What is anxiety? How do you know if you have anxiety? Have you personally overcome it?
December 3, 2010 7:25 AM   Subscribe

What is anxiety? How do you know when you're anxious? I’d like to read descriptions of what it feels like to be chronically anxious or hear how you know when you yourself are experiencing higher levels. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself when it comes up. Have you dealt with it and overcome it? Books or your own descriptions are very welcome.

To explain more by comparison, I have a solid understanding of depression. I fell into serious depression once in my life, so I know what it feels like and what I tend to do. I can recognize the heavy feelings in my body, my uptick in internet usage, or a desire to hide out rather than socialize. When that happens, I have self-care steps to take (eat healthy, avoid alcohol and sugar, take more walks, keep a more regular sleep schedule, reduce expectations on myself, and so on, and if those didn’t work, I’d go see someone). I also know what very serious depression looks like, so if I were to rapidly become very depressed, I think I'd recognize the symptoms and get help.

I would like to have the same understanding of anxiety. I’ve started to suspect it might be a chronic part of my life at moderate level. It may have risen and fallen over time without me having the self-awareness to notice "this is anxiety." But I don’t have panic attacks or phobias, so I don’t know if what I have is “anxiety” or just strong versions of “wanting to do a good job” and “not wanting to offend people.” Can you describe what it feels like to you or how you recognize it in yourself? Is there some book that describes what it feels like (similar to The Noonday Demon about depression)?

Are there self-help methods that they recommend? When it begins to increase in your life, what do you do? I’ve been so impressed with people’s willingness to share their stories of overcoming depression, and I’d love to hear stories about overcoming anxiety. Thanks for any and all information, testimonials, and suggestions.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (40 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
Physically, anxiety makes me feel like I'm jittery from too much coffee -- that same feeling in my stomach, as well as the jerkiness. Emotionally, it feels like guilt.
posted by i_am_a_fiesta at 7:32 AM on December 3, 2010 [15 favorites]

Well, for me it goes like this: I find myself zeroed in on a thought or problem - either real or imagined - and just can't stop mentally picking away at it. My mind kicks into overdrive, and I will physically become restless and my emotions are overlain with a sense of foreboding. I feel uncomfortable in my own skin, itchy in my own brain. Overwhelmed.

What always helps for me is to get up and take a walk. Listen to some music. Find a way to distract myself long enough that I can take enough of a step back to see that I have been allowing myself of be controlled by anxiety. It's almost always not about what IS happening, but what MIGHT happen. So I have to force myself to breathe and remember that I can't control the future through the strength of my current anxiety.

So that's what my own personal brand of anxiety is like.
posted by Windigo at 7:36 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

For me it became easiest to recognize the anxiety I live with all the time when I had an opportunity to live without it. This began a long time ago with some recreational drug use where my big revelation was "wow, I feel just like me except without the squirrels in my head that are constantly yammering about all the things I need to worry about!" That helped me understand my anxiety as something that was not necessarily integral to ME but something that could be managed and dealt with separately. Long-term drug use of this kind wasn't practical, but I do have a lorazepam prescription for when my anxiety is actually interfering with my life [rarely, but it happens] and it does about the same thing.

Many people have anxiety at some level, the key of course is figuring out whether it's interfering with your life or not. For me, mostly, it wasn't. I was just a tense person but it wasn't problematic. I have had a lot of sleeping problems [the thing people say is that if you have problems falling asleep you may be depressed, if you have problems staying asleep you may be anxious. I'd wake up in the middle of the night heart pounding and be certain I couldn't get back to sleep and be up and agitated all night] and I travel for work. So my anxiety failure mode is this...

Travel sort of stresses me out a little but I don't feel stressed out [tired, achey, rattled] I just get weird and anxious. So I'd get to a hotel room and be certain that there was some noise that was going to keep me awake. I'd go down to the desk and ask for a quieter room. Then I'd get that room and be sure there was some noise that was going to keep me up [I already often sleep with earplugs and whatever] and I have to be on top of my game tomorrow and bla bla. I wouldn't want to change rooms again and so I'd sort of try to figure out if I could mask the noise, wait out the people making noise, orient the room in some weird way, move the bed. Sometimes I've slept in the bathroom, I'm not proud. At some point I realize I'm just having an anxious freakout when I'm in a hotel room with my ear against a wall trying to figure out where some noise is coming from. All of this seems normal to me up to the point where I can recognize that I'm doing that THING again. And then usually I'll take a lorazepam and go to sleep.

