I often find myself making excuses for not attending more social gatherings or getting involved with others. I say I don’t have time or need to finish work around the house. The reality is that I know better than to use the real reason I don’t want to be around others: despite my generally functioning relatively well, I still get anxious around people. And not the normal, “I’m nervous about being around people I don’t know yet,” but a constant nagging sense of insecurity that goes on for hours or even days after a social gathering.
So why don’t I just come out and tell people I have this kind of anxiety? Wouldn’t that be a more healthy approach? If it was out in the open, perhaps I’d feel less self-conscious about how my moods tend to swing when I’m around people for too long. Surely people would understand, right?
The long and short of it is that people typically don’t believe me when I say I have anxiety. I don’t necessarily blame them. After all, to all outsiders, I appear to be pretty good at functioning, aside from maybe being a little shy. Far be it from me to complain about being high-function; after all, many neurodivergent people have a much more difficult time learning how to operate around others than I do. In the grand scheme of things, I lucked out pretty well.
Nevertheless, there’s something crummy about it when people have the indignity to question what you tell them regarding your own mental health. They have no way of knowing what’s happening in your brain, yet everyone seems only too eager to jump straight to the level of armchair psychologist in diagnosing your mental illness or lack thereof.
Another confusion for people when it comes to general anxiety disorder is that for most people, anxiety is just another emotion like anger or fear that everyone has but gets over after a while. I would like to take the time to be perfectly clear: there is some truth to the statement “everyone has anxiety,” but that doesn’t mean everyone has “anxiety.”
When I say “I have anxiety,” I don’t mean that I feel anxious at that moment or have a propensity for anxiousness. Instead, for me, anxiety is something that strikes at random times, often for no apparent reason. I learned early on that an easy way of dealing with these moments was to find a place to be alone. If there wasn’t a people-free area, the corner of the room was always an option*.
Anxiety, for me, isn’t an emotion. It’s more of a constant state of mind, sometimes worsening, occasionally lessening, but always in the back of my mind. If I’ve got a job to do or a class to be at, I can distract myself as long as I’m kept busy. But when it comes to social situations, I often find myself ill-equipped to operate these scenarios. Inevitably there comes the point where everyone else is off conversing, and I find myself alone with my intrusive thoughts. Is anybody staring at me? Did I say something weird earlier? What would happen if I just left?
This isn’t something that will pass on by itself, or I can just “get over.” Instead, I’ve created coping mechanisms to either avoid dealing with the overwhelming anxiety or get out quickly if I find myself mid-panic attack. I like to keep an eye on all exits while staying away from dense groups that are harder to escape. It’s something that I’m sure many of you reading this will relate to, but it is hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it.
Perhaps we need a better word to describe this. After all, anxiousness is a natural human response to uncertainty in the face of possible danger. It’s a survival instinct that evolved to keep us safe and alive in a world that constantly tries to kill us. This kind of anxiety may not be fun, but it’s natural and is something that occurs in humans regularly.
Given that it’s such a human emotion, it shouldn’t be that hard to bridge the gap between anxiety as an emotion versus anxiety as a mental disorder. Still, unless I have ten minutes to spare explaining the ins and outs of general anxiety disorder to every person who invites me somewhere, I think I’ll just stick to saying I’m busy that day…
*Many people don’t have the luxury of simply finding an empty corner to brood in. I understand that many ways I’m able to deal with anxiety in my life are relatively privileged, and I know most people with this kind of general anxiety disorder don’t just luck into figuring out how to avoid panic attacks on their own.