>>> For those of you who struggle with anxiety, panic, and PTSD please be mindful of the possibility you may be triggered by this post <<<
Since I began speaking out about the abuse I endured and, in particular, the way the trauma has negatively impacted, hindered, and halted certain areas of my life, I have become increasingly aware of how often those engaged in conversation with me invalidate and minimize the struggles I go through with anxiety and panic disorders simply by erroneously using a word of lesser urgency in place of the one they should be using. With many people, I suspect that their tendency to do so is innocent due to widespread misuse of words by society at large coupled with their lack of experience and their limited understanding of anxiety and panic disorders because they are fortunate enough to not be afflicted with them. There are some that I have been able to discern that lack of concern for others’ circumstances are at the heart of the terminology they use, and it becomes overtly transparent that they believe those of us who endure anxiety and panic disorders are using this as a scapegoat to avoid doing things in our lives or to (even worse) garner attention, pity, and sympathy so we can always remain a victim.
While the preceding ignorance simply due to lack of experience with anxiety and panic disorders in general can be frustrating and unfortunately hurtful, I can forgive these side effects when the person makes efforts to show genuine interest in what I deal with as a result of my trauma by asking me to explain why their perception is wrong. Conversely, those who truly believe that anxiety and panic disorders are nothing more than scapegoats and refuse to listen when one of us tries to get them understand the nature of our disorders might get forgiveness (for my own piece of mind), but they will not get the patience, kindness, and respect afforded those who take the time to stop and listen to what I have to say. Regardless of how the invalidation comes about, there continues to be a need for change in the way we perpetuate dialogue.
I have a list of many points of contention cycling through my mind at any given time, but due to recent circumstances in my own life, right now I feel the need to focus on the misuse of the words “nerves” and “nervous/ness” in place of “anxiety,” “panic/ky,” and “panic attacks.” There are distinct differences between the three that warrant care and consideration when describing how you feel or understanding how someone who struggles with anxiety and panic on a daily basis feels.
All of us deal with being nervous at some point in our lives. Generally it occurs when we do something that is new or unknown to us where we face the possibility of judgement or criticism. Perhaps we have a job interview after not having to interview in a long time, or maybe we have a test in a subject we find difficult to grasp as easily as other students. Possibly you are meeting someone for the first time or are going on a date set up by a friend. Maybe we have to give a speech or presentation or we are made the head manager on a major project at work for the first time. Whatever the event is, the butterflies and knot in our stomach subside and goes away once we have finished. The nervous response is a normal, healthy emotional response to things that are new or bear risk of judgment. However, it does not prevent us from seeing the task through to the end. Once we face it, the ill-at-ease feeling vanishes as though it were never there.
So often, when people are nervous, they incorrectly describe what they are feeling as anxiety and panic. It’s important to know how damaging and invalidating this can be to those who actually battle anxiety and panic disorders every day. Further, because of this being so widely misrepresented, those who struggle to handle and cope with anxiety and panic often find those who do not have these disorders minimizing what they are going through to the point where they can be told callous things like the following:
- “Get over it; it’s no big deal.”
- “Just stop worrying; it will be fine.”
- “You’re just trying to get attention.”
- “It’s just nerves; it isn’t like you’re going to die or anything.”
What you might not know is we can become paralyzed with worry, fear, doubt so much so that we might become agitated to the point where we might perceive that we absolutely will die or be harmed. While all the stinging condescension and sideways glances tell us that perception is nothing more than imagination, it feels suffocating and overbearing and real to us. Imagine the feeling you get in your stomach where you almost fall and catch yourself at the last second or when you momentarily think you lost your bank card in the store. The butterflies, the knot in your stomach, the momentary worry in your head. But what happens after you regain your footing? When you find that you accidentally tossed your bank card carelessly in the bottom of your purse? Relief. You are overcome with relief, and you go on about you day with no further issues, and depending on what happened you might even joke about it with a few friends.
This is NOT what happens with those of us who suffer with anxiety, panic attacks, or PTSD. Particularly for those who battle anxiety, that momentary jolt of ill-at-ease doesn’t go away. It lasts for an extended period of time, and it doesn’t require a trigger to set it off, although triggers CAN set someone dealing with anxiety to fever pitch where they simply cannot cope and must remove themselves from the environment. There is no relief to wash over them. There is no absolute respite. Many spend day after day suspended in a continuous state of emotional chaos, worry, fear, and doubt tainted by shame or embarrassment from the criticism of outsiders who have no idea how heavy their struggle can be.
