Reviewed by Rashonda Douthit, LCSW
Anxiety is often seen as a bothersome but manageable condition. Made famous and even endearing by fictional characters in film and television, anxiety is often used more as the punch line to a joke than as a descriptor of an intense and debilitating condition. Despite its seemingly innocuous connotation and the casual way it is mentioned in daily life and popular culture, anxiety can actually be a paralyzing condition that touches virtually every aspect of day-to-day life. What is paralyzing anxiety, exactly?
The Basics Of Anxiety
Any form of anxiety has the potential to become paralyzing, even disorders that might not initially seem overwhelming, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This is because anxiety is a body-mind response characterized by a series of responses that create a declining health loop. The basic anxiety symptoms, across the board of anxiety disorders, include:
- The Anxiety That Has Lasted More Than Six Months. Anxiety is most easily differentiated from stress by its duration; stress is typically short-term, while anxiety is a chronic, long-term condition.
- Excessive Worry. Anxiety is known for its predilection toward excessive worry. While worrying is perfectly normal, excessive worry involves racing thoughts, difficulty attending to daily life, and fear regarding all life areas.
- Sleep changes. Anxiety is frequently associated with difficulty falling or staying asleep but could also be associated with an excessive need for sleep. Any long-term sleep change in conjunction with other symptoms could indicate an additional anxiety symptom.
- Cognition Changes. Anxiety negatively impacts cognitive function, and people with anxiety often report difficulty concentrating, difficulty remembering, and difficulty maintaining an even state of mind. These symptoms can range from slight, cropping up only after a trigger, or severe, chronically impairing cognitive function.
- Chronic Feelings Of Restless Or Unease. Chronic feelings of unease could be entirely mental and prompt difficulty concentrating or staying on task or could translate into physical symptoms, prompting the need to tug on a strand of hair, pacing back and forth, or even just tap a foot.
- Virtually All Anxiety Disorders Involve Some Type Of Avoidant Behavior, whether that involves avoiding the source of a phobia, avoiding the site of trauma, or avoiding going out in public.
While someone who has never experience the effects of anxiety might not initially recognize how powerful anxiety disorders are, a quick view of the common thread of symptoms reveals a fraction of how disruptive having anxiety can be.
Anxiety Versus Stress
The terms “anxiety” and “stress” are often used interchangeably, but this is an oversight most commonly committed by people who are not familiar with anxiety. Stress is a normal, expected response to a trigger. Losing one’s job, for instance, is a reasonable source of stress. Having a new baby is a legitimate cause for stress. Moving to an entirely new country without any source of support in place is a very real trigger for the onset of stress. Anxiety is unlike stress in its origin;. In contrast, stress is a response to something, anxiety is an experience that may or may not have a trigger, and that is typically more severe than a standard stress response would be.
Postpartum stress often shows itself in the form of overwhelm; new parents are suddenly facing enormous changes to their daily lives and learn to adjust very quickly, creating stress. Conversely, postpartum anxiety might show itself in extreme fears about a child dying, despite not having any reasonable suspicion that death is imminent. Stress is typically remedied by taking specific actions to mitigate the source of the stress, while anxiety is typically remedied via therapy and lifestyle interventions, which might include psychotherapy, pharmaceutical medication, and sleep, exercise, and diet changes.
In short, anxiety is a disorder, while stressing signals that the body is in proper working order. Stress is healthy, normal, and expected, while anxiety is an indication that something is amiss in the body and brain’s ability to recognize, apprehend, and sort through information. One warrants medical and mental health intervention, while the other warrants a close look at priorities, needs, and behaviors.
Areas Touched By Anxiety
There is no limit to the areas of an individual’s life that are colored by anxiety. Although there are focused anxiety disorders—Social Anxiety Disorder, many of these disorders are accompanied by additional forms of anxiety.
