Saturday, August 20, 2005


Some folks equate it with fear, and as I wrote a little about fear recently, I thought I’d take a shot at fear's sibling, anxiety.

Webster’s defines anxiety as a state of uneasiness and apprehension, as about future uncertainties.

Psychiatrists see it more as a state of apprehension, uncertainty, and worry resulting from the anticipation of a realistic or fantasized threatening event or situation, often impairing physical and psychological functioning.

Sounds a lot like fear though doesn’t it?

It’s different though, fears are generally a learned response, where we’re born with the makings of anxiety. All people feel anxiety… it might just be the butterflies in your stomach as you prepare to ask someone out on a date, the ‘rush’ that has you running out the door when you are running late in the morning, or maybe it’s that uneasy feeling as you head off on a trip to somewhere you’ve never been. Usually these feelings of anxiety are uncomfortable, but anxiety is just a normal part of being a human being.

In fact, anxiety, panic and worry are all part of the human experience.

Each of these aspects involves the anticipation of danger or threat. Anxiety is sometimes defined as a normal innate emotional alarm response to the anticipation of danger or threat. This means that it is part of our biological make-up as human beings. We don't learn to how to become anxious--we are born with it because it helps us to survive. Anxiety serves as an "alarm" to protect us from harmful aspects of our environment. Taken together this definition means that anxiety is an innate, protective response to our environment.

It’s when these feelings begin to rule our lives that they become a problem.

It can be difficult to tell if your level of anxiety is too high. The ‘rule of thumb’ I use is to ask myself "how much is this affecting my life, keeping me from doing the things I want to do."

Since anxiety is a normal part of life there are certain times that anxiety can actually be helpful. An optimal level of anxiety can contribute to positive performance. Too much anxiety, or too little, and your performance will be impaired.

The type of anxiety that’s been a problem for me is more of a… concern maybe…. That seems to surround some thing or event, future or uncertain, which in turn disturbs my mind, and keeps it in a state of (often painful) uneasiness.

It’s been with me most of my life, but seems to return with a vengeance when I need it least.

When starting new projects, often in the first meeting or two, I’ll find myself becoming anxious, worrying, and often at the very same time wondering where that feeling is coming from.

I’ve managed, for the most part, to keep it all at bay, most of the time. How, I’m not really sure.

When I was teaching, for example, I’d break into a cold sweat before the first class of the day, everyday. Despite that, I’d walk into that classroom anyway, and once I actually started the lecture, almost always, the anxiety would lessen and eventually disappear by the end of the day. Unfortunately, it almost always returned the next day, and I’d repeat the process.

I know what I was anxious about. That one of the students would ask a question I couldn’t answer, that I’d blow the lecture or, worse yet, somehow the students would know more about the subject than I did.

Was it irrational? Yes, it was. It was there though, and very real, regardless of how many times I proved to myself it was irrational. Still, I somehow found it within myself to press forward each and every day. I’ve wondered at times what would have happened if I hadn’t found the strength to do that, if, for whatever reason, I’d been unable to ‘press on’ and the anxiety had taken control. It’s not something I ponder often because that’s a reality that doesn’t make me anxious, it truly frightens me.

I sometimes wish I could put my finger on the specific moment in time where anxieties began to interfere with my life. It’s as if I could find that moment, and understand it, maybe I could change it. However, in all the research I’ve done, it’s been fairly clear that some of us just have more anxiety than others. Some have virtually none, some an appropriate amount and others, like me, have a bit too much. I feel fortunate that, for the most part I’m able to move past the anxiety, to move towards what I want to do despite it.

In those times where it paralyzes me to ‘inaction’, that I’m eventually, sometimes with the help of my wife, or a friend, to find a way to move forward again.

A little over a decade or so ago, my daily anxieties were so great I needed a medication to get me through that place. It had become so bad that the mere thought of going to work in the morning, or coming home at night filled me with dread. Dread of what? That was the strangest thing, there was no specific ‘thing’, it was just an overall feeling of ‘impending doom’ whenever I thought about doing anything, other than, what I was doing at that moment.

Once I was through that period, and with the help of a patient and knowledgeable therapist, I found I was able to get through the day without the medication and feel ‘normal’ again.

So, for the past 10 years or so now, anxiety and I have this sort of ‘cease fire’… I know it’s there and can feel it attempting to creep into my life nearly everyday. But now, instead of letting it in, I plunge forward before it can take over. Each time I do, and ‘nothing bad’ happens, it’s like a little victory for me. With each new victory, the next becomes a little easier.

Maybe it’s just my years on the planet that’s helping me move forward. Maybe it’s just raw determination… and maybe, just maybe it’s the result of knowing the downside of not taking back ‘control’ of my decisions, and not wanting to revisit the other side.

I’m not really sure what it is. What I am sure of is that I’m thankful I had a choice, and made the right choice for me!