So I have a short list of "that thing" which is the key for me to realize I'm not behaving normally: biting my fingernails, fighting with people on Wikipedia, crying if I get into conflicts with the guy at the coffee shop or whatever, bad sleep troubles. And the self-care stuff for me is mostly eating well, exercising regularly, cutting down caffeine in the afternoon/evening, taking time off from internet-town. I'm lucky in that I have a lot of control over my environment and my anxiety isn't too bad, but it's only lately that I've seen it as a problem that can be managed and not just some random thing that happens to me that is unmaangeable. Good luck. I'll be interested in what other people have to say.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

Plain and simple, for me my anxiety is irrational. Say I make plans on Tuesday to meet a friend on the weekend. I will spend the rest of the week freaking out like it was a first date, worrying that this friend doesn't actually want to spend time with me, worried that we'll have nothing to talk about, etc. And this goes for super close friends I've had for years.

Logically, I realize that of course my friends like me and yes, we have tons of things to talk about because our relationships span multiple years so there's nothing to worry about, but when the anxiety takes over I can only focus on exaggerating every negative thing I don't like about myself.

Unfortunately, there isn't any surefire solution for me. I have to have the presence of mind to recognize when my thought process is veering into that irrational territory and just tell myself over and over that I'm being irrational because of my anxiety and hope to drown it out. The biggest thing is just to get myself out the door because otherwise I could spend an entire night convincing myself that the best thing to do is forget meeting my friends and just sit in my pajamas wasting time online
posted by Shesthefastest at 7:52 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

the squirrels in my head that are constantly yammering about all the things I need to worry about

That's exactly it. After a while, that worry becomes endemic and starts to give physical reactions.
posted by gjc at 7:57 AM on December 3, 2010

It is like having a petulant child that you can't send to his room who is always screaming "YOU SUCK" at you.
posted by 4ster at 7:59 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

For me it became easiest to recognize the anxiety I live with all the time when I had an opportunity to live without it.

Yes, this is true. I wanted to tell you, "It feels like life," because the anxiety is just a part of how you think it feels to operate in life.

But, once you're out of it, you can look back and analyze it a little. This may be a thought experiment that works for you: know the scene in horror movies where the house is dark, and the victim's got a (woefully underpowerful) weapon that they are (woefully unsuccessful in) brandishing around? They know the horrible murderer/monster/unstoppable foe is SOMEWHERE, but they don't know where. Everything is silent and quiet, so every footfall sounds even louder--they probably come across a cat who screeches, and it makes them jump. Their eyes are wide, and they keep glancing backwards and forwards, but that just makes you even more aware of how little you can see in the darkened corners and it makes them less likely to actually see what's right in front of them. The tension's building up, and you know the bad guy is going to jump out eventually, and you're just bracing for when. And you know it's going to be bad, and this character is going to be a complete goner because of how weak and stupid they are, but all the same you can't help feeling they'd be so much safer if they'd done something (anything!) else.

That's my life. That's what I do.

Every cat that screeches at me makes me jump, because I was expecting the monster. Every decision I make was the stupid one, and I tell myself this all the time, because I'm positive whatever other option I could have taken would have probably been better. My muscles are almost always tense, and I am scared of the dark. I am terrible at driving.
posted by meese at 8:16 AM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sorry, I forgot to address how I learned to recognize it.

First, I can go through periods where I feel better, and I am able to look back on my previous feelings. Second, I get feedback from others. I may say, "This situation deserves significant worry and care, because it is serious!" And my friend looks at me like I'm crazy and says, "No, actually, it doesn't. This isn't serious." This makes me think about my attitude and reflect on how I had been thinking. One circumstance like this doesn't an anxiety problem make, but over and over again? Just about everyone in my life, from my friends, to my parents, to my significant other, to my colleagues at work, has at some point said, "Stop worrying--this isn't that big a deal." It has allowed me to realize that what I think of as frightening/worrying/dangerous/Big Deals are actually not, and that my mode of response to life is skewed.

