What does it feel like to have anxiety?
May 21, 2010 8:13 AM   Subscribe

Inspired by this post, about what it feels like to have ADHD - what does it feel like to have an anxiety disorder? What goes through your mind, and how would you describe it to someone without anxiety?

I'm looking for personal anecdotes, about what it's like to suffer with the disease, and, if applicable, what medication does to help.

So many of the anecdotes in the ADD thread matched my own experience that I've decided to ask my doctor, but I believe I may have an anxiety disorder, as well. Any perspective is welcome!
posted by downing street memo to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
Well since you asked...

Sometimes I want to rip someone's head off or just plow over everything in my car

Either that or

I feel very shaky and desperate and like there's nothing I can do and things will never get better

Physically i either pace around and keep moving things around to try to distract myself of i sit absolutely still and glued somewhere. Almost never cry from anxienty, more like being dumbstruck of having the rage of satan in me. Pulse elevates. Sometimes i breathe wierd and that makes me lightheaded.

I do not like daily regimine medicine. I like to deal with things on an episode0-ic basis. So I like Xanax. My current Rx has lasted over a year so if you have more frequent episodes then this might not work for you.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:28 AM on May 21, 2010

You know the sort of sick, scared feeling you'd get if your doctor told you they'd found something it your x-ray? Or when you're absolutely sure that the chest pains you've been having on and off for the past hour are a heart attack? Or your partner and child are really late home and you can't get through to them on the phone? Or the plane you're in suddenly starts shaking really violently and the oxygen masks drop?

The feeling, for me at least, was like that, and it would come at random times of the day or night, and I would find myself looking up symptoms on the Internet, or pacing up and down trying to breathe more slowly, or just concentrating on being rational and seeing things as they really are (as opposed to how the fear makes them out to be).

Medication, when it works, takes the edge off those fears while you get to grips with the underlying causes of the anxiety. Or at least, that's how it was for me.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:28 AM on May 21, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is something I wrote about living with anxiety back in the 90s. Life is not like this for me any more. It's very long.

I’m climbing the stairs, a teacup and some bills to pay in one hand, an empty laundry basket in the other. The dogs are with me, the two big ones excitedly racing back and forth, ahead of me, then behind again, as if the command “Let’s Go Up!” means something quite thrilling like a car ride or a romp in the park and not either bedtime or the opportunity to nap at my feet while I work in my office. I’ve got the puppy on a leash, so she can be in the house with me and the other dogs, but I can keep her in sight, away from stray socks and interesting places to piddle, and still concentrate on my work.

At the first landing, the puppy crosses in front of me, chasing one of the big dogs, and the leash trips me up. Down I go, teacup, bills, laundry basket, puppy, dog, dog. I land hard on my knees and one hand, hanging onto everything as best I can, and sprawl on the landing in a spreading puddle of Earl Gray. A button pops off my green dress, too nice for housework but the only one clean this morning. A dog licks my face, another tries to drink what’s left in the cup, and the puppy heads right for the lost button. I’ve got my period, fresh this morning, which means my PMS is not entirely gone but cramps have arrived with fanfare. “Oh, no,” I think. “Here it comes.”

“It” is anxiety, my companion since childhood, brought on by some complicated combination of temperament, brain chemicals, and upbringing. Anxiety is a constant in my life, my stalker. It means that I worry endlessly about ordinary daily things, like washing the dishes and getting the oil changed and giving the cats their dinner and cleaning the gerbil cage and making sure the community college where I teach knows I want one class in the fall semester and vacuuming the living room rug and installing doorstops on the bedroom doors and paying the plumber and lowering our heating bills and calling my friend Adrianne so she’ll know that, even though she’s been neglecting us for a new lover, we still think of her.

Anxiety means I also worry about the improbable, like my friend Elizabeth and I being killed in a derailment during our train trip to a writers’ conference in Boston. Or my lover dying in a fire at the library where she works before she has a chance to change her will so I end up in a court battle with her ex-lover over the stocks and bonds. Or the economy collapsing so that the stocks and bonds are worthless and we have to turn our home and yard into an armed compound and our friendly pups into a snarling pack of hellhounds to protect ourselves from roaming gangs.

Most days I balance on a wobbly fulcrum between comfort and fear. I make endless lists to relieve my mind of details. I drink a homeopathic remedy for fear three times a day in a glass of juice. I talk to myself all day long, setting priorities and limits aloud: “OK, Su, let’s get the mail in and fix a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Mail, grilled cheese, that’s all there is to think about.” I try not to count as lost the time I spend each day in crying jags, or doing relaxation exercises, or saying my affirmations over and over, or calling friends to talk me through a crisis: the crisis of the overflowing toilet, the crisis of the bill that should have been mailed yesterday, the crisis of the hairball on the rug. I do count my accomplishments. At the end of the day, I tell my lover, “I took a shower today. I braided my hair. I loaded the dishwasher and opened the mail. I wrote one paragraph,” and she understands that I have triumphed in these small things, that I was frightened of the dirty kitchen, frightened of my tangled hair, frightened of the mail, frightened to write, because each of those tasks reminds me of all the other tasks that await my attention and will await my attention for the rest of my long life and which I will never, not for one still clean moment, finish.

