Life With Anxiety: "A Nightmare You Can't Wake Up From"

“I am a person who lives with anxiety. The most important phrase in that sentence is that I am a person. I am not crazy. I am human. I have feelings. I walk and talk and breathe just like everybody else.” —Jordan Deeter

A while ago I realized the persistent, illogical worry I felt wasn’t something that everyone felt. For a long time, I thought it was just a part of being human or growing up. It wasn’t until later that I  considered that maybe something was a little off, and maybe I needed some kind of help. Lucky for me, my parents were super understanding and supportive, and almost five years on the other side of therapy, medicine, and acceptance, I still have anxiety, but now it’s controlled.

Anxiety can present itself in a multitude of ways. Under the blanket term of “anxiety disorders” fall social anxiety, panic disorder, specific phobias, OCD, and others. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, as a whole, anxiety affects 40 million adults in the U.S. ages 18 years or older.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) gives a thorough breakdown of anxiety disorders, their symptoms, risk factors, and treatments. One of the most important things you can do if you think your over-analyzing and worrying are a sign of something more serious is to see a doctor. Don’t try to self-diagnose. Mental illnesses are super tricky to identify correctly, so talking to a doctor can give you a clearer idea of what you might be dealing with.

After all the business with finding a doctor and diagnosing this, one really important factor for me in getting better was talking to other people dealing with the same thing. I found other anxious kids in my high school that legitimately understood my struggle when a load of homework sent me spiraling into a panic attack, thus making me not get any of it done. It felt nice to know other people were struggling just as badly as I was. It felt nice to know I wasn’t alone.

I’m still in touch with many of those anxious buddies of mine from high school, even if we just shoot each other texts every now and again saying something along the lines of, “I hyperventilated for thirty minutes today and I don’t know who else to call.” So a couple weeks ago, I asked anyone with anxiety who was open to talking about it if they didn’t mind answering some questions. The response I got was overwhelming. More people responded than the 20-something people included below, and I’m incredibly humbled by the number of sufferers willing to speak out about this sometimes crippling disease.

To everyone who responded to my question, to everyone who didn’t, to everyone living with anxiety every day of their lives—we’re freaking warriors. We’re brave. We’re strong. And most importantly: We’re not alone.

What Everyday Anxiety Feels Like

Illustrations by Anyssa Garibay  @misstimebombart

Illustrations by Anyssa Garibay @misstimebombart

Madeleine: “Every day anxiety feels like you're constantly about to get sick. You aren't totally sure what is wrong, why you feel badly, or how to fix it most of the time. It's incredibly frustrating and makes doing very simple things nearly impossible. It can totally cripple you at times and leave you unsure of what your next step should be.”

Jessica Byerly: “For me it is fearing the worse, thinking about the worst and then stressing yourself out trying to fix your hypothetical problems you just created in your head. The drive to be perfect for everyone and the let down. Wanting to lose weight and be healthy because that is what everyone wants you to be, trying so hard to only fail. I hate being alone—and if my husband and daughter have things to do, I will walk in circles trying to figure out what to do.”

Jake Alley: “Everyday anxiety feels like a huge weight on your shoulders that you expect to go away when you complete a task or get past an obstacle, but it really never goes away. There is always something else to be anxious about. It can kind of consume you and you always feel tense or scared about what the future holds.”

R.H.: “Everyday anxiety is kind of like living in a nightmare you can't wake up from. It’s not knowing what's going to trigger your anxiety and it is truly incapacitating to live with anxiety. You want to do things and get out there and be a part of society but your anxiety becomes too much and makes you hold back.”

Sarah Bowden: “To deal with anxiety everyday is like being stuck in a spiral and not being able to control it. It means that in order to fall asleep I must get in bed at least 30 minutes before the time I want. It means having a break down over something seemingly small. It means having so much anxious energy that you physically and mentally can't sit still and focus, but it also means your a human just trying fight through fear [and] worry in an imperfect world.”

What a Panic Attack Feels Like

Adam Williams: “A panic attack is the fear of fear itself. I can best describe a panic attack as the feeling that everything that you have been anxious about has all brought you to your peak, your highest point, and gone over. For me personally, a panic attack is an attack of fear and shock. It's hard for me to move without being incredibly anxious. Everything feels like it's moving so incredibly fast. The slowest movement feels like I'm moving so fast. So I have to lay perfectly still with my eyes closed to feel the most safe and comfort I can possibly feel during the panic attack.”

Madison Mallard: “Panic attacks can take many different forms; it seems to vary per person. But for me, I know that these things come with a feeling that you can't breathe, and that your heart is being ripped open. I feel like my body temperature is dropping, and I can't stand up straight. It physically hurts, and so many people don't realize it. It can even take a day or so to recover from it, which is honestly the shitty part. You want it to be over, but it's still there.”

