Thursday, September 24, 2009


About ten years ago, a good thing happened: I tripped and took all the skin off one knee. It was spring, a few weeks before my kids would be getting into shorts and scraping elbows and knees as fast as I could bandage them. It had been decades since I'd had an injury anything like that. I was deeply impressed by how much it hurt (and for how long). Ever since, I've been much more sympathetic to the cries of those who accidentally leave their flesh impressed upon the pavement.

I've spent some time pondering the other day's anxiety in the same light. I am not by nature a worrier. I do occasionally discover that I forget to drop a college course (in my dreams), but the few times I've carried anxiety around for any length of time it felt as if I had contracted some horrific but unidentifiable disease. I know what anxiety is, but I don't know it the way some people (including some in my family) do.

With the knee incident, I replaced my usual reaction (Oh, c'mon, it's not that bad!) with a a new one (Ouch! That stings a lot!) Last night I tried, for quite some time, to confect a new reaction for when others are anxious.

It took an embarassingly long time to realize I don't have a typical reaction to replace. That's because most of the time we don't even realize that the reason someone is acting oddly is because they are anxious. Anxiety isn't a visible disability. If you don't recognize it, you don't develop a habitual response to it.

That eye-opener reminded me of a friend whose son has a severe hearing disorder. No matter how often she reminded her child's teacher of the mandated accomodations, the teacher forgot them. Eventually my friend came up with a brilliant solution: even though a hearing aid was useless for her son, she had him wear one. When the teacher looked at the boy she saw the aid, remembered the disability, and acted accordingly.

I'd love to find a visual trigger to let people know that someone is anxious. Despite my highly tuned antennae from years of working with Big Guy, I still sometimes miss the signs. For Big Guy, the heralds are irritability and sudden anger. I know many other people who withdraw, still others who become oversensitive, and only a few who get the deer-in-headlights look or do the high strung/jittery thing that people recognize as emblematic. With so many possible manifestations of anxiety, it's not surprising we don't always recognize it.

Here are the things I took away from my anxious day:
1. When you're anxious, an inordinate amount of energy goes toward holding yourself together.
2. Because there's less of you available for problem solving, normal frustrations can feel catastrophic.
3. No one can really make things better, but everyone's capable of making things worse.

From the perspective of trying to do a better job of helping others when they are anxious, it's helpful to me to distill the experience in this way.

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