I’ve hardly kept it a secret that I sometimes suffer from crippling anxiety. Naturally, I don’t claim to be unique in my struggles. Anxiety disorders affect about 18 percent of American adults. In Canada, the annual prevalence rate is around 12 percent, and about 25 percent of Canadians will have at least one anxiety order in their lifetime. It’s remarkably common; it’s just some of us are better at hiding it than others.
That’s the thing. Many people have this picture in their mind of what anxiety looks like. Perhaps they picture a neurotic Woody Allen-type character, huddled in the corner, biting his nails. And surely, that exists for some people. But for most people who suffer from anxiety, much subtler signs can fly under the radar.
For me, here are five hidden ways my anxiety manifests itself… which really aren’t all that hidden.
1. Desire for Increased Control
For the longest time, I identified with the INTP personality type. The “P” in “INTP” stands for Perceiving. Someone with this quality prefers to live more spontaneously with greater flexibility. On the other hand, someone with the Judging (J) quality prefers more structure and predictability… and I’ve been leaning much more toward an INTJ personality type lately.
On some level, this is decidedly strange. A big part of the reason why I got into freelancing in the first place is that I enjoyed the flexibility and personal freedom that comes from running my own business. I can work when I want, where I want, and how I want… within reason. But more recently, I’ve found myself becoming much more of a control freak.
Take my desired work environment, for example. Early on in my career, I couldn’t work in silence. I always had something playing in the background. My work schedule was also all over the place. These days, I tend to work in dead silence and I’m seeking greater structure in when I choose to work too.
I feel compelled to control everything around me, fighting against the spontaneous and unpredictable chaos that surrounds me. Maybe that’s just the life of a work-at-home dad. Maybe my desire to control my anxiety is creating more anxiety.
2. Poor Sleep Quality
You see for me, it’s not as much an issue of sleep quantity as it is an issue of sleep quality. Most nights, I am able to get a decent six to eight hours in bed. More if I’m especially lucky. However, that doesn’t mean I get a solid six to eight hours of actual, restful sleep. I rarely get what you might call a good night’s sleep.
It doesn’t matter how physically exhausted I am, I struggle to fall asleep. My mind continues racing a mile a minute. I also wake up several times a night, usually from some dream or another. Presumably, my brain is continuing to process the day’s events and leftover thoughts. It never stops. I brood and ruminate over everything, even though I know full well this isn’t healthy.
3. Increased Irritability
You know how they say that when someone quits smoking, they tend to get irritable? The nicotine used to help “take the edge off,” providing a calming effect. Without that in place, the recent ex-smoker can be quick to snap at people over the most inconsequential of things. The ex-smoker experiences increased anxiety and may have more trouble containing their emotions.
I don’t smoke, so I’ve never had to quit. I can’t speak from personal experience, in that regard. What I can tell you, though, is that I’ve found I’ve become increasingly irritable in recent years. Things that didn’t really bother me before really bother me now. And when my anxiety is hitting especially hard, I know that I can snap at my loved ones over the smallest of things.
I’ve yelled at my daughter for not finishing her supper or not being cooperative when brushing her teeth. Needless to say, I’m not proud of it and she didn’t deserve it. I don’t like me when I’m like that, but I’m trying to be better.
4. Penchant for Comfort Eating
Trying. I’m trying to be and do all sorts of things, some with greater success than others. You might recall how I’m trying to switch to healthier snacking habits, for example. And yet, here I am typing up this blog post with a bowl of kettle chips in front of me.
I’m not hungry. Not in the least. This is purely a form of comfort eating, because I’ve always found comfort in food. I lean mostly toward the salty and savory end of the spectrum, fooling myself into thinking that another potato chip will quell some of those anxious fires. It’s a lie, of course, and yet the comfort eating persists.
5. Extrapolating Universal Truths
As I mentioned a couple months ago, I’ve been experimenting with a mental health mobile app that’s based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) principles. It’s been teaching me occasional lessons, helping me work through irrational thinking and develop healthier ways of perceiving the world.
One of these lessons is that many of us, myself included, tend to extrapolate universal truths based on individual (and sometimes emotional) events. These extrapolations tend to be utterly irrational. Say, for instance, that someone doesn’t respond to an email. From that, I may extrapolate that this person doesn’t like me anymore. And from that, I may extrapolate the universal truth that I am an unlikable person.
This isn’t necessarily something that happens on a conscious level; it very rarely is. Instead, it’s something that constantly bubbles beneath the surface and colors all other experiences. And I do it all the time.
Anxiety Comes From Within
In The Existentialist’s Survival Guide, author Gordon Marino discusses a rather poignant observation. Anxiety is an affliction that is irrespective of outside conditions. That is to say that it is something that begins from within, and in the absence of anxiety-inducing events, it seeks out something to which it can attach. Even if your life is seemingly perfect, the inner anxiety will find something to be anxious about. The gravitational pull is tremendous.
We’d like to think that once we solve the apparent source of our anxiety, we will no longer be anxious. Unfortunately, for so many of us, that’s simply not the case. The anxiety will just find something else to latch onto, and the cycle continues. I recognize just how bleak that can sound and, to be perfectly honest, it’s probably not the answer you wanted. It’s not the one I wanted either.
In this way, maybe the goal isn’t to try and eliminate anxiety altogether. That’s a losing battle. Instead, it’s about finding a way to channel it in a positive direction. Let me know when you figure out how to do that. I’ve love to learn.