What Is Anxiety?!
25 Feb 2015
I was once attacked by a Bolivian Conga Ant.
I was visiting the rainforest. One day, I awoke at 5am to find an ant wandering along the surface of the mosquito net, inches in front of my face.
I watched it for a moment, half-dozing, listening to the sounds of the jungle while I slowly woke up… until I realised with a jolt… THAT ANT IS INSIDE MY MOSQUITO NET.
I responded calmly and rationally by flying into a complete panic.
I’d been told that those things have a serious bite. And I didn’t want to check for myself.
Unsure what to do, I bravely hid at one end of the net, waiting for it to meander down to the ground, where I heroically hit it with a shoe.
Perhaps the universe wanted to teach me a lesson about the karma of picking on small creatures, as my unprovoked attack had no consequences whatsoever.
Except the ant sped up and charged towards me as I curled up in my tiny ant-free portion of the mosquito net.
There was only one thing for it. I fearlessly screamed and leapt out of the net, and gallantly ran away towards the jungle. Where I realised there were probably a lot more ants out here.
So, like any other hero from a story, I returned to the camp and patiently waited for the ant to leave of its own accord.
As you can see, I’ve not always had a healthy and well-developed approach to fear.
While the book edges ever-closer to release (Late March/early April, depending on a few things I’m waiting on. Fingers crossed for no surprise setbacks…), I want to talk about some ideas here.
For example, I realised the other day that there’s an important point about what anxiety even is that never quite made it into the book.
Which may sound a little stupid, given that anxiety is, uh… the point of the book.
But surely, everyone knows what anxiety is, right? It’s a common enough concept, after all. So describing it must be completely unnecessary, and I was right to leave it out?
Well, apparently not, because I didn’t properly know what anxiety was, even while I was living with it.
For most of my life, anxiety was so normal that I didn’t realise it was possible to be any other way.
I assumed that everybody lived in a state of endless worry, with occasional dips into deeper, crippling terror. So I just got on with life as best I could, occasionally wondering how everybody else was managing so much better than I was.
“Anxiety” was something that happened to other people. Certainly not to me.
(Although I was extremely worried that one day anxiety might affect me… which, with hindsight, should have been a clue.)
So, when my ruminating, worrying and fear finally became intolerable, I freaked out. I had no idea what was wrong. The word “anxiety” never even occurred to me as a possible label for what was happening.
This is why I began the long chain of events that kicks off my story: desperately searching for an explanation for what was wrong. This mostly took place through panicky medical visits and ill-advised internet searches, accompanied by spiralling, growing, constant dread.
My fear rooted itself in something different every day: health, commuting, claustrophobia, work, social anxiety, impending doom, a fizzing sensation in the head, and an urge to escape… everything.
I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t calm down, no matter what I was doing.
At one point, I was deeply afraid of a raisin.*
* In my defence, it was slightly out-of-date.
I didn’t understand these feelings, and so I assumed something had to be medically wrong with me. Was it brain cancer? Gut imbalance? A breakdown? Some kind of psychosis? All these ideas kept occurring to me… which, as you can imagine, didn’t particularly help, especially when sleepless at 3am.
When a doctor finally told me I was anxious, it was nearly a relief. In fact, I think he said something like:
“You’re not depressed, but you are anxious.”
Something in my brain clicked when I heard this. I hadn’t realised depression and anxiety are different things!
I had assumed that because I didn’t feel ‘properly’ depressed, that anxiety couldn’t apply to me. I had picked up (or perhaps just invented out of nothing) the idea that if I wasn’t depressed, I couldn’t be anxious.
Maybe the idea that I couldn’t be anxious was just my personal blind spot. But I wonder how many other people live with similar anxiety, without realising that they are “anxious”.
And that things could be different.
I can imagine some people not liking this idea. The “anxiety” label sounds big and scary. But when you’re terrified that life is spinning out of control, and convinced that there must be something deeply, terribly wrong, it almost comes as a relief to realise that you’re simply anxious.
I wish I’d realised earlier. I might have saved myself from going through some very difficult times if I’d known sooner.
Unlike giant ants, anxiety doesn’t have to be scary. (Which is pleasingly ironic, when you think about it.)
Realising that what I was feeling was “anxiety”, and that it’s okay to be anxious, was the first step towards doing something about it.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.
Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."
He would like it if you said hello.