I’m sitting here at this moment wondering why I’ve written all this. It was cathartic in a way, to put it on paper, but I think the real reason I did so, was in the hope of reaching someone who might be having a similar struggle. To let them know, they’re not alone, and that help is out there. Also, for those of you fortunate enough to not have this thing haunt you, but who may know someone who does, to give you a little glimpse of what they deal with, inside, everyday. To let you know that your one word of encouragement might be all they need to break through the moment and move forward once again.

Does anxiety grip you or a loved one? How do you, or they, handle it?

As always, thanks for stopping by, reading and especially for those of you who leave your comments behind!!


Firehawk said...


You got ahead of me, posting on consecutive days! Oh, well. Can't fault you for productivity.

I think that "centered" anxiety--that of a specific event or eventuality--can be good. If you're scared of doing badly on a test, or blowing a lecture as a teacher, it spurs you to prepare as well as can be to combat this eventuality.

The really damaging anxiety is the "free floating" sort. That's the impending doom you talked about. When you're upset and nervous all the time, but there's nothing to put your finger on at the root of it, that's a bad situation. The paralyzing kind of trouble.

I'm glad you were able to overcome your troubles and keep moving. Not everyone can do that.

For me, it's usually a sense of uselessness and depression that gets in the way. I get to places where I feel like nothing I've ever done has been worth a shit. Sometimes I can overcome this on my own, but I usually need to talk it out with someone I trust to crawl back out of the mud. I just had a situation like that a few weeks ago. I think I've bounced back pretty well, but it lets you know how fragile your mental state is when it happens.

Again, a good discussion of the common troubles in life. Thanks, Bill. Keep 'em coming.

Bill said...

Firehawk.. Maybe that should be my next post... something about the fragility of the human condition..

If we could all just have that 'centered' anxiety, the useful one, I suspect we'd all be much happier!

I know exactly the dark feelings you're talking about though... during those moments (which can, in reailty, be days) it's so very important to have someone you trust to talk to!

It seems the older I get, the more the sum of my life comes up a smaller number than I'd anticipated at times.

It's then, that a good, trusted, long term friend can remind us of things/accomplishments we didn't/don't value, yet they felt were very important.

As always, thanks for stopping in, I always welcome your thoughts on mine.

Comfort Addict said...

Bill, you are indeed a brother.

I first had problems with panic and anxiety in the mid-eighties, when people didn't know much about it and tricyclic antidepressants and, worse yet, MAO inhibitors, were the medications du jour. My psychiatrists were somewhat belligerent (out of frustration, I now see) and my therapist was not the right one. My anxiety waned thanks to a lot of my own work.

In the early nineties, when my dad had a quadruple bypass, my panic was back again. Fortunately, at this time, SSRIs were available and I found a psychiatrist who specialized in anxiety and depression. He prescribed Zoloft, which I take to this day. It helped enough to make the symptoms subside but I still didn't have the right therapist.

In the late nineties, my old friend returned. This time, I found a wonderful therapist who specializes in anxiety (the guy in my "four Rs" post). For the first time, I learned how anxiety really works and some solid cognitive strategies and tactics to handle it. This got me to where I am today.

Right now, I'm in a good place. However, for me, living with anxiety has been a process of learning, forgetting and remembering. It seems to come back every few years or so (the trigger is not always as clear as when my dad had his bypass). However, thanks to my skills and medication, I am able to deal with it well.

I agree that some people just suffer more anxiety than others. Sensitive, intelligent, creative people are especially susceptible. When I had my worst stretches of anxiety, I was ready to make a Faustian deal to exchange my intelligence and insight for a life of normality. I'm glad that no one took me up on that because I wouldn't make that trade today. Anxiety is a part of me. I accept it and embrace it just as I do my musical, computer and writing abilities.

Great post.

Bill said...

CA - Thanks, it's nice to know we're not really alone 'eh? Well for me anyway.

Your story sounds similar to mine in that they really got 'out of hand' for the first time in the 80's, yet it wasn't until the 90's that I actually got any real help.

I got put on Buspar after going on a rant in the doctors office over something entirely unrelated. I don't know what that stuff actually did chemically, but, it cleared my head enough that I realized I needed to seek counseling.

Learning those strategies and tactics is what's really helped me over the years, yet, I still struggle on occassion,as it's overwhelming every once in a while.

I smiled when I read your thoughts about making a "Faustian deal" as I've had similar thoughts as well.. there was a time when I'd given anything up just to lead a 'normal' life!

Today though, I wouldn't trade who I am for anything... and anxiety is a part of my makeup... I figure as long as I'm able to continue to spot, and get a grip on, these 'events'... I'll be fine.

Not to mention that knowing I'm not alone in the struggle, and having a loving and supportive partner has eased the burden greatly!

Thanks for leaving your thoughts and experience on this post, I was beginning to think I'd scared everyone off with it!!

Trevor Record said...

