Those are fairly normal anxieties, the sort that everyone has. They keep us up at night.
Then there are irrational anxieties. When did my passport expire? Did my husband leave the keys in the doorknob? Will that fan in the living room catch on fire if we leave it on all night? Will I find out when I start that new job tomorrow that they really hired someone else? (That’s not completely irrational. It happened to me once.)
People with many types of mental illnesses have these. Even some people without mental illnesses have these too. I knew a woman who worried herself awake one night over whether she had given her sons a proper religious education. Many of them – the passport, the keys, the fan – we can get up and check on, if we’re unable to put them aside and sleep.
But there’s another kind of anxiety that I sometimes get and it’s the hardest of all to deal with.
PscyhCentral defines free-floating anxiety as “a generalized, debilitating apprehensive mood which, unlike a phobia, is not triggered by any specific object or occurrence.” It is also referred to as “generalized anxiety disorder,” though my doctor just wrote “anxiety disorder” on my chart.
Or in other words, it happens when you don’t really have anything to be anxious about, but you are anyway. Anxiety.org helpfully adds, “GAD usually first presents itself in the years between childhood and middle age.”
One tricky thing about free-floating anxiety is that it can lead you to believe you’re anxious about things you really aren’t. If you have an anxiety attack in the cereal aisle at the grocery store, you might assume that the cereal aisle causes the anxiety and avoid it thereafter. Which would be a shame, because dry cereal is a great food to eat, right out of the box, when you just can’t get out of bed that day.
PsyWeb.com notes that “GAD is generally treated by combining psychotherapy and prescribed medication. Drugs that effectively treat free-floating anxiety are benzodiazepines, antidepressants, beta-blockers and buspirone. The patient is prescribed a certain medication based on potential side effects and treatment effectiveness.” But sometimes even that isn’t enough.
I used to get anxiety attacks in the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep anyway. My whole body would tense up and my skin felt like there were electric wires running through it. I started breathing hard or even panting, gasping to get enough air. That kind of anxiety can leave you exhausted but without sleep, sometimes for the next day as well. It’s like having an anxiety hangover.
If my husband was home when an anxiety attack struck (he works third shift now) he knew enough to, first, ask me what I was panicky about, and if I didn’t know, then to wrap me in a hug, coach me to breathe slowly and deeply, and stroke my hair until I relaxed enough to fall asleep.
When my husband wasn’t there, I would just have to hug my pillow and tough it out. Try to remember the breathing. Pet a cat.
Nowadays I don’t have the nighttime anxiety attacks. My psychiatrist has prescribed a sleeping aid and an antianxiety med to be taken at bedtime. If I do have middle-of-the-night anxiety attacks, he has allowed me an extra antianxiety pill to take, which usually does the trick.
Personally, I prefer my husband’s nonmedical approach.