Anxiety – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

(Trigger Warning: References to PTSD, Trauma, Bad Dreams)

Anxiety

Anxiety is the bane of my existence.

Now, don’t get me wrong, anxiety is actually very important to have for survival. Dr. Jelena Nesic Goranovic  explains the necessity of having anxiety:

“The emotional experience of fear and the physiological stress reaction (the ‘fight or flight’ reaction: increased heart rate, faster breathing, sweating etc.) are very useful responses to dangerous situations or objects: our ancestors had it, apes and mice have it, even reptiles do. If it wasn’t for this unconditioned response to danger, most species – humans included – would not have survived the natural selection. Apart from enabling us to fight, freeze or flee in the face of danger, the physiological stress reaction also enables us to learn to avoid the same dangerous situation or object in future.”

This explanation is all well and good, but, for me (and others who experience debilitating anxiety) that “fight or flight” response happens way too often and it can wreak havoc in our lives. If we need anxiety as a survival mechanism, when does anxiety start becoming a bad thing? David Pitonyak, who is a very good story teller, has an interesting take on the matter. In his video, David discusses the pros and cons of having anxiety and also discusses how anxiety changes us, our physiology of our bodies, our homeostasis, if you will.

David Pitonyak talks about Anxiety

(Video – Length 6mins 53secs)

The problem arises when anxiety starts to interfere with your life. Basically, our imbedded survival mechanism backfires causing us significant distress. This is when anxiety begins to be considered a disorder.  There are many different types of anxiety that are considered disorders. 

Types of Anxiety Disorders: List of Anxiety Disorders

List of Short-Term Anxiety Disorders

Some types of anxiety disorders are short-term and often resolve themselves with the removal of a stressor. Here’s a list of anxiety disorders that are typically short-term:

  • Acute stress disorder – diagnosed when anxiety symptoms occur immediately following a trauma, but are short-lived.
  • Adjustment disorder with anxious features – diagnosed when a person develops anxiety symptoms in relation to a major life-changing event – like getting married or moving to another city. Symptoms generally start within three months of the stressful event and occur for six months or less.
  • Substance-induced anxiety disorder – generally resolves when the substance is discontinued or when withdrawal from the substance is over.

List of Long-Term Anxiety Disorders

Other types of anxiety disorders develop and remain long-term. Many start in childhood and last long into adulthood, particularly if treatment has not been sought.

This list of anxiety disorders includes:

  • Agoraphobiaa fear of being in a public place where escape would be embarrassing or difficult. This is particularly prevalent when a person fears they may have a panic attack.
  • Anxiety due to a general medical condition – this type of anxiety disorder can be short- or long-term depending on the medical condition. Anxiety often develops in relation to illnesses like heart conditions.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) anxiety symptoms occur in multiple environments and due to multiple objects or situations. Anxiety symptoms may not have a known cause.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)anxiety symptoms are in the form of intrusive, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors (or mental acts). OCD is considered a chronic type of anxiety disorder.
  • Panic disorder consists of severe, immediate anxiety symptoms (a panic attack) due to a variety of causes, as well as the worry over having another panic attack.
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) anxiety symptoms that occur after a trauma and are long-term in nature.
  • Social phobia, also referred to as social anxiety disorder anxiety symptoms occur in social or performance situations and stem from the fear of being humiliated or embarrassed.
  • Specific phobia (also known as a simple phobia) anxiety symptoms occur around a specific object or situation which results in avoidance.

Anxiety causes a loooong list of symptoms. You can find a comprehensive list here – Anxiety Symptoms. What happens to the body when a person is overwhelmed with anxiety? David Pitonyak, again, has an interesting take on the matter and it involves what David calls the “limbic brain”. In his video, David tells the story of what happened to his body during an anxiety provoking experience he had involving what he thought was a black bear in his office doorway. He then continues on to discuss the connection of a traumatic experience with developing PTSD. 

David Pitonyak Talks about the “Limbic Brain”and PTSD

(Video Length – 21 min 27secs)

I am Autistic and I have the anxiety that is commonly found in association with Autism. When you deal with the constant onslaught of sensory information bombarding your brain and body, you are going to experience apprehension when you leave a safe, familiar place that has been designed to fit your needs. When you have slow adaptability to change, you are going to feel apprehension when you are presented with an unexpected change.  I have worked hard to try to respond to an unexpected change in a manner where I say, “Let me process it for a little bit.”, or “Let me think about it for a little bit.”  This is a difficult thing for me to do, because my body and brain are screaming, “NO!!!!!” Many times, however, there is no chance to give my brain more time to process the unexpected change and it is painful when this happens.

I also have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD ) and it sucks. My brain will get stuck on a feedback loop over a worry that, for some reason, it cannot process adequately.  The worry is very real, but my brain will cycle the worry over and over again making it worse every time it cycles. The worry escalates and I can’t get my brain to calm down.  I am able to logically tell myself that this is not rational thinking on my part, but I can’t stop the feedback loop. When I get like this I need to be talked down. A lot of times I will send out an S.O.S. with an explanation online just to release the worry out into cyberspace. Other times I will talk to my husband in some form, electronically or verbally.