Some of the most common areas touched by anxiety include:
- Social Interactions. Social interactions are often touched by anxiety, even if Social Anxiety Disorder is not the prevailing anxiety disorder. People with anxiety may fear doing or saying something that will betray the depth of their anxiety and avoid social interactions or may fear what will happen if they get into a social situation without a means of escape. Social interactions may also be zealously guarded, for fear of abandonment, or maybe scrupulously avoided, to belay someone's inevitable loss due to death or disease. Although they may all differ in their origin and motivation, all are potential results of having anxiety.
- Workplace Anxiety may come in the form of fearing getting into trouble and perpetually feeling on edge. It could also present itself as workplace aggression, maintain a gruff exterior, and hide the presence of anxiety. People may have very complicated and overwhelming feelings toward their workplaces—their coworkers, job duties, and management teams—all due to anxiety.
- Travel can be touched by anxiety directly, as is the case in someone who has a phobia of flying in an airplane or maybe touched indirectly, as is when someone routinely avoids novelty due to apprehension about new or unknown situations. Because many people with anxiety cope by maintaining strict and careful routines, travel may be carefully and intentionally avoided—even if travel is as seemingly small as visiting a city less than two hours away.
- Personal Health. In perhaps one of the most frustrating life areas interacting with anxiety, personal health often takes a very real and imagined hit. Anxiety causes the body to enter into its parasympathetic nervous system, or “fight or flight” mode. A chronic fight or flight dominance can cause a host of health issues, ranging from increased blood pressure and corresponding cardiac damage to digestive upset. Anxiety can further compound these issues by honing in on any physical symptoms, making someone feel as though they are perpetually on the verge of death or life-threatening illness.
- Anxiety Typically Requires Treatment, which can dip into financial holdings. Because treatment can be expensive, people without insurance, who live above their means, or who have recently experienced trouble at work may all feel additional stress and anxiety about their financial situation, and skimp on medication, seek therapy only occasionally, or go into debt to secure treatment—all of which can increase anxiety about finances. People with anxiety disorders may also feel the compulsion to hoard their funds or material goods to avoid becoming destitute or going without food or shelter.
Although this list is by no means an exhaustive identification of all possible areas that can be touched by anxiety, they do present a picture of precisely how anxiety can intensely and negatively impact an individual’s life. Far from being a closeted niche in someone’s life, anxiety is akin to a ticking time bomb, more than capable of bursting all over someone’s life. Without adequate treatment, the presence of a single anxiety disorder can readily lead to the onset of an additional anxiety disorder, creating a domino effect of declining mental health and unhealthy coping. If you suspect you have anxiety but are not certain, online tests can help identify the likelihood of symptoms pointing to an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety Paralysis: Living With And Healing Severe Anxiety
Severe anxiety is often accompanied by numerous anxiety disorders but may also come with other issues, such as mood disorders, personality disorders, or even physical maladies. While anxiety disorders are often treated with brevity or viewed as somehow less severe than other forms of mental illness, they can be debilitating and paralyze someone from moving forward, healing, and simply living their lives. For this reason, treatment of anxiety is essential; without adequate treatment, anxiety disorders can compound, again and again, creating the perfect environment in which to foster declining mental health.
Although anxiety can be debilitating, there is a silver lining: most anxiety disorders are very treatable, using a combination of psychotherapy, pharmaceutical medication, and lifestyle interventions. Used in conjunction with one another, many people diagnosed with an anxiety disorder go on to lead a healthy, normal, fulfilling life. While anxiety can exert a tremendous amount of control over an individual and can feel like a dictator, constantly pulling strings and making decisions for someone, learning how to cope with triggers, re-pattern thinking, and develop healthy grounding techniques can all dramatically improve health. Often, in anxiety, the first step—and the most difficult step—is reaching out for help. Fear of failure, anxiety about finding help, and anxiety about being “too far gone” can all keep someone with anxiety from finding assistance, but rest assured: anxiety is difficult to treat and difficult to overcome, but it is not altogether impossible do. With the right treatment, plenty of time, and a dedication to healing, anxiety symptoms can ease up and no longer have a paralyzing or debilitating effect.