Everyone’s anxiety manifests differently, depending on the person and the situation. For me, when I get phone calls, texts, emails, and other communiques, I get a little twinge of anxiety before I even see them; the notification is enough to make my mouth a little bit dry, to make me feel like I kind of need to pee, to create a burning sensation in my chest and throat, like I am eating fire.
What happens next depends on the circumstances. Maybe it’s my father calling. My heart rate goes back down, my shoulders relax, I can untie my tongue to answer the phone. Maybe it’s an abusive email, in which case my heart starts beating even faster, my hands start shaking, I flail as I struggle to deal with it. Or maybe it’s an angry Tweet, or letter, or something else, demanding an immediate response from me OR ELSE.
Here’s the thing with anxiety: while mileage may vary, many anxious people get extremely stressed out when people pressure them, especially when that pressure comes with a sense of urgency and immediacy. Anxiety already stresses me out enough, and it ramps up even more when I have external factors leaning on me. Especially when, as is often the case on the internet, a rolling snowball effect happens where more and more people add their commentary, and suddenly it’s my anxiety versus the world.
This is not going to be a discussion about what are sometimes turned pileons, about whether they are right or wrong, but it is a discussion about why some people have a really hard time dealing with them, whether they did something inappropriate or not. When someone with anxiety is being overloaded with feedback, it can become too much to deal with, and unfortunately, human beings who are overloaded often grasp at the easiest way out. Why run into a burning house when you can run away? Why turn towards the thing that feels threatening and scary when you can move into the distance and attempt to protect yourself?
I was having a conversation about this issue a few months ago with some people online and one of the things I noted was that when people with anxiety are struggling to deal with a situation, and ask for some space, this often isn’t respected. I was accused of ‘trying to shut down conversations,’ but it’s not about that. It’s entirely possible to stop directly contacting someone while continuing a conversation, because often, these conversations aren’t just about the original offender. It’s not simply one author at one publication who behaved transphobically at an event, for example, and it’s worth having a larger discussion about why those behaviours are tolerated, who supports them, and how to confront them.
That conversation doesn’t have to include the original offender. Not when she’s defensive, terrified, and lashing out. Because here is the thing: when you have anxiety, you tend to do things without thinking about it, and those things are very bad. They are things you would not normally do. They are things you are going to regret. They are things that are going to hurt other people in addition to creating more pain and misery for you, and you’ll be so wrapped up in your own terror that you won’t see what you’re doing or move to stop a destructive pattern you’ve engaged in before.
I know this because I’ve done this, and because I see it happening to other people all the time. It starts so simply; a single Tweet saying ‘hey, this thing you did was kind of hurtful,’ but you didn’t see it for a few hours because of Things, and then when you finally got to your computer, your mentions were filled up for pages, with comments ranging in style, tone, and applicability. A situation that might have been averted with an ‘oh, I see now that [thing] was harmful, and I will apologise, and I’ll take the following steps to make sure it won’t happen again’ has turned into a crisis.
And somehow, facing that wall of text, whether it’s kind or angry, whether it includes perfectly reasonable nice people or death threats or anything between, you decide that it is just too much to deal with. Because you are anxious, and the whole thing is making you anxious, and you want it to go away. So you ignore it, and it escalates. Or you make a comment, and it is not a good comment, and it escalates. Or you try to say ‘hey, I am hearing and seeing this, and I need to think about it and have some space,’ and people keep talking at you, and you start to panic, and suddenly that fire is spreading through your chest and over your whole body and why won’t it stop already?
Writing this is difficult for me. Not just because thinking about these situations makes me anxious, but because talking about anxiety makes me anxious too; I relive anxiety symptoms while writing about them, and I get nervous when I discuss impairments that change the way people relate to society, as though admitting to anxiety is a weakness or something to be ashamed of. It’s not, but people with anxiety are often made to feel that way, especially when they say that situations are exceeding their ability to cope and they need a break; and when their support systems are online, being told to ‘walk away’ is telling them to isolate themselves from the people they need most when they’re having an anxiety attack.
Anxiety is not an excuse for being a shithead. But understanding how anxiety works can help people understand how people with anxiety respond to situations, and how if the goal of a situation is a successful and productive resolution, not listening to requests from anxious people can result in a very bad outcome. I am by no means arguing that people who do shitty things should be catered to, but I am arguing that all human beings deserve basic accommodations.
If someone says ‘I am overloaded, I think this conversation should continue but I can’t be part of it right now,’ I think that should be respecteded. If that person chooses not to respond to the conversation at any point in the future, well, now you know something about that person. You might not know what you think you know, though. It might not be that someone decided she was in the right and didn’t need to deign to respond. It might be that someone became so overwhelmed with anxiety that she couldn’t function, and she’s having more anxiety over the fact that she hasn’t responded. It might mean that she’s still processing and learning and thinking, and will be applying those things in the future.
The instant response and callout culture cultivated on the Internet often insist that someone respond instantly and respond to the satisfaction of the caller out, and that this take place in a public venue. I prefer to talk with people in private over public confrontation in part because of anxiety, and in part because I think it tends to lead to better outcomes since it’s less likely to create defensiveness. I realise that my lack of need to get a personal response if someone is clearly taking something away from a comment I’ve made doesn’t apply to everyone, but I wish to gently remind people that not everyone responds to everything in the same way. Is it better to get that immediate response in the form of a formulaic genuflection? Or to see that someone has quietly reformed the way she thinks about a topic in the long term after seeing people criticise her framing and put it in a larger social context?
Aanxiety can play a huge role in how people deal with situations, especially those involving criticism (particularly, it may surprise you, valid criticism, because then you’re anxious because people are criticising you and you’re beating yourself up because they’re absolutely right). And when you’re anxious, everyone starts to seem like an enemy, and even the kindest comments start to feel like screaming. And it all goes downhill from there.