For those of us who battle panic attacks and PTSD, we do not necessarily have that dread weighing us day every moment of the day. In my particular case, the culprit of my unease is PTSD that I suffer as a result of enduring brutal physical violence for over four years. My panic is triggered by situations where I have been conditioned to expect immediate, brutal punishment to follow – unfailingly. There is never a time in my head where I can mitigate, alleviate, and avoid a panic attack by thinking, “Oh maybe this time will be different.” The reaction is immediate and sometimes what I refer to as emotionally violent (severe distress that is shown by incoherence, confusion, shaking, nausea, uncontrollable sobbing, quick short breathing, and hypervigilance). I can be triggered by a commercial on TV, a ringtone, a song, a smell, specific foods, a combination of words, or by finding myself in situations that during my abuse became associated with immediate risk of or severe injury that also carried with it possibility of death. And it was that desperate.
Some examples of my triggers are red sauces with cooked peppers and onions, mustard, music by certain artists, being complimented on my appearance, having to talk to people I do not know, having to talk to men for a sustained period of time, and talking to people without permission or a script at my side, just to name a few. I can predict which ones of these triggers you would perceive as being foolish, but they are all associated with punishment that followed or something that put me on alert of being harmed.
Red sauces and cooked peppers and onions are an issue for me, because after my ex began threatening to poison me by putting things in my food, he began using a lot of red sauce and peppers and onions. Red sauces are very acidic and potent enough, especially with the overpowering smell of onions and peppers to cover up a myriad of smells. I never knew exactly what was in my food which made me hesitant to eat if I didn’t see him serve both up at the same time where it couldn’t be tampered with prior to reaching the table. In the beginning my reactions to this particular trigger was most likely deemed childish and immature, because from the outside what you would see is a grown woman having a temper tantrum and acting like a diva who was simply perturbed that she didn’t get her way. But on the inside, I perceived that you were trying to cover up something you slipped into my food, and that perception of threat caused the outburst. I still refuse to eat most foods with tomato bases and cooked peppers and onions unless I am present the entire time it’s being prepared. Even then, it’s extremely difficult to make it through eating it without being throw into a panic attack.
And mustard. I won’t go into detail, but did you know that you can make a mixture with yellow mustard to induce vomiting? After the incident, I was physically punished for something with the acrid, foul stench still hanging in the air. Today, 29 months after leaving my ex, every time I smell yellow mustard, that day comes flooding back to me. With it comes the nightmares and distress that I have learned to hide, because no one in my personal life understands how traumatic events can make something as simple as mustard or tomato sauce or peppers and onions such violent, emotional triggers. The issue is that food itself isn’t the issue. It becomes so by association. The switch being flipped happens against my will, and once that connection to the traumatic event is wired, it takes massive amounts of energy and emotional pain and discomfort to overcome or lessen it to a tolerable level.
Being complimented on anything makes me extremely uncomfortable, because not only have I learned to expect criticism and verbal assault to follow for the smallest mistake or perceived transgression against attaining perfection, I have also been trained to read between lines that may no longer exist because of my ex. But if you really want to watch me squirm, focus on my physical appearance, and my stress reaction to it is immediate and unmistakable. I was trained by brutal physical punishment to pretty much be invisible. If anyone noticed me when I was with my ex, if they acknowledged my presence, then I was automatically assumed to be making a concerted effort to draw attention to myself.
In an effort to make me as unseen as possible, he picked my clothes, banned use of makeup, nail polish, jewelry, fragrance, getting my hair done, or dressing up under punishment of violence. In fact, when I went back to work, he sent me wearing clothes that were, in my opinion, deliberately overtly masculine to hide any trace of femininity, ugly flat shoes, a dumpy purse, and he hacked off my hair a few times. After I left, I started dressing noticeably feminine: dress clothes, heels, jewelry, makeup, colors I had been forbidden to wear. And people noticed. And they told me they noticed. And they practically held me hostage while they did so. It took several months before I was able to walk into work without fighting back the urge to run into the bathroom and hide. It took even longer before I was able to look anyone in the eye.
And just when I found some kind of equilibrium, I decided that I was going to dare the devil, and I started wearing skirts to work. The second I walked in the door the first day the guard in the lobby saw me, I regretted it. Imagine everyone’s shock. It had been well over a year that I had worked here, and never once had I come to work even remotely uncovered, and one Thursday, here I come prancing in the door in a skirt, heels, makeup, jewelry, with my hair dyed and cut, and everything changed. All the effort I had spent carefully practicing the art of invisibility was shattered with the click of the heels of my shoes hitting the tiles. Every person I passed that day not only acknowledged me and spoke to me but also gave me no choice but to deal with their brazen assumption that they could hold me hostage in their sight. That they could tell me at length how much of a change they noticed after I was able to get away from him. I felt violated, and I felt like I had done something horribly wrong… something that I was going to face the harshest of punishments for when I got home.
