What does anxiety feel like?
We’ve looked at the symptoms of anxiety in a previous blog, including the common physical and emotional feelings that tend to accompany it. Everyone experiences anxiety in different ways, however – and they may not talk very much about how it affects them personally. Because of this, it’s easy to look around and imagine that no-one feels like we do, and that everyone else is coping fine, when in reality they might be like swans paddling furiously under the surface!
We spoke to a few people who have anxiety, and asked them to describe how it feels to them. This blog gives their first person perspectives on their experiences.
“My system speeds up and it feels like all my blood is going to drop out of my heart. I can’t focus on the here and now, or even hear what people are saying. I get tunnel vision and my head feels like it’s in a vice. I feel like I’m going to pass out (but never do). I can’t pick up a cup or pen as my hands are shaking, and then others will see how weak I am...I have to make a real effort to slow things down otherwise I talk at 100 miles an hour. This happens in the build up to presentations and sometimes when I’m driving. I can’t avoid presenting, but I do avoid driving.”
“I get so anxious talking to people that it consumes me. It feels as though I don’t have any thoughts in my head – I just go blank. It’s like I’ve frozen – I don’t know what to say or do – I feel like a rabbit in headlights and I go so quiet as though all words have disappeared from my mouth. Sometimes it’s like everything is in slow motion; I can even see myself, and how I think I’m coming across to others – my chest pounds and goes all tight – I worry what others think of me and that they won’t like me. Afterwards I often feel very upset and sad, and want to cry and hide away.”
“With me, anxiety is very physiological. I experience somatic symptoms such as needing to go to the toilet repeatedly to the point of extreme pain and discomfort. I also grind my teeth in my sleep and have to wear a mouth guard as it gives me nasty headaches and jaw ache. It can be quite chronic in nature and eats away at me at times. The kind of thoughts I have are: ‘I can’t cope with this, it’s too much, I’ve had enough’, or ‘what if I’ve screwed up, they don’t like me, I’ll get sacked!’ This can lead to some avoidance, hiding away or head-in-sand behaviours.”
“Anxiety for me is the same thought going around in my head for hours, and even disturbing my sleep, tightness in the chest and breathlessness, and worrying about things that I have no control over. I ask the question 'what if...' and various answers come to mind that are not particularly helpful. At the beginning of lockdown I wasn't so much anxious about getting the virus as doing something wrong, like travelling in the car to do shopping, or getting too close to people.”
“It’s like a constant niggling voice in my head that worries about all sorts of things, including what might seem like mundane everyday tasks. I worry about what could go wrong, as opposed to making a decision. Anxiety tends to play on your self-confidence, you’re always questioning whether you’re doing something right, and what co-workers, friends and family may think. These are usually the worst thoughts such as ‘I’ve failed’, ‘I’m rubbish at my job’, ‘I can’t do this’ – without any actual proof that this is the case. The physical symptoms such as palpitations, heavier breathing, chest pain and disorientation affect my behaviour and make me want to avoid certain situations. I question why I can’t be ‘normal’ and do things other people do with no fuss, which makes me feel a whole host of emotions such as sad, angry and depressed. I think of anxiety very much as a vicious circle.”
If you recognise your own feelings in these stories, hopefully we’ve helped to show that you’re not alone – or if you feel different, how unique each individual’s experiences of anxiety can be. If anxiety is affecting your day-to-day life and you’d like to do something about it, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to break that ‘vicious circle’. Find out more about CBT here.