Having anxiety is like having spiders infest your brain.

People bandy the word “anxiety” around a lot. They think they understand what it means but it’s more elusive than they realize and, in trying to pin it down, they lose all sight of what it is. It’s even difficult for me and I’ve lived with it most of my life. People simply can’t fathom what it’s like to live with a single anxiety attack that lasts two weeks. They don’t know what it’s like to grit your teeth and hold back tears because someone says “Merry Christmas.” Mostly they can’t begin to understand what it’s like to lash out at others because the anxiety is wrapped around you like a tight blanket and you can’t get out.

Over the Christmas season I turn into the love child of the Grinch and Scrooge. Christmas triggers my anxiety like no other activity around. So there is much confusion when someone wishes me a Merry Christmas and I react with anger and lash out at them. They can’t possibly understand and only see a woman who’s being a bitch. How can they see the pain and fear their words have triggered? Everyone loves Christmas. Right?

The problem isn’t the season. It isn’t even them. The problem is my brain and associations its made with Christmas. That animal part of my brain knows that Christmas is a bad time and works to defend me. This is what most people who don’t struggle with anxiety can’t understand. That our fear is likely to make us lash out rather than cringe in fear.

A kitten curled up in a ball and frightened

My anxiety is often triggered by a number of things in my life. Usually something has happened to change my routine. That’s bad. I like my routine. It gives me comfort and keeps me on an even keel. When something happens to alter that, my safety zone is gone and the fight or flight reflex kicks in. I usually go with fight since, growing up, I learned that flight wasn’t an option. Although I know this, it’s unlikely that those I meet do. This makes things awkward.

When I lash out it’s not because I’m angry, it’s because I’m afraid. My brain spiders are acting up and I am trying to defend myself. It’s hard to do since I feel very small and scared. If the reaction you’re getting from me seems over the top it’s because I’m in that dark place and I can’t see out.

Most people’s reaction is to answer in kind and get angry back. I know that’s normal but part of me wishes I could reach out and explain. Sometimes I do and most people are good about it but there are times when I simply can’t. I wish there was a way to explain that being an asshole is the by-product of anxiety.

Living with this fear has made me more aware of the fear in others. I know now that those who lash out usually do so from a place of fear. I understand fear. I live with it daily. So the next time someone lashes out to you, the next asshole you encounter, do me a favour; ask if it’s really anger or fear they’re showing. That person may not have any control over how they reacted and a bit of understanding from you can go a long way.