An example: jaywalking. I am terrified of jaywalking. What if a cop sees us jaywalking!? We cannot jaywalk, because we will get in trouble, and the law will come down on us! Also, what if one of the cars is actually going much faster than we thought!? What if we don't actually make it all the way across before the traffic light changes!? What if my shoe falls off!? --and by the time I've gotten to this point in my dialogue about how scary jaywalking is, my friends are already safely on the other side of the road, shouting back, "Meese, IT'S OKAY."
posted by meese at 8:24 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by not that girl at 8:26 AM on December 3, 2010

The coffee jitters, the squirrels in the head, the strange things you find yourself doing to calm down that seem perfectly normal at the time: yep. These are all great descriptions. I will get this one thing in my head that I'm worried about and then It Will Not Go Away and all I can do is pick at it, pick at it, worry at it like a terrier with a rag doll. You know how zoo animals will pace and pace? Anxiety is a lot like that and I don't know, short of medication, if there's any answer. The Panic Attack, Anxiety & Phobia handbook is pretty useful; it's basically teaching you a sort of biofeedback and that helps a lot.

I used to have panic attacks and I've gotten those under control by what essentially amounts to familiarity: I recognize the beginnings of one and I take steps to stop it. Breathing, walking, drinking water and relentless logic: "You are not having a heart attack. Nobody has three heart attacks a week for 15 years and lives. If this was a heart attack you would be dead. And what's so bad about being dead, anyway?" Unfortunately, the constant thrum of anxiety is harder to shake. For that I have klonopin which, weirdly enough, I mostly don't actually take, I just carry around. Knowing that it's in my purse makes all the difference in the world. About once every two to three weeks or if I'm going to do something I know is going to throw me into a tailspin, like traveling, I end up taking half of one or maybe even a whole one. I'm exactly the same person after a klonopin but it changes my focus. The fear and anxiety are still there but I can handle them, sort of step outside them and maintain. Also, my body, which will sort of clench itself up in a tight knot while I'm in the middle of all this, will relax after a klonopin and that is worth its weight in gold.
posted by mygothlaundry at 8:26 AM on December 3, 2010

Anxiety without panic attacks or phobias is often referred to as Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Edmund Bourne's The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook is useful and provides strategies and exercises for addressing these feelings as they arise.
posted by judith at 8:43 AM on December 3, 2010

I learned to recognize the physical sensations of anxiety when I started doing Body Scan meditations. It wasn't so much that I was feeling anxious during the meditations themselves, but over several weeks I became much more aware of my bodily sensations in general, and also got in the habit of checking in on my body whenever I was having different types of thoughts, particularly uncomfortable ones.

For me, anxiety feels like a tightness in my chest coupled with an increased heartrate. I definitely find it more difficult to concentrate when I'm anxious.

Good on you for this query; I've found that recognizing and putting a name to emotions greatly reduces their power to overwhelm me. In particular, with anxiety, I can say "oh, yep, that's anxiety I'm feeling", instead of unconsciously following my body's signals and concluding that something in the world is a true threat. In fact, very frequently just recognizing mild anxiety is enough to make it go away.
posted by wyzewoman at 8:51 AM on December 3, 2010

Well, for me it goes like this: I find myself zeroed in on a thought or problem - either real or imagined - and just can't stop mentally picking away at it.

This. Reprocessing the same problem over and over again, attacking it from every angle, never making progress. Unable to stop or think about anything else. And if I've been drinking a lot of caffeine, this spirals into physical symptoms: My heart palpitates and I faint. I thought I was dying the first time it happened.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2010

I learned to recognize the physical sensations of anxiety when I started doing Body Scan meditations.

+1. Also yoga.

Anxiety has a large physical component. In consists (to varying degrees) of holding/altering your breath and clenching your muscles.
posted by callmejay at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I meant my previously link to go to the whole thread, not my own post in it. To save people the scrolling: the whole thread.
posted by not that girl at 9:22 AM on December 3, 2010

Go watch a scary movie or have a friend scare the sh*t out of you. You know the feeling you get seconds after the initial fright? Pretend having that feeling last for a long time when you're going about your daily business.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:23 AM on December 3, 2010

For a long time I figured I didn't have problems with anxiety, because I've never been the type to worry, panic, or obsess. Over the past few years, however, I've realized that I do have problems with anxiety, they just happen to be somatic (physical) rather than affective (emotional/cognitive) in nature. There's even a word for it: akathisia. It's a kind of physical restless. I often feel uncomfortable sitting still, like I need to get up and move around, or leave the situation I'm in. I bounce my knees constantly. I fidget with things. Sometimes people ask if I'm nervous, but I rarely am. My body simply feels a vague but insistent sense of discomfort. The oddest part about all this is that it seems to have nothing to do with energy level—I can be physically and mentally exhausted and still feel this way. In fact this is often the case.

