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Resource: Explaining Anxiety

*This is one of a series of posts we are planning for our readers to use as a tool to help someone in their life better understand the tenets of mental health.

person holding a paper with a smile in front of their face

While awareness of mental health struggles is becoming a more common subject in some circles, the fact is that many people with mental illnesses still find it difficult or even at times unthinkable to try to explain to their loved ones what their particular struggle is like.

This particular post will focus on ways to explain generalized anxiety disorder, which sometimes comes hand in hand with other disorders such as panic disorder and clinical depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes generalized anxiety disorder as “display(ing) excessive anxiety or worry, most days for at least 6 months, about a number of things such as personal health, work, social interactions, and everyday routine life circumstances.” It also describes the following as possible symptoms.

“People with GAD may:

  • Worry very much about everyday things
  • Have trouble controlling their worries or feelings of nervousness
  • Know that they worry much more than they should
  • Feel restless and have trouble relaxing
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Be easily startled
  • Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Feel easily tired or tired all the time
  • Have headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches, or unexplained pains
  • Have a hard time swallowing
  • Tremble or twitch
  • Be irritable or feel “on edge”
  • Sweat a lot, feel light-headed or out of breath
  • Have to go to the bathroom a lot”

While this basic description of the disorder and its symptoms provides a good general idea of what to expect for people living with it, how it is actually experienced and expressed by a person living with it can vary, leading their behavior to sometimes be misinterpreted by loved ones, friends, and acquaintances. I asked the members of our Best Friends Community how they explain their anxiety disorder to people unfamiliar with the experience.

Below are a few personalized examples they gave of ways to explain it.

I tend to think of it as an electric current running under my skin. No matter what situation I’m in, even if I know logically that I’m fine and everything is going to be okay, it’s just a rapid sense of energy flooding through my entire body without any place to escape.” – Sara Schwartz

“It’s like a prolonged moment of dread, that oh shit moment when you realize that you actually don’t like rollercoasters. Or that moment just before you get bad news. When you see the bullies and you know they’ve seen you too. When your Mom uses your whole given name in THAT voice.“

“I sometimes try to explain it as carrying two paper grocery bags packed with stuff all the time and being constantly afraid the bottom will rip.”

“Today I had a headache pinpointed between my eyes, and I’ll also have my stomach drop. And my mind will just repeat negative phrases about myself and, even though I know it’s not true, it’s hard to readjust your thoughts after believing them for so long. ”

“For me, it feels like I’m under immense pressure. Like my entire being is compressed into a small box at the bottom of the ocean, and all I can be aware of is how much there is for me to accomplish or live up to, and the certainty that I cannot and will not be able to do any of it.” – Elle

person drowning in ocean

“I always tell people, rationally I know everything is ok, but the mental illness is telling me the world is falling apart around me and makes me feel like I’m stuck in the rubble. No matter how big or small the issue is.

But, since I also suffer from depression, my anxiety wants me to go look for things and deal with them but I don’t have the energy to leave my bed. So the rubble surrounding me is my depression, which keeps me from doing anything that might help my anxiety.”

“I feel like it is me wanting to claw my way outside my body from the inside out…I feel like I am on edge the entire time and even a pencil drop can cause me to jump and even scream. I feel like I am itching all over or electricity is running through my body. My heart may pound. I worry that people notice I am freaking out on the inside even though it is all inside. I may be yelling in my head while trying to remain calm. I want to get upset with everyone because they get on my very last nerve. I can go on and on.”

“I feel like I’m drowning and when my anxiety kicks in on top of my depression I can’t breath. I know everything is okay and my life is going okay, but I can’t escape that feeling of being pulled under. I can have my mind run away as fast as it can, but there is no escape. I can logically think through my depression and anxiety, but my mind keeps telling me the logic is wrong even though I know it’s not. I’m constantly moving when my anxiety is in high gear. A leg bouncing or fingers twitching. I just can’t calm down. If I have an anxiety attack I need to run. I have to get as far away from everything otherwise I feel like I’m dying.” – Jacklynn Sutherland

“For me I always explain it as a looming overwhelmed/impending doom feeling in regard to things that you can’t control. It’s constant and won’t leave your thoughts.

Or like, you know when someone says “I have to tell you something later” and you feel on edge trying to determine what they have to say or what you did to make them have to tell you something? It’s that feeling of the unknown where no amount of reasoning can put aside the fluttering heart beat and constant thought.”

“Today I’m itching. It’s my newest fun physical manifestation of Anxiety. I just ITCH. But it’s interesting because physically AND as a metaphor, it really explains how my anxiety feels. It’s a low grade itch that never goes away, and you deal with it for a while until it seems to be unbearable, and then you start to wonder whats wrong with you, why you’re so agitated all the time…it’s because of this ITCHING that won’t go away. This is my anxiety, a constant, annoying, irritating itch that keeps me from ever really relaxing in any situation.” – Sara Donuts

As someone who didn’t know for a long time that I had anxiety, I personally struggled with explaining some of my behaviors at times. Why was I unable to sit completely still in class? Why did I seem compelled to remember every perceived mistake a million times, even years after it happened? All of the explanations given by our Best Friends Community might have helped me to identify my anxiety sooner if I’d seen them and I am hopeful that they can help you, dear reader, if you ever want to explain or understand what it’s like to live with generalized anxiety disorder. Thanks for reading!

Katie Clarke

A few words about me

Katie is a gentle soul with a snarky side who loves curries, traveling, and cats, is very afraid of losing all her friends and/or being lost at sea, and thinks cake is dreadfully overrated as a food item. She aspires to be as good a human being as she can be and to leave the world a little better than how she found it.