Making Your Characters Feel Feelings: Anxiety

“Fear is inevitable, I have to accept that, but I cannot allow it to paralyze me.”

-Isabell Allende

At one time or another, all of us have experienced bouts of anxiousness. Trying out for a sports team, hosting your first workshop, or going live on a social media platform to promote yourself or your business can invoke dizzying feelings of fear and inadequacy. It’s a normal part of human life. However, prolonged anxiety can cause physical and behavioral changes that will affect how your anxious character functions from day to day, and that creates an entirely different kind of story. 

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Of all of the emotions, anxiety is one that involves a lot of physical and mental discomfort and/or pain. Some of those feelings can be:

  • Headache, vertigo, or fainting

  • Nausea, diarrhea, indigestion, or dry mouth

  • Shortness of breath

  • Heart palpitations and/or chest pains

  • Fatigue and tremors

  • Excessive sweating, or dry, tight, itchy skin

  • Frequent urination

  • Impotence

Sounds delightful right? The only upside to all of these symptoms is that an anxious character can be written effectively by describing these symptoms and how your anxious character navigates them.

There are several different types of anxiety, and they vary in cause and intensity.

Anxiety is typically differentiated by the duration of your character’s emotional response, the focus on present or future events, the threat or lack thereof, and how they motivated to react.

“Normal” anxiety is short-lived, focused on the moment at hand and not things that have yet to happen. It’s directed at a specific threat, and your anxious character can see a way to escape it. In fact, “normal” anxiety is a natural fear response.

However, a prolonged emotional response, with a focus on events that may or may not happen, and a broad and/or general threat that provokes excessive caution is anxiety.

I like to call this “someone, somewhere is doing I don’t know what and it scares me so much that I might faint, vomit, shit my pants, hyperventilate and I might be having a heart attack all at the same damn time. I don’t know what I’m afraid of and I can’t neutralize this threat.” This is more or less how your anxious character feels. But what triggers this response?

Types of Anxiety

Existential— This type of anxiety is characterized by a deep, and encompassing dread about any and all things in life. This anxious character will never believe that the universe has their back. They believe that:

  • Fate is working against them

  • Death is imminent and looming around every corner and behind every door

  • They are morally corrupt and deserve punishment and condemnation

  • Everything is meaningless and empty and not worth the effort

This anxious character might need to be confronted with real trauma—to themselves or someone close to them—to overcome this type of anxiety. They will absolutely need to find a purpose that will make their life meaningful and worth living. Maybe they even become a reluctant hero.

Performance— Uneasiness, apprehension, and/or nervousness about things like exams, competitive sports, sex, or performing for an audience in any capacity can trigger this type of anxiety. Think about:

  • the student who bombs a test that they studied for extensively

  • the ball player who is snake bit by a bad case of the yips every time they step up to the free throw line

  • The singer who can’t find their pitch or forgets the words to a song that they wrote

This anxious character will likely sweat profusely, feel dizzy or faint, or nauseated. They may also have headaches, cry or laugh uncontrollably when faced with situations that trigger this anxiety. This often leads to avoidance. Lots of talented people have given up on their dreams because they found the symptoms and physical response to this type of anxiety unmanageable. Your anxious character will have to focus on achieving relaxation and develop some coping mechanisms before confronting this task again.

Social anxiety— Social interaction is pretty much a requirement to be a functioning human being (or so they say), but your anxious character may have such a great fear of disapproval from their peers with such intensity that it will make them avoid social situations. This intensifies when they must interact with people of a different race, ethnicity, class, or gender, or even something as simple as a friend introducing them to another friend group.

This anxious character will need to be exposed to the social situations armed with a set of skills that they have developed through role play and/or relaxation techniques that will help them address those feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment.

Trait—This type of anxiety tends to focus on, relive, and constantly talk about fears, worries, and negative emotions. Your anxious character may do this consciously or unconsciously. While this often consider a personality trait—think pessimist and optimist comparisons—it can lead to or signal the development or other neurosis or disorders.

If your anxious character suffers from this type of anxiety, it might translate as a fixed, unchangeable personality trait. Their emotional journey will probably involve finding someone who will accept them just as they are and though that friendship, mentorship, or romance, they will begin to discard those fears, worries, and negative thoughts.

Decision— This type of anxiety is brought on by being confronted with the need to chose between two or more things. This is sometimes called “analysis paralysis,” but while many of us use that phrase in jest, the anxiety that this induces in some people is very real.

In this instance, your anxious character’s symptoms can manifest in one of two ways. Either they will always make the “safe” choice with a known and predictable outcome, or they will decide not to make a choice at all and have to suffer the consequences that stem from that.

Now let’s talk about anxiety disorders.

Anxiety disorders are wholly different than any of the previously mentioned states of anxiety in that they are a group of mental disorders.

The characteristics are the same—exaggerated feelings of worry about future events that trigger fear responses in the present. However, they differ because your anxious character needs or may have been diagnosed by a professional that will create a plan of treatment which will likely consist of some sort of cognitive behavior therapy and/or medication.

There are a number of anxiety disorders:

Generalized— an excessive, uncontrollable, and often irrational worry about events or activities that interfere with daily functions.

Phobias—a persistent fear of an object or situation which your anxious character will go to great lengths to avoid.

Social anxiety— a significant amount of fear in one or more social situations that cause physical distress and impairs your anxious characters ability to function in all or part of their daily life.

Separation anxiety— Excessive fear regarding separation from home or people with whom they have an emotional attachment.

Agoraphobia— excessive fear of situations where the person perceives their environment is unsafe or has no escape. Your anxious character will go to great lengths to avoid places that trigger this anxiety, and this can often escalate to the point where they refuse to leave their home.

Panic disorder— characterized by unexpected panic attacks— sudden periods of elevated heart rate, sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, numbness or a debilitating sense of dread.

How to write your anxious character.

One thing that is important to remember about writing an anxious character is that while some of these anxieties can be overcome with talk therapy or the sheer will of the character, disorders should be treated by a professional. They don’t just go away without treatment. Treatment usually includes lifestyle changes, cognitive behavioral therapy, and/or medication. Don’t shy away from showing this part of your character’s struggle on the page. In a given year, 12% of people on this earth are affected by anxiety, and we would all be better off if we normalized seeking medical diagnosis and treatment.

Phew! Tackling this emotion was emotional! I have been diagnosed with anxiety and have written an anxious character. After the research I did for this article, I realize that her emotional journey deserves a bit more care and I will revisit that before publication!

Happy writing!