Perhaps the most comforting statement is that those suffering from anxiety and panic disorders are no longer candidates for oddity talk shows. With 40 million co-sufferers, the embarrassment and desperation is no longer whispered—it’s screaming for attention and completely out in the open.
FEAR OF THE FEAR
Panic is a worthy foe. It can hide in the shadows and watch, gathering its strength, only to spring at you when you expect it the least. In fact, without knowing it, you’ve probably fed it; nurturing it with worry and a compulsion for perfection. You may have spent a good deal of your life trying to be in control, to keep everyone happy, to make others proud of you or to simply fit in. You’re proud to say you’ve been an achiever; the one the family could depend on or who others came to in times of trouble, knowing you would make everything all right. It’s likely that when the time came to pass the buck, it stopped with you.
That’s when it happened. Whether it leaped on your senses at the most inconvenient moment or gradually built steam until you felt too overwhelmed to move forward, it showed up to cash in on all that “goodness” you’ve been working so hard to maintain, or on those efforts to get ahead. Do you know why you get panicked? It’s because you care. Appropriately or not, you care.
As the saying goes, you probably didn’t even know what hit you. You might have been lunching with your spouse at a favorite restaurant when suddenly you felt flushed and disoriented, like you were watching the room from inside a bubble. Your throat closes and you feel nauseas. You are overcome with the most horrible sense of impending doom and as you grab the table to steady the dizziness, you want to simply run. You are positive everyone is staring at you, that surely your eyes are rolling back in your head and your face must been green. No one could possibly feel this ill and not have someone notice. In desperation you lean toward your spouse, but words fail you. “I have to get out!” you gasp.
“Out? Out of what? What’s wrong?”
It’s a struggle to breathe now and your palms are wet and slick but oddly you have a cold wave passing from your head to your stomach. It’s hard to focus on what they’re saying. “I think I’m having a heart attack, or a stroke, I don’t know. I just feel like I’m dying!” Why is everyone just eating and laughing? you wonder. Don’t they see I’m in trouble? Why isn’t someone calling an ambulance? What will people think? If I leave, I’m sure to crash into another table and I don’t want to make a scene.
And that, my friend, is your reward for being such a caring person. Call it the last straw, the drop that caused the glass to overflow, the backswing of the pendulum; you had a panic attack.
Or, perhaps you are more like that greenhouse orchid…fragile and needy. There cannot be enough attention to detail. Everything must be checked, and re-checked and imperfection is not to be tolerated. There is an order to be maintained and it takes all your energy and time to remain perfect. No one else can be trusted to keep watch, and if they offer, you must watch them to be certain they’re reliably vigilant, so it’s easier to do it yourself. There’s only one way it can be done.
While these are just two general examples, if you can even understand what the person must be feeling, chances are you’ve been there. Anxiety isn’t something you can “watch” other people have and understand it. Sensationalism television has likely done more damage than all the therapy dispensed over the past ten years. A show like Obsession is aired alongside Hoarders, presenting a carnival sideshow flavor to what is one of the most curable emotional disorders.
Despite what you might think, when you’re having a panic attack your hair does not stand out from your head and your eyes do not roll around. People who suffer from anxiety look like anyone else. They are sitting in the third pew at church, cheering at the basketball game, or serving you dinner at that restaurant.
Anxiety is invisible for the most part. Only the most trained professional knows what to look for. It is so invisible, as a matter of fact, that often the sufferer isn’t aware of the stress they’re under. It’s a way of life, of perception, an acceptance of responsibility to do the honorable thing.
Studies have shown some commonalities among people who live with anxiety.
◊ They are often first- born
◊ They are often the children of an alcoholic, absent or abusive parent
◊ They are often the children of a parent who suffered from anxiety
◊ They are often the children of a strict, perfectionistic, over-bearing or fearful parent
First-born children tend to be given responsibility earlier than their younger siblings, often helping to care for them. This puts the first born in the modified role of parent without the naturally inherent maturity or skills. The responsibly- minded eldest can misinterpret even an innocent, “Watch out for your little brother,” from the parent. The elder child may hear, “I’m holding you responsible if anything happens to your little brother,” or “Your little brother’s safety is more important than yours.” That caretaker attitude of responsibility can become the interpreted norm for everything the child-turned-adult does in their life. At the same time, their self-esteem adapts a personal second- class designation.
