Photo: courtesy of Amy Revier and Fort Worth Contemporary Arts
Imagine that you are an intelligent and highly logical thinker who is constantly fighting to suppress a compulsive and irrational feeling in the back of your mind that something is wrong, even when you are certain that you are safe. Severe anxiety forces individuals to live in a state of nearly constant and enhanced mental anguish that is unlike the frequency and level of anxiety common to all human beings. The level of severity can change depending on the setting and situation that the anxiety sufferer encounters and to the extent of which each situation causes stress to the individual. Severe anxiety is a debilitating neurological disease with visible symptoms that manifest themselves both mentally and physiologically.
Identifying the Characteristics
The symptoms of severe anxiety are highly misinterpreted as poor social etiquette by those that come in contact with the afflicted person. The disease can ‘cloud’ a person’s cognitive abilities causing even the simplest of social situations and tasks to be, at times, difficult to endure. Their inability to remain at ease can distort mental focus and thought processes and can even make an intelligent person appear socially incompetent. Unfortunately, there is a lack of education regarding the disease and it has caused some sufferers to be outcast from social groups who are not sensitive to or cannot accurately identify the characteristics of the disease.
The most immediate and misinterpreted characteristic of severe anxiety is involuntary facial tension. This occurs when the individual’s facial muscles physically and involuntarily contract, due to tension. Involuntary facial tension is also one of the most emotionally debilitating symptoms because it severely restricts a person’s ability to convey even simple facial gestures, such as smiling, that are critical to forming trust with other people. In fact, involuntary facial tension gives the individual the appearance of being angry or agitated which can invoke negative responses from others and can turn a simple situation like purchasing groceries into an emotionally painful event for the anxiety sufferer. Furthermore, it can cause physical pain to the sufferer in the form of headaches and muscle fatigue. Facial tension is completely involuntary to the individual and is not a reflection of their intended emotional state. In most cases, the individual is completely aware of their appearance to the point of becoming highly self-conscious. That alone, can add more stress to their already anguished mind.
A Support System
Not every person living with severe anxiety is a social outcast. Despite their difficulty in social situations, many sufferers do maintain a few close friendships and may even sometimes attend social gatherings. You can imagine though, that this is quite emotionally and even physically draining to an anxiety sufferer. So, many are happy to spend most of their time either solitarily or solely with a close friend or partner, assuming that they are in a relationship. In fact, close friendships and intimate relationships can be very fulfilling for someone with severe anxiety and can help them grow and thrive. Spending time with those closest to the individual can be one of few situations where the sufferer does not feel anxious, especially because they have someone to share their thoughts and laugh with. This can create moments where the severely anxious individual can temporarily forget about worry. It is important that an anxiety sufferer surround themselves with people who love and understand them because, as with anyone, life can have many ups and downs and having supportive people around can help anyone through tough times.
Finding and maintaining a job is an overwhelming situation for a person with severe anxiety. Unfortunately, this usually leads to long periods of unemployment and financial struggle. Assuming that they have a spouse or family members who are willing and able to provide financial support, many of these individuals are often left dependent on others. One can imagine the toll that this can take on the self-esteem of a grown adult unable to achieve true independence.
The Determination to Try
Those determined enough to try to find work do sometimes succeed but don’t always end up working in a setting which allows their talents and strengths to shine. Many times, their options for work are limited and they must take what they can get. However, an anxious person is not easily adaptable so having a job where they are being subjected to uncomfortable situations on a day-to-day basis such as working with the public, virtually never becomes easier, as one might assume. In fact, the opposite is typically true of severely anxious individuals because they live in a state of uncontrollable mental and physical discomfort which they are constantly fighting to suppress in order for their behavior to fit in with social norms. This process is mentally and emotionally draining and will take its toll on the quality of work an individual may put forth. A manager sees this simply as a lack of enthusiasm and confidence. He might also misinterpret involuntary facial tension as an attitude problem. The symptoms of anxiety, unfortunately, take no prisoners and leave the sufferer with a ‘snowball’ effect of social problems that are in no way conducive to a working environment. The effects of the disease coupled with lack of peer awareness, essentially cripple the individual’s chances of ever feeling that they are a valued member of a team and seldom do they reach their full potential in these situations. Again, one can imagine the emotional toll this might take on someone. Solitary jobs, where one can fully immerse themselves in their work, can be the most productive situation for someone with severe anxiety.
The Eternal, Internal Struggle
Severe anxiety sufferers are highly intellectual and keen to social and self-awareness. The disease does not stem from a person’s ability to reason as many might be left to believe but rather it is deeply rooted within the individuals psyche on a very unconscious and instinctual level. In fact, many severely anxious individuals are very logical thinkers. When they feel worry in situations that shouldn’t warrant such an emotional response, they understand that it is out of the norm, thus why they struggle within themselves to suppress this irrational feeling. The internal struggle then manifests itself physically as involuntary facial tension. This is the continuous process that can cause so much hardship and one that they must face, daily.
Severe anxiety is a life-long disease for which there is no cure. The only treatments available are highly-addictive medications that temporarily relax muscles and lower a person’s inhibitions while also slowing thought processes, similar to the effects of alcohol. Tolerance to these medications is quickly built and, actually, ends up leaving the person with even higher levels of anxiety due to now having developed an addiction to the medication. This is quite the ‘catch-22’. Some may choose to undergo therapy where they regularly meet with a counselor to discuss coping mechanisms. Although therapy is not a cure for Severe Anxiety, it can be a good situation for some, especially those who may not have the support of friends and family.
The effects of severe anxiety branch into every facet of a person’s life and often lead to chronic depression. It leaves individuals feeling imprisoned in their own body and, over time, some may begin to look for a way out whether through drugs or sometimes even suicide. It’s a disease affecting millions of people in the world today, especially in developed nations. That means millions of people around the world are struggling to reach their full potential and like they say, “A great mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Severe anxiety sufferers truly can be happy and productive members of society but, in order for that to become a reality, more people need to understand this disease so that no great mind goes left unknown to the world.