When Your Secret Is the Invisible, Physical Pain of Anxiety

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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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In the Mind of a Person With Anxiety on a Friday Night

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It’s Friday night, and I am having the same battle I have every night. I am so mentally exhausted that I want to crawl under a rock and sleep for a week. A month even. But my brain won’t switch off. I watch the television mindlessly, trying to ignore the noise in my head.

As with every night, I am fighting a losing battle. I start worrying about every conversation I have had that day. Did I offend anyone? Did I handle that situation correctly? Was that person really annoyed with me or is my imagination going into overdrive again?

I start worrying about my beautiful children. I worry I am not doing the best I possibly can to cater for their additional needs. Can we fit a fourth therapy session in this fortnight? Where will I find the money to pay for it? What’s going to happen if my child continues to lose weight and becomes a skeletal version of his gorgeous, cheeky self? How many extra appointments will that require per week?

I stress about things that happened weeks ago. Months ago. Years ago even. I feel myself start to shake. My head goes fuzzy, and I start to sweat. My chest hurts. I can’t breathe. I try taking deep breathes. I try to keep busy. I try telling myself I am being ridiculous. Nothing dulls the pain. I reach for my medication to stop the panic attack in its tracks. I worry about what my friends would think, what my family and colleagues would think, if would think I’m “weak” for relying on medication to stop the noise in my head from taking over my life.

Only then can I start to breathe. The clamor in my head gradually subsides until I can think clearly and logically. I lecture myself for being so irrational, but I know this won’t stop the same thing from happening time and time again.

I have anxiety. I have an illness so widely stigmatized that I feel like I cannot talk to anyone about it. On the outside I am a doting mother. On the outside I am someone who strives to do their best at her job. On the outside I appear happy, confident and successful.

On the inside I am drowning.

Mental illness is real. It is as debilitating as any physical illness can be. People with a mental illness can’t just “snap out if it,” just like a person with asthma can’t just magically open her airways. As a person who has suffered with anxiety for many, many years I am begging…

Break the stigma. Let people who suffer in silence know it’s OK to speak up. We need to be able to speak up without fear of judgment, unfounded opinions or isolation.

Sometimes all we need is a non-judgmental, listening ear.

I know I personally just don’t want to feel alone. The war in my head is a lonely place to be on a Friday night.

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7 Tips for Dating Someone With Anxiety, From People With Anxiety

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When you love someone who has anxiety, sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when anxiety has him or her in its clutches. Especially at the beginning of a relationship, when you’re just learning the ins and outs of each other, an anxiety disorder might feel like a foreign concept.

To dispel some concerns, we asked people in our community who live with anxiety to tell us tips for dating someone with anxiety.

Here’s their advice:

1. Understand if they need space. 

When situations get overwhelming, someone with anxiety might need their own space. If they head out of a social situation early — or need some time away from you — try to understand they just might need to recharge. And sometimes that involves being alone.

Sometimes the world is just too much. Alone time is necessary to think.” — Janice Cox

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2. It’s not always you (and most of the time, it’s probably not). 

Chances are, a person with anxiety has had anxiety long before you came along. Their reasons for being anxious (which may not even seems like “reasons” at all) most likely have nothing to do with you. Don’t take anxiety personally.

“Anxiety and depression cause negative and irrational thinking. If I’m sad, moody, angry or tearful, it’s my illness, not me. It’s not directed to you, don’t take it personally.” — Diana Pell

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3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

No two people with anxiety are the same, and there are different types of anxiety disorders. If you’re unfamiliar with anxiety, or even if you know a bit about it, don’t be afraid to ask questions to better understand their experience. That way, when anxiety comes to visit, you’ll be more prepared and have a little more understanding. Also, it’ll show it’s not something you’re afraid to talk about.

“Ask questions. Ask us questions about how it feels, what triggers it and what you can do to help. Show us you’re interested in understanding what we go through.— Kimberly Labine

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4. If you can, stay calm during moments of high anxiety. 

If the person you’re with is experiencing a moment of high anxiety or panic, try to keep calm. The less anxious energy in the room, the better.