On my most anxious days, I can be defeated by the smallest obstacle: a hard-to-open jar, a puppy accident on the rug, a dead battery in my car, a request for five minutes of my time from a community organization I support. I retreat into sleep, 10, 11, 12 hours at a time. Or I can’t sleep at all, spending my nights flipping the TV channel from infomercial to televangelist to grainy 1970s cop drama, or visiting on-line with other hamster owners, other Quakers, other people who know what it’s like to be afraid. I read 600-page science-fiction epics day after day after day. I distract my mind and wait for the fear to pass.

On my best days I am imperturbable. I drop a lightbulb from the top of a ladder and tiny bright shards scatter through two rooms; I close the cats safely in another room, sweep up the glass with broom and vacuum, carry another bulb up the ladder. I lift beaters, still spinning, from a bowl of batter and only shake my head and grin at myself as the kitchen cabinets and I are spattered with chocolate. My car breaks down and I walk two miles home in record-setting sub-zero temperatures, and all I think about the whole long walk is how snug I feel inside my down parka, how the warm hat my lover gave me for Solstice has turned out to be the best of my gifts, what great foresight I had when I put on long underwear, how I wish the dogs could be with me enjoying the walk.

I would like to live that with that clarity and good humor for a month at a time, a year, the entire decade of my thirties, but I won’t. Today, sprawled on the landing, I try to remember equanimity, try to conjure it to get me through. I stand up, gather dogs, puppy, laundry basket, bills, teacup, climb the stairs. I leave the bills and tea on my desk, gather another load of laundry, resist the temptation to crawl into my welcoming and safe bed, and head back downstairs, stopping to mop up tea with a dirty towel. I let the dogs out into their pen and start filling the washer with cold water and dark clothes. The dryer is piled with dog leads, flea combs, and half-chewed bones; leftover hardware and tools from our installation of the new dog gate; an old blanket that needs to be washed. None of it belongs on top of the dryer, but I know if I start putting things away I will spend my whole day carting small objects from room to room and end the day frantic that there are still more to be carted. I am near tears. I want to be having a good day, be in a laughing mood when the puppy, running in from the yard and jumping on me in an ecstasy of reunion, leaves mud-and-dog-shit paw prints on my already tea-stained green dress. I hold the skirt of the dress gingerly away from me. “This is not too much for me,” I say firmly, aloud. But some days it is.
posted by not that girl at 8:29 AM on May 21, 2010 [28 favorites]

i've dealt with anxiety on and off for the past 6 years. i know it's difficult to be objective about your own situation, but it still bothers me that i don't really know what triggers it. i was on a bunch of different anti-depressants for a few years (both for anxiety and depression), but right now, i am not on any medications. i would say my anxiety is a 5, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being full-on constant panic).

anxiety can do really weird things to your mind. when i first started getting anxiety attacks, i had no idea what was happening. i remember talking to my a friend at university and i started feeling really warm, and i just said, "i have to go now" and went to my room. i curled up in a ball on the floor, and i was terrified because i thought my heart would beat right out of my chest. everything went black for a few seconds and then the next thing i knew, i was on the phone with my mom, telling her i thought i was dying.

i suffered through panic attacks (like the one i described above) for a few months before i found a medication that seemed to calm me down. now that i am not on anything, i can get a little anxious about silly things, but i'm much better at talking myself through it. i don't know if it's the case for everyone with anxiety, but i tend to play mind games with myself. if i notice my heart starting to beat a little fast, i start thinking, oh shit. am i going to have an anxiety attack? i totally am, i can feel it. oh no. my skin is tingly. and i just seem to make it worse for myself. but, like i said, i'm better at identifying that now and i'm able to steer myself away from it.

it's really difficult to describe what it's like to someone without anxiety. it's like being nervous about something but with no reason, or with no understanding of why you're nervous. and it can be different for everyone. if my mom gets anxious, she starts to feel really tired and weepy, and she'll just want to be alone/hide away. when i get anxious, i need a solution as soon as possible. sometimes that means i make plans to distract myself, or sometimes i need to do deep breathing for 5 minutes, or sometimes i need someone to tell me i'm okay and i'm safe and everything's good.

i'm not sure how to tie all of this together, but these are the thoughts i had when i read your question. anxiety is awful. if you cut down on caffeine and minimize the stress in your life and learn helpful self-talk and you still get anxious from time to time, that can be really unnerving (and annoying).