PTSD is a form of intense anxiety. I actually have Complex-PTSD and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The difference between PTSD and Complex-PTSD is that in PTSD there is usually just one specific trauma that is experienced. In Complex-PTSD, there are many layers of trauma that occurred over many years. 

More about my story on having Complex-PTSD ——> The Hell that is Spring

A year ago I found an article called PTSD Spirituality: Understanding & Identifying PTSD Triggers. I came across this article after I had been horribly triggered which lead me to finally writing The Volcano is Awake. This was my response to the article:

“It took me 10 years after I was diagnosed with PTSD before I could even write about my experiences. I have never been able to write it all in one setting, just chunks here and there. As for talking about, it took me a very long time to say anything other to my counselor or an immediate family member. I have managed over the years to say out loud to people that I have PTSD and that it developed mainly from medical trauma and lack of support and care that occurred over a period of three years.

I make a point to stay away from my triggers, but sometimes the triggers are out of your control. I was badly triggered last week. The anxiety and panic attacks have started again. I can’t verbalize what is happening to me right now. Every time I try I feel the panic rise. I am living my ordeal over again, but over these past 12 years since the initial trauma, I have learned coping skills. I know what is happening to me and I have been going through my list of reminders as I try to process this latest trigger. I feel this article is a great resource for the reminders that I need. I hope this information may also help others who are struggling with PTSD. Remember, you are not alone.”

Both my children struggle immensely with anxiety. My daughter is Autistic and has separation anxiety, and symptoms of GAD, Social Anxiety, and OCD. All these types of anxiety have been continuously discussed by her care team for years. Her anxiety has often been described by her counselor as “Through the roof!”  My son is also Autistic and was officially diagnosed with Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Agoraphobia, Panic Disorder, and PTSD.  His anxiety has been so bad that half way through sixth grade he could no longer attend public school.

Anxiety is something that is all too familiar in my family. My husband also struggles with his own version of anxiety, but he doesn’t talk about it much.  One thing that is often left out of articles written about anxiety is information about stress dreams.  I am plagued by stress dreams, otherwise known as anxiety dreams. 

In When Anxiety Gives You Bad Dreams That Give You More Anxiety and Bad Dreams, Sarah Emerson states:

“Anxiety dreams, in their most elementary form, are bad dreams that cause the overwhelming feelings of panic and unease associated with waking anxiety. They’re very similar to nightmares, but instead of lurching you awake in a cold sweat, they sort of prod you into consciousness by jacking up your stress levels. Both occur during REM sleep, that critical period in which our most vivid and memorable dreams manifest.”

She also states:

“There’s “a correlation between sleep quality and how we process traumatic experiences,” she [Dr. Ina Djonlagic] added, which may help to explain why bad dreams, insomnia, and real-life anxiety can sometimes seem so hard to divorce.”

As I stated before, I am plagued by stress (anxiety) dreams. I have actually written about my experience. You can find more about that here – The Strange Nature of Dreams. Last night was no different.  Again, another difficult night of stress dreaming, which lead me to not being able to really function well the next day.  In trying to explain to my husband why I was not functioning well this morning, I sent him this message:

“Feeling out of sync today in body and mind. Dreams about sexual predators, escape, sickness, worry, and long awaited reunion, but unresolved and potentially unhappy ending. My dream left me feeling that great loss and grief were imminent. Epic stress dreaming on my part. No wonder I feel so out of sync. My brain couldn’t seem to pull it self into reality this morning.”

Anxiety is the bane of my existence.

I can’t get away from it, it’s always there in multiple forms. It haunts me in my waking hours and in my sleep. I am intolerant to medications that are typically prescribed to people with debilitating anxiety.  I also cannot tolerate any type of antidepressant or sleep aid.  What does a person do when they are struggling with anxiety?  I can only speak of myself, but what I do is run. I am a runner and have been a runner for over 20 years.  My body has been steadily falling apart due to being born with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but I keep running for my own sanity.  If I don’t, I know I will end up in the middle of the floor screaming or banging my head against a wall.  I am not exaggerating. I know this, because it has happened before many times.  I run, and when I have access to a pool, I lap swim.  I also write and I write and I write.  I create art, too. Draw, paint, sculpt, and design, etc., anything to direct all the energy that is coursing through my body that the anxiety feeds on.  I must keep my mind busy or it will busy itself in ways that are not healthy for me, draining my body of life energy, and leading to me not being able to really function and, if it continues longs enough, eventually contributing to burnout.

More information on burnout —-> The Tell Tale Signs of Burnout … Do You Have Them?

“And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.”

Neil Gaiman, Make Good Art 

Quotes from Neil Gaiman – Inspirational Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts 2012.

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