Anxiety: It’s Not How It Looks

Jillian Enright

Anxiety: It’s Not How It Looks

Seriously, it’s time to get the image of a quiet, fearful person biting their nails in the corner out of your mind

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes such as increased blood pressure.

People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, and may experience physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness or a rapid heartbeat.

Those who have never experienced generalized or social anxiety might picture someone biting their nails, avoiding social situations, or being very quiet and withdrawn.

The thing is, just like anything, no two people experience their anxiety in the exact same way.

The DSM-V lists the following symptoms for a diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD):

  1. Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge.
  2. Being easily fatigued.
  3. Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank (distractibility).
  4. Irritability.
  5. Muscle tension.
  6. Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep.

But wait — there’s more!

This is a good start, although anxiety can come out in a lot of different ways, especially in children and neurodivergent people.

(This is not because neurodivergent people are child-like, far from it, it is because both demographics have brains that diverge from the statistical norm.)

Because of this, anxiety may look different from the expected neurotypical presentation — but for different reasons. I’ll outline here the various unexpected or misunderstood ways that anxiety can present itself.

Defiance and avoidance

Picture a fourth grade classroom:

Teacher: “Stanley, please do your math worksheet.”

Student: “No. I’m not doing this, it’s stupid.”

Teacher: “We don’t talk like that in our classroom, Stan, please get started on your worksheet.”

Student: “No! You can’t make me.

Teacher: “Recess is in 20 minutes, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on playing outside because you’re the only one who hasn’t finished their math work.”

(Teachers, if you’re reading this, please don’t be offended. I realize that most of you are a lot more skilled and connected to your students than this. Most teachers would ask Stan what’s wrong or if he needs help, and wouldn’t resort to threats so quickly.)

Unfortunately, a lot of kids just like “Stanley Student” here are regularly labelled as defiant, disobedient, willful, stubborn, even insubordinate (what year is this, 1950?).

Of course, if you’ve read any of my previous articles, or if you’re knowledgeable in this subject matter, you know that it’s deeper than the surface behaviour.

Perhaps Stanley has a hard time with math, this worksheet looks really difficult, and he’s afraid to try it and look dumb in front of his classmates. Maybe he has a hard time with printing and is anxious about how much writing is needed for this particular assignment.

Maybe Stanley is being bullied in the hallways or at recess, and he actually wants to stay indoors, because he’s afraid of what’s going to happen when he goes outside. Maybe something is going on at home that he’s worried about.

I could go on. Defiance is usually code for “I don’t know what’s wrong with this kid and he’s not listening to me,” or “I don’t have a positive connection/relationship with this kid and he doesn’t want to do what I’ve asked him.”

That’s more of an adult problem than Stanley’s problem, isn’t it?

Hint: yes. Yes, it is.

Hyperactivity, restlessness, and silliness

This is an interesting one, and I’m going to tell on myself to illustrate it, so please don’t judge too harshly.

Recently my son was getting ready for school. It was a Friday morning and he had plans to go to a friend’s house after school. He was very excited. I had asked him to get ready about a million times. He would do one thing, like brush his teeth, and then start fooling around again.

Here’s where I get ineffective. (To be fair, I am most decidedly not a morning person, and there was an insufficient amount of caffeine in my body).

Instead of naming his feelings, validating them, and empathizing, I did exactly what I advise not to. I started with threats.

Well, buddy, if you can’t show me better cooperation, then perhaps you shouldn’t be going to your friend’s house after school.”

That made him panic and get his butt in gear… for about 5 seconds, until he got distracted and remembered his excitement again. Next thing I know, there’s a naked boy dancing in my living room instead of a fully-dressed boy ready to go to school.

So, I did what most under-caffeinated, cranky, tired parents do in the morning: I doubled down on my threat (ugh).

Okay, buddy, I’ve asked you too many times. If you’re not upstairs getting ready and showing me you’re listening, then I’m cancelling your play date after school today. Get going.”

AAAH! He yelled, ran upstairs, and jumped straight into action… for about 10 seconds. Then he was distracted and remembered his excitement again.

When I went upstairs to check on him, he was head-first in his basket of clean laundry, trying to “find” something.

What does this have to do with anxiety?

Two things. One, excitement can cause dysregulation, not just anger. When children struggle to regulate their emotions, this can also be the case with happiness, joy, and excitement.

Fooling around and being over-the-top silly can be one way of blowing off steam when someone is feeling so much of any emotion that they need an outlet for it. Excitement can quite easily spill over into anxiety.

Two, the more I threatened to take away something he really, really wanted, the more I increased his anxiety. The more I increased his anxiety, the sillier he got.

Well, that didn’t go as I’d hoped.

Truth be told, I was becoming dysregulated because I was frustrated and wanted to get my son to school on time, which was causing me anxiety. I was less skillful than I would normally be when well-regulated (i.e. calm, cool, collected).

Overcompensation

Ever met a person who seems to enjoy talking about themselves? Someone who seems to talk themselves up a lot, and may come across as a braggart? That is usually what we call overcompensation.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines compensation as this:

Compensation is substitution or development of strength or capability in one area to offset real or imagined deficiency in another. This may be referred to as overcompensation when the substitute behaviour exceeds what might actually be necessary in terms of level of compensation for the deficiency. Compensation may be a conscious or unconscious process.

I’ll tell on myself again: I was definitely this person in my younger years. I am sure I was like this as a child, but can’t remember any specific examples. I do remember clearly one instance from when I was in College.

I was in the second year of my social work program, and part of the requirement was work experience (ie. unpaid work) in a residential setting, also referred to as a group home. It was unpaid because I was supposed to be there to learn.

Supposed to.

I remember many conversations and meetings where I talked more than I listened. This was not because I thought I was brilliant, although I was quite bright, I felt very much the opposite.

The truth is I was talking all the time, seemingly talking myself up, because I felt painfully insecure and anxious. I assumed people would see my ineptitude, so I had to explain to them in words the ways in which I was not inept.

All this did was rub people the wrong way, make me look like I was bragging, and interfere with my learning from the more experienced staff. I can recognize that now, but of course, I didn’t have that insight at the time.

The moral of the story is, bragging isn’t always bragging, it quite often stems from anxiety, and overcompensating for insecurities.

Negativity and irritability

Another confession: I was also a complainer. This didn’t come from me trying to be a jerk. Not at all.

My divergent brain likes routine and predictability, and dislikes change — especially unexpected or sudden change. It’s the worst. It often takes my brain time to prepare for an emotionally or psychologically taxing experience.

My ADHD brain gets excited easily and being neurodivergent can make it challenging to regulate my emotions. So if I’m really looking forward to something and it suddenly changes, I get quite disappointed.

If I’m really counting on something, whether it’s exciting or not, and then it changes, this can make me feel very anxious.

Over the years, I have developed ways to cope with this so that I don’t experience such an intense reaction. I am more able to rationalize with myself and less likely to overreact.

In my younger days, however, my anxiety over unexpected changes definitely came out as irritability and negativity. I had no idea at the time that it was even anxiety-related, as I had a very narrow view of how anxiety is supposed to look and feel.

Now I now better.

© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB

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ADHD and Autistic Burnout

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References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Bipolar and related disorders. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).

Stoddard, J., Stringaris, A., Brotman, M.A., Montville, D., Pine, D.S., & Leibenluft, E. (2014), Irritability in child and adolescent anxiety disorders. Depression & Anxiety, 31: 566-573. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22151

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Neurodivergent. 20+ years social work and psychology experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, advocacy, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB. CYW, BA Psychology.

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