What It’s Like to Experience Severe Anxiety

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While it is normal for anyone to worry or become nervous from time to time, some people experience such significant discomfort because of their thoughts, that they could be suffering from anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is a mental health condition that is characterized by a person experiencing persistent and intense worries (for longer than a 6 month period) about a variety of different concerns. This worry or fear is extremely difficult to control and may involve physical or cognitive symptoms including restlessness, fatigue, lack of concentration, irritability, muscle aches, and difficulty sleeping. 

The type of anxiety a person has is determine based on what they are worrying about, though if someone frequently worries about a lot of different things, they are usually diagnosed with what is called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. While some people who experience low levels of anxiety can cope with it without much disruption to their lives, there are many people who suffer from such extreme anxiety that it impacts their ability to go to work or school, maintain relationships with loved ones or engage in social activities.

Here we will discuss some of the daily struggles of living with anxiety, the impact it can have on the person and those around them, the challenges in treating it, and ways you can support a loved one who lives with anxiety to help them cope.

Daily Struggles of Living with Anxiety

Our brains throughout time have developed and evolved from an organ that’s sole purpose was to keep a person alive and safe, to being able to help a person to relax, be creative, and engage in desirable and fulfilling activities as well.

Those who experience anxiety often explain that their thoughts are on a loop where they cannot stop thinking about things that make them feel stressed or worried. Mental health professionals call this rumination and often note that the inability to control what they are thinking about can cause a person experiencing anxiety to feel severely overwhelmed and stressed.

Depending on what their fears are about, someone with severe anxiety can feel stuck in their own mind, constantly worried about whether or not their worst fear will come true when they know deep down that this is very unlikely to happen.

That is the part that is often the hardest for people suffering from anxiety; they know that what they are worried about is rarely rational. In fact, most of the time the fears themselves or the severity of those fears are completely irrational and have very little chance of ever coming true.

So, why do people with anxiety continue to worry about something that isn’t based in reality? While the answer to this particular question is relatively unknown, it appears as if the brain of people with anxiety is working overtime to attempt to protect themselves from harm, so much so that it impacts their ability to function throughout the day.

When someone spends a majority of their day worrying or stressing about something that is unlikely to happen, it can cause them to miss out on more pleasurable and relaxing experiences that would help them to reconnect with what is more likely to happen.

When someone experiences severe anxiety, they can struggle to complete tasks, can withdraw or isolate from loved ones, and can engage in avoidance strategies like drinking alcohol, using drugs, or other harmful behaviors that can cause significant problems in their life.

The Social Impact of Severe Anxiety

As mentioned above, severe anxiety symptoms not only affect the person who experiences them but can also wreak havoc on the relationships that they have with those around them.

When people experience severe worry and fear, it can cause them to make significant changes in their behavior that may affect those around them. For example, someone who experiences severe anxiety related to fear of getting sick could go to extreme lengths attempting to keep themselves and those around them clean and germ-free.

While prioritizing cleanliness is important for everyone to do, if the measures a person is taking to disinfect their surroundings is irrational, this can cause those around them to experience frustration or concern about the well-being of their loved one. It can also cause those around the anxious person to feel frustrated and stressed, thus increasing conflict between them.

Other forms of anxiety, such as social anxiety, can cause a person to withdraw or isolate themselves because of their irrational and severe fears and worries. People who suffer from severe forms of anxiety can begin to feel lonely as a result of this isolation and this can increase their symptoms as well as cause a person to feel hopeless or helpless.

This can lead to depressive symptoms as well. While a person suffering from anxiety may believe that isolating themselves from others will help to eliminate the probability of their fears coming true, it often exacerbates their problems and can negatively impact their relationships with friends and family.

Human beings need and crave support, and people with anxiety may need more support than they realize. Reaching out to others for help can be a great way to rationalize their anxious thoughts and to possibly get help alleviating their symptoms as well.

Challenges in Treating Anxiety

Anxiety is a disorder that has been well researched by mental health and medical professionals alike, and there are many evidence-based treatments that have been shown to be extremely effective in helping a person suffering from anxiety to manage their symptoms. When a person begins to experience severe levels of anxiety, however, it can take time and can be difficult to treat.

A mental health professional will begin treatment by educating patients about what is happening in their brains to help them understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Once that process is complete, the mental health professional will then teach a patient various coping skill to help them take control of their thoughts, which ultimately will help them change their feelings and behaviors.

While this is a highly effective strategy in helping people reduce symptoms, it requires the patient to be active and willing to practice changing their thoughts, feelings, and behavior while stepping out of their comfort zone to confront their worries. This is difficult for many patients and can make it very difficult to treat more severe cases of anxiety.

When this is the case, therapists will often work with medical professionals to provide medication support to figure out a way to re-balance some of the chemicals in a person’s brain so they can reduce their anxiety and begin to find the strength to work on strategies to improve their functioning.

How You Can Help Someone Cope with Anxiety

When you love someone who is experiencing anxiety, it can feel overwhelming to figure out the best ways to help them. Some things that may work for you may not work for them, and you can feel at a loss for what to do. The best thing to do is try to talk to your loved one during a neutral time (a time when they aren’t experiencing severe anxiety) and ask them what could be helpful and how you can support them. Here are some suggestions of ways to help a loved one who is suffering from anxiety:

  • Talk to them about their anxiety – Often those who do not suffer from anxiety may not understand that some of the things they say or do may be a direct result of feeling anxious or nervous about something irrational. Having time where you can discuss the things that your loved one thinks and how that affects their feelings may help you to be more empathetic and supportive when they are feeling particularly anxious.
  • Discuss what kind of support they think they need – Usually a person who suffers with anxiety has a pretty good idea of what helps get them out of a particularly anxious experience and what doesn’t. Discussing what works for them (i.e. do you need someone to talk you through it or do you need space? Do you need physical contact or not?) can help to figure out what to do when they are feeling calm, so you won’t feel so helpless when they are not.
  • Grounding – If someone you love experiences anxiety that causes them to have panic attacks or severe symptoms that require immediate attention, helping “ground” them is going to be super important. Ask them questions about things they see in the room and help them get out of their anxious thoughts to a more “mindful” and present situation. A great way to do this is by asking them about their 5 senses: “Tell me 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, and 1 thing you taste”.
  • Encourage them to seek mental health support – When someone is suffering from severe anxiety, they often need more support than their loved ones can provide. A great way to show you love them is by encouraging them to get the help and treatment they need to improve their functioning.

A trained mental health and/or medical professional who specializes in anxiety will be able to help your loved one find the right type of treatment that works for them, and allows them a safe and neutral place to have difficult discussions about their anxiety and how to remedy it.

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Dr. Shannon McHugh is a Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist in Los Angeles, California. She specializes in assessment and treatment of children, adolescents, and adults who have developmental and social delays, behavioral difficulties, and those who have experienced traumatic events
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