There are many pitfalls to being a person living with an anxiety disorder. The mental, physical, and emotional tolls that it takes to live with this disorder is, at times, heartbreaking. Anxiety tells me everyone hates me, it panics me, and it embarrasses me. In the midst of high anxiety and/or panic attacks, it causes me to appear distant, uninterested, or even makes me appear to be ignoring someone. An ill-timed panic attack, for example, at a first meeting, can make it appear that I am a snob.
How Hidden Anxiety Appears to an Observer
Often, we forget that how anxiety feels and how it looks are very different. How hidden anxiety appears to an observer is nothing like it feels in our heads. While we are panicked, scared, with our hearts racing and trying to flee, what the people around us see is someone who is quiet and not paying attention. Someone who, at first blush, just doesn’t care.
The problem is compounded when we, during this anxiety or panic attack, realize it is our turn to contribute to the conversation. Since we have been so focused on the anxiety brewing inside us, we have no idea what is going on, so we say something that is either off topic, making us look like we had been ignoring them, or we say something unintentionally offensive.
It is Anxiety, Not Snobbery
I dream of living in a world where I can look someone in the eyes and say, “I’m sorry. It is anxiety, not snobbery,” or some version thereof. In general, honesty is the best policy, but we all have our reasons for hiding our panic and anxiety attacks. There are people we should be more honest with, such as friends and family, but at school, work, or amongst strangers, I understand the need for privacy.
While we can’t control the timing of our anxiety and we certainly can’t control how people react to us, we can control our actions. We don’t have to compound the problem by answering questions with guesses or by staying in situations where we aren’t able to successfully participate.
Sometimes, we need to excuse ourselves and retreat to a private space, like a bathroom, until we calm down. We need to practice saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t feel well at the moment. Please excuse me and I’ll return in a moment.” We also need to educate people we can trust on the best way to run interference, if they are willing, to help you make an escape. My wife is excellent at clearing a safe exit and explaining that I will return in a moment and it is nothing personal.
Taking control of anxiety comes in many forms. While prevention is the best outcome, it isn’t the only way to take control. We can’t always prevent anxiety, but we can learn from past experiences for better outcomes in the future.