When Your Secret Is the Invisible, Physical Pain of Anxiety


I have never been able to find the words to explain the pain I experience in my chest during times of fear, or anxiety, or anger, or hopelessness. It’s not like a paper cut, or falling on pavement. Those are a burning, stinging, throbbing kind of pain. A pain that I have experienced many times throughout my childhood, one that is familiar. That is something I can handle. It will go away soon, it will heal, it will disappear and I will not even remember it a year later.

Mental pain is a completely different story. You cannot put a bandage over it, or have it X-rayed, or show it to people so that they comprehend why and how you are hurting. The pain I feel in my chest is a numbing soreness…a tenderness, an aching that eases in and out but never seems to fully go away. The kind of pain involved with a loose tooth, where it will hurt to pull it out, but in the meantime has that strange numbing pain that instinctively causes you to twist and turn it and hear it snap free from your gums little by little. You endure the hurt, because continuing to twist and pull is the only thing that will eventually bring relief. And no after-affect from yanking out the tooth could ever be as bad as keeping it in.

I wish I could do that with my chest. I feel this odd urge to stab at it, reach in and pull out the pain, push on it until my breathing is affected by the force on my chest. But you can’t. You can only wait. Try to keep your face straight, try to not think about it; because thinking about it only makes it 10 times worse.

…Thinking about it only makes it 10 times worse…So is this all in my head? Am I doing this to myself? Does that even matter? Does it make the situation any less real? The agony any less excruciating? My condition any less sympathetic?

“It’s all in your head”.

I hate those five words. So. Much.

My mind feels content, my mind thinks of joyful moments and scripture and peace. My mind repeats calming music over and over again, knowing that everything is going to be OK.

But my body does not care.

I feel happy, I really do. I had an amazing day (comparatively); everything is going well. Everything is beautiful. Why doesn’t my body understand that? I feel relaxed but I struggle to hold back tears in the middle of class. The tears are my biggest concern; the nausea, dry mouth and pounding headaches are secrets. Only I know about them. But crying is outward. Crying let’s other people in on the secret. And my pitiful side convinces me that they can’t understand the secret.

For a minute, I forget about my chest. Until the sensation hits me like knife to the torso. Well, it was nice while it lasted.

I napped all day, but I’m still exhausted. Does mental exhaustion begin to take the form of physical exhaustion when it is too overwhelming? That would make me feel better — to know that something I was experiencing was natural, something that was supposed to happen to people.

It does not matter how much I try to focus on the terms coming out of the professor’s mouth, or analyze the words and numbers and colors being projected onto the board. I cannot hear a word. He sounds muffled — but the whispering voices that surround me are impossible to ignore. So clear, so distressing. I wish those were muffled, too. Because I can feel my whole body tensing. I swear if I hear one more person talk…..

When I focus back in, I’m greeted by yet another hammering headache. I try to pick up my pencil, to direct my attention to something else, maybe get some notes down, but my fingers tremble and the pencil viciously shakes back and forth. If that doesn’t give away that I’m “crazy.” I don’t know what will…I guess I will just try to listen.

But those murmurs. The whispers are now accompanied by soft giggles as one girl laughs because the other girl asks her if she has a Facebook. Who cares!? Is that seriously all you have to worry about?

How can they be so at ease? Don’t they feel the anguish? How can anyone go through life and not feel the pain?

But that’s the worst thing about mental illness, mental pain, internal conflicts manipulated by your mind; they are on the inside, unseen and unable to observe or verify. You can cover it and try to mend it as many times as you want, but you will not unwrap it a week later to see that it has healed. It will still be there, maybe not visible, but as deep as ever.

I cling to that thought…”maybe not visible”.

I’m wondering how others sit there, so happy and care-free, averting the dull ache.

But do they look at me and wonder the same thing?

Follow this journey on Pen to Paper.

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