“To me, a panic attack feels like I am stuck in a room with the walls physically closing in on me and no way out. I am usually torn between crying and screaming and can't think straight enough to figure out how to get myself out of it.” Sandra Wittner

Kevin Richeson: “When I have a panic attack I feel a pit in my stomach and I feel hollow. I begin to shake slightly and just want to curl up into a ball and let the tears stream down my face. Sometimes I know what is causing this anxiety and depression but many times it happens for no particular reason and that scares me. There have been stretches of time where I cry or have a panic attack frequently over the course of several months and when it finally stops I freak out any time it happens again, because I am afraid that it will begin to happen with great frequency once again.”

Stephanie Insalaco: “My anxiety cripples my peace.  It starts with an irrational thought that I somehow cannot shake and it travels to my gut. My heart rate increases, my face heats up, my stomach drops.  Most of the time, I am in public when this happens.  So on the outside, I appear to be very quiet, still, almost catatonic.  My breathing becomes short before I force myself to practice square breathing.  I usually feel my pulse or my heartbeat in my temples.  Everything on the inside feels loud and intrusive.  There are times I don't even know what triggered it. It just happens.”

How to Manage Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Nicole: “There are a few things I do to get over anxiety. Breathing exercises, a hot shower, a nap, watching something on tv.”

Mary Ellen Tokar: “If my inhaler doesn't work, I get myself into a cold, dark environment. For example, I shut myself in my room, turn off the lights, crank the A/C, and lay down immediately. Sometimes I'll meditate if it's really bad—it’s necessary for me to feel close to the earth and grounded if I really can't get it together.”

Liliana Comito: “To get over it I take my emergency medications that I have specifically for extreme cases of anxiety. I also have to find a way to ground myself and keep repeating that I am real and I know my anxiety lies to me and I will make it through.”

R.H.: “You need to take several moments to catch your breath to try and stop whatever triggered your panic attack. I usually get over a panic attack by regulating my breathing and listening to music that can calm me down.”

Sandy Wilborne: “The way I would deal with [panic attacks] was to try and control my breathing. I would breathe in through my nose and out thru my mouth and I would keep telling myself that I was not dying. Seriously. It always helped for me to be able to see the exit door if I was inside a restaurant or building. I would go take a short walk outside. That would help also. I carried a small brown paper bag in my purse so I could breathe into it—if I needed to. Never had to use it but it helped knowing I had it with me. It also helped me to hold onto something, even if it was just the chair I was sitting in. In my mind that helped to keep me ‘grounded.’”

What People Without Anxiety Need to Know

Kaylyn Venuto: “If you prefer to insist that I hide it, I can’t and I won’t. If you accuse me of disrupting society’s fruitless cry for normalcy on purpose, there’s something you need to know. Your ignorance is harmful to us. My visually invisible illness is not on pause just because you can’t see it. I’m not angry like you believe I am, but I want justice for this word. And I want to feel safe in conversation.”

Nicole: “They should know that it's very common and it does not mean a person has mental issues. I notice that's something some people think about sufferers of anxiety. They see it as something negative and like the person experiencing it is crazy whereas it's just how they cope (or not cope) with high stress situations.”

"People without anxiety need to realize that anxiety isn't just a word for a Type A person. Anxious people deal with a fight or flight on a daily basis—anxiety kicks your system into overdrive and makes you think about basic survival skills. It distracts you from everything you might have to do; it pulls you out of class; it makes you make bad decisions. People without anxiety need to know that it's an irrational force that is extremely hard to control, but there is so much hope for those who have it.” Mary Ellen Tokar

Laura: “I believe there is an enemy great within some people that says we must conceal the anxiety. Not let it show. In fact, deny it even exists, that it's just ‘all in our head’ or an ‘overreaction.’ This does nothing but invoke more feelings of anxiety for me.”

Sophie Probert: “I think the biggest thing is that it doesn’t matter whether or not people understand it. They just need to realize that it’s there and it’s real and they need to be sensitive to it.”

Why It’s Important to Talk about Anxiety

Madeleine: “I think it's important to talk about anxiety because I think it affects so many people. A lot of people experience struggles with anxiety during a certain portion of their lifetime or they deal with it for their entire lifetime. It's something that stays with you all the time. It's not something one day you wake up and don't have anymore most of the time. It's incredibly frustrating to explain to people what it's like to suffer from anxiety and even more frustrating to get them to understand how you feel about it. I feel like talking about it is the only way to increase understanding so that people who suffer from anxiety, no matter the length of duration of it or the cause of it can feel like they have individuals supporting them.”

