This Is Anxiety

Whenever I went to the airport to pick someone up, I would pull over right at the entrance, go through the whole routine again and was always lucky enough to have a National Guardsman who was willing to do the part. Of course, I'd talk up a storm during the two-minute ride. Silence would have been unbearable. I didn't know it at the time, but I was onto something important for me.

It so happened that one day there was only one guard who could leave the post, and he had a motorcycle. He couldn't ride with me. Dilemma! "Would it be okay with if I followed behind his bike?" he asked. I had no choice except to agree with the arrangement. Once inside the tunnel, I started to panic right away and intuitively began talking out loud to myself, but then it evolved into an imaginary conversation with the guy on the bike ahead of me. I was doing the talking for both. I felt okay. I believed my own lie.

This has since worked for me in tunnels and on bridges: I stick close behind a car that is carrying my "friends," with whom I talk up a storm for the duration of the ordeal, and I firmly believe one of them will help me if I ever have a problem. To be truthful, sometimes I just drive along and don't even have the need to do it anymore.

Gilda Tuttlebee
Boston, Massachusetts

It wasn't until the last year or so that Marvel portrayed Dr. Bruce Banner ("The Hulk") as someone who accepts that his condition needs to be managed, rather someone who has a disease that needs to be treated. His story then moves from the Hulk, who is pursued by every single government entity in the world, to Bruce Banner, who works as a scientist for the government; the Hulk is summoned when the government needs his powerful capabilities to deal with the threat of the day.

To bring the Hulk story full-circle: I used to be extremely upset at myself for lashing out at people during many anxiety-driven outbursts. I would feel really bad after each episode—creating more anxiety in the process—until it all cascaded into another explosive episode. What made it worse is that I was totally aware of what was happening, but was not in control of the situation.

Once I accepted that I have anxiety and have to live with it, I learned several things that made my life a lot easier:

1. I realized that I wasn't the only one who had anxiety problems. Everyone has some form of anxiety, and it manifests differently from one person to another. Knowing that everyone has to deal with anxiety makes it easier because I don't feel so alone in facing the condition.

2. I learned to forgive myself for my actions stemming from the anxiety. Instead of focusing on a complete prevention of the outbursts, I focus my efforts on two things. The first is why the outburst occurred the way it did (and how to recognize the stimuli that leads to outburst in the first place); the second is what to do to recover from the outburst if it does occur. Think of it as a typhoon management system: you use experience to figure out when a typhoon is coming, and you rebuild immediately as soon as the typhoon passes.

3. I started to discuss my condition with the people I love and trust. After I shared my experiences with them, most finally understood why I behaved the way I did when I was younger; they rarely understood that they had unintentionally triggered an anxiety event. In my experience, people are more than happy to give you room to work with as long as you're nice about it.

4. I joined activities that help me focus my mind better. I chose martial arts and emphasize the mental-conditioning aspect of the art. Mental conditioning helps me focus and gives me confidence that I can take care of myself—and generate less anxiety along the way.

5. I strive to be as proficient as I can in whatever I do. I realized that a major source of my anxiety is from making mistakes or fear of failure, but being good at something helps to balance out those negative feelings. I now embrace that failure is part of learning, and learning makes me stronger. And the stronger I am, the less anxiety I have in this world. 

Bay Area, California

I seriously have considered being knocked unconscious before boarding a plane, to be revived when we land.

New Jersey

It all started when I uprooted my life and moved to Denmark to be with my new husband. I had just graduated college and was looking forward to a new chapter in life. I had no idea I was capable of feeling such anxiety. I don't know why the anxiety developed, but it must have had something to do with moving to a foreign land and leaving the life I had known for the previous 22 years for an entirely new one. I guess I'm a natural homebody, not meant for risks or extreme change. I had to find that out the hard way.

Emetophobia, fear of vomiting, is a trip. It is such a strange phobia. It's more self-centered than the others; it's there all the time. You can't "retreat" from it, because it's in your stomach. And then a war breaks out in your mind: "It's nothing" versus "It's DEFINITELY something." The unforgiving cycle of anxiety triggers stomach discomfort, which triggers further anxiety, and so on. It's a particularly troubling mental conundrum that, I've found, requires a great deal of willpower and strength of reason, which is not often readily available.

After reading Scott's article, I feel something different. Almost an indifference, or acceptance of my anxiety and phobia. I certainly feel less ashamed, which is truly a relief, since I hide my disorders from almost everyone except those who are very close to me. But I don't feel as strongly about hiding them anymore. In fact, I feel a growing sense of appreciation for the anxiety.

Don't get me wrong—I wish and hope everyday to be relieved of my suffering. But there is an attractiveness to the idea that anxiety could be correlated with my intelligence. What if anxiety is what makes me hear music the way that I hear it? What if it is responsible for my creativity? I remember when I wasn't anxious like this. I was more depressed, and I wasn't as nice. I'm not depressed at all anymore (even though my phobia sometimes makes me feel like giving up on life). In fact, during the past year, I have started learning how to accept myself. It's been really refreshing.

More than anything, though, I guess I feel as if the urgency of finding a cure, or a suitable treatment for my anxiety and phobia, has faded. I can accept thoughts like, What if I am a homebody for the rest of my life? Or, What if I end up not eating out or traveling as much as other people? Perhaps I'll build a very nice home. Perhaps I'll become a very good cook. That doesn't sound like the worst thing in the world. That's how I feel right now. I'm not sure how I'll feel in the future, but I don't have to know.

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.


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