This is the fourth post in a series that I am writing to help people in the church better understand mental health, and particularly anxiety disorders. Click to read the first, second, and third posts.
If you don’t have an anxiety disorder, it can be hard to imagine what it’s like. Hopefully the discussion in the last post helped you to start imagining what it might be like, since we all have experienced a fight-or-flight response at one time or another. I’m going to attempt to describe some of what my own experience of having an anxiety disorder has been like.
For me, my anxiety disorder generally manifests as physical feelings, including a sick feeling in my stomach and my heart skipping a beat (or a lot of beats, if it’s a full-blown panic attack). I am in most cases feeling mentally and emotionally calm and unworried, and not thinking about or experiencing anything that is anxiety-provoking. But, I “feel” anxious because my body is experiencing all of the physical feelings that I experience when I am actually afraid or worrying (because they literally are the same physical feelings I would have if I was actually worrying about something or in a situation that would trigger fear).
My husband often explains my anxiety disorder to people this way: Imagine you are sitting in a cozy room, sipping tea by a roaring fireplace, and suddenly, out of nowhere, your body is reacting as though someone just threw a brick through the nearby plate glass window. Everything is calm—both your environment and your emotions—but your body’s fight-or-flight reaction has been triggered.
This is why telling someone who has an anxiety disorder to “not worry” is so unhelpful—in many, if not most cases, they are not actually worrying in any meaningful sense. Their thoughts and emotions are not what is causing them to feel anxious—instead, it is their nervous system run amok. Their body has been hijacked by physical sensations that are unaccompanied by any mental or emotional trigger. This is what is meant when someone says that there is a chemical or physical component to anxiety.
This is not to say, however, that someone who has an anxiety disorder does not experience the emotions of worry or fear. As I said above, we all experience mental and emotional worry and fear, and having an anxiety disorder does not make you immune to this. In fact, if you have an anxiety disorder, and particularly if it is undiagnosed, the fact that you are experiencing physical sensations of fear or worry will cause your brain to look for an explanation for why your body is having the physical response it is having. Your brain does not think it makes sense for you to be physically feeling worried or afraid if there is no mental or emotional reason for it—and your brain is right. This is why your experience is properly described as “disordered”—your body’s fear response is not the result of an orderly chain of events with an actual emotional or mental trigger of fear or worry.
Nevertheless, if your brain goes looking for the reason that you are physically feeling worried or afraid, it will continue looking until it finds something–and we certainly all have things that we COULD be worrying about or afraid of. So, if you have an anxiety disorder, and you are experiencing physical symptoms, your brain is constantly trying to find the reason for those symptoms. It may, for example, latch onto a problem at work to make sense of why the body is so anxious. However, if you have an anxiety disorder, it is likely that the anxiety that you are experiencing about the work problem (which your brain has seized on to make sense of the nervous system response that you are having) feels (physically, mentally, and emotionally) way out of proportion to the problem at hand. Because the origin of this worry is a physiological response, even if you can pray for peace, rationally speak truth to yourself, and calm yourself mentally and emotionally, it is likely the physical feelings will not lessen and will remain for some time. Because the embodied feeling of worry or fear has a physiological cause, in many cases, resolving any emotional, mental, or spiritual distress may not alleviate those feelings. In the most simplistic terms, that is what it means to live with an anxiety disorder.
*Please note: I am not a medical or counseling professional and this series is not intended to be any sort of substitute for any counseling, medical treatment, or other care you or anyone else has received for mental health issues. I am simply sharing my own experience for general educational purposes.*