I wish I could tell you how to solve this kind of problem. Some things tend to make it worse, such as chronic stress. Some things tend to make it better, such as regular sleep and exercise. Benzodiazepines work great, but are not a long-term solution. Same with alcohol; it helps acutely, but it seems to make the problem slightly worse overall. I've tried virtually every other pharmacological solution, but have not noticed any significant improvement.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The most common symptom for me is that I get sick to my stomach. I feel like I just ate a bowl of spicy chili. Sometimes I sweat and tremble too. People say I look like a deer in headlights. I freeze, I don't want to talk to anyone and I'm probably not listening to what anyone is saying. I feel trapped, and if I can leave I will. I'll go somewhere I can be alone and not be seen or disturbed. Bathrooms are excellent for this purpose. If I can't leave, I'm fixated on some object, perhaps a ceiling tile, and I'm trying to breathe deeply and count my breaths until I can calm down.

For that I have klonopin which, weirdly enough, I mostly don't actually take, I just carry around. Knowing that it's in my purse makes all the difference in the world. About once every two to three weeks or if I'm going to do something I know is going to throw me into a tailspin, like traveling, I end up taking half of one or maybe even a whole one. I'm exactly the same person after a klonopin but it changes my focus. The fear and anxiety are still there but I can handle them, sort of step outside them and maintain. Also, my body, which will sort of clench itself up in a tight knot while I'm in the middle of all this, will relax after a klonopin and that is worth its weight in gold.

My experience is exactly the same. If I can control the physiological symptoms, either through deep breathing or through pharmacological means, the mental symptoms go away.
posted by desjardins at 9:36 AM on December 3, 2010

To add to the other physical descriptions, I'd feel like I couldn't breathe. And then I'd realize I was, in fact, barely breathing in a shallow, rapid manner. But yes, brain running in circles, too afraid to make any changes to improve things.
posted by ldthomps at 10:01 AM on December 3, 2010

Thanks for the question. This is helpful.

For me one way it manifests that I haven't seen mentioned yet is a sort of zero to sixty phenomenon. If I remember I forgot to put out the mail, on non-anxious days I feel like "oops!" On anxious days, I feel like "Ohhh. SHIT. SHIT!!" As though I'd failed to send my college application on the last day before the deadline. It could be the smallest thing, but that oops gets magnified instantaneously. And then I have to talk myself through why it doesn't matter ("it's just a thank you card; they're still at the cabin anyway") and it takes a while before my heart stops pounding. Then even when I'm not overreacting to something, I feel this almost-unnoticeable dread probably from the suspicion that surely something else i haven't noticed (however minor) has surely also gone wrong.

Like you, I'd like to know more about how to address it, as I don't have the slightest clue yet what makes the good days vs. the bad days, and there seem to be slightly more bad days over time, so I may be worsening it by eating too much potassium or something random.
posted by salvia at 10:42 AM on December 3, 2010

For me:

- the angry squirrels
- feeling like my head and chest were filled with static, like when the TV or radio isn't tuned properly
- rapid heart rate/adrenaline response
- feeling overwhelmed
- lack of concentration
- more prone to procrastination
posted by Constant Reader at 10:56 AM on December 3, 2010

For me, it's feeling slightly sick in the stomach, and jittery. The feeling that something bad is about to happen - very much like being scared watching a horror film, except that it's not a film it's real life.

Also, sleeping problems. Problems getting to sleep, or staying asleep. Instead of being asleep I am worrying. Usually, not about something that I can identify.

To my knowledge, I have never had a panic attack. My two phobias are snakes and heights. Neither are life-limiting, and both date back to my childhood. I am incredibly easily startled, but I've never previously connected that with anxiety, although it's possibly a symptom.

In my case, I am aware that money makes me anxious. So when I hear something at work that makes it more likely (even if only slightly) that I could be laid off and have no money, I am become more anxious. This is somewhat resolved if I tell someone else the rumour that I heard. It puts it into context. Also, telling myself that it'll be alright in a calm voice (like you might reassure a frightened child) is surprisingly effective. Other triggers include versions of imposter syndrome. Again, talking about it, or reassuring myself ward off the anxiety somewhat.

