What Living With Anxiety Feels Like
Anxiety is a condition that can be very difficult to explain to people who do not live with anxiety on a daily basis. What makes it so difficult to describe to the average person is that everyone experiences anxiety in one way or another at some point in time in their life. Because this is a shared condition that everyone has felt, it can be difficult for the average person to understand what a person living with anxiety actually goes through.
There can be the misconception that a person living with anxiety just needs to learn how to deal with stress better, or that they are overreacting, or that they just need to be better at letting things go. Because anxiety is something that everyone gets from time to time, it is easy to develop the thought process, “if I can get over it, they should be able to, too.” The problem with this train of thought is that that’s not how an anxiety disorder works.
Here’s how normal anxiety is supposed to work: Anxiety is a chemical response to what the brain perceives as a potentially dangerous and high-stress stimulant. The limbic system and the amygdala is responsible for fear and other emotional reactions and it is stimulated by a stressful situation. When it is stimulated, it triggers a “fight or flight” survival response. The intention is that by giving you anxiety and releasing epinephrine into your system, you will be able to fight off whatever threat is coming your way and survive. Once the situation that caused the stimulation is escaped or resolved, the amygdala should chill out and stop triggering the “fight or flight” response that raises your heart rate and creates the other symptoms of anxiety. Once the stimulant has been conquered, your body and brain should go back to a normal state of existing.
The whole reason anxiety exists in our brains at all is to help us in survival situations. It’s a great little tool our brains have developed and, when it works the way it is supposed to work, it actually does help us stay safe and alive which are both good things.
When anxiety doesn’t work normally: What scientists have learned is that a person who has an anxiety disorder has more activity than normal in the limbic system. Normally, the limbic system and the amygdala are stimulated by an external situation that increases stress and triggers the “fight or flight” response. However, a person with an anxiety disorder has their limbic system and amygdala working on overdrive; meaning, their “fight or flight” responses are constantly running and are ready to react to anything. Since the amygdala has an itchy trigger finger, any little stimulant can be perceived as a threat and cause it to release epinephrine into the person’s system, triggering an anxiety response. This hyperactive limbic system makes it very difficult for the body to return to a normal state of calm existence. The person living with anxiety may relax after an anxious stimulant, but their jerk of an amygdala hasn’t really given up and acknowledged that it’s not about to die and is just waiting to freak out at the next thing that comes its way.
Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 5 adults in the United States and is one of the most diagnosed disorders. There are different types of anxiety disorders and, while they all share commonalities, each one feels a little different.
Living with Panic Disorder: The amygdala isn’t playing nice with neuro inhibitors which means that the inhibitors aren’t working to block an emotional response which makes it difficult to control the sensation of panic. The sensation of panic often occurs with little to no external stimulation. Normally, we experience panic because of a stress stimulation and that is our brain’s way of triggering our body to get out of the situation in order to survive. With a Panic Disorder, however, there doesn’t need to be a stress stimulation for the brain to trigger the response. The brain just thinks that there might be a problem and generates the reaction without any prompting or reason.
What this feels like:
Increased heart rate that is pounding and feels like it’s going to explode or leap out of your chest.Feeling weak, like your limbs don’t work because all your energy is being diverted to your heart. Because, you know, the whole heart rate thing.Shortness of breath, inability to take a deep breath, hyperventilating.Feeling faint, light-headed, dizzy, and unbalanced. (Possibly a side effect of not being able to breathe well and take in enough oxygen.)Inability to control your thoughts, feelings, words, etc. Your brain is working to process everything very rapidly and the inhibitors aren’t working so nothing is be repressed so the brain is processing EVERYTHING and it’s all coming in really fast.Fearing the effects of the panic attack or fear for your general safety and well-being. This could be fearing a heart attack, losing your mind, having a stroke, or just walking into traffic. Panic triggers the fear response in the amygdala so fear is very acute and prominent.
Panic attacks typically last only a few minutes, but they can go on for up to an hour. Since there is no trigger and panic attacks just happen with little to no stimulation in Panic Disorders, it can be difficult to stop the panic attack because there is no stimulation to remove or situation to get out of. You basically feel like you’re being chased and could possibly die except there’s nothing there and no reason to run because it’s not actually happening but your body is responding as if it is.
Living with General Anxiety Disorder: People tend to have larger amygdalas which might make them more prone to processing fear and other emotions making them react more strongly to emotional and stressful stimulation. Living with a General Anxiety Disorder means that you are in a constant state of worry. There are the normal things everyone worries about—like making ends meet, paying bills, being on time, responsibilities and obligations, etc. Then there are the millions of little things that the General Anxiety Disorder blows out of proportion and makes you worry and stress about for little to no reason at all.
