"Here’s what’s worked: nothing." Scott Stossel writes with resignation in the cover article for the current issue of The Atlantic, "Surviving Anxiety." (Inside the magazine it's headlined "My Anxious, Twitchy, Phobic (Somehow Successful) Life".) The story, adapted from Stossel's forthcoming book, tells of his life with anxiety disorder; how he remains high-functioning despite it, and maybe in ways because of it.
The Atlantic editors invited readers to send in stories of their own experiences with anxiety. We said that "several" stories would be selected for publication on TheAtlantic.com. As you'll see by the length of this post, I failed handsomely at paring it down to several.
We got so many interesting submissions, and there was even more that I wanted to share than is here. Rather than run three or four people's stories in full, we decided to run parts of many. Forty-three. I also pulled salient quotes from most of the excerpts along the left margin. People interpreted the writing prompt very broadly, so some of it is lighthearted, and some of it is tragic. There is some advice on what works, how to keep perspective, and what makes things worse. In aggregate I hope it reads like a mixtape that reflects how widespread all of this is and how deeply it resonates.
I'd like these to mostly speak for themselves, but I will call out a couple recurring points. Anxiety is not a choice. Don't tell people with anxiety to "stop worrying." Do reassure them. Don't leave them alone. Talk about your anxiety with friends and family. Be attuned and empathetic to it in others. Own your own.
Unlike Stossel, many people have found that certain treatments, behaviors, and ways of thinking about their anxiety can be helpful. Okay, here are your stories.
It started when I was eight after my great aunt had passed; seeing her in the open casket freaked me out. Inwardly, I was so afraid—and it manifested itself when my parents were away in Florida, and the babysitter suddenly found me running around the house screaming, "I'm dying, I'm dying!"
My heart was beating so fast and I was breaking out in a cold sweat. Over the years this would happen again, but as I grew older I learned to say to myself relax ... relax. In my professional work years, looking at the nonverbal communication of coworkers would give rise to these attacks, until I learned to take off my glasses in meetings so that I could not see others' reactions to my comments. (That did the trick. Plus, the people I did not like would be out of focus.)
If you knew me, if we had a drink together one evening, you would notice that I have the perplexing habit of taking my pulse the way a runner might at the end of a race (two fingers at the neck, under the jaw on my right side), even though I am seated on a stool with a scotch in my hand, not crossing a finish line clutching a small paper cup of water.
I do this, the pulse-check, because I fear I'm not getting the oxygen necessary to keep my frail human machine going. I've been convinced of my own slow suffocation for at least the last decade, and the steady beat of blood beneath my fingers makes me feel relaxed.
It is reassurance that I'm still alive.
If we were friends you'd know that vacations are not my forte, because I am someone who needs to be busy. Very busy. You see, when I'm not, when things are quiet and my mind is unoccupied, I inevitably feel the rush of panic: hot pins down my back, hands going white with cold, head swimming, knees weak, reality coming apart at edges, nothing feeling totally real—not "me" or "you"—just a sense that we're all temporary, meaningless blips.
My boyfriend tries to understand, and he is supportive about it, but he thinks it's "silly" to worry about things that are out of your control. He might be right, but that doesn't make it possible for me. Sometimes I go days without anxiety, without noticing. When it comes back, it's such a shock.
I know I shouldn't feel this way—I know I should seek help—but I don't have a doctor in this city. I don't know this medical system very well. And the idea of finding a doctor—of describing how I feel and trying out different treatments, whether it's therapy or drugs—paralyzes me. It freezes me in place so it becomes easier to do nothing. To continue to cope badly in the hope that one day I'll just suddenly be better.
Because suffering almost every day is somehow easier than asking for help.
I laugh when I recall a day at the mall with my daughter when she started to head for the elevator, and I held her back. I couldn't do elevators anymore, I told her. Now, we had to use the escalators. Holy cow, I’ll never forget the way she rolled her eyes at me!
I was, just to name a few [phobias], afraid of going into the movies, of not sitting in an aisle seat, of not knowing exactly how to get out of somewhere, of being in a locked car, of seat belts, of not having access to drinking water, of pools, of using airplane bathrooms, of using bathroom stalls that I couldn't crawl out of, of driving out of my neighborhood, of heights, of swallowing pills, of open spaces, of busy places, of distancing myself from the car in parking lots, and so on, and so forth. I’m over them now. For the most part, I'm not aware of how it happened. But in the case of tunnels and bridges, I accidentally came up with what turned out to be a winning strategy for me, which I'd like to share. Hopefully others will benefit from my experience.
For many years, I lived in a South American capital, which has a long, winding highway down to the airport. This road also has a very long tunnel at the bottom of a prolonged slope. For years I never thought twice about going through it until one day when it suddenly loomed at me like a dark mouth waiting for me as I approached it. I swerved off the road, with palpitations. I was so confused and felt ridiculous, but the truth was that there was no way I was going into the tunnel, and I knew it. I had a real problem on my hands.
Fortunately, I had pulled over into what was the parking area of a National Guard station. The officers that noticed waited to see what I would do. An idea occurred to me, so I rolled down the window and summoned one of them. It went like this: “Hello. How are you? I have a dreadful fear of tunnels. I really can't go in there. Do you think one of you could ride through with me, just to the other side?” I could see they had never had such a request, but no matter. I'm sure I looked as desperate as I felt. That's how my strategy started.