i think talking to your doctor is a great first step. i hope you find what you need. i wouldn't wish anxiety on anyone.
posted by gursky at 8:35 AM on May 21, 2010

i just read WeekendJen's post now, and this:
I feel very shaky and desperate and like there's nothing I can do and things will never get better
is an excellent description of how i feel when i'm "in it".
posted by gursky at 8:36 AM on May 21, 2010

I'm interested in seeing what different sorts of responses you get. For me, my chest and stomach get tight, like I can't breathe. My heart races. I flush, and that's embarrassing, which just increases the anxiety. The best way I can describe what my mind goes through is that it acts like a cornered animal. I think about everything in the world EXCEPT what is causing my real anxiety, even making up other things to be worried about. I procrastinate like it is my job. When confronted head on with what is causing my anxiety, my brain tells me I'm going to die. I have to tell myself to breathe normally, that I in all likelihood will not die, or (in the case of planes, not, for example, writing a stressful email) accept the fact that if I do die, that's okay. I know that is morbid and weird, but it works for me.

The class of drugs called benzodiazepines are amazing. I got a prescription for klonopin and felt like a normal person for the first time in my life. No cornered animal feeling. Antidepressants are supposed to help too, but even at really high dosages I never felt as functional as I did the third day I took klonopin.
posted by emyd at 8:43 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel like everyone around me is constantly negatively evaluating me, and this makes it hard to do some of the simplest things because I live in constant fear of Judgement. Here's an example: A few months ago my daughter had a routine dentist appointment, and I forgot all about it. This was in February. I have yet to call and reschedule the appointment because I have this irrational fear that the people in the office think I'm a terrible human being for missing the appointment. So I avoid calling....which of course heightens the fear because now on top of missing the appointment I've now delayed rescheduling, and she has gone an extra 3 months without seeing the dentist, what if she has a cavity? She could have a cavity, and it will be all my fault for missing the appointment, and the dentist will know what a horrible mother I am, and now my daughter is learning to neglect her teeth, and she's going to have gum disease and lose all her teeth by the time she's 40....and on and on and on.

Rationally, I know in my head that people miss appointments all the time, that the worst that could happen is I get charged a missed-appointment fee, but I still go through this every time. Eventually I do call and reschedule the appointment, and then I go through it all over again, because now I have to ask to leave work a little early to take her to the appointment, and what if other people in the office resent that I have to leave more than they do cause i have a kid and it's not their fault I'm a single mom and what if I don't get promoted because of it or even worse, get fired, and....

The worst thing is that having an anxiety disorder makes me act so flaky that what happens is people DO end up judging me negatively, so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
posted by cottonswab at 8:54 AM on May 21, 2010 [14 favorites]

In almost any given situation, I can think of a worst-case scenario to be afraid of. Going to the grocery store? Could get hit by a car. Going to class? My prof must hate me. Have a meeting? Everyone will think my idea is stupid and I'll be laughed out of the organization. I overthink everything from my eating decisions to which socks to wear. I try not to take public transit because all the people standing so close to me makes me freak out. In social situations, whenever I say something funny or astute and people make any kind of approving gesture like laughing or nodding, I feel triumphant and like a complete fraud at the same time.

Sometimes my panic attacks take place in entirely predictable times and places (before an exam, or a stressful phone call) and sometimes they're completely random (in the cartoons section of a movie store). I'm pretty good with triggers in that if I have some warning before being confronted with them, I can prepare myself and deal with them, but sometimes that just doesn't happen.

When I'm going through a particularly stressful time, I get sick really easily, and my digestive system plays really mean tricks.

Being obsessive-compulsive, I rely a lot on routine to help me stay calm and balanced-feeling. I really fall apart when my days are open-ended, which makes summers shitty when I'm in school, and winters shitty when I'm working and find myself with time off for Christmas vacation. I feel best when I'm keeping myself busy with things I feel are important, like writing, art, or activism, and I don't have time to dwell obsessively on things that will just make my anxiety worse the more I think about them. On good days, I feel totally unstoppable and unflappable. On bad days, I don't leave the house.

I view pharmaceutical companies with an unshakable paranoia, so I mainly use herbal remedies to keep anxiety under control - lavender, valerian, peppermint, and lemon balm are all super-helpful, as well as St. John's Wort and Vitamin B. I try not to eat a lot of carbs and sugar. Too much caffeine ensures a bad day of anxiety; too little makes me feel sluggish and depressed, so it's a fine line to walk.
posted by ellehumour at 9:11 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have struggled with anxiety for a long time and recently learned that I have clinically significant OCD as well (I would never have guessed that on my own).

There are different ways I experience anxiety. Panic is one of the most obvious. It creates the hopeless, desperate feelings that many described so well above. It manifests itself physically and feels like a heart attack. I am always tired. I get severe chest pain and tightness, it's hard to breathe, numbness tickles my fingers and my muscles carry as much tension as they can store. It feels like I am in a whirlpool, forever sinking and not able to get out. Trapped.

