“Fear is the mind-killer” said the Atreides. But they were wrong.
Fear is mostly useless, but on occasion it can inspire necessary action or avoidance. For instance, most phobias people have are not practical whatsoever. Spiders, clowns, public speaking, open or closed spaces: these things have a negligible chance of causing real harm, yet many people are terrified of them. Of course, fear does have some benefits. After learning that an action causes pain or discomfort of some kind, fear of that pain will usually be sufficient incentive to avoid the harmful action. This can be small or large, simple or complex, temporal or abstract. It’s a very basic principle which all living beings seem to typically follow and thus improve their chance of survival and success.
What plagues me is not fear. I’m actually about as fearless as they come. Sure, spiders give me the creeps and so did that huge waterbug on top of my car tonight, but I certainly don’t go through an excessive amount of suffering because of my heeby-jeebies. I even lack reasonable fear for many dangerous activities such as travelling alone in a foreign country known for sex crimes, switching careers, and meeting online strangers in real life.
Fear is not the problem I want to address: anxiety is.
Anxiety is often mistaken for fear by those who are less familiar with it firsthand. The crippling effects of anxiety can plague every second of every day in particularly dire situations. It has a physical effect, much like fear, that is intensely unpleasant. Thus, fear of anxiety is a perfectly logical fear. The similarities between anxiety and fear cause lots of problems for people suffering from anxiety. Mainly, if you tell someone you’re feeling anxious, a common response is “what are you anxious about?” However, anxiety does not have an about. Anxiety’s worst aspect is its utter lack of direction. It is an overwhelming emotion somewhat like fear, but in my case, it is also accompanied by extreme restlessness, like your skin is confining you too much. There is often a daze accompanied with it in my case, distancing me from reality. This is the feeling that causes me to neurotically cause sensation to myself: like grinding my finger into a rough wooden railing so that I can feel physical pain to distract me from the senseless wave of emotion. Anxiety makes me understand why some people cut themselves or engage in other acts of self-harm. Physical pain is far less terrible than extreme anxiety. My mind races when I’m anxious. I couldn’t even talk fast enough to keep up with the thoughts that come and go. I have no control over it. It usually causes manic urges for me due to my bipolar tendencies. It almost always makes me want to run away, move, or make some drastic change. At least, those are some of the things that race through my head during an anxiety attack.
I have a couple of known triggers for my anxiety or panic attacks. However, once a trigger is realized, it is quite possible to train yourself to react differently and overcome the trigger, or at least avoid it. When there is a cause, anxiety is just fear accompanied by panic and it is possible to overcome it. The problem is, most of the time the trigger isn’t recognizable if it even exists. Most of the time it’s a mood that gradually grows inside me until it’s too late and I am in its grasp. The frustration of not knowing why you’re anxious along with your loved ones’ confusion as to what you’re afraid of compound into a really terrible situation. Voicing what you need is hard enough when you know what that is: it is exponentially overwhelming when you have no idea what a person can do to help besides STOP ASKING WHAT THEY CAN DO. I feel guilty when I’m anxious or having a panic attack. I know my loved one doesn’t understand and wants to help and my problem is causing them to feel frustrated and helpless. I hate it. It makes me feel worse which feeds the anxiety.
I’m bipolar, so I get to experience frequent periods of extreme depression and mania. Both of these feelings can be really, really bad but I can see good in them as well. That’s for another blog post. The point is this: I’d take on more depression or mania if I could just never feel anxious again.
Sorry, Dune fans. Fear is not the mind-killer. Anxiety is.
(I’m leaving this song here because it almost begins to capture the mood of anxiety. Just multiply it by a million and add some guilt.)
(And unfortunately, since everyone is so different, the only advice I can offer the people who love someone suffering from anxiety is to not leave them alone when they are going through a panic attack. Be there and see it through. Do not bother them incessantly offering help. Just be there. And thank you so much for loving us.)