As a writer, it is extremely important to know how to accurately represent the mental illnesses and struggles that people face. Inaccurate depictions of certain mental disorders can spread misinformation and myths about disorders that are already stigmatized.
Anxiety is a common disorder that many people suffer from on a daily basis. Writing characters with anxiety can be a great way to add diversity to your cast of characters but also a way to make your characters more relatable and feel more reel to your audience.
Difference between anxiety and stress
Before writing your character and developing their traits, it is important to first know the difference between anxiety and stress. A lot of people tend to confuse the two but they are, in fact, very distinct conditions.
Stress is a response to an external threat and activates your fight, flight, and freeze system. Usually, when someone is experiencing stress, they are able to identify the root cause and once the threat passes, so does the stress.
Anxiety on the other hand is not a response to a specific threat but rather a persistent state of worry that is present even in the absence of stressors. It is activated by a different system called the BIS (the behavioral inhibition system).
When this system is active you become hyper-aware of your environment and are sensitive to potential threats. This system is most activated in environments where there is a lot of uncertainty because where there is uncertainty, there is potential danger.
People who are prone to feeling anxiety may have an overactive BIS system, meaning they perceive potential threats more often and with greater intensity than others. Of course, potential threats are not only of the physical kind. It can also mean avoiding situations where social rejection or embarrassment may take place.
Social situations are highly complex and because of this, they are extremely unpredictable. They are basically a breeding ground for uncertainty and anxiety.
So, in summary, stress is a response to a specific threat in your immediate environment (the death of a loved one, an exam, etc). It has an identifiable source and is activated by the fight-flight or freeze system in your brain.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a response to uncertainty and the possibility of potential danger whether that be physical, emotional, or social danger. It is activated by the BIS system and contrary to stress it is persistent and long-lasting even when there are no stressors in your environment.
Writing Characters with three different types of anxiety disorders
There are different types of anxiety disorders people struggle with. Among the most common ones are generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Depending on which disorder you decide to write about, your character will demonstrate different symptoms.
Characters with Generalized anxiety disorder
Characters with a generalized anxiety disorder will display a general sense of anxiety about life. They will obsessively worry about everything or about nothing. The key aspect of this disorder is that it is impossible to pinpoint one source of worry that is plaguing the minds of these individuals. These characters simply have a general sense of dread about life. Some common symptoms of this disorder are persistent worry, propensity to overthink, feeling restless, indecisiveness (which is a product of fearing the consequences of decisions), general fatigue, difficulty letting go of worry and a general difficulty relaxing.
A character with this disorder would come across as too vigilant, would take a long time to make decisions and would show signs of nervousness and restlessness (for example baggy eyes because of the lack of sleep, they would be easily startled, be physically tense at times, etc.)
Characters with Panic disorder
Panic disorder is among one of the most misunderstood anxiety disorders. A character with panic disorder is plagued by recurrent panic attacks which are described as “a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause”.
Panic attacks are very different from anxiety attacks. These attacks are extremely sudden and can be triggered at any moment for no apparent reason. The symptoms escalate quickly, and they may feel like one is losing control or possibly going to die. They are usually accompanied by a rapid heart rate, trembling, difficulty breathing, and profuse sweating.
On the other hand, anxiety attacks are a gradual increase in negative affect that causes a pounding heart, difficulty breathing, etc. Anxiety attacks are usually less severe than panic attacks and typically have a trigger that is identifiable (an exam, a public speech, etc).
Social anxiety disorder
Social anxiety disorder is one of the more known and talked about anxiety disorders. The symptoms are similar to that of generalized anxiety disorder but instead of an overall feeling of dread of life, the anxiety arises specifically before, during, and even after social situations.
With social anxiety there is an extreme fear of being judged by others, being humiliated, and a fear of confrontation.
A character with a social anxiety disorder has extreme difficulty with everyday social behavior such as maintaining eye contact when speaking to someone and small talk.
When writing about a character that is experiencing anxiety, the physical symptoms you should include are rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, an upset stomach, hyperventilating/ general difficulty breathing, and dizziness.
A character suffering from social anxiety can suffer from low self-esteem, sensitivity to criticism, and poor social skills. These characters have difficulty attending to events others consider normal and this negatively affects their interpersonal lives.