I'm always having anxious thoughts. Every time I come home, I anxiously look in the windows for sign of fire or intruders. I assume that every bump in the night is a murderer breaking in. Every storm that passes over is going to unleash a tornado on my house. Every time I drive to work, I am preoccupied with the idea of car accidents. I am always afraid that my work is not good enough or that my coworkers secretly hate me. I am a perfectionist. I do not have confidence in myself to keep myself and others safe from harm or even my own impulses. I doubt and question everything that I do or that is supposed to be safe.

I am now on medication (was on Wellbutrin and am now switching to Cymbalta because of the OCD diagnosis). I have Xanax for panic attacks but have never used it. Caffeine absolutely destroys my day and I am now completely off alcohol.

I go to therapy once a week (once I missed a week and it was horrible). The therapy has helped me more than the medicine so far. I feel like a new person every time I leave, confident yet exhausted from having to re-establish myself mentally. Every time I see her, I feel like I'm moving up a rung on the ladder out of this pit. She continually reminds me that there is hope and that I will be back to normal if I stay on this same track. I expect that when the new medicine kicks in, that I will be doing even better.

Since my physical reactions are almost more disruptive to my life than my emotional ones, I get regular massages to release the tension and just started Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). I have been encouraged to try yoga and do more exercise.

It is a process to get back to normal (I went through it once before). It may be tough, but it is possible. Anxiety is common and you are not alone. There are many variations of it. My therapist had me take a test and then evaluated me based on my results. That might be where you want to start. Good luck!
posted by bristolcat at 9:25 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

For years, my anxiety problems were like cottonswab's -- mostly about judgment, avoidance and self-fulfilling prophecies. I often couldn't speak on the phone to strangers, like for ordering a pizza. I couldn't get up from a table in a restaurant to walk to the bathroom because I felt too shy about it. Or I wouldn't check the mail because I was afraid there were overdue bills in it, which were caused by the not-talking-to-people-on-the-phone thing, and not checking the mail and getting it done made the bills even more late, which made more stress, etc.

The ADD thread struck a nerve for me too, because I think there's a lot of crossover with that and anxiety. The one about turning in homework late, or not at all, and feeling the judgment and not wanting to go to class because the teacher hated you? Spot on.

I never really had panic attacks except right when I was trying to fall asleep, and all the weight of my troubles would come crashing over me in waves, and I couldn't sleep because I would think about all the things I should have done, or needed to do, and worried if I would be able to.

I started taking medication a few years ago and my issues are almost 100% resolved. Everything that I thought was a weird personality tic, or (as they say in the ADD thread) a serious personal and moral failing? Gone. My doctor described depression and anxiety as an emotional drain -- every single part of your energy is going down the drain, so you don't have anything left over for real life or real feelings.

Getting on meds is the best thing I've ever done for myself, and I'm never going off them, ever. These are issues that have been plaguing me since I was 7 years old (from what I can remember, it's possible they've been with me my entire life) and I'm 25 now.

I've had to relearn a lot of behaviors and habits, for what it's worth. I still have to force myself to focus on stuff that I find boring. I really need a better way to organize everything I'm working on. But it's SO much better than what I used to deal with.
posted by lhall at 9:45 AM on May 21, 2010 [6 favorites]

For me, it's the feeling that Im going to get in trouble, and that I have done or will do something bad. Physically it is a nervousness in the pit of my stomach. Like when you're on a roller coaster maybe. It's exhausting becuase you are on edge and constantly in a heightened state of uhoh.
posted by mokeydraws at 10:01 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

It is indeed difficult to explain it to somebody who has never had it. I try to explain it briefly as panic that seems to appear for no good or clearly obvious reason.

If that doesn't do the trick for the non-anxioused...instead: imagine all the situations that you would ordinarily not count as a stressor for an 'ordinary', non-anxiety-disordered person. Now imagine that all those situations have been redesigned with potential hidden triggers for an invisible 'fear-ray' that is shot at you out of nowhere by a sinister being with no other goal than to make you feel like somebody is about to stab you to death, but on top of that, you also cannot move, because even if you had somewhere to run, you are too paralyzed by fear to do anything about it.

And of course, once you have it occur the first or second time for whatever the reason is, whether there is a 'good' reason for it or not, then you start conditioning yourself to expect it to occur the next time that situation presents itself. Arg.
posted by bitterkitten at 10:17 AM on May 21, 2010


Sometimes it feels like a dinosaur is chasing me, only I can't see the dinosaur. That does not make it better. Short of breath, afraid to go anywhere or even move, "jumpy" doesn't begin to describe it. Skin crawling from some internal conviction that everything is about to go wrong all at once and I won't be able to get away.

