In school, I had to write a “comprehensive theory of mental illness.” It was an academic exercise, intended to help a student with little real-world experience attempt to conceptualize a unified theory of mental health, integrating the various theories we’d learned along the way. Looking back twelve years later at the theory I produced, I have to smile at my idealism, but the DNA of how I think about mental health is there. Specifically, the importance of anxiety.
I see anxiety everywhere when I talk to a client. It’s not always there at a clinical level, and isn’t always diagnosable, but identifying how my client experiences anxiety and fear is key to understanding how they respond to situations, why they developed certain patterns of behavior, and what they need to adapt to in order to be healthy.
When I ask someone if they are anxious, they think about the classic “stage fright” sort of anxiety, or performance anxiety. They picture a situation where they are nervous and preoccupied with an outcome, jittery and sweaty. They don’t feel like that all the time, so they say that they aren’t anxious.
But anxiety can show up in other ways, some of them pretty subtle. Anxiety can feel like excitement, giddy energy in the body that makes you feel like moving and going, and makes sitting still difficult.
Anxiety can be restlessness, an inability to sit still, feeling under-stimulated and needy, hungry and unfulfilled, like a drive to do something productive.
Anxiety can be low-key discomfort, an unsettled feeling, like something bad is coming, feeling unsafe and full of dread.
Anxiety can be intrusive thoughts and questions about the future. What if this happens? What if that happens? What if this doesn’t work? What if they do this, what do I do then?
Anxiety can be ruminating guilty thoughts about the past. Why did I do that? Why didn’t I do this? What if they think I’m bad? What if they don’t like me because of what I did?
Anxiety is the discomfort that drives us to make changes, motivates us to seek out comfort, and forces us to consider the possibilities of negative outcomes. It’s an important part of being a human being, but it has to be acknowledged, understood, and managed, or it stops us from taking risks, bettering ourselves, or enjoying life.
We all feel anxiety–we just have to learn to recognize it.