The right way to respond to someone’s anxiety

A few months ago I had to have minor surgery. I wasn’t particularly stressed about the surgery itself, as I knew what to expect, and was actually quite proud of myself for being able to put some of the coping skills I had learned into practice. Unfortunately, a few weeks before the big day I had done some Googling, and while innocently looking for something completely un-related, I stumbled across an article about anesthetic awareness (i.e. horror stories of patients waking up in the middle of their surgeries). Some people might have been able to simply close out of their browser window and not give it much more thought. For me, of course, I recognized the familiar, nagging panic starting to worm its way into my brain. It wasn’t letting up. I went down a rabbit hole Googling more and more information, until I finally decided that it seriously wasn’t helping, and maybe I just needed to chat out my concerns with someone I trusted.

As an aside, me confiding in someone about the possibly ridiculous-sounding fears that race through my mind is difficult. I am often met with laughter, eye-rolling or other types of minimizing. But, I decided to approach my significant other about it, and had even prefaced the conversation with something along the lines of “Hey, I know that I’m likely worrying too much, here, but, I read some stuff online I can’t seem to stop obsessing about…”. I was hoping for some gentle re-assurance, but instead I got the typical scoffing. He shook his head and said “Jesus Christ! Where do you even come up with this stuff?!”. He turned back to what he was doing as if he couldn’t even spend two seconds discussing this. Naturally, I felt about two inches tall, and could feel myself retreating. In a last-ditch effort of self-defense, I explained that while it may be rare, it was still a very real phenomenon that happened. I think I even told him that I simply wanted to talk it out, and needed some perspective. He just kept shrugging me off repeating “Don’t worry about it”, “That’s not going to happen!” or worse “Even if it does happen, so what?” (as if this wouldn’t be extremely traumatizing to the people who experienced it!). In the end, I shut up, and accepted that I wasn’t going to get what I needed from him. So now, not only was I still feeling incredibly anxious, I felt silly for bringing it up in the first place, and hesitant to bring it up to anyone else.

Luckily, I remembered that one of the more reputable articles I had come across during my Googling suggested that if you were really concerned about awareness, you could raise the issue with your anesthesiologist. I debated at first, considering the reaction I got the first time I brought it up to someone, but decided to tentatively ask right before they wheeled me in to the OR. I remember forcing myself to chuckle, and say something like “I know I’m being paranoid, but…” acting light-hearted even though it was really something I was terrified of, and losing sleep over. I half winced, waiting for the doctor’s frustration, but he actually didn’t even miss a beat. He nodded and didn’t dispute that it was something that happened. But explained that it was only to certain people with pre-dispositions, in specific types of surgeries. He briefly proceeded to explain the how and the why. It’s important to note that he didn’t once tell me “not to worry about it”, or that it “wouldn’t happen”, or frown and ask me why I would possibly bring this up. After outlining the risk factors he paused, and said “In your case, I feel the odds would be one in 15,000”. I remember letting out a huge sigh of relief, thanking him, and can genuinely say that I went into the surgery without an ounce of anxiety (at least about the waking up part…)

What is the point of sharing this story, you may ask? I really wanted to highlight the different responses I received, and the incredibly different effects they had. Response # 1 was minimizing, dismissive, and borderline mockery. It stung. While I don’t want to exaggerate the issue, it was a mini turning point in my relationship — sadly realizing that I couldn’t always count on my spouse for comfort or support. I am not as likely to confide in him in the future. Response #2 was open, patient, and sympathetic. I felt validated, and that feeling will stick with me. In other words, if you are dealing with someone who is anxious, this is just a reminder to resist the urge to simply tell the person they are “worrying too much”, to laugh it off, or repeatedly tell them what they are concerned about “won’t happen”. It may seem completely unreasonable to you, or shocking, the thoughts that are running through someone’s head. And you may not have all the answers, or be able to calm them down. Rest assured that this isn’t always your job, and might not even be what we are expecting, or needing. So don’t feel pressured. The opportunity to simply be listened to, without judgement, means a lot more than you might think 😉

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