Sometimes my throttle gets stuck on "fight" instead of "flight" and I ruin everything around me trying to scrabble for safety (or the appearance thereof), and no one gives slack for fightiness, regardless of why. Better to avoid things altogether than have to choose between right hook or run away.

Babbling is one of the first signs that my defenses have been breached. It doesn't take long between random chatter to hiding away, because I inevitably put something out there that should have been kept to myself and then I'm consumed with shame and worry about the effect it will have.

Being aware of what I'm thinking, feeling, and reacting to is a constant necessity. Losing track could mean spiraling out of control at the worst possible moment. Maintaining composure requires an abnormal amount of self-awareness and constraint. Keeping things in perspective is an exhausting, essential exercise. When something manages to slip through these tactics, I feel as if I've betrayed myself and the support of all those who have stuck by me through the storms. Having to ask for patience feels like failure, turns me into a burden. Not asking is way easier, so staying out of anything that might require becomes very tempting.

...and I'm stopping there because I think that delivers the gist.

As to what controls these responses, mindfulness is truly the most effective tool I possess, as medication is not always possible. It takes a lot to learn how to hold the reacting self at bay just long enough to remember how to breathe, think, and respond in a calm fashion, but it's worth it. Taoism, Buddhism, meditation, yoga, pointless walks, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy - these all have elements of what helps the most in the long-term, what helps to unplug anxiety most effectively and least stressfully. I can't recommend CBT highly enough. It's a toolbox of lifeskills that anyone with chemical imbalances or trauma should look into.

Medicine can help get one through crisis or cope with something even a clear and prepared mind has trouble with. It can't be relied upon, though, as it wears off and can't be used constantly. When I was capable of taking medicine, the two that helped the most were clonazepam (Klonopin) and alprazolam (Xanax). Both are addictive. Both are sedative. They must be used carefully and consciously.

These don't stop every incident. There are times when it just happens. That's when the mental recognition of why it's happening and training to access coping tools are most valuable and important. Stopping the effect when it's still just anxiety - before it gets to panic - is paramount.

If you're going to see a doctor about it, make sure they (or the pro they refer you to) know about anxiety disorders in detail. Hunt for the experts in your area. It makes all the difference to have help from someone who really understands the reasons and remedies, saving you a lot of struggle and compounded worries.
posted by batmonkey at 10:25 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've had issues on the anxiety spectrum since I was a kid, probably, and have relatives with OCD; no one has nailed down a specific diagnosis for me. There's a possible link between migraines and OCD; treating my migraines with meds that have helped treatment-resistant OCD patients has sorted my shit out to some extent and I'm content with that.

Before my meds, it was perfectly normal for me to sit around and catastrophize pretty much constantly, like a background process running in my head. "Oh, Mr. F's gone down the store. What happens if he just collapses and dies while he's there? I won't be able to make the rent myself. My job's not really steady. I'd be totally screwed and have to move back in with my parents. Oh god, moving back in with my mother, and Mr. F would be dead. Fuck fuck fuck."

Mr. F isn't about to drop dead, but he's dropped dead probably 500 times or more in my mind over the course of the last six years. This is obnoxious on a level most people never really get to see. When he's not dropping dead, any one of a number of nations who have beef with the US are cheerily nuking Los Angeles. When the nukes aren't falling, something trivial wrong with me (sudden cough, leg cramp) is going to kill me (cancer, deep vein thrombosis). When I'm not suffering terminal medical issues, the economy's collapsing and everyone's living some Mad Max subsistence lifestyle. Sudden visual glitch from my existing retinal problems? AAAAGH PANIC HIT CEILING QUIVER SHAKE CRY FREAK OUT CALL DOC.

Some combination of those processes would run more days than not at varying levels of volume in the back of my head. I held it together externally pretty well, but there's a certain amount of lack of sleep and lack of focus that comes with that kind of shit, and it was starting to tell on me before I went to my migraine guy. I am glad that I caught and stopped it before it became more than "annoying and somewhat wearying." I occasionally have crap days now, but it's much easier to put the brakes on and go "That's stupid. Mr. F's last doctor appointment was great, you can't really worry about nukes because what are you going to do about it anyhow if it happens, my leg hurts because I slept on it funny and got a charley horse last night, civilization generally doesn't abruptly plunge into anarchy overnight, and I was just at the retinal doc's office last week. Geez."
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:46 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's as if someone flips a switch. It feels like my mind is out of control and not my own. I can't for the life of me get things out of my head, no matter how trivial or irrational. I am fixated on the unimportant; my mind races. I can feel myself spiraling. I feel like I want to crawl out of my skin. I feel disgusted by myself and completely dependent on others. My throat feels tight and my heart pounds. I end up sleeping a lot to escape from it, but it's hard to fall asleep and I wake up in a panic. I scare my friends and partners and don't function well at work.

