What are signs of anxiety? They often aren’t obvious. Anxiety can turn you into a duck. On the surface things are serene. But beneath water, you are paddling furiously.
Note: This is a guest essay by Nanea Hoffman.
When you live with anxiety, you are accustomed to the incessant hum of adrenaline in your veins and the prickly spiders-walking-over-your-skin sensation at the back of your neck.
You tell yourself this is the disorder. There are no bogeymen tucked behind closed doors or curled beneath the couch. There is no looming cataclysm waiting to be triggered by the wrong choice of outfit or the failure to triple check the doors and light switches.
You know – you know – that the delicate cocktail of chemicals in your brain is off.
Your mind, like a credulous child, is telling itself stories to make sense of what it is feeling. You’re okay. You say the words to yourself quietly, and then more firmly: “You’re okay.” You just need to get through the next few minutes, the next hour, the rest of the day.
Tomorrow might be better. You coax and cajole and outright trick yourself into performing the necessary functions of your life.
You cannot always see the signs of anxiety, unless you know exactly what to look for. And are watching with the unflagging, microscopic scrutiny of a red carpet fashion critic at an awards show.
Even then… you could still miss signs of anxiety!
If you saw me in a full-fledged panic attack, you might simply register a twitchy, frazzle-haired woman with a possible sweat gland malfunction.
Oddly, no one has ever guessed that a shiny helium balloon bobbing in the wind sets off the same response in my body – as if I’ve just been told a category 5 hurricane is about to make landfall in the grocery store parking lot.
On the surface everything looks serene, but under the water, I’m paddling furiously.
Me, wearing dark glasses, even though it’s a cloudy day.
Maybe my eyes are sensitive. Or I have contacts and I don’t want dust to get in them. Perhaps I don’t want people to see how tired my unmade-up eyes look.
Dark glasses are a magic shield. They protect me from having to make eye contact with you.
Me, at a social event, being extra attentive and focused on my husband and children.
What a happy family! Look how we all enjoy each other!
We do enjoy each other, but when my social anxiety is high, I hyper focus on my family because they are my safe place. Also, see the previous point about avoiding eye contact.
There’s a woman who cares about physical fitness and is taking care of herself.
Yes, fitness, blah blah blah. More importantly, I want the endorphins that come after a good workout. Medicine helps. Therapy helps. But without regular exercise, my mental state rapidly deteriorates. Working out keeps me balanced.
Me, in sweatpants, a fine-knit jersey tee that feels like something you’d snuggle a baby in, and maybe a pair of Uggs.
Someone can’t be bothered to put on grownup clothes.
One of the best ways to calm my free-floating anxiety is to basically swaddle myself in softness. If I could get away with wrapping myself from head to toe in a blankie on my worst days, I would. I realize this often gives me the appearance of having raided a college coed’s closet, to which I say, in the appropriate vernacular, “Whatevs.”
Me, carrying a bottle of water and drinking frequently.
So health conscious! Hydration is important.
Anxiety makes my mouth go dry. Drinking water alleviates the dryness and also gives me something concrete to do while my brain is whizzing like a Ninja blender. I hear it’s good for your complexion, too.
Me, brow furrowed with concentration, tapping away at my phone.
Workaholic! Can’t even pull her head out of the phone for a second.
There could actually be a few things going on here.
Me, acting completely normal.
It’s all good.
Possible Def Con 1 level panic attack in progress. You would never even know. Maybe I’ve slipped a Xanax in my mouth like a breath mint and now I’m just waiting for it to kick in.
Sometimes, it is impossible to hide what is happening, what with all the shaking and crying.
What I know from talking about this openly. (And by openly, I mean here, in the privacy of the Internet. Please don’t come up to me in person and try to discuss this, for godsakes!)
Anyway…what I know: There are a lot more of us ducks out there than you can imagine.
To my fellow sufferers of atypical brain chemistry, I offer a shy, sweaty-handed salute of solidarity.
A version of this essay first ran on Sweatpants & Coffee.