I used to get severe panic attacks as well (I was on meds too). There is a major difference between fear and anxiety.

I am terrified of needles, but I still go out and donate blood every 3 months. I am able to face fears. Anxiety is something that you can really only get over with medication or by reducing stress.

Bill said...

Hi Trevor -

Anxiety is indeed a different animal than fear. It attackes us in different ways, as you point out.

Anxiety seems to work from the inside (to me), where fear is an external 'thing' that, for me as well, is much simple to face, and deal with!

I'm glad you found help for yours, and that you took the time to share this with us all.

Karyn Lyndon said...

I don't suffer from it (although, I admit this post made me a little anxious while I was reading it) but I'm surrounded by people who do. Thank God for meds!

Bill said...

Hi Karyn - Thanks for jumping in here. It's always good to see you!

Nic said...

My dear Bill. Boy have you tweaked some memories. My dad, my dear, kind, brilliant dad suffered greatly from anxiety attacks, coupled with panic attacks, coupled with severe OCD, coupled with clinical depression. Those were not good days and those were most of his days. But during his blackest times he wrote the most beautiful letters full of the insights that God had given him. I still have each and every letter he sent to me as a teen and adult. I cherish them all b/c even when his life and emotions were all jumbled up, his heart and mind were unusually clear and insightful. I cherish them all the more now since he lost his battle with depression that grew infinitely worse after having major open heart surgery. I was blessed that God answered my prayer that he get to meet my daughter just once. God granted us 5 more months with him before he passed on. 5 months of him loving my daughter with everything that was in him. It was beautiful, it was cherishable memories, it was good.

Bill said...

Nic - Thank you for sharing that... I'm sorry for the loss of your Dad.. it's obvious he held a very special spot in your heart.

I wonder sometimes... about the dark times... they've been the only times really that I was able to write poetry...

Thanks again for telling me (us) about your Dad and his struggle, there's a lot of strength to be found in your words.

jenbeauty said...

I have had irrational panic attacks before. It is awful and usually happens to me in a crowd.

I usually am anxiety ridden during the late night hours. After the day is done and your mind just cannot stop racing.

Beth said...

Bill, I have suffered from panic attacks since my early 20's. I became a total shut-in as a result, but worked my way out of it. I deal with it now methodically and take my Klonopin as needed.

Joe Coupe said...

Brother Bill,

I have battled the problem for a while. Sometimes makes you feel like your losing your mind.

It usually happened to me when I was feeling trapped. Like I'm cruising down a 4-lane highway and all the traffic stops. All you see is a mile or more of tail lights ahead of you and your going nowhere. In in your rear view mirror all you see is someone else looking in their rear view mirror and so on, and so on.

It would often happen when I would be in a crowded room, like a movie theater. I would have this panicy feeling that I need to get out of there quick. It was very terrifying, but there was nothing to be terrified of.

My doctor gave me Xanax, which would help, but I don't like taking that kind of stuff.

Eventually I just kept telling myself that this is just a panic attack and everything is fine. I would try to laugh about it, even if it was a forced laugh.

Eventually they stopped happening. It took time but I rarely get them anymore. But I do sometimes, but I use the same technique to minimize or rationalize the reality. And again they stop.

I think many people experience this never knowing that others are having this same experience. It is all fabrricated in our heads and with that being known I try to tell myself that this is stupid and calm down.

I know it was bad when I would start to avoid things that would trigger them. But giving in to the fear only maked them more frequent. So forcing myself to go forward against my fears (courage)made then stop happening.

PS...Bill I haven't checked in your blog in a while and was surprised to read about MaryAn's surgery. I'm so happy that everything worked out well. I know the pain as I too had the pain and surgery. The surgery corrected the L5 rupture problem. I hope now she can return to enjoying life. When you are in that much pain, it's hard to enjoy anything.

Cylithria™ said...

Bill - I think anxiety gets to all of us. But how we deal with it makes or breaks those moments. In my opinion.

I wanted to stop by for two reasons. 1) How is Maryan? Send her my best
And 2) I wanted to thank you for allowing me to feature Code Code World in my 100 Blogs Complimented This Summer Post!

Thanks so much Bill for everything you are!

Bill said...

Jen - I *hate* that busy mind when I want to sleep thing!! Thanks so much for adding to this post!

GK - I'm so glad you worked your way back out... so many aren't able to do that... kudos to you for that.. and for sharing your story here as well!

Brother Joe - Seems you and I share a number of common afflictions Bro... stomach, back, and now the anxiety thing... I'm glad you're dealing with yours too!! Maryan had L4/L5 and L5/S1 worked on... the Doc didn't fuse them , but did some sort of 'decompression' procedure... Thanks for stopping by, and adding your story!

Cyli - Why thank you!! Very much! Thanks for featuring this place... and for your kind words.

Maryan is doing very well, recovering nicely, and dying to get 'mobile' again! I'll tell her, but I suspect she'll read it here as well :)