If I’m feeling anxious, I need you to stay calm. I know it’s probably difficult since I’m clearly struggling, and I know you’re probably worried, but if you can stay relaxed, it’ll help bring me back to reality and make me realize I’m not in danger.” — Emily Waryck

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5. Be patient.

Being annoyed or angry with anxiety won’t make it go away either. Have patience, and don’t get frustrated if you can’t understand.

“Be patient with me. I know it sucks when my anxiety keeps us from making plans, seeing friends or going out. I hate it too. But I promise I’m trying my best, so try not to get overly frustrated with me.” — Hayley Lyvers

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6. Don’t try to fix it.

If love could cure anxiety, the world would be a much less anxious place. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While support can mean everything to a loved one, you don’t have to be anyone’s therapist. Supporting someone isn’t the same thing as fixing them.

“You’re not supposed to fix it. Just be there!” — Wilma Peden

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7. Believe them.

Just because you don’t understand why a certain place or event could evoke anxiety, that doesn’t mean the fear and feeling isn’t real. Respect that what they’re going through is real — even if you think it defies logic. Believe what they tell you. And then listen.

Listen to the person when they tell you ways you can help or support them. Believe them when they tell you they aren’t OK.” — Kathleen Myre

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*Answers have been edited and shortened.

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way. These answers are based on individuals’ experiences.

 

 

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When I Stopped Letting My Anxiety Boss Me Around

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Before going to residential treatment for my mental illness, I was absolutely miserable. I let my obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression rule every decision I made.

If something made me anxious, like going to a crowded mall, I wouldn’t go. If touching a shopping cart in the grocery store made my OCD flare, I’d carry all my groceries with my two hands instead of using the cart. I wouldn’t go to school for months on end because school made me Earth shatteringly anxious. I was in and out of school since sixth grade, only went for a couple hours and had completed a bare minimum of the courses needed.

Anything that made me anxious I would avoid.

Every time my depression hit just a little harder, I’d let it hit me to the ground. I’d isolate and not get back up. The day came when I was tired of feeling like this, letting my illness rule me, letting my illness drive me down a deep dark hole I felt I couldn’t get out of. I decided to stop making excuses.

With residential treatment, I learned not to avoid. If something made me anxious, like that crowded mall, I was going to go “expose” myself to that anxiety until it got better. That meant going to a crowded mall every other day and just walking around it until my anxiety eventually went down. That shopping with all the germs covering it — I touched and I used every time I went grocery shopping. If I felt depressed, I would go call a friend, go for a walk, something other than sleep and isolate myself in my room. I was going to do what I wanted; anxiety wasn’t going to get in the way of that. I told myself my mental illness can’t tell me what to do or when to do it or where to do it. If I wanted to go to the mall, I was going to go to the mall. If I wanted to go out with my friends, I wasn’t going to let my depression tell me otherwise. I knew I would be anxious while doing it, and it was going to be a overwhelming, but the more I went to the mall or used that “germy” shopping the easier it would be.

I’m no longer going by the phrase, “I can’t because it makes me anxious.” My new motto is: “I will do this because I want to do this. It will be hard and I will be uncomfortable, but it’ll get easier and it is worth it.” 

I know better than anyone standing up to your anxiety is easier said then done. It takes small steps. Treatment helps. So do support groups. Any small step is getting you closer to a you who’s in control of anxiety — not the other way around. Recovery is an option, I’m not saying it’s easy, but it is so worth it in the end.

Editor’s note: The following is based on one person’s experience and should not be taken as medical advice.

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26 Things People With Anxiety Want Their Significant Others to Know

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When you love someone who has anxiety, often times it’s a package-deal. And while love can conquer a lot, it isn’t always enough to defeat the dragon that is an anxiety disorder.