Previously my anxiety has also ended in a short period of depression, likely due in part to an inadvertently poor choice of coping mechanism. I have heard that it is not uncommon for anxiety and depression to be linked.
posted by plonkee at 10:56 AM on December 3, 2010

I feel jittery, tired, and overwhelmed. I will lie around and try to go to sleep but end up just staring off feeling guilty. I will feel like I am effectively screwing up the rest of my life.
Panic attacks feel dull for me, but that's definitely what they are. I can breath, I know I'm not having a heart attack, but I feel like I can't stand being in my body and that everything is pointless and I aggressively despise and despair at everything I see. Then I cry uncontrollably.
Perfectionism, too, plays a huge part in my anxiety.
SSRIs have been invaluable.
posted by whalebreath at 11:09 AM on December 3, 2010

I have moderate to severe anxiety that I take medication for. All these answers sound very familiar. I even have trouble bringing people into my house because it makes me anxious having interlopers in my safe space.

As to panic attacks, how it starts depends on where I am. If I'm out, if feels like someone in standing to close behind me and the room/aisle is too crowded. At home I keep checking the front wimdows and checking where my son is. My heart starts racing and my eyes get really wide, my gaze darting around and looking over my shoulder. I breathe through my mouth and my gums and lips get a buzzing sensation. From there my breathing speeds up into my hyperventilating, and my chest starts to ache.

From there it feels like a heart attack. I tend to shut my eyes tight amd freeze. I can't make my self walk.

I either calm down or faint. If I can get alone in a small space like a bathroom stall or closet or take an extra pill when I first start feeling symtoms, then I can halt it. Once I'm in the throes, someone inevitably calls the paramedics who insist on making sure I'm not having a heart attack and make me feel like an idiot crazy person.

Hope this helps you.
posted by FunkyHelix at 11:10 AM on December 3, 2010


Anxiety can have many roots, many causes. For some it comes in mad waves that overpower them in an attack, for others, like myself, it's like a low, constant buzzing. There are lots of ways to fend it off. Alcohol, for example, is an extremely effective short-term solution, but extremely unsustainable and will make it worse in the long run. I 'manage' mine with klonopin, yoga, limited caffeine intake, regular sex, therapy...

Kierkegaard once said that 'anxiety is the fundamental mood of existence.' Kierkegaard, whom I have an affinity for since his anxiety is largely tied to his religious beliefs, and I blame a lot of mine on an extremely religious upbringing, is maybe not the person you should read to help you understand your anxiety, exactly, but that little quote especially helps me remember that life can be inherently terrifying, that you're always doing life for the first time, and that the future is - no matter what - unpredictable. So there's a certain level of implicit anxiety in just being alive for most people, I think, and it can be a good thing - remember it can motivate us, help us to not get eaten by bears and things. But it can also get out of control to the point where buying a cup of coffee makes you almost vomit with anxiety about approaching the counter. I still have an unhealthy amount of it, but I'm getting better at being calm while getting a sandwich. Learning to manage your anxiety, if you're an anxious person, is really difficult and a very long, probably life-long, process.

Anxiety, I'm pretty sure, basically killed my grandmother. She worried so much about every possible pedantic thing going on around her. Toward the end of her life she got cancer. She was treated and was fine. But it left her so afraid of death, with so much anxiety about death, that she sort of willed herself to age quickly and pass away not long after she was cured of her cancer. The point is - yeah, like others have said, it manifests itself physically, emotionally and cognitively. It's a real fucker.

Anxiety can make you unable to enjoy life. Go see someone. Benzos have a stupid stigma, but they've really helped me. And exercise. Although sometimes I get anxious about exercising. And this is the vicious cycle of anxiety.

Seriously though, go see someone.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:16 AM on December 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

From Philip Booth, "Adding it up":

"I'm Puritan to the bone, down to
the marrow and then some:
if I'm not sorry I worry,
if I can't worry I count."

For me, anxiety feels like panic and shame mixed together, or like I'm a pill-bug or a wounded animal that's not allowed to curl up into a ball and protect its belly.

