They hide it really well and that's how you miss it.
They're all around you.They're your friends, your colleagues, your lovers. They come from all walks of life: male and female, poor and rich, educated and uneducated. But they all have one thing in common: all of them suffer from anxiety, which, usually in shame or ignorance, they conceal from the rest of the world.
They all have their reasons for hiding their disability. They might worry about repercussions at work. They might worry they'll lose our friendships. They might not want to be the worrier, the one sucking the fun out of everything, by voicing their anxieties aloud.
But whatever their reasons, you can probably tell they're stressing. Here are some tips for dealing with the secretly anxious among us.
1. They use text messages whenever possible.
Anxious people hate the phone: just the ringing can set their heart fluttering. They really hate voicemaiil, because it's an unknown quantity lurking in their inbox, promising everything from candy hearts to familial death. So text them. Say exactly what you mean. They can ignore you if they want, and for that, they're deeply grateful.
2. They don't want to hear your horror stories.
Did your cousin's husband get into a horrible car accident in which he was decapitated, along with the other driver, all because someone had too much booze? Yeah, they don't need to hear that. Your husband becomes their spouse, and suddenly they're panicked he'll die on the way home from work. So save it until they're out of range.
3. They wish you'd make gift exchanges as simple as possible.
Or better yet, don't have them at all. You have no idea how much effort a secretly anxious person puts into their Secret Santa exchange. Mug or chocolate? Is wine to decadent and inappropriate? It's probably inappropriate and insensitive to the person whose cousin got decapitated in a drunk driving accident. And don't make them play that white elephant game. They won't be able to decide if they should win or lose for the good of a friend. It's excruciating.
4. They pray you'll make social interactions very obvious.
Let them know you care. Make it clear you're interested in what they have to say, and that what they say is compelling and engaging. They live in terror that their entire interaction is just a mockery you use for gossip fodder when they're not around.
5. They deeply value their friendships.
Don't joke that you hate them. Don't joke that you'd rather be somewhere else. Show interest in them, and if they disagree about something, don't leave it hanging. Make the point that they can still be a friend if they hate Metallica. Because they will doubt this.
6. They always wants to split the check.
Of course, they're happy to pay it. But then you might feel beholden to them. You may resent this. If you pay it, they're beholden to you, and what does that mean, exactly? It's easier if you just split the damn thing. And you have to split it by item, not down the middle. They don't want you angry because you had to pay for their high-dollar liquor. Then you'll hate them forever.
7. They want to make sure that whatever happens, you don't hate them forever.
They're scared of all Final Four Brackets, promotions, and anything that can come between friends. Don't speak to them about Jesus, politics, or abortion unless you want to provoke a panic attack. They may bring up those ideas. Then it's OK. But it's got to be their idea.
8. They pray their boss doesn't just summon them.
They have a panic attack when you want to talk to them, and an immediate need to update their Monster.com profile. Really, you just want to tell them they did a good job on the last project. Instead of summarily calling them to your office, try something like, "Elizabeth, I'd like to talk to you about the good job you did on the last project." You'll save them from crushing existential dread.
9. They have a personal anxiety tic.
This could include chewing their nails, cleaning obsessively, peeling their cuticles, tapping their pen, grinding their teeth, playing with their phone, or any number of other things. It only comes out when they're anxious (which is a good bit of the time), so it should be easy to spot.
10. They never want to hear the words "We need to talk."
They immediately assume divorce or adultery. This also gives them a panic attack. Try something like, "Honey, I'd like to talk to you about..." This saves them from cleaning the whole house or chewing off their fingernails or whatever their personal anxiety tic happens to be.
11. They hate "I know this sounds bad, but..."
Because if it sounds bad, it is bad, no matter how you dress it up. They'll spend the rest of the day obsessing over whether or not you actually meant the bad meaning, or the good meaning that came after. They'll assume the worst.
12. They need a sleep enhancer to get some z's.
Assume they're working through a deep fog of exhaustion and coffee. If they seem normal, know they hit the melatonin hard last night. Between the racing throughts, obsessive scenarios, and creaks and cracks of the house, they'd never sleep without it.
13. They hate being told to "just calm down."
They wish they could. They can't. It's that simple. You'll only annoy them, make them feel minimized, and make them dislike you, at least in the moment.
14. They aren't trying to conceal their anxiety.
But they're not trying to not conceal it. Chances are the anxiety has been such a background noise for their entire lives that they think it's normal. They're just minimizing personality traits other people tend to find annoying.
15. Sometimes they find their hidden anxiety makes everyday things nearly unbearable.
They may overcompensate and seem like a plucky extrovert. But be assured, they're analyzing that introduction to the new hire over and over and over. Simple things, like borrowing a pencil, become a frightening conundrum. Should they? Shouldn't they? They put too much effort into thinking — so much, in fact, that a normal person would be appalled. Help them out. They deserve it.