What I talk about when I talk about anxiety

I’ve written a lot about what panic attacks are like, and things you can do to calm yourself down. What I haven’t really talked about it was the low-grade anxiety is like; the stuff that slowly builds and is just kind of always there in the background.

I’m fortunate in that I don’t live with the feeling of anxiety every minute of every day. There are people who do, and based on my own experience, I can imagine how much that sucks. The dude and I are moving today/tomorrow (and yet I’m still blogging because duh), and I’ve been living with background anxiety about it for the last few days. This is different from panic attacks; this is not an intense period of fear and physical symptoms from which you calm down. This is more like a pot that you put on the heat and slowly, slowly it begins to simmer. But there are physical symptoms here as there are with panic attacks, and I want to address it.

We don’t talk about how anxiety feels physically, and so it feels embarrassing to talk about it because, to be honest, some of the physical symptoms are things that we’ve been trained by society not to mention. This feeds into the stigma of mental illness; if we feel like we can’t talk about what’s going on in our bodies, how are we supposed to holistically address what’s going on with us? It’s important to talk about our physical symptoms because it’s not only part of what’s going on with us, but determining if these have a specific sequence or which ones are usually part of the experience can actually help with the healing process. Through talking about our physical symptoms, we can actually help ourselves address the anxiety sooner, and thus feel the symptoms for a shorter amount of time.

So, that being said, things are about to get really real. I totally get it if that makes you feel weird or gross or whatever, but I encourage you to push past it, because if you experience anxiety, you might see some of yourself in what I’m describing. If you don’t, you’ll have a better understanding of what your person may be going through.

When I talk about anxiety, I’m usually not talking about panic attacks. Panic attacks are intense periods of fear that are usually about 20 minutes long. They usually have physical symptoms such as tightness in the chest, rapid heartbeat, crying, etc, but the main thing here are actually the thoughts. A panic attack starts with the fear of something – heights, public speaking, whatever – but that’s not why it escalates. It escalates because of fear of fear. You start wondering what will happen if you lose control, imagining worst case scenarios, and there are usually some I can’t do this or why is this happening to me or this has to stop thoughts. These suck, mostly because – once you’ve done enough reading and work around it – you realize that you’re doing it to yourself and that’s kind of shitty for a while. It makes you feel despondent and at a loss. But it’s also really cool, because the fact that you’re doing it to yourself also means that you have control over it. You can stop it from happening. This takes A LOT of time and practice, and you may never fully stop having panic attacks, but you can definitely make them better.

General anxiety – for me – is different. It’s different for each person, but usually it’s a sense of being on edge or nervous. This lives in the background and you can go about your daily activities, and you can mostly hide this from other people. The thing is that this type of anxiety is also pretty sucky in its own way. It’s just less obvious. For me, this is a cumulative thing, and it’s very anticipatory. I have this kind of anxiety leading up to a big event: a move (hence my post today), a trip, an important day at work, etc. This kind of anxiety used to lead to a panic attack for me, and I’m sure it probably still can and will at some point. But what I want to talk about here is the collection of low-grade symptoms that kind of pile on top of each other and make it harder to function and fend off the actual panic.

For me, it starts with waking up suddenly, much earlier than I need to, with a racing heartbeat and a sense of being on edge. Sometimes there’s also some tightness in the chest and the need to go to the bathroom way more than normal. I can usually sit through these feelings, using my anxiety checklist to help me feel more comfortable. One morning or day of this is ok, but with each day it gets worse. In addition to waking up early and not being able to fall back asleep, I also have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. This leads to nausea and headaches, and a general feeling of malaise. While these are fairly mild, the cumulative effect is that, 3 or 4 days later, I’m dead tired, sleeping only 4-5 hours a night, and my temper is much shorter. Add to that the feeling of being on edge, and you end up in this weird state where you’re at once exhausted and feel like you’ve had a ton of caffeine. When I got to work this morning, my coworker had to ask me 3 times if my sister had her baby before I understood what she was asking.

All of these things ebb and flow; for me, they’re worst right when I wake up and as I’m going to sleep. And they usually go away completely once I’ve started doing whatever it is I’m anticipating. I know that when I get home today and start moving my stuff into my new apartment, I’ll feel much better. In a way, it’s actually a good thing that I can’t fully alleviate the symptoms until it comes time for whatever I’m anxious about, because it forces me to sit with the feelings and get used to them. This helps in general with dealing with anxiety because tension is the thing that makes it worse. If I’m not resisting, if I’m sitting with the feelings, I’m helping my own healing process.

Anxiety may or may not be like this for you or your person, but I encourage you to ask them if they want to talk to you about their experience. They may not, and that’s ok. But sometimes it can be really helpful to talk about the physical side of things because it helps us normalize the experience. It helps us get used to sitting with the feelings and practicing all of the strategies that we know help. By asking us about these things that are maybe not so great to talk about, you’re actually helping us to heal. And isn’t that what we all want?

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4 thoughts on “What I talk about when I talk about anxiety”

  1. Wow, yes. So much yes. Usually days (sometimes weeks) leading up to a big event that is overwhelming or may have an unpredictable outcome, I would be so caught up in thinking about it before I fall asleep that I’d be up half the night. Insomnia will always be an issue for me, stressful event approaching or not, I’ve just kind of accepted it. I will also sometimes wake up early in the morning with the heart racing and tightness in the chest, which I’ve actually never heard anyone else mention before; I always thought it was just me.
    I’d find myself playing out different scenarios about the event in my head which would obviously make me feel worse, because I’m thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and that would leave me going into it anxious about it. Sitting with the feelings and getting used to them is the best thing I ever did. It sucks, but after a while you realize that even though your mind is racing, your chest is tight, palms sweaty, mom’s spaghetti; you’re going to be okay. The worst that will happen is that you throw up, or maybe even pass out… which is pretty awful, but ultimately, everything is going to be okay.

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    1. Right. And even though you feel like you’re going to pass out, odds of that are pretty low since your blood pressure would have to drop like crazy. It’s amazing to me how much the mind feeds the body in situations like this.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, experiences and everything about your journey with anxiety. I can totally relate and appreciate your honesty and openness since I’m somewhere in the middle of the journey you’ve been on.

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