What this feels like:
Worrying about potential, unnecessary risks for normal events or activities. Worrying about these things without prompting or reason to trigger worry or concern, and worrying in a degree that is greater and disproportionate to the task at hand. i.e.: It is an easy activity—like going to the grocery store—but you spend twenty minutes worrying whether or not you have everything on your list, if you’re wearing the right shoes, if you have enough time, etc. It’s just going to the store, it shouldn’t be that difficult, but the anxiety is making this normal activity seem like a much bigger, more stressful situation than it actually is.You can’t control the worry. When someone says, “don’t worry about it” or “stop worrying, it’ll be okay” they might as well be telling you to stop your heart from pumping blood because you have about as much control over that as you do over your worrying.Worrying is exhausting. Your mind is racing over all the possible scenarios, outcomes, solutions, pros, cons, devastating ramifications, etc. and that is physically and emotionally draining.Difficulty concentrating or ability to recall information. Your brain is so focused on the fear center and emotional response to fear that it can’t process any other information. It’s in survival mode so it is working out how to survive what is currently happening, so nothing else is a priority and it isn’t retaining any of the additional information that it is processing.Increased heart rate and trouble breathing. It feels like there’s an elephant on your chest playing bongos with your heart. There’s so much going on and to process that your body starts to have a panic response.Shut down. With everything being processed through the amygdala and fear center, it gets really overwhelming and eventually the brain kind of shuts down because it has been overstimulated and can’t take in any more. This is also a survival response. It diverts energy to keeping the heart and lungs going (but they aren’t doing too great because they’re in overdrive and working too well so it’s barely working at all) and stops processing information to keep your mind from having a nervous breakdown. It’s all about preservation at this point. That means, when people are trying to help and calm you down, you literally can’t process it. You might not hear it or really see them, your senses start to fade and you just shut down.Horrible sleep or no sleep. Constant worrying means constant worrying. It interrupts sleep, relaxation, and normal activities. You are exhausted but can’t get any rest because your brain isn’t done worrying and thinking through all the scenarios for everything. And, oh yeah, you remember that one time that something didn’t go exactly right? You didn’t say the perfect thing or maybe left something unsaid that didn’t even occur to you until months later when you were replaying the conversation over and over in your mind for no reason? Here are the millions of ways that could somehow come back and ruin your life ten years later.
General Anxiety Disorder is living in a constant state of worry and concern. It’s not something you can turn off, and it’s not something that you have to learn to “handle better.” Your brain is processing with a heightened sense of fear so it is constantly working in survival-strategy mode. Being told, “don’t worry about it,” isn’t going to do anything. Your amygdala isn’t going, “Oh, Jerry said not to worry about it, great. I’ll stop overworking and (in some cases) shrink in size, now.”
Living with Social Anxiety Disorder: People with Social Anxiety Disorder are processing social situations through their amygdala, which is being stimulated by seeing and perceiving the people around them and their faces. Which means literally seeing people is causing a fear response in their limbic system. This anxiety can manifest differently in each person, but the trigger is the same: social situations and gatherings of people. It can be assumed, the more people, the more triggered anxiety response.
What this feels like:
Worrying about how your actions are being perceived by others and not in the normal way that everyone worries about it, but the intense worry that you won't be able to effectively communicate and this can lead to exclusion or isolation from the group (which is traumatic considering we are pack animals and the group is vital to our survival on a primitive level of understanding.)Worrying that you will do something wrong and upset someone and this will, again, lead to an exclusion or expulsion from the group and/or danger for your person.Worrying how a person will react to your presence or actions. The fear of humiliation or embarrassment because of something you did or said that cannot be undone.Fear that a person might become unnecessarily cruel or violent with little to no prompting based on an accidental misstep that you made.Fear of a performance situation such as a presentation or public speaking (fearing embarrassment, exclusion, and a negative response.)Knowing that the fear is unfounded but being unable to stop it.Being overstimulated by so many people and the more people there are, the higher the anxiety is because there are more opportunities to make a mistake that could (as perceived by the anxiety) lead to being ostracized.
With Social Anxiety Disorder you are always on your toes in social situations. Over time, you will grow comfortable with some people, but the anxiety doesn't go away. You might learn to repress it for these small groups of people, but the fear and worry is always nagging at the back of your mind.
For example, your best friend might tell you to come over and just walk in their house, the door is unlocked and you are always welcome. You have been given an open invitation for the rest of your friendship until otherwise stated or revoked, but your anxiety will panic every time you approach the front door. You will fear that by opening it without knocking you might be intrusive, even though your friend said very clearly that you could. You will fear that they didn't really mean it, that you misinterpreted, and if you just walk in like they said they will be upset with you and you will have done something wrong that might make them no longer want to be your friend.
That is living with Social Anxiety Disorder, but imagine it for every single social interaction. It's made worse because mistakes and embarrassments do happen (to everyone) and people do overreact (due to circumstance or a pre-existing bad mood) and that only adds to the fear lens that you are using to process the situation. When those things happen (as they do to everyone from time to time) your brain can't let it go. It files it away in the survival section to conjure up at any given point in time to remind you of the one time you were wrong and something bad happened in a misguided attempt to protect you from it happening again.
Your brain won't let you forget that time in middle school that you got sick and threw up in the hallway trash can in front of the cute, popular kid. It will hold on to that memory and bring it back up randomly to remind you, "Hey, remember that one time? Make sure it never happens again or you will die alone. Thanks!"
When you are living with anxiety, you know that what you're processing isn't as extreme as how you're interpreting it. You know that the anxiety is a lens through which all information passes and gets distorted, but you also can't do anything about it. Living with anxiety means living with this permanent fear lens that can't but turned off. Your biology is literally incapable of turning it off or redirecting the processing. Some medications can help, and some people take that route and function very well. Other people choose not to use medication due to side effects or poor reactions to it. Some anxiety medications can cause suicidal thoughts and depression, which when combined with anxiety can be truly horrible.
A person living with anxiety isn't being dramatic. They aren't seeking attention, and they can't just shut it off when someone tells them that they are overreacting. They KNOW they are overreacting, but they are trapped in the anxiety attack until their limbic system naturally processes that there is, in fact, no threat to their survival. This is their every day. Living with anxiety means living in a constant state of fear, worry, and panic.
For more information on anxiety, check out my other blogs: "5 Things A Person Living with Anxiety Wants You to Know"
Thank you to the fantastic YouTuber: Neuro Transmissions. Check out their video on the "Neuroscience of Anxiety" that provided the information for this article.
For more information on types of anxiety disorders and symptoms, check out the article on Anxiety.org.