There’s a difference between feeling anxious and nervous every so often and feeling chronic and severe anxiety all the time. If that’s hard to imagine, it’s like comparing having a bad headache with a migraine; two related but completely different experiences. Those who suffer from migraines wouldn’t wish them on others, and those with chronic and acute anxiety suffer so intensely, they too wouldn’t wish what they experience on those they know.
If you’re fortunate enough not to live with ongoing, acute anxiety, it might be challenging to understand and really empathize with those that do. Situations that seem innocent and safe to you can be paralyzing for the anxiety sufferer to deal with. In the most extreme cases, anxiety can be so intense that a person might live avoiding interactions with others; and I mean all. Things you might take as straight-forward and simple such as withdrawing money from a bank, doing grocery shopping or taking a bus might be incredibly difficult to think about and impossible to actually do.
Now many of us who don’t live with acute anxiety still find some situations stressful. It might be a job interview, attending a family gathering, getting married, the first day on a new job, having to stand up and make a presentation to a large group of people. Perhaps if we recall how we feel in these circumstances we might get a small glimpse into what others experience. The thing is we’d have to magnify the intensity of how we are feeling in those situations and then imagine living like that all the time, day in and day out 24/7. That’s where we probably would admit it’s impossible for us to truly understand this condition.
Through my work as an Employment Counsellor/Coach, I help people as they look for employment. I go about this in part by asking questions and listening to people share their past experiences and finding out what their problems and barriers are. By learning all I can about someone, I can better assist them in finding not just a job, but the best possible fit; looking at much more than their skills alone. I’d like to help them find the right career or job that is a good fit for their personality, their psyche if you will, so it means taking into consideration things like the workplace environment, leadership and management styles a person will perform best under, frequency of interaction with others etc. It’s NOT just about looking at a job posting and seeing if a person has the listed qualifications.
Now if you live with severe anxiety, just like anyone else, you might ask yourself if you want to go on with things the way they are, or would you like a different, (and hopefully) better future. You may have instinctively just thought, “I can’t”. It’s okay; you’re safe and you’re not in any danger just reading on. Things can stay the same even after you’re done reading. So just thinking again for a moment, would you like a future where you make some progress in a safe way?
You may not be ready yet and if so, I understand. Forcing you into situations where your anxiety will be off the charts isn’t going to be helpful. However, for those of you who are willing and able to consider some forward movement, there are some things you can do.
Let me first say that many of the people I help through my work have mental health challenges. Some of these people do in fact have acute, severe anxiety. I want to say right up front that I have tremendous respect just appreciating how difficult it is for them to come and meet with me in the first place. Now my first encounter with many is in a group workshop. That likely sounds terrifying to some readers.
At the start of a workshop, I will mention that should someone have anxiety or feel extreme stress, a good thing would be to let me know as soon as possible. After all, I want the experience to be safe and positive. So what can I do with that knowledge? As the presenter, I can avoid putting such a person in situations that will trigger their anxiety. So I may not ask them to volunteer, avoid asking them to share their feelings or answers with the group, or if I am going around the room asking people to share some answer to a question, always give a person the option to say, “Pass.” This power to opt out of anything threatening alone is a help.
Other small things that help include being able to excuse yourself from the room entirely if an activity seems dangerous or extremely threatening. Get your breathing under control and come back when you’re ready. By creating a safe environment and asking others in the group to show respect and patience with each other, it can be a safe place those with anxiety can attend. It might even take a few attempts before completing a class, but you make the progress you can.
So when you’re ready, (and that’s the key), speak ahead of time with anyone who is running a class or in charge. See what accommodations they can make to keep you safe and included. When you do finish, you’ll have immense satisfaction at having worked through a major hurdle. And as always, you’re worth it!