When I need to concentrate despite my anxiety and I can't take the time to take a walk or something, I listen to one of two songs on repeat. There's something about those two songs that thrums in exact opposition to my nervous brain, and like waves in physics canceling each other out, they both calm me down after about three iterations. They're dumb songs too: "Paranoia" by Greenday, and "Run On" by Moby. If I'm not near my music, I can sing "Paranoia" to myself and that works too. Don't know why it worked initially, but I think at this point I've conditioned myself to accept both of those songs as off-switches, which force me to actually drop things instead of worrying them endlessly.
posted by colfax at 11:54 AM on December 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

My anxiety, for the most part, is triggered by very specific things. It took me a long time to realize that, but figuring out if there are certain triggers or if you're just prone to over-worrying can be very helpful, because you kind of need to know that in order to deal with it.

My main anxiety inducer is money -- specifically, dealing with my bank account or paying bills. Even when the bank account is full and/or I know I have enough money to cover the bills, the actual act of checking my balance or writing a check or clicking 'confirm payment' causes anxiety with physical symptoms. (Just typing that out right now made me wish I'd put on more antiperspirant this morning.)

The first time I realized that my money issues had turned into full-blown anxiety was when I had a panic attack outside the bank. I didn't know it was a panic attack at the time. I thought that, best case scenario, I had gotten car-sick on the three minute drive from home (which was baffling). Worst case, I thought maybe I was having a cardiac event at 32. I sat at a picnic table next door to the bank, forehead resting on the tabletop. I didn't know whether I was going to puke or pass out. My cheeks were numb. My tongue was numb. I was shaking. When I lifted my head, I was dizzy.

I had a friend go into the bank for me and do my business, because like I said, I didn't know whether I was going to remain standing and I didn't want to vomit on their carpet. And in the end, it all worked out. Everything was fine. I survived. I did not end up homeless. The issue resolved. It was all OKAY.

Self-talk really helps me now. It's a little counter-intuitive. One of the symptoms of anxiety is the angry squirrel thing that people mention -- your brain goes around and around, trying to see all aspects of the problem, constantly running over it the way your tongue can't ignore any new little bump on the roof of your mouth. The tendency is to list all of the bad things that might happen as a result of the situation that's causing the anxiety. And the logical solution, it would seem, is to turn that voice off.

For me, though, a huge part of being able to deal with it was realize that the voice doesn't need to be silenced, it needs to be heeded. So I let myself -- BRIEFLY-- go through the bad things that might happen. And I nod, and I acknowledge them, and I note them, and I move on. I then list all of the bad things that are not going to happen. Since my issue is mostly about money, these are "I am not going to end up without a roof over my head. I am not going to starve. I am not going to prison." Etc.

Upon entering that more relaxed, less irrational state, I can actually start to figure out a solution to the problem in front of me. And then I do what I need to do, that distasteful thing I'd been avoiding, and I almost always always always end up saying to myself, "You stupid idiot, that wasn't so bad. Why were you so afraid? Remember this next time."
posted by mudpuppie at 12:00 PM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a great book for figuring out your anxiety and learning to better manage it. I've used it myself and recommend it to my clients as well.
posted by gilsonal at 12:24 PM on December 3, 2010

It feels like I've done something bad, but I'm not sure exactly what or how to fix it. Exercise helps.
posted by santaslittlehelper at 1:17 PM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

For that I have klonopin which, weirdly enough, I mostly don't actually take, I just carry around. Knowing that it's in my purse makes all the difference in the world.

I am yet another on the "Magically Talismanic Anti-Anxiety Medication" team, though with Xanax. Knowing I have it if I need it helps short-circuit the anxiety spiral.

For me, anxiety is very tied up in intrusive thoughts. When I'm anxious, I literally can't stop thinking about the thing I'm upset about without rebooting my brain somehow--vigorous cardio (dancing is great for this, except in the middle of the night), playing a sorting game like Tetris or Scrabble or Boggle, or taking a magic Xanax.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:45 PM on December 3, 2010

In my experience, if you haven't had a panic attack yourself, it's hard to understand it, because usually people I talk to tell me to "just do yoga or go for a run." Even my psychiatrist (who doesn't have anxiety issues), I think, doesn't fully get how consuming and awful anxiety can be.