When a parent is an alcoholic, abusive, otherwise not fully supportive or available emotionally, the child feels abandoned. They may feel they are somehow contributing to the parent’s deficiency. “Don’t be bad or Daddy might get mad,” the mother may warn. The child may assume blame for the alcoholic parent who disappears for days at a time. If I were prettier, my Daddy would want to come home. He’s disappointed with me.
From your adult perspective, this may seem so far-fetched it would never occur to you, but to an impressionable, insecure child, it can become reality. The mature adult raised in this environment may suffer self-esteem issues and be overly vigilant, fearing that even the slightest imperfection could result in abandonment.
As young teenagers, girls are subject to that personalized, all-knowing cruelty that only her fellow classmates can offer. They are familiar with her family and background, share the same worries about fitting in and are witnessing her transformation from a child into the woman she will become. With that transition comes the judgment of sexual desire from the males; and this from males who are not yet as mature or capable of understanding what they feeling. The only word to describe that period in her life is awkward and it’s a fragile time in which to develop self-esteem. Should the young girl become the focus of unwanted personal attention, it can set a pattern of thinking for life she will find hard to neutralize.
There are physiological conditions that can cause anxiety. These can include certain cardiac and hormonal imbalances. Thus, the child of symptomatic parent or grandparent can inherit the same condition. It’s simply genetics.
Children accept the attitudes and behaviors of their parents as the norm. While in a normal setting this is the root of unqualified love, if the parent displays anxious behavior, the child can mirror that nervousness. It is an upbringing of consequences. “Remember to say please and thank you or they won’t ask you back again. Don’t eat that whole candy bar or you will get fat and ugly. Your mother is late. I wonder if she’s had an accident.” You understand while reading this, of course, that just saying thank you does not guarantee you’ll be invited back and that there’s no logic behind the worry that your mother’s delay means she’s in the back of an ambulance, but the suggestion from a parent is strong enough to make it seem true. It is the root of “what if ” expectation. The non-anxious parent won’t attach consequences. “Say please and thank you,” or “Your mother is running late,” is enough to say and the reasonable, wise parent will only give the child half a candy bar.
This doesn’t mean that this sort of impacting relationship has to take place during childhood. A woman who marries young without experiencing extensive independence is often subject to her husband’s idea of worthiness. Young husbands are just those little boys almost grown up and much of their attention is based on their own hormonal needs. They are still discovering who they are as adults and have little attention energy left over to shower on their wives.
There is no denying that young couples often make bad decisions. Perhaps they’ve over-extended themselves financially, taken on multiple jobs, or begun their family before they’re truly able to afford the cost and energy children need. They are learning to live with the shortcomings of a spouse they chose based on physical attraction and perhaps their parents have not yet truly set them free. It’s a world full of am I good enough, pretty enough, smart enough, rich enough? If anything in your childhood ever suggested that there was some question to your worthiness, this is fertile ground for those self-doubts to put down the self- esteem roots you’ll live with for the rest of your life.
In a society where more than half the marriages fail, young women frequently find themselves in a position of commitments and expectations that were meant to be levied over a lifetime. Those babies need to be fed, clothed, sheltered and put into daycare while she goes to work. The father may, or may not, be responsible enough to keep up his part in that commitment. The mother who expected her husband’s emotional, physical and financial support to help raise those children now finds herself overwhelmed. The sensitive person will begin questioning herself. Where did I go wrong? Am I a bad mother? How will I take care of these children? Will any man ever want me again? How can I find a better job? This establishes a pattern of what-if thinking that subconsciously colors every step of her path from that point on.
While your own life may not have been patterned on the same scenario, if you have an anxious personality it’s likely you can remember something fairly similar. We learn to be anxious, we learn how to pattern our thinking. This is the direct result of outside influences; that trial and error questioning of Do I Fit In? Often we don’t even realize this internal conversation is there. We can assume that everyone is thinking and feeling the same thing; after all, if we saw this in our family, it must make it normal, right?
Don’t we base everything we believe against the values instilled in our childhoods? Aren’t we predisposed to put ourselves to the test throughout our adult lives?
Will I get that job? Do I deserve a raise?
Does he find me attractive? Are my parents proud of me? Should I get more education?
Can I afford this house / car / vacation? Are my children healthy and normal? Am I bright enough to get the grades? Do I fit in?
Does anyone really care?
When you think about it, life truly is a series of “IFs.”
What are you worrying about, this moment, right now while you’re having symptoms? Say it aloud.
I’m worried that…
Then ask yourself, What is the worst that can happen?