But anxiety doesn’t make someone impossible to love, or even hard to love. And partners who learn how help reduce their loved ones’ anxiety can a make a huge difference in their significant others’ lives. To find out more, we asked people with anxiety tell us what they want their significant others to know.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “You’re the only person I can share the racing thoughts with; the bombardment of traumatic scenarios and all consuming panic that follows. You remind me of the good in my life, which includes you.” — Tricia Bruno Derrick

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2. “Going out is really hard for me. I do it because I don’t want my anxiety to ruin my life and because I still want to do nice things with you. But please don’t be mad if going shopping in a shopping mall triggers my anxiety, or going by a bus triggers a panic attack.” — Borderline Heart

3. “Please forgive me when my moods shift rapidly. I don’t mean to hurt or confuse you. It is beyond my control. I love you, and I am so grateful you love me flaws and all.” — Tamesha Scott

4. “Sometimes, you’re the only person who can stop me from descending into complete fear over my symptoms. Please don’t make me feel stupid or get mad at me — I’m already so discombobulated I can’t handle it. Just be there for me, and when I’m a little more calm, help me think logically.” — Ashley David Stevens

5. “You are my sun and moon. I could survive without you, but I would not thrive. In all of our years together, I’m so grateful you share this journey with me. When I’m overwhelmed, you reach back and take my hand. Thank you.” — Becky Nelson

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6. “Just because I know, logically, I’m stressing out over something minor, it doesn’t mean my anxiety knows that. My anxiety doesn’t care about logic; it just wants to panic about everything.” — Darcy Krieger

7. “I’m not using it as an excuse; if I say I’m too anxious to do something, it’s a real problem. Please believe me.” — Holly Cooper McNeal

8. “When I take it out on you, please don’t take it personal. You are the only one I know will still be there in there morning no matter how ugly I get. I really don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have that assurance.” — Paige Lenox George

9. “I love the way his face changes when he knows ‘it’s’ coming, and I am and will always be grateful for his hugs when it arrives.” — Jade Jd Dempsey

10. “I don’t need space from you; I need space for myself.” — Tera Marie Major

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11. “Something I’ve done 100 times can still bring about anxiety, so if on the 101st time I can’t bring myself to do something, please don’t judge or force me to do anything I know I can’t do.” — Marissa Levi

12. “I’m sorry if there are times when I can’t communicate to you what I’m feeling. I usually don’t understand it either.” — Emily Waryck

13. “I know it sounds irrational, but to me, the fear is real. Just sit in that and know I will return from it.” — Alana Reid

14. “I’m not asking you to understand my anxiety, I’m asking you to respect it.” — April Schneeman

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15. “Your physical presence is enough to assure me I can get through this.” — Ninny Mundt Ryan

16. “Even though I trust you completely, I still need the reassurance you aren’t going anywhere!” — Ashley Nicole

17. “I worry all the time. A simple hug from you gives me so much comfort and reassurance. You have no idea.” — Kara Cardoza

18. “It doesn’t make sense, but a small grain of sand to you is an enormous, perilous mountain to me: covered in sharp jagged rocks, slippery slimy trails, hidden threatening holes and adrenaline pumping ravines. And I have to traverse this obstacle untrained, unprepared and alone every day.” — Elisa Fraser

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19.Thanks for never making me guilty for when I have to close myself off in our room because I’m tired from the hurricane of anxiety going on in my head. I appreciate that you always ask me how you can help and that you order/cook food when I have no energy to make dinner.” — Nicole Campbell

20. “Thank you for telling me not to worry every time I ask an anxiety-induced question. It makes me feel loved instead of annoying and that’s all I could ever ask for.” — Rachel Silton

21. “When I’m having a full blown anxiety attack, what I need more than anything is someone who can just be present with me. I don’t need you to solve my problem, because you can’t. I don’t need you to validate my feelings, because they are real to me. And I don’t need you to fix anything because I’m not broken.” — Kristine Burch McCourt

22. “I appreciate all the things you do, from comforting me during an anxiety attack to the little things like fixing a cup of tea and cuddling. Knowing that someone is there for me and loves me unconditionally helps me more than you’ll ever know.” — Christy Kira Miller

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23. “If you’re away on business and I seem to be worrying about you too much, please do not be annoyed. Please know I worry because I love you, because you mean the world to me. Please try to be understanding, rather than telling me to get a handle on my anxiety.” — Natali Wind

24. “Sometimes you can’t touch or hold me. It’s not personal, it’s not your fault. It’s my anxiety in a really, really bad place. I will come to you as soon as I’m ready, no doubt about it…you’re the one that I want.” — Victoria Churchill

25. “When I don’t get things done around the house, it’s not because I’m lazy or don’t want to do them; being overwhelmed causes anxiety, and that can be brought on by even the simplest tasks.” — Amy Dale Aranda

26. “Sometimes I just need a hug and to know I’m loved. Sometimes there’s nothing more you can do than that. Some days I might be overly emotional and scared about things that seem like nothing to you, but when I feel broken, I just need a rock to stand by my side.” — Lyddie Leanne Wargo

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*Answers have been edited and shortened.