Anyway here goes (this is actually difficult to describe because just thinking about it evokes a state of panic in me as I type this):

Here's a typical experience, just standing in line for lunch at work (before medication - I'm much better now). I hold my breath and tighten my gut unconsciously, as if I'm bracing for some sort of impact. It's like my body is defending itself from the environment. My head and eyes strain, and I look around for an exit, like I'm trapped. I get a strong urge to run outside into a field. I have shortness of breath from holding it, so I'm panting. I'm nauseous, like having stage fright. It's an overwhelming sense of general nervousness. The muscles in my neck and shoulders tense. After a minute or two, I'm so anxious that I feel like I want to scratch my eyes out or scratch my skin off. So I begin yanking on my neck muscles, or pinching the sensitive skin under my arms (until it bruises) to relieve pressure (not sure why this works but it does). I sweat uncontrollably, and my face flushes. (The sweating is the worst, because it's a really clear indication to other people that something's going on with me.)

The earliest I can remember this happening is when I was in high school. If the teacher asked a question, and I knew the answer, just the *thought* of raising my hand to answer caused me to go into this awful anxiety state.

This is all autonomic; consciously I could be totally fine. I could just be with friends, checking out the lunch menu, thinking about work, going about my business, etc. etc. etc. This anxiety rushes in and does its thing, and I think, "Oh come on, really? Why? Why does this happen to me? This is so stupid, there is no reason for any sort of panic, I'm in a totally benign situation."

It's literally like my body has a mind of its own. It kicks off into this state and I can't stop it. I've given up trying to puzzle it out; when it happens now, I just say to myself, oh well, there it goes. When people ask me why I'm so sweaty I just shrug and say I get sweaty. There's nothing else I can really do except keep taking my anxiety medication, which helps a lot.
posted by blahtsk at 1:54 PM on December 3, 2010

Anxiety doesn't necessarily have a noticeable physical effect, or if you're used to it, you might just think your anxious body feels "normal." For me, anxiety manifests itself in my avoiding or declining to do a lot of things. It can just feel like apathy or lack of interest, things one would associate more with depression.

That doesn't mean I'm not experiencing anxiety in a physical way. The blah, tired, lazy feeling just seems like no feeling, especially in contrast to headaches, muscle tightness, grinding the teeth, unsettled stomach, and so on. The antidote for me is moving... taking walk, doing a little exercise, even dancing...though of course, it can be very hard to actually do that when I'm listless.
posted by wryly at 6:45 PM on December 3, 2010

this has been a helpful thread for me as well, thank you.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:32 PM on December 3, 2010

I had a panic attack recently, a side effect of the medication I was taking, which lead to a month'ish of unyeilding anxiety about having another panic attack. There are no words to describe what a panic attack feels like; how to explain the feeling of mortal terror that comes out of nowhere which has you believing that your world had ended, over, fini?

With the anxiety otoh I felt jumpy, on edge, had an uneasy feeling at the pit of my stomach that I couldn't pin down, irritable, easily frustrated over the simplest things and teary eyed, tense upper arms and chest muscles, clenching my teeth, obsessively thinking about how to avoid all the things that led up to the panic attack. Fearing the fear. Ironically I had an opposite reaction to public places because the panic attack happened at home, I couldn't stand to be alone after it so I sought out stimulation like; making up reasons to go out and be around people to reduce the feeling that I was trapped in my head and when I was home listening to talk radio, blaring music. I tried to find ways to not feel anything, to not think.

What worked for me was Xanax when the anxiety was awful and, mindfulness along with yoga and breathing exercises when it wasn't so bad. The idea was to stay in the present moment to avoid thinking about a past I couldn't change, or a future I don't have much control over. To focus outward.
posted by squeak at 7:25 AM on December 4, 2010

For a long time I thought my panic attacks were related to the feeling of being stuck. Situations like being in the middle seat at a packed movie theater or in the back seat of a two door car with 5 people. These were things that I could work around, I might seem weird or fussy but if I had an aisle seat nothing bad was going to happen.

Then I started thinking about my anxiety and that awareness made everything worse. My panic attacks that would hit 10/10 in severity but eventually drop back down to 0 were leaving me in a constant state of 3-5/10 anxiety. Now it would start with me sitting in my favorite chair, eating my favorite meal, watching a good movie with close friends and family. These are people who know about my anxiety and sympathize with how crippling it is for me.

A thought will run through my head "wouldn't it be horrible if you had one of those panic attacks right now? I mean even if it was just a little panic attack it would be enough to upset everything. You're so close to finishing this project/getting to the front of this line/watching this movie/eating this meal. Imagine you had to call an ambulance again?"