It sucks.
posted by emilyd22222 at 10:50 AM on May 21, 2010 [4 favorites]

I would describe my anxiety as a constant stressed feeling, combined with the paranoia that everyone is mentally criticizing/watching what I do. I always think of a worst-case scenario, like, "If I walk too far out of my comfortable zone, maybe I'll pass out in the street and people will gawk and oh god that'll be terrible what if it happens I guess I should just stay home."

Anxiety itself is always present, but panic attacks come and go. Those are much more awful.

For me, a panic attack feels like the earth is moving slowly as the panic builds, then when it hit its peak, everything 'falls away'. I'm shaky, sweaty, clammy, disassociated, stomach-churning, lightheaded. It feels like my chest is tightening and my lung capacity is shrinking. It feels like if I don't get out of this situation I'm in RIGHT NOW I will die. In a store? Leave immediately. In a theater? Climb over folks and scramble to get out. On public transportation? Get off, no matter what random location I'm at.

Not that any of those solutions are the best- I can combat some of the panic but a lot of times just getting out of whatever caused the panic, is enough to alleviate the "I'm dying/collapsing internally/going to barf everywhere" feeling.

This is also a great read: A letter to non-panic disorder people
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:08 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have social anxiety in situations involving other people besides my immediate family including simple trips to the grocery store or gatherings with friends. I wish I knew what it felt like to look forward to a social situation, but all I ever feel is deep dread.

For me, the anxiety starts with a fight or flight response - heavy focus on the flight part. But most social situations aren't ones I can run from. So I stay but my heart rate increases, I get tremors in my hands, the muscles in my shoulders and back tense up and I get really hot and flushed and start to sweat (I have heard countless jokes from people that I'm too young for hot flashes, but that's what it resembles). Alcohol makes the sweating/hot/flushing much worse so I stay away from it. I have trouble spitting out what I want to say and often what comes out doesn't make sense. I become hyper-focused on this and beat myself up inside. I'm convinced that I'm embarrassing myself and that people are judging me negatively.

While the hot flash-like symptoms are hard to miss, otherwise I have heard from friends that they would never guess I have social anxiety. This makes me feel both happy that I disguise it so well and sad because no one knows what I'm really experiencing. Maintaining the smiling, friendly fake facade so others don't see the mess I am inside is exhausting.

Once the interaction is over and I'm alone, my first reaction is overwhelming relief like someone just turned off my anxiety switch and all the tension immediately drains out of me. Then the self-flagellation over any perceived missteps I made intensifies. If the interaction was a few hours like dinner with friends, the following day my shoulder and back muscles are usually sore from being tensed up for so long. Each experience makes me dread the next one even more and I am becoming a bit of a recluse.

I have a therapist and I take medication for depression, but nothing specifically for the anxiety.
posted by cecic at 11:33 AM on May 21, 2010

For me, anxiety makes me feel like I'm always on edge. I get startled very easily. I worry incessantly about bad things happening to people I love. Horror stories get stuck in my head. For instance, when I was about 5, the father of my friend died unexpectedly. She found him laying on the floor dead. Since then, I've worried constantly about finding someone I love dead. Most people would hear about this story, feel sad for the friend and then eventually forget (seeing as she moved away shortly after this happened). However, it has stuck with me ever since.

Walking around at night, I constantly try to keep a look out for creepy people walking behind me or hiding in the bushes. When my doorbell rings, I feel very jumpy. I always check who it is before opening the door. Most people keep an eye out for strangers and check who is at the door, but for me, I have a layer of emotional anxiety connected to this. Even though I'm in a safe neighborhood, I imagine the person at the door having a gun. It's as though my brain's first reaction is to assume that it is dangerous situation.

In my head, I have mapped out what I would do in many different dangerous situations if they happened.

I also have a general feeling of helplessness and lack confidence that I could handle myself in a dangerous situation. The feeling of helplessness tends to compound the worries of harm coming to my friends/family and myself.
posted by parakeetdog at 11:57 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

I should also add that it feels very lonely to have an anxiety disorder (or to be mentally ill in general). I feel like I'm in a different universe from the rest of the world, like I just feel and perceive things so differently from everyone else. A lot of people just don't understand. My own family was especially unsupportive; my mother is of the mindset that any mental illness is just a weakness and that my problems aren't real, I just want attention, etc. She still tries to scare me by telling me I should take psych meds because I could be denied health insurance in the future. It's not a problem with the health system in her mind, it's my failure to not be strong enough. I've spent a lifetime trying to unlearn this type of thinking, and learning that it's okay to limit my interactions with people who feel this way, that I have a right to my sanity.
posted by cottonswab at 1:26 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

She still tries to scare me by telling me I should take psych meds because I could be denied health insurance in the future.

