TRIGGER WARNING – Whenever I see that warning, it makes me tense up, although usually the things discussed within posts with that warning don’t tend to trigger me, and that’s not because they warned me and I tensed up, preparing myself for the worst, relieved that it wasn’t as bad as the worst that I can imagine.
This post is about Anxiety, and while it is going to be about the skills which Anxiety offers those who suffer from Anxiety, to do that it will discuss the experience of Anxiety which may trigger Anxiety in those who read it.
Just reading the word Anxiety can trigger Anxiety, as the mind in its effort to be helpful to its user tends to retrieve from the internal filing system personal associations, personal reference points, and personal definitions related to the subject/word we are focused upon, and push them to the front of our consciousness like a chaotic crowd surging forwards.
I will attempt to tone down the Anxiety in this post, and not describe in too much or too vivid, visceral detail my own Anxiety and the situations which trigger or have triggered it, and not infect you with the Anxiety I am feeling at this moment as I write about Anxiety. I always get anxious about making others anxious. However I’ll most likely fail in my attempt.
In fact I have already failed.
Failure is definitely an option, especially when it comes to trying not to do something which is second nature to you. Failure is often the only option when it comes to Anxiety.
It can be hard to predict what’s going to trigger someone.
It isn’t always easy to know what’s going to trigger us.
Sometimes what triggers a reaction can be seemingly harmless. Or almost invisible, a nothing which came out of nowhere and suddenly turned into a big something which crushed us, or someone else, or both and more.
Just when you thought you were safe, had made all your checks to secure the area, had bolted the door, barricaded the windows, blocked up all the orifices (don’t forget things can slither up the drain pipes) and entry points, the roof caves in.
The roof caved in a lot when I was a child. It inspired in me a nagging necessary need to avoid that experience by studying, locating and then eliminating the causes, the triggers.
Was it something I said, something I didn’t say. Was it something I did, something I didn’t do. Was it something forgotten, was it something remembered.
Was it just because I was there or because I wasn’t there.
There was a time in my life when I was tempted to tattoo a warning sign on my forehead, because I ended up at the conclusion that I was the trigger.
My existence was the reason the roof kept caving in.
This wasn’t as farfetched, misinformed or as crazy as it may sound. In fact it was a rather logical deduction.
My conception was a ‘dirty little secret’ which caused my mother to experience intense levels of Anxiety, because she had to keep it to herself until it was far too late to abort mission.
– while I can’t rely on my mother’s accounts of anything, as she is a fantasist and thus a compulsive liar (she never saw herself as a liar, she couldn’t, she never will, it would be too much for her nervous system to handle, and many of her lies were and still are her way of coping with her own Anxiety), and her regular changing of the story, telling different versions of it depending on this or that or the other… left me with a certain Anxiety about reality (which would regularly manifest itself as Existential Anxiety), some of the details (not the TMI to share with your child ones, such as how having intercourse with my father made my mother feel like a toilet into which he peed) have been backed up by evidence outside of my mother’s influence.
I once saw a photograph of my mother when she was in her third trimester of pregnancy. She had avoided being photographed during that traumatic time, and had managed to destroy any pictures which were taken except this one which someone else owned and which had been printed in a newspaper. She looked scrawny, stressed, ill – which she was (one doctor told her she was expecting twins – my twin was a fibroid tumor. This was eventually diagnosed by a doctor, many Anxiety provoking doctors down the line, who lived in a country far from where my parents usually lived, which is one of the reasons why I ended up being born away from sort of home).
If the way I phrased the previous sentence in brackets confused you – I was born confused about where I belonged, came from, where home was, which caused quite a bit of Social Anxiety because people prefer it if you come from one place and have one home where you lived, grew up. It’s fine to move around once you’re an adult, it’s often encouraged by society to the point of causing Anxiety in those who would rather stay put, but if you moved around a lot as a child this is somehow not fine with society. I used to dread being asked – Where are you from?
Once my father found out that I was not only on my way but he couldn’t stop my coming, he became more angry than usual, and my parents fought more than usual – using my existence in utero as a trigger to start their fights and keep fighting.
Shortly after my birth my mother almost died – a story which my mother repeatedly told me, as well as the one about having an argument with the bossy nurse who wanted her to see her baby but my mother did not want that, it triggered her Anxiety, she wanted everyone and everything to go away.
Then there was the story about how she wanted to throw her baby out of the 15th story window because it was always crying, except when someone else picked it up which was infuriating – my mother thought this story was funny in retrospect and told it to me like it was a joke. It was her favourite joke, I heard it a lot as a child, she liked to tell it every time she felt burdened by the Anxiety of having to be my mother when all she wanted to do is drop the burden and run free.
