There are many forms of anxiety on many different levels and many different scales, not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way or at the same time, the triggers for each person differ and vary widely and what is an anxiety that is an absolute NOPE!!!!!!! for one person may be a HECK YES THIS IS AWESOME!!! Anxiety for another. It is difficult to categorize anxiety, but as I live with anxiety every day and it is keeping me up now, I will attempt to give it words.
The first kind of anxiety is more a crawling, creeping unease, a jittery poisonous snake made of smoke. It is very hard to pin down the source of this anxiety and difficult to describe. It is the first shocking cold shiver of unease, the barest edge of a perceived "wrongness" with a situation. The "spidey senses" that come online and that overall general bad feeling about something. Maybe for some a feeling of being watched, the heaviness of eyes on you real or imagined. An oily, clinging, weight that settles over a person like a blanket. This anxiety is almost always situational and is usually described as being "creeped out" and what philosophers might refer to as a "genuine anxiety" it is the knowledge that you are on the cusp of the unknown. This feeling can be caused by circumstances where you recognize you don't have control over every variable and can be intentional, purposeful or happenstance. Walking home or traversing a poorly lit parking lot at night or meeting new people for the very first time, visiting a haunted house, or knowing you are alone in a place and hearing sudden unexplained noises can all cause this feeling. This is the easiest type of anxiety to dispel, once the unknown element is taken away, the feeling usually dissipates. A great number of people actually enjoy the sensations of feeling this way and chase it down.
The next type of anxiety is a more intense type. A churning, gnawing, slightly spiny, sharp toothed Thing that settles in the stomach and scratches at the walls, content to torment and inconvenience its host person. Much like an overactive hedgehog with a nasty overbite has decided to do a gymnastics routine utilizing one's internal organs as equipment. Annoying and uncomfortable for the person experiencing it and a challenge to be overcome, but not impossible to beat. Some people embrace this type of anxiety as positive- this is the more friendly beast after all- merely the infant in the pack, it shows up for us often during manageable life events. It even has a cute little name "Butterflies". Butterflies shows up during job interviews or doctor's appointments, while riding a rollercoaster or getting lost travelling to a new place, during the mind bending heart pumping seconds before skydiving for the first time, on the cusp of a new relationship or when you have Big News to share. Butterflies is sure to be there, settling in your stomach and tumbling around. This type of anxiety heightens sensation and sharpens focus, people can be taught to harness this and use it to their advantage in situations where an extra edge is needed. Soldiers and doctors and emergency response personnel, pilots and parents and many others have learned to positively use this form of anxiety, trained themselves to be attuned to it and to respond quickly and decisively at the merest tug of its leading. Some people have developed a good working relationship with this type of anxiety akin to the relationships that service animals and handlers have with one another. Some people actively put themselves in situations to induce this anxiety, adrenaline junkies have a myriad number of ways to rile Butterflies up into a frenzy and keep it there as long as possible, they enjoy the thrill and the sensation. This is an anxiety that is usually content to announce its presence but settles down and sleeps when its work is done and something has occurred to change the situation that made it appear. For most people, this is their all encompassing knowledge of anxiety. Their anxiety level almost never gets higher than this unless they are in a true life or death situation, and they have no need to wonder what happens at the next stages. People who have positive relationships with this kind of anxiety and who have never met its kin often cannot understand why anxiety is so debilitating to those of us who know what that spiny little miscreant can grow into. They have never met with the teeth or the claws, the choking grip and the looming sense of doom and death that can come with the more developed older brothers of little Butterflies.
When this little bundle of Anxiety grows a little bit bigger, gets a little meaner, needs a lot less sleep, it is not positive. This anxiety is not healthy. This is the kind of anxiety that skitters and scrambles and runs frantically, jumping on nerves, tap dancing in the brain, cartwheeling in the stomach and sliding down the throat. It never sits still. It. Never. Sits. Still. It scratches and grates and claws and clambers and rubs raw every nerve ending in the entire body. It wears at the mind, tumbling thoughts over and over and over and over like a hyperactive four year old who is only interested in the noise the dice make in the cup while playing Yahtzee! Violently shaking and jumbling and scrambling and jarring everything together. Its favorite words are "what if?" and it chants them constantly directly into the brain behind the eardrum, worse than any car ride with children ever was. There is no telling it to stop, not ever. "What if they aren't having a good time?" "what if they don't like me?" "What if I lose my job?" "What if the house catches fire?" "What if you died tomorrow?" "what if your family disowned you?" "What if everyone decides you're not worth their time?" "What if everyone hates you?" "What if?" "What if?" "What if?" it pesters and pesters until your brain is exhausted, there is never a moment of rest, even if your body is still, you are not resting. Your poor brain has to preform continual acrobatic maneuvers to compensate for the constant questions. Storing and filing plans and backup plans and backup for backup plans and worst case scenario events because the worst case scenarios are constantly in the forefront of your mind. There is no peace. Those of us who know this kind of anxiety well are "affectionately" known as nervous nellies. We jump at shadows and startle at unexpected movements, we run on very little sleep and tend to breathe near hyperventilation most of the time. This kind of anxiety is exhausting and overwhelming and difficult to manage and becoming a lot more common. In the age of "never unplugging" with continual access to ALL THE THINGS! people are feeding their cuddly little "Butterflies" and getting this annoying teenaged terror in its place. Realizing too late that the ravages of this kind of anxiety are not at all positive and difficult to turn around once started. This kind of anxiety carries with it real world consequences that can include high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, inbalanced adrenaline, epinephrine, and cortisol levels that can lead to heart disease, increased risk of stroke, digestive problems, and a whole host of other issues.
When that terrorizing teenager grows up a little more, it is even less fun to be around. It grows into a kind of anxiety that is not only unhealthy but crippling. Sometimes debilitating. The kind of anxiety that is best described as a parasite sucking the life out of the person who has to deal with it. A kind of anxiety that locks your jaw and controls your breathing, spins your mind on a turntable at near the speed of light, messes with your perception and causes massive upset in your life. This kind of anxiety is a monster, a freight train, a giant mouth ready to swallow you whole. Living with this kind of anxiety is a battle every moment of every day. This is the kind of anxiety that outright kills. Sometimes a slow strangle of a death and other times a sudden arrest of the heart. This anxiety overshadows every part of your day, looms over every step, convinces you of your imminent doom and demise and terrorizes your every moment. It cannot be escaped easily, it dogs the waking hours and becomes a horror in the night. This is the anxiety that causes the heart to pound at a frightful pace, robs the breath from your lungs and swings you under a tidal wave of absolute mind numbing terror at times. This is the anxiety that causes panic attacks and appears during exposure to a phobia, it invites hallucinations and paranoia along for the ride and delights in creating turmoil and chaos for the person it lives with. Living with and combating this anxiety is an uphill battle that is most obvious to the outside world, a world who simply does not understand that this anxiety is very real. They cannot understand because they only ever really live with Butterflies in their stomach, they've never met this terror of a houseguest, they can't even imagine that it exists. This is the anxiety that knocks you down over something the rest of the world considers non-threatening and "safe and normal." It probably is. For them. But for the person who is plagued by this kind of anxiety, it is a life or death situation. This anxiety takes time, dedication, good therapists, excellent support people and sometimes medication to manage. People with this kind of anxiety view all anxiety through this lens. No anxiety is good, all of it has teeth and claws and the ability to torment and tear your life apart.
Anxiety takes many forms and has a different relationship with every person, it is part of life, and it does not leave us. May your anxieties be small, may they sleep when they are not needed, may they be the small and helpful sort that are easily assuaged.