That first day I wore the skirt, I had been approached by so many people before I even made it halfway to my cubicle, by the time I did get to my desk, I was in tears and dropped everything so I could run and hide myself by cowering in one of the stalls in the bathroom until I stopped hyperventilating. By the time I got myself under control, I poked my head out to make sure I was alone before I would leave the seclusion of the bathroom and trod fearfully back to my desk.
So what was going through my head as all this was happening? The guard’s reaction was the first to set off the spiral into chaos. The first person in the door couldn’t leave it be. Not only did he announce to me that he’s never seen in me a skirt, he made mention of it to several who came in behind me. It was like being glued to the floor and all the lights falling black with the exception of the glaring spotlight burning a hole in my vulnerability, showing my nakedness, and tearing me wide-open for the eyes hidden in the blackness to feast on. Except I could see and hear them react just as clearly as I could see him materialize in the corner. A phantom from the past who was born of the devil. Sneering at me, motioning his head just so, so he could be sure I knew that I would later receive a punishment so brutal that I would never again commit the transgression of showing the world that I was truly a woman. Then he vanished into the air. But I still felt him there. Overbearingly latching himself onto me as I made my way in.
All the while, mingled in with endless chatter of those waiting in ambush of me to asphyxiate ever last bit of air from my clenched lungs, I heard that hissing and desperation volley back and forth in my head. I smiled at them, but inside my mind raced as I pictured the horrors to follow that night.
“I’ve been seen. He’s going to know. I’m going to get punished for this when I get home.”
“No, I’m safe. I’m free of him. He can’t hurt me.”
“You’re a fool if you think you’re ever safe from him. You know you aren’t supposed to be doing this. Didn’t you learn the last time?”
“What am I doing that’s so wrong?”
“You reek of ‘woman.’ You’re supposed to be in the background. Easily accounted for but as easily dismissed. A fleeting thought. And now you do this.”
“But I am a woman. I want to look like one.”
“No, idiot, you don’t. He’s going to give it to you when you get home. You’ll see.”
And as I put my purse hurriedly down on my desk, tears welling up in my eyes, head hung in shame in my willing disobedience, this last thought sent me into a whirlwind of desperation.
“You’ll be dead. He’ll put those thick, callous hands around your throat and squeeze the life out of you. He’ll kill you, and he’ll leave you there.”
It’s easy for someone who has never had to somehow find a way to function in this kind of life to understand how real that threat of death felt to me at the moment. For you to understand how desperate I was, how terrified I was, and how that feeling course so powerfully through me that I would run and hide for cover, you would have had to live it. Even now when I think about that day, I become filled with dread. Part of me wants to hide, to steal myself to safety, even though the tangible threat is gone and has been a long time. And then I look down as I writing this, and it’s Thursday again, and here I am in a skirt at my desk using my lunch hour to relive and rehash a day I long to forget. There are tears in my eyes, the lump in my throat.
I don’t have to struggle with persistent anxiety, but I do deal with anticipatory anxiety that comes before things I know are triggers and still have to face. For those who do live with it every day, I have much respect for them, because I cannot imagine having to live with it knowing it’s always going to be under foot. It’s hard enough dealing with panic coming in waves, even if it is more violent when the reaction happens. I could not live with the thought of having to live without peace. For those of you who don’t have to live with either, count your blessings. But as you do, also remember, too, to choose your words describing how you feel carefully. Being nervous is a healthy, temporary condition. The battles with anxiety, panic, and PTSD are not, and we deserve more respect and consideration for having to overcome these obstacles every day.
The symptoms below are taken directly from About Health at the following link: http://panicdisorder.about.com/od/understandingpanic/a/anxvspanic.htm
If you should so choose, there are also additional links to information about other disorders and phobias.
Anxiety, on the other hand, generally intensifies over a period of time and is highly correlated to excessive worry. The symptoms of anxiety are very similar to the symptoms of panic attacks and may include:
- Muscle tension
- Disturbed sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased startle response
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath
While some of these symptoms are similar to many of the symptoms associated with panic attacks, they are generally less intense. Another important distinction is that, unlike a panic attack, the symptoms of anxiety may be persistent and very long-lasting — days, weeks or even months.
During a panic attack, the symptoms are sudden and extremely intense. These symptoms usually occur “out of the blue,” peak within 10 minutes and then subside. However, some attacks may last longer or may occur in succession, making it difficult to determine when one attack ends and another begins.
According to the DSM-IV-TR, a panic attack is characterized by four or more of the following symptoms:
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
- feelings of unreality (derealization) or being detached from oneself (depersonalization)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- numbness or tingling sensations (paresthesias)
- chills or hot flushes