Thinking about that joke/story made me wonder if it was one of the inspirations for my covering up my own Anxiety. Don’t make a sound.
It’s not the only reason I do that.
As I grew up with my Anxiety and it grew with me, I came up with more elaborate reasons to hide it, but underneath those reasons there is an underlying sense that if I don’t stay calm I might get killed.
When I was young we traveled a lot on planes during a time when planes were being hijacked, and I recall practicing how I would behave in a hijack/hostage scenario. I still do that, practice how to behave in a life-threatening scenario. I was doing it yesterday while playing with fire but the threat did not come from the bonfire, it came from something imaginary. I realise that when in actual danger all my practicing with imaginary scenarios will most likely be useless as the mind isn’t always reliable, and primal instinct kicks in.
The fears of Anxiety and primal fear are starkly different, or at least in my experience they are. The fear of Anxiety is very loud, busy, frenetic, panic stations! Primal fear goes deathly quiet, everything slows down, is in slow motion, and an eerie calm descends to meet what arises. The fears of Anxiety may accompany primal fear, but primal fear is like a real adult who knows how to comfort and silence the fears of a terrified child.
The adults in my childhood were terrified children hiding inside the bodies of adults. As a child I had to comfort and silence my own terrors, because the slightest sign that I was anxious turned the adults around me into Anxiety monsters, who saw me as the Anxiety monster they had to kill, squish like a spider before it crawls onto their skin and into their open screaming mouth.
They say – write what you know – and I do know Anxiety… and that made me think about all those times people have told me that I know nothing about Anxiety.
Those people often said that to me while I was sweating bullets, shaking like a leaf, breaking out in rashes, paralysed with fear, screaming inside, heart pounding against my chest with a battering ram, but for some reason I looked totally fine and dandy to them, too happy, too having it easy, too cucumber cool for them and it got up their noses and made them sneeze down on me.
Of course they weren’t really doing that, they were simply blinded by their own Anxiety.
And of course I could have lost my cool along with them, at them – Anxiety is contagious. The few times I’ve allowed mine to show has usually ended up with me having to calm myself down to comfort those I’ve infected with the virus.
Having to calm yourself and stay calm while someone else is losing it and has lost their calm can be a calming experience wherein you find yourself, and maybe the other person finds themselves too.
Those people did sometimes thank me afterwards for being their port in a storm, the rock they could cling to while their inner surges bashed and clawed at them (and me, but that’s by the by) threatening to loosen their grip and drag them under, or the bucket into which they could throw up then feel better.
And I sometimes thanked them. When you suffer from Anxiety it can be helpful to help someone else who suffers from Anxiety, because you get to deal with Anxiety from the outside in and not just from the inside out, and that can give you a different perspective of the howling abyss.
I did sometimes want to ask them once they were becalmed if it had occurred to them (or ever would occur to them) that the reason I could weather their storm and knew how to give them what they needed while they were in the midst of it, was because I am familiar with inner storms like that rather than because I am completely impervious to such things – but I didn’t want to stir things up, they’d been through enough… and it was rather vainly fun to know that on the outside I didn’t look as I felt on the inside.
Not looking on the outside like I feel inside has helped me as much as it has sometimes hindered me.
Sometimes when I think my expression says: Do not disturb, leave me alone, I’m working out a personal problem, maybe building its muscles rather than diminishing them…and if I am building its muscles you do not want to be within arm’s length.
Someone else will think my expression says: Please disturb me…
Because you can’t always rely on people seeing you as you see yourself, seeing you as you really are, you sometimes have to tell them what to see when they look at you, and I did upgrade my system eventually to include a verbal: Please do not disturb me at this time, I am out of order and will be fixing myself, I will inform you when I am operational again and open for business.
But people still don’t always read the sign, listen when they’re told, they just don’t think the warning applies to them, and they hear: I’m closed but I’m always open for you, you’re a special case. And all these buttons which say – Do Not Press – feel free to press them right now.
Soon after I found out that my father had died, I warned everyone around me that I was uncertain about how I would react – I tend to have delayed reactions – and told them not to worry about me, just to take care of themselves so I didn’t have to worry about them. I was going to distance myself a bit and might seem a bit distant – nothing was wrong, and I would handle it if it was.
Most people respected my request, and were relieved that they did not have to handle me. They were there for me should I need them, and since what I needed from them was to respect my wishes they would give me what I needed.
Except one person who always saw herself as the exception. One person who I triple-warned not to bother me because I knew she didn’t listen. She didn’t listen. Or at least what she heard was herself telling herself how empathic she was, and to prove this to herself she must smother me with it. According to her I had to talk to her. She would make it all better. I knew she would not, she would make it worse just as she already was.