Then the real panic attack begins and goes from (in my opinion) psychological to physiological. Sometimes the psychological part isn't necessary. Instead I'll feel some very real physical discomfort and it will balloon from there. The lighting in the room seems too dim. I feel overheated. I feel like I exist in third person. People are talking to me and I can't focus on what they're saying. Palpitations, sweating, I'm having a heart attack, I'm having a stroke. I'm going to faint. How much longer till I wait to tell someone. How much longer until I have them drive me to the ER. How long can I think about this before it's too late to take action and I die.

Once I'm in the panic attack it's too late, there is no reasoning. Either I take a Xanax (prescription from the ER) or end up in the ER.

Anyway, there is no happy ending. I still deal with this on a daily basis. Exercise and maintaining light social contact seem to help. I blame it all on thinking too much. I don't wear that assessment as a badge of pride but considering all the grief it gives me I probably should.

(On recreational drug use, weed and alcohol specifically: They never worked for me when I knew my mind was in a bad place. In the best case they would disable my brain, in the worst case they would enhance all my agonies.
posted by laptolain at 9:55 AM on December 4, 2010

I wasn't able to recognize that I had been constantly anxious for years - it really was the fundamental mood of my existence - until it mostly disappeared after I went on antidepressants and clonazepam. At high levels, I agree that it feels like guilt and shame. To stave it off, I had to go, go, go (study more, study harder, clean the house like a madwoman) and drink and smoke. I still have it at low levels, and I know it's a problem when I wake up with sore hands from clenching them and an aching jaw.

Beyond drugs, something that helps is going through a kind of meditative process where you relax your body and then probe the anxious feeling, trying to understand what's driving it. You ask yourself what you are really feeling, trying out words like "angry", or "scared" or "frustrated" - all the negative emotions you can think of - until you feel your body 'respond' as you hit on the right one. Your body will relax perceptibly when you have discovered that underlying emotion you're really feeling. Then, you stay with that feeling and try again to probe what's causing you to feel the emotion, like "I'm angry that I constantly feel so guilty." Doing this will help relieve the anxiety. I know that I read about this technique in a book about anxiety, but I can't remember the name of it.
posted by kitcat at 11:01 AM on December 4, 2010

kitcat is referring to Gendlin's book Focusing.
posted by salvia at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2010

It looks like lots of people are recommending books, which is great. There are a lot of resources out there.

That said, my recommendation is "When Panic Attacks" by David Burns. He also wrote "Feeling Good" back in the day, the follow-up "Feeling Good Handbook" (excuse the cover), and a few others I haven't really investigated.

Simply put, this is one of the guys that created cognitive behavioral therapy (the therapy shown to be most effective at treating anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental maladies (at least the last time I checked)). His old grad school mentor (Beck) is considered the "founder" of the therapy and Burns has been around doing research for years now. His first book, "Feeling Good", was used in a clinical study and was found to be incredibly effective at treating depression. "When Panic Attacks" has the same basic fundamentals but is geared toward anxiety and is updated with tons of new research, techniques, etc.

Don't be fooled by the preceding paragraph by the way, it is not a research book with a bunch of citations. It is a toolbox, a means of being your own therapist when need be. It's been a great asset for me whenever I feel like I'm stuck in a rut and has had an influence on how I see the world overall.
posted by Defenestrator at 11:05 PM on December 6, 2010

I have recently decided that anxiety describes how I feel a lot. I don't have panic attacks. I do have a frequent nagging feeling that I am forgetting to do something or take care of something. I am a perfectionist and along with that I get feelings that aren't quite guilt and shame but more like insecurity or inadequacy, often in situations where objectively speaking I am doing fine.

Thanks for all the responses so far.
posted by mai at 8:13 PM on December 8, 2010

For me it's the "yammering squirrels" (what a perfect description), who often yammer in the middle of the night, keeping me from going back to sleep, and also just plain nervousness (which leads to an upset stomach).

I have Ativan to take when I need to, and also find that what silences the squirrels sometimes is just doing some of the things I need to get done, so I can stop worrying about them.

The problem is, of course, that some new thing to worry about replaces the old thing, but I do get relief from the feeling of having accomplished something I was dreading.
posted by elphaba at 10:55 AM on December 13, 2010

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