Oops, that should read "shouldn't take psych meds"...
posted by cottonswab at 1:28 PM on May 21, 2010

In his book “On Drink,” Kinglsey Amis has a section on hangovers, which he divides into two ailments: the physical hangover and the metaphysical hangover. Amis thought the best literary representation of the metaphysical hangover was the opening passage of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” in which the hero discovers that he has been transformed into an insect. Regarding the metaphysical hangover, Amis writes:

“When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is, and there is no use crying over spilt milk.”

I turn to this passage often when I feel anxious, because the phrase “you have not come at last to see life as it really is” can sometimes calm me down. My sense of anxiety is often heightened by the sense that the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I can finally see my myself for the ineffectual, worthless person I really am. I am possessed by the conviction that any sense of happiness or contentment I’ve ever had was simply the result of my own blindness to the grinding pointlessness of life. In my experience, anxiety fuels itself by creating the powerful sense that one’s state of anxiety and depression is simply a reasonable and realistic outlook now that I have attained the truest, clearest understanding of my own pathetic existence.

Amis also prescribes a particular regimen of literature and music to cope with the metaphysical hangover, but I’ve never fully tested it.
posted by Mendl at 2:16 PM on May 21, 2010 [7 favorites]

Paralyzing fear. Most of the time. For no good reason. :(
posted by Jacqueline at 3:25 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

She still tries to scare me by telling me I shouldn't take psych meds because I could be denied health insurance in the future.

Mine's favorite line is "I just WORRY when they mess with your BRAIN because your BRAIN is so GREAT and what if something HAPPENED TO IT."

I usually wince on my end of the phone and point out that my brain is only great in a limited domain of competencies, and "keeping me sane" is emphatically not one of them.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:28 PM on May 21, 2010

PTSD: for me it was an exhausting semi-constant awareness (readiness) that went on at it's worst for ten months - even as some part of me knew all along that it wasn't necessary to be so vigilant. It didn't matter, it was beyond me. When I was scared I was like a cornered animal.

And the embarassment and personal surprise at my own actions (just when I thought I was alright, or living in a totally logical, happy/healthy place in my own brain - something would freak me out and I would need to, for instance, not to walk on the sidewalk, but rather on the street alongside the parked cars (driver side) as it felt that much safer (which, in my case, "made sense") for a duration of (as mentioned above) about ten months, then less and less. But, THEN, all of a sudden I do this AGAIN (as recently as a couple of weeks ago, six years later) if I feel suddenly feel unsafe for whatever reason while getting to my destination.

For me, an anxiety disorder feels like a bad gift that keeps on giving. I always think I'm past it and I'm always wrong.

The anxiety itself feels like sheer dread. On alert. Fight or flight. Like an emergency except there isn't one. The after effect is (at best) merely embarassment, and worst a need to calm myself down that takes now less and less time. But it can take me nearly an hour to come down from someone startling me.

That's where it's inconvenient. It's almost a physical pain I have to recover from - just by being startled in an everyday way (I say this because I remember clearly getting startled in the past and how it was this, "oh, you scared me - ha ha" ten seconds out of everyone's lives. And, now, I feel this kind of, "coming down.. coming down.. coming down.." from that afterward.

When anyone purposely scares me (in fun) they have no idea what that does to me. It takes FOREVER to recover from that.

I never make anyone feel bad about such. I have a sense of humor. But anyone who knows me well, or knows what happened never does the "boo!" thing to me. Because it's literally, physically painful (for now, it's getting better - slowly).
posted by marimeko at 7:15 PM on May 21, 2010

A little backstory... You know how everyone has that one topic that they're absolutely obsessed about, and they learn all about it for fun while everyone else looks on quizzically? For me, that's always been emergency medicine, particularly related to the final physical stages before dying.

I've always lived with anxiety, but it was limited to the social kind; me sabotaging personal relationships by either being too afraid to approach (friends), or being too anxious about cheating/the person doesn't love me/doesn't find me attractive/etc (romantic.)

Unfortunately, there was an incident where I almost died. A month later I started exhibiting similar symptoms; I was exhausted, shaky, trembling, my heart was beating out of my chest, my throat felt like it was closing, etc... I called 911 and when they got there they informed me I was having a panic attack, and gave me scientific reasons why it was happening.

That prevented any future ones, until I randomly developed low blood-sugar a few months later and started having what felt like a four-day panic attack. My breathing was slow; an abnormally long exhale and my lungs didn't seem particularly inclined to inhale again afterward. I took over manually, because I was extremely afraid that if I didn't it would turn into ataxic respiration, then agonal, then apnea. I didn't sleep at all during that time, because I was afraid my body wasn't sleepy at all - it was too weak to continue and if I didn't force myself to stay awake I'd die the moment I stopped trying. The one time I did sleep, I did so by telling myself that I'd lived a good life, and that it was okay if I was going to die that night, and that I was ready. In general, I knew there was no reason I was dying but couldn't reason away the fear. It was as if I had two minds that were at war with one another.

