How to Spot a Nervous Wreck

Medical Reviewer

What a curious turn of phrase 'nervous wreck' is. A wreck implies something that was once fully functional but is now beyond repair. As for 'nervous', well we know that refers to anxiety. So the implication is that as a result of anxiety the affected person is now a mangled emotional heap beyond repair? This is something worth thinking about.

There seems little doubt that anxiety is one of the most pervasive psychological problems that people experience. Does this mean we're all nervous wrecks? Well, perhaps it does, but if this is the case it should serve to remind us that we are all victims of anxiety to a greater or lesser extent.

Last year I read an article in Psychology Today by Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., entitled How Big a Problem is Anxiety? Dr. Leahy set about pointing to the implications of excessive anxiety to our health, the increase in the number of diagnosed anxiety-related disorders and a statement to the effect that the average high school kid has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s. Before you write to enquire, I've no idea where the stats on this observation came from.

The same article provided a succinct commentary about the effects of social mobility and the consequent decrease in social connectedness. The fact that we are less likely to participate in religious communities, get married, and more likely to live alone are all things that contribute to our uncertainties, suggested Leahy. But the thing that struck me the most was his comment about people's expectations and how dramatically these have changed. Our perspectives have become distorted over what we believe we really need and our assumptions about how relationships should function are increasingly unrealistic. I suppose one way of putting this is to say there is too much focus on the things worth having and not enough on the things worth being.

Having said this I don't think we should beat ourselves up too much. We're born and brought up in a society that surrounds us with news about how unstable our lives are. Bombs, economic crises, lifestyle crises, natural disasters, are part of the daily diet. To some extent we learn to filter out much of this information, but the reason it exists is because it works, and we do take it in. More and more we're encouraged to comment, text, or phone in our views and to become active participants.

Worry is the mechanism by which we deal with anxiety. We frequently worry that we worry more than other people. It's a much more common problem than you might think. When tested, most people view themselves as more anxious than the average person. The reason we do this is because we can feel what's happening inside ourselves but we only see the mask that other's portray. When it comes to things we can see or hear for ourselves (humor, sarcasm, etc) we see ourselves as no different to the average person.

This leads me to a point about our typical pattern of social behavior. We develop our style of communication in ways that ensure the other person feels comfortable in our company. We develop a whole series of often quite complex and detailed interactions that manage to avoid saying anything about who we are or what we really feel. It's easy to see how these processes serve the function of bringing people together, but they also serve to mask all the anxieties and insecurities that other people have - and they do have them

Think about the moments you truly relax in the company of others. It wouldn't surprise me if it's because they've declared something honest about the way they feel. These often tentative moves are an invitation to you. They say, I may look like this and behave this way, but I'm human. If you choose to reciprocate it can lead to an outpouring of information, humor and relief.

Does this mean we're all nervous wrecks? By now I hope it's clear we all feel anxiety and we mostly try to mask the effects it has on us, but I feel we should dispel any notions of the nervous wreck, at least in terms of the normal human condition. We're all prone to misperceiving the true feelings of others and this in itself can lead to anxiety. When anxiety feeds off itself and begins to dominate our lives the situation changes. There are a number of anxiety-related conditions, but even now the notion of the nervous wreck still doesn't hold up. Unlike a mechanical wreck, we humans do have a remarkable capacity to rebuild ourselves. It may take time and what results may not be perfect or live up to our hopes and expectations, but there is always the potential for improvement.