You Don’t Look Like You Have Anxiety

I’ve heard a particular statement repeatedly since I started blogging and speaking about my anxiety:

You don’t look like you have anxiety.

Humans are “gap fillers.” What are gap fillers? We often get presented with some information and then we have a tendency to fill in the gaps with our own perceptions. It’s not “right” or “wrong” it just seems to be something we do.

Here’s a word that I’ve noticed this with often: Alcoholic.

As soon as you read it, your mind went to a particular place based on your thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. I’ve found that when I say alcoholic, many people envision a man alone in a closet who hasn’t slept in days pouring whiskey on corn flakes at 6am. Actually, an alcoholic is anyone who does not know when or how to stop drinking. They spend a lot of time thinking about alcohol, and they cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, work, and financially. (See this article on Medical News Today)

Based on this information, an alcoholic can be anyone! It’s important for people to understand that. It’s so important that The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has changed the term since “alcoholic” has so many preconceived and negative connotations. It’s now called Alcohol Use Disorder or AUD. People with AUD will often NOT fit your description of alcoholic – which makes it hard for people who actually have AUD to seek treatment because they don’t believe they are THERE YET. You know, whiskey on cornflakes there.

What does this have to do with anxiety?

We also seem to have a connotation of what anxiety looks like or acts like so when people don’t exhibit those preconceived traits people don’t believe they have anxiety.

There are many different types of anxiety from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Body Dysmorphic Disorder, Separation Anxiety to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety, Panic Disorder, Trichotillomania, and even Hoarding Disorder. What further complicates what anxiety may “look like,” is there are levels of severity in each type of disorder. (See this article from Anxiety.org)

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder with Panic Disorder and Trichotillomania. For me, anxiety comes with substantial amounts of fear that result in avoidance (Generalized Anxiety Disorder). There were times when the thought of answering my phone would cause panic attacks. Even though rationally, I knew that answering my phone would not physically harm me or that not answering the phone could bring on more negative results depending on what I was avoiding… I would still do it. Then my stress would often lead to panic attacks (Panic Disorder). After a panic attack, I discovered some comfort in plucking out hair from my legs, scalp, or face (Trichotillomania). For years I didn’t know what I was experiencing had names!

My eating was also very closely linked to my anxiety. It was the discovery that I was attempting to manage my anxiety with food. That realization opened the door to treatment and overall wellness. Between treatment and Jesus, I’ve been able to manage my anxiety. Manage – not cure. I can work through my feelings better, but still, things can happen.

Case in point, I sent a text message to a friend that had some disappointing news. This was about a month ago. In the intervening 30 days, she’s been insanely busy. I know she’s been insanely busy. Still, I wondered if my text upset her. Then I asked myself repeatedly if she was mad at me. My rational mind tells me that she’s busy and I absolutely know this to be a fact. By week 3 I’m thinking the worst and replaying every limited scenario in my head. It was now week 4 and I was worried and “filling in the gaps” of our experience with my anxiety.

Yesterday,  I sent her a message apologizing for the disappointing news and wondering if we were okay. She immediately responded with YES, she’s just been busy – something I knew! My anxiety caused a snowball of emotion that only worsened as time went by, thus making me question and wonder about things I already knew to be true. This is just one, less severe type of anxious behavior.

It doesn’t look like anything.