woman’s University Libraries Catalog. October 29, 2013.
Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm), Films Media Group, TVF International (Firm). “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” New York, NY: Films Media Group. 1996. Film. Texas Woman’s University Libraries Catalog. October 29, 2013.