She was the last person on this planet (except for my mother – but I was not in contact with her) whom I would have chosen to talk with if I had wanted to talk, not only because she didn’t listen but because what she did hear meant every conversation became about some drama of hers. I did not need that at that time (or ever really). I said no. She kept pestering, getting more and more upset with me for refusing to let her into my inner sanctum – I lost my cool and snapped at her. She had a super duper meltdown all over me which rumbled on for a week or two until I told her that she was better off without me.
Obviously I was the trigger of her Anxiety.
My father’s death stirred up a lot of Anxiety for me. It triggered my C-PTSD (I feel weird admitting that I had/have C-PTSD, I’ve always tried to downplay it). The roof once again caved in.
But this time the roof caving in helped me to finally deal with a lot of things which I hadn’t dealt with other than by burying them in a deep dark pit inside.
I’m more peaceful now, happier… I still get anxious about saying that, but I said it.
Those who suffer from Anxiety have a constant drip-drip-drip which constantly prompts them to… appreciate when the dripping stops for a minute – over time the minutes accumulate, this repetitive practice exercises muscles which no longer need to be trained as hard as they used to, you shift out of normal and returning to normal is not a desirable place to be, because normal suffers from Anxiety without reprieve.
When you’re anxious, caught up in an Anxiety attack of one sort or another (and there are lots of variations on the theme), it can be hard to tell what is real and what is not real – the not real is often more real than the really real.
How could Anxiety be useful, how could that be a blessing, a benefit, become a skill?
Here are some random possibilities:
Hypervigilance makes you intensely aware of your surroundings, you notice details which often go unseen, and while these can sometimes be a life saver, in scenarios where no life was ever in danger, it can be a finder of lost items, such as the last piece of the puzzle which fell off the table, was batted under the corner of sofa by the cat, and blends in with the pattern of the carpet, but your eagle eye found it and it is a problem solver.
If I ever had the bad luck of surviving the apocalypse, I’d want a Hypervigilant on the team, to watch over us, spot the traps, avoid danger, and recognise the signs of where to find food, water, and a safe place to set up camp, get some rest.
No that long ago this would have been my role on the team, and in a new scenario my hypervigilant ways do still kick in.
OCD can make you an organisational expert, able to create intricate filing systems, decode complex mysteries (so much of human nature is ritualistic), bring order to disorder through a soothing ritual, and learn things which require perseverance and dedication to a set pattern.
If I ever went on an expedition through a jungle, I’d want someone with OCD on the team who would know and make the required ritual checks to survive. Who would have all the gear needed, keep the gear tidy, clean, in working order, ready to use. And who would remember that wild animals are attracted by certain smells, and those smells need to be covered up, sanitised.
I used to make checks whenever I went out of my home, and I had a small tool box (which wasn’t literally a tool box, but it was in my mind) I’d take with me just in case of an emergency. I could not leave home without it, if I accidentally did…
Phobias can make you study the objects of fear, the fear itself, to understand the underlying mechanism of fear, or the story of an object. The information gathered can be invaluable.
If I was stuck in The Upside Down (Stranger Things), I’d want someone with a Phobia on the team, someone who had wrestled with their own fear to help us deal with our own fears, get us through the fear trying to paralyse us like flies in a web, and show us how to deal with it when it’s there but you can’t see it.
I can bore you into a deep sleep with all the information and stories which I have collected in my mind about sharks, and I may be able to guide you in ways to deal with your own sharks.
Social Anxiety can make those with it learn to make friends with isolation, find solace in solitude. They develop independence, self-reliance, think for themselves, and tend to know themselves well. They also have ninja level avoidance and escapist skills.
If I was stranded on a desert island (and I couldn’t have the option of being alone), I would want someone with Social Anxiety on the team. They know how to be alone, they know themselves, they know a lot about others from observing them from afar and up close and uncomfortable – they know when to leave you alone. We’d make that island a home rather than a hell to escape from – why would you want to escape from a place where there are no crowds of people!?
If we were stuck with a Lost bunch, we’d know how to evade the rest and find a more comfortable spot.
If I was adrift at sea on a life raft, I’d want someone with Existential Anxiety on the team as we waited for Godot. We could also entertain ourselves betting on which one of us would offer ourselves up first as food to save the other, and who would do it most convincingly, have the best argument to be the chosen one to be eaten.
Not everyone who suffers from Anxiety has developed these particular skills, but they do have skills for dealing with Anxiety, and over time they hone them, and these become useful not just to them but to those around them.
Suffering from Anxiety is a normal part of being human.
Over to you…
If you were in a survival scenario, which Anxiety would you want with you, on the team, and why?
If you suffer from Anxiety, what skills has it inspired you to develop, and how have these helped in other areas of your life?