We Need to Start Talking About the Physical Effects of 'Background Anxiety'

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I’ve written a lot about what panic attacks are like, and things you can do to calm yourself down. What I haven’t really talked about is what low-grade anxiety is like; the stuff that slowly builds and is kind of always there in the background.

I’m fortunate that I don’t live with the feeling of anxiety every minute of every day. There are people who do, and based on my own experience, I can imagine how much that sucks. But my boyfriend and I are moving, and I’ve been living with background anxiety about it for the last few days.

This is different from panic attacