I hate drama, but anyone who has ever dealt with me when I’ve been panicking could easily assume that I love it. I expect I’m not alone on this, and that talking about the mechanics might be useful for people who find they are dealing with other people’s anxiety.
Anxious minds generally haven’t got there by themselves. The fear of failure, the need to psychically know and guard against any mishap, even the ones you could never have imagined… Experiences that mean you know exactly how it could spiral out of control leave anxious people hyper vigilant. We’re looking for trouble, for threats, for things that could go wrong because we’re trying to make sure they don’t go wrong. We may feel unreasonably responsible for making everything ok, and again, people who get to this point often don’t do so alone, they’ve been made responsible for things they have no control over, which is a damaging experience.
The anxious mind may be looking for the small, controllable thing that could be changed to avert the big disaster. Put that way, it may sound fairly logical, but in practice it means we may be constantly catastrophising. Small problems appear to us as really big problems in the making because experience has taught us to look at things that way. If anything starts going wrong, that threat gets bigger, and at those points I start seeing many, many means by which it could all play out in the worst possible ways. Anxiety plus a vivid imagination is a tortuous mix.
If a person is anxious because of historical trauma, then getting into a fear situation can trigger flashbacks and much deeper fear. It can go beyond being anxious, to being terrified, overwhelmed, being consumed with absolute panic. That in turn can look like some very random flailing from the outside. If you don’t know a person’s terrors, then what they do and say when gripped by terror may not make a lot of sense.
From the outside, it isn’t easy to tell who is just enjoying being the centre of attention and who is mired in terror and misery. You may rightly not want to get involved with someone else’s wallowing in drama. If you’re a halfway decent person you probably also don’t want to add to the suffering of someone who has been triggered into a state of intense distress.
Look closely, and the anxious person will not be enjoying it. They won’t be drawing attention to their panic any more than they can avoid. They may also be anxious through to terrified about how people are even going to react to the state they are in. They are more likely to apologise (and in the case of people with an abuse history, apologise a lot and for things they clearly have no control over). They may not be able to hear reassurances or accept comfort easily but once they can, they will respond well to sources of safety and calm. Anxious people seek affirmation and safety, although we may use some convoluted routes to try and get there. Drama people seek escalation and attention. Anxious people are exhausted by terrifying episodes. Drama people feed on it.
The anxious person wants to be safe, and they want the people around them to be safe. The person who does drama for attention wants to be the centre of attention. In the heat of a stressful situation it can be hard to decide what you’re dealing with but I think it is possible to tell the two apart. If you ply a drama person with care and support, they will keep having more drama. It can take time to get an anxious person out of the loops and cycles of fear, but it is possible. Over time, a person can heal themselves but it helps if there’s a safe environment in which to do it. Treat an anxious person like they’re just making drama for the hell of it and you can make things a good deal worse for them, silencing them and limiting their scope to ask for help. The drama lover will just seek out a new audience if they aren’t getting the feedback they crave. Unfortunately, seeing what someone does with your disbelief can be the easiest way of identifying what’s going on. For the anxious person, that can mean yet more broken trust, yet more isolation and fear of asking for help.