Since I’ve started opening up about my mental health, several friends have asked “What does anxiety feel like?”
It can be hard to know what anxiety feels like if you’ve never experienced it.
I often find when I’m struggling that it’s hard to explain how I’m feeling, and once it’s passed I can’t remember exactly what happened. Anxiety often plays tricks on your memory.
Yesterday was the first day in quite a while that I felt really anxious – which was a positive thing in a way because a few months ago I was anxious every day. However, it was a harsh reminder of what anxiety feels like at its worst.
It’s different for everyone, but for me it follows a cycle:
I’m not sure what triggers my anxiety, but when it starts, it usually begins with my mind racing. I start questioning things and the worries start creeping in.
I’ll start to think about different scenarios and asking myself “what if…?” – imagining the worst outcome in every situation.
As I start to think about the bad outcomes, things will start spiralling. I’ll start thinking “if this goes wrong, then this will too”. Counsellors call this catastrophising – imagining the worst possible outcome.
Panic will start to rise and my thoughts are running a mile a minute. At this point, my negative thoughts feel so loud I struggle to think of anything positive or different, and it starts to affect my concentration.
Next, I start to get fidgety. I can’t sit still. I develop nervous habits like talking with my hands too much, tapping my foot, clicking my pen.
Although I’m physically moving really fast, mentally I start to feel like I can’t move fast enough. I’m “wading through treacle” or moving in slow motion.
Everything that needs to be done starts piling up in my mind. I start to feel like I have to get everything done now and that everything is in my way and stopping me from getting it all done.
When I start thinking everything is in my way and holding me back, I start to get irritable. When I’m feeling anxious I get extra sensitive to sounds, smells, clutter and mess.
I get frustrated with myself for not being able to solve the problem or get things done. That makes me snappy and annoyed – first at myself, and then at situations and people around me. I don’t mean to, and this can be the hardest part to explain.
I’m not annoyed at anyone or anything in particular – I’m more annoyed that I can’t seem to get my own mind under control.
At this point I’m putting so much pressure on myself to get everything done and fix it all right now that I get overwhelmed. It feels like so much to do and think about that I get lost. I don’t know where to start.
I usually get tearful, and if I’m not careful panic attacks can creep in.
With all these thoughts going through my head, I get exhausted really easily. I start to think “well if I can’t do it all now, I won’t do anything”.
Even tiny, everyday tasks like the washing up, cooking dinner or making a cup of tea become too much.
The most frustrating thing about this part is that people think I’m being lazy, but I’m really feeling overwhelmed.
At this point self-doubt takes over. I start worrying about what other people think of me, and I start doubting what I think of myself. My confidence plummets and negative thoughts take over.
Breaking out of this negative, anxious cycle can be really difficult.
Recently I’ve started trying some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) techniques, which help identify negative thought patterns and how to break them.
This has been helpful and I’m now able to spot and prevent panic attacks before they start. Now I’m focusing on applying it to breaking the whole negative thought cycle.
Unfortunately, this isn’t exactly what anxiety feels like, but it’s an explanation of the thought cycle it draws me into.
For many people, anxiety also has physical effects. As well as tiredness and exhaustion, I get stomach pains, ice pick headaches and a racing heartbeat.
It affects everyone differently, and this is just a small part of what anxiety feels like for me but I hope it helps to answer the question “what does anxiety feel like?”
If you know someone who is struggling with anxiety, the best thing you can do is encourage them to talk to you. Here’s my advice on helpful things to say to someone with an anxiety disorder.