Kaylyn Venuto: “Proper awareness can lead to diagnosis, which can lead to treatment for those who suffer from it. Without awareness, victims can’t put a face to their [demon]. Lets face it; this is a visually invisible illness. If victims could recognize their attacker it would cut their battle in half. And if we aren’t talking about it, we aren’t making it a safe word to use. We suppress it from socialization. Similar to pointing a gun at a deer, a victim tends to run from a word considered to be taboo. Please drop your weapons. This may be just a word to you, but for someone else it’s the missing step in the staircase they climb.”

Jake Alley: “It's important to talk about it because more people experience it than you think. it's one of the most common disorders among college students so its not like you're crazy for going through it. There's a lot of resources on college campuses that are there for students to get help and talking about it is the best solution. Suppressing it just makes it worse.”

Mary Ellen Tokar: “I find it extremely important to talk about anxiety because an anxious lifestyle is simply a lifestyle that no one should have to deal with without help.”

Liliana Comito: “It’s important to talk about because it helps normalize mental illness like and other illness and leads to ending the stigma.”

Khristin Winston: “It is important to talk about because most people do not understand what is happening to the person.  It is not a subject that has been discussed in society as much as other conditions in my opinion. Just as a person who has [seizures], one must know how to help them.”

Adam Williams: “I think it’s very important to talk about anxiety. Talking about anxiety with someone you trust is very useful to lowering the amount of anxiety you have. If one keeps it all bottled up inside, it builds up over time and that can lead to further anxiety and stress and therefore further emotional, mental, and physical battles for yourself.”

Jordan Deeter: “Anxiety in our culture is something we constantly sweep under the rug. People feel like it’s something that has to be hidden even though 1 in 5 people deal with some kind of anxiety disorder. And with any kind of mental disorder, pretending something doesn’t exist only contributes to the severity of the problem. It's not something you can ever get rid of, it can be managed and lessened to a certain extent, but never cured. And the problem with not talking about it and pretending it isn’t an issue with our society is that people feel like they have to internalize it. It makes them feel crazy and weird and alone. And as someone who has dealt with anxiety from an early age, I felt like I couldn’t talk about it until I surrounded myself who are more open about it. Because if you aren’t open about it, it can start to control you. You will make decisions based off of your anxiety and makes you feel less able to do things. When I started talking about my anxiety and stopped internalizing it, I felt like I had better control over my life. This isn’t a solution that works for everybody. Because even talking about your anxiety can actually give you more anxiety. But I think if as a collective society we talked about mental disorders more, it would change the way we view each other and ourselves. Creating a more empathetic conversation about stigmatized issues is vital to bettering our civilization. Because my anxiety is not a weakness, it's forced me to be stronger. Having empathy is not a weakness, it has allowed me to grow.”

Kevin Richeson: “Anxiety is a very crippling, widespread disorder, however it is rarely talked about or given the necessary respect. Many people think of anxiety as an excuse and do not recognize the legitimacy of panic attacks. People who claim to have anxiety are often thought of as weak. In reality, anxiety affects countless people around the world in various ways. Some people have only minor levels of anxiety and infrequent panic attacks while others suffer from frequent panic attacks and constant anxiety. Both ends of the spectrum of anxiety deserve our respect and attention.”

Sandra Wittner: “It's important to talk about anxiety because people who don’t experience anxiety do not understand how consuming and debilitating it can be. Anxiety is something that is very hard to control and can make everyday life difficult. I have to admit that I didn’t understand how hard it is to have anxiety until very recently. I only developed anxiety earlier this year after my mother died and it’s been quite trying to figure out how to manage properly, especially at work.”

S.B.: “It’s important to talk about anxiety because nearly everyone [experiences] it at differing levels, and yet it’s a condition we as a society have come to normalize, or even worse, ignore. Since everyone can relate to a feeling of anxiousness, it's important to be able to discuss the difference between waiting for your date to arrive anxiety, and wedding planning anxiety, about to give a presentation anxiety, and crippling self doubt anxiety. They all stem from the same [neuron] centers but those fleeting feelings *most* people get in ‘normal or expected’ scenarios is a feeling a whole bunch of us literally carry around with us every second of every day. And some days are easier to control our reactions to the anxiety but some are much more difficult. And it's so much more complicated than to ‘just relax’ or ‘why can't you just enjoy this? Let it go! Have fun!’ Because we are chemically wired this way. If we aren’t talking about it, it’s impossible to expect empathy, because most people experience anxiety in quick passing moments instead of waking up with it every day.”

Stephanie Insalaco: “The less ashamed people feel, the more they will open up. And the more they open up, the less they will feel alone in their struggle. Support and empathy are huge healers.”

“Many people refuse to talk about their anxiety because in this society today it is viewed as something to be ashamed of. We need to raise more awareness for mental health. Mental illness is just as real as any other illness and people need to realize that.” —R.H.