I didn't know my physical symptoms were low blood sugar until I called 911 after four days of anxiety, which made things worse because they warned my family to call them if I became disoriented, because that was a sign I was near coma. "Oh... that means I actually could have been dying and if I'd done nothing I may have. Great."

Disclaimer: I know my fears in the next section are scientifically inaccurate, and I'm embarrassed to post them because I know it seems ignorant... but it does give valuable insight into how far removed anxiety can be from reality, since I do wholeheartedly fear these things as they're happening.

My anxiety is all over the place now; it took an extreme force of will for me to get even a little sleep last night, because I was afraid that if I slept and my blood sugar dropped below 20 I'd fall into a coma in my sleep and die; and how could someone call 911 when I passed out if I was already asleep?

It scares the crap out of me that I have to actively keep myself alive now... that I have to eat a certain way when I feel weak, or I could die. I also react negatively to any physical abnormality now. Heart beating too quickly? V-tach, then V-fib, then asystole... Feeling weak and/or profoundly relaxed? Coma, brain death, death. Finger curl? Abnormal posturing in the making. Heart beating too slowly? Bradycardia, cardiac arrest. Chest/arm pain? Heart attack.

I swallow constantly to assure myself I'm not dying. I've accidentally nodded off and woke up screaming thinking I'd almost let myself die. I also check my dog's chest frequently to make sure he is still breathing while he sleeps, and numerous times I've freaked out and woke him up when it appeared that he wasn't. There was also an unfortunate night I spent keeping him up and crying over him, because I was 100% certain I saw patterns that indicated he was in the last hours of his life. I stayed up a day and a half so that I could wake him if he stopped breathing, and call the vet as soon as they opened.

I can no longer separate what I study in medicine from my personal life. Instead of imaging a hypothetical patient, I imagine myself or my loved ones and if it's at all related to when I was actually dying (the actual time, not the blood-sugar thing), I think back and "feel" the symptom all over again. It's disturbing.

I feel I'm being forced to come to terms with mortality before I'm ready. I fear that if I don't abandon my dreams of being in medicine I'll have a mental break down because I can't avoid the panic trigger when it's my future-career. I can't imagine myself anywhere else, so I know I'm going to be going through this until I can find the root cause and fix it.

Thank you, downing street memo, for this thread. Thank you not that girl for giving me the courage to write something this long. Writing about this was therapeutic for me, and writing it all out made my fears seem silly... which snapped me out of the panic attack that caused me to search ask metafilter about anxiety in the first place.
posted by Autumn at 11:58 PM on May 21, 2010

Little things bother you a lot. Like a minor faux pas that you know, in everyone else's reality, was so tiny that no one would remember even if you mentioned it. But even *knowing* that, this tiny blip in an otherwise lovely evening has become the focus of the universe. It's like an itch you canl't scratch, that turns out to be a rash, and slowly grows until your entire psyche is bright red and bleeding from the scratching.

Anxiety disorder is knowing something is stupid, and not wanting it to bother you, and still you can't let it go. That's a lot of it, right there. The fact that something trivial can take over and completely control your life, and you just. can't. stop it.

It's also heart-pounding, palm-sweating, I-can't-DO-this feelings over "normal" stuff. Like picking up the phone and calling a colleague for your boss. Or closing up a shop. Or spending time with family members. Or talking to a girl. For some of us, some of the time, we know where the boundaries are, what the triggers are, how far we can go, and what we can take. We shape our lives around these, like some sort of obstacle course. No phone work was a standard part of my job application process for years. It narrows your prospects, channels your life.

And then there's what WeekendJen said: "Sometimes I want to rip someone's head off or just plow over everything in my car" It doesn't always channel as fear.

Imagine everything is fine. And then one day, in the middle of a conversation, someone plugs an IV into your arm and pours acid straight into your veins. Just like that, the world can change. Hateful, vitriolic, spiteful rage, triggered by the most trivial of incidents. It's embarassing; it hurts people; it's like seing a frothing mad dog get loose with your arm stuck in the leash.

Or how 'bout the fun and games of living on the threshhold of rage, sometimes for months at a time? Can you understand what that does to personal relationships? Professional relationships? Imagine that someone has made you mad. And then you never stop being mad. Ever single additional word, action, omission from that person somehow warps into further evidence and provocation. The needle never goes down, it just gets pushed higher and higher and higher, until, in that place, or around that person, you're never anything but insanely mad. Over something you know is nothing and suspect is just the result of your brain fucking with you.

If you're lucky, you wake up one day knowing you owe everyone an apology. If you're really lucky, your anxiety doesn't kick in that month and you're actually able to go about handing them out.
posted by Ys at 10:33 AM on May 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

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