Anxiety, Explained

A while back, a coworker of mine asked me what “anxiety” really is. As a happy-go-lucky young fella without a care in the world he just couldn’t fathom the idea and seemed genuinely curious. So I gave him the best answer I could come up with, and I thought I’d share a more detailed version of that answer with you today, so those of you who have friends or family with anxiety might understand a little better.

An excellent visual to start off with from Mr Munch

Imagine that you’re driving across a bridge in grid-locked traffic. Everything is fine and dandy until, from the opposite end of the bridge you start to see cars seeming to vanish. You realize that the bridge is collapsing, and this disaster is slowly making its way toward you. You start to panic. You try to back up, but there is a wall of vehicles behind you and their owners have abandoned them to run from the bridge. You try to abandon yours as well, but something strange has happened and none of the doors will open. You try kicking the doors and windows as hard as you can, but no matter how much strength and energy you put into it you can’t get anything to break. You’re trapped in your car with no way out, and the bridge is about to collapse beneath you. From the windows you can see that some of the people who fell in the water are alive and swimming to shore, but others are also trapped in their cars and are slowly sinking to the bottom of the water to drown or suffocate. You’re pretty confident of which people you’ll be joining. You’re terrified. Your heart is racing so hard you can feel it in your throat. You feel dizzy and lightheaded, and your stomach is in horrible knots. You might throw up. You might burst into tears. All you know is that this is the end of the world, and you can’t fathom any kind of positive outcome for yourself.

Now imagine all those horrible, twisted up feelings…but you have them as a result of mundane things like speaking to a crowd, or eating at a new restaurant, or riding on a public bus. You know it’s ridiculous, you know it’s not REALLY the “end of the world”, but you can’t stop your body from having the reaction, and now you feel even worse because you know how foolish you’re being.

That’s what anxiety feels like. It feels like any tiny thing that makes you uncomfortable is the worst possible thing that could be happening to you, even as you’re conciously telling yourself that you’re being an idiot. It’s like a bad drug that you can’t shake off the effects of no matter how much you tell yourself that what you’re feeling isn’t logical. It’s like your body and mind are broken and you don’t possess the tools to be able to fix them.

And all the while the people around you say things like, “Just calm down,” and “Geez, it’s not a big deal,” and, “Come on, what’s the worst that could happen?” And you can’t even answer because you know they’re right, but it does nothing to change the way you feel.

So there you go. I think I’ve about covered it, and I hope this helps anyone who has wondered, because it’s entirely unhelpful – and very hurtful – for people suffering from anxiety to be told things like, “Just get over it,” by their closest friends and family members.

Do you suffer from anxiety? Or maybe you have a friend or family member who does? What do you think of my explaination? What does anxiety feel like for you? Please share!

2 thoughts on “Anxiety, Explained

  1. It feels like my breath is being forced out of my body and all the blood is being pushed to my head. My skin feels icy and burning at the same time. I become aware of my breathing and can’t seem to normalize it. I’m either breathing too much or holding my breath to keep from getting dizzy. My heart races and I’m convinced it’s not going to slow down until it explodes. My insides feel out of sync with my outsides and I feel like I’m falling. I’m just certain that my body is letting go and this is the end for me.

    • Reading your description makes me want to cry, seriously. Isn’t it awful? My experience isn’t quite like what you describe, but some things are similar, particular the breathing and the heart racing. @_@

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