Editor’s note: Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way. These answers are based on individuals’ experiences.

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When Managing Anxiety Starts With Your Hands

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I learned how to knit when I was 12 years old. A family friend brought over a ball of yarn and some needles as a gift, and I went wild. I learned knitting and purling in alternate rows made the stockinette stitch. I even learned how to rib. Eventually, I moved on from “flat projects” and taught myself to make hats. At that point, I hadn’t yet labeled my constant need for control over the shifting elements in my life as anxiety. But regardless, knitting provided me with a productive way to relax. I would sit back, churn out stitch after stitch and somehow make it to the next day. 

When I moved across the country for college, I was unprepared for the transition. Thrust into a group of strangers in uncharted territory, I began to view the world around me as hostile. I felt stifled, in the sense that no amount of crying or rationalizing could take away the pain of this unwelcome adjustment. I blamed this onset of depression on my parents’ divorce, but really I just felt out of control in the new environment that college presented. I couldn’t mold myself into the simple, happy version of my personality I felt would be desirable to others. I couldn’t force others to understand my condition as anything different than self-centered, dramatic behavior. My anxiety welled up as the winter months of my freshman year approached.

Knitting was the only defense I had. 

When I knit, my main objective is to indulge in the repetitive motions, knowing they will eventually produce something complete and beautiful. It’s a simple interaction between my hands, the knitting needles and the yarn, and this allows my mind to tune out. Knitting becomes more and more therapeutic over time. When you’re first learning, it takes a lot of patience and perseverance until your muscles memorize the motions and everything clicks. Whether I’m watching television, on the train or talking to a friend, I can knit and know the anxious tension in my hands will be accounted for.

I’ve taught many people to knit over the years and now that my company AK Kerani is formally holding workshops for this purpose, I’m excited for the challenge. Teaching someone to navigate the first few loops can be a struggle, but my favorite part is to step back and watch as their rows progress. Even if it’s shaky, watching a new knitter set out on their first journey reminds me how flexible the human brain is and how it yearns for creative ways to implement energy. 

I grew up a serious musician and runner, turning to both activities every day for solace. I still use songwriting and running as ways to release my anxious tension into something productive. However, knitting has that extra element of producing a tangible substance that can be felt and worn. I can remember the less than healthy state I might have been in when I made a given infinity scarf, but if I wear it with pride in the days that follow, I’m proudly representing my ability to overcome. 

My journey with knitting has been somewhat unexpected in terms of its importance in my daily life. I always thought I’d be a writer, a musician or even a business person generally involved with the media.  I never expected I would base my entrepreneurial dreams around knitting. But I’m glad I have. Knitting is a personal creative outlet for me and it’s the main activity I look forward to engaging in at the end of a long day. Moreover, it gives me a tangible way to advocate for my mental health and those of others. I’ve learned people are interested in their mental health and ways they can maintain it. Curiosity is the beginning of a universal fight against stigma that we can perpetuate by offering solutions to daily anxiety, as well as the negative energy that can overtake us during the rougher times.

I believe creative outlets in general are a large part of pursuing a healthy mindset. If you work on creating something every day, you may not always reach your ideal mental state, but you did accomplish something. The little victories towards our mental health we make each day serve to fight the overall feeling of hopelessness that depression and anxiety rely on to grow. I am not finished fighting to understand and defeat my anxiety. And as I struggle with being physically far from those I love, losing friends who are near and maintaining the high level of energy I need to stride through my day, I often do feel thoughts of helplessness beginning to well up.

But equipped with my knitting, I know I will continue to get closer to my goals and more aware of my limits, if I simply allow myself to progress one stitch at a time.

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