Columns

Jenifer’s Journal: Running on anxious

A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety. — Aesop

Early 90’s, sometime in March, maybe April, I couldn’t get my older daughter, a sophomore at Rutgers in New Brunswick, N.J. on the phone (no cells in those days).

I’d started calling at about 8 p.m. the night before. By 2 a.m. I’d left three or four increasingly frantic messages. I must have slept for a couple of hours, but with my phone remaining implacably silent, I was on the first boat off the Island. Three-and-a-half hours later, I was ringing the doorbell at my daughter’s on-campus apartment. The door opened and she stood there, looking at me. There was nothing to say. I got back in my car and drove home.

Anxiety.

I’m beginning to believe that if there’s a defining difference between humans, it lies between those of us who have had anxiety attacks and those who haven’t. I’m only half-kidding.

In fact, in my experience, the first thing anxiety steals from me, along with sanity, oxygen and the ability to focus on anything else, is my sense of humor. It’s one tough customer, diabolically adept at cutting me out of the herd, convincing me that no one else on the planet could possibly be feeling this way, which, along with just about everything else to do with this insidious saboteur, simply isn’t true.

What’s true is that plenty of our fellow Americans — young, old and in-between — suffer from some iteration of anxiety. The prevalence of anxiety disorders is discussed in depth by Mira Rakicevic on the blog DisturbMeNot! She writes, in part: “How common are anxiety disorders? … According to the ADAA (Anxiety and Depression Association of America), anxiety disorders affect 40 million U.S. adults every year. In other words, according to statistics, they affect about 18% of the US population each year, which makes them the most common type of mental illness in the U.S. … 31.2% of Americans experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime (Harvard Medical School).

Whatever the [type of anxiety] or reason for it, it’s important to know that a number of effective treatment options can help you deal with your anxiety. So if you feel your worries are getting out of control or your anxiety affects your everyday activities, it’s best to seek professional help.

“‘Anxiety; is as varied as it is insidious — in terms of triggers and symptoms, it seems to be almost custom-made for each sufferer,” Rakicevic continues. “According to the National Comorbidity Survey, almost a third of U.S. adults suffer from one of the following anxiety disorders: panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, specific phobia, social anxiety disorder (social phobia), post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or separation anxiety disorder.”

The above disorders can occur separately or in combination with one another and, in some cases, with depression as well. I know for myself, anxiety can sometimes be “free-floating,” appearing  like a traffic jam, seemingly out of nowhere, and disappearing the same way.

More often, however, its toxicity will bloom from a legitimate but mild concern for the health and well-being of a family member, for example, that highly competent, busy college sophomore who didn’t return my call within the 15 minutes I irrationally considered to be “a timely fashion.” 

That’s one of the hallmarks of my anxiety — it’s irrational and therefore immune from the logical reassurances provided by friends, family and my own common sense. It operates like a heat-seeking missile, especially if I’m feeling, well, good. It’s particularly effective in zeroing-in on any random stimuli that just happens to be there, minding its own business, e.g.: the little freckle on my grandson’s cheek I hadn’t noticed before, or a casual mention by one of my kids about a family trip they’re planning, anything is fair game if I let it be.

Yes, anxiety is a joy-crusher, a time-waster and, ironically, a monumental distractor that keeps my focus off what I really could do something about.

But, worst of all, for me, anyway, anxiety is a shame-maker. Nobody talks about anxiety. My saner side is embarrassed, often humiliated, by the frantic, usually groundless fears I fall victim to, so naturally I don’t mention them, which is just how my saboteur likes it.

Anxiety wants to keep us alone in the dark. For all of us who “run anxious,” if we need professional help, we should get it, but we also need to drag anxiety out into the sunlight where we can identify it, talk about it and stop running long enough to see there’s nothing to be ashamed of. 

We might find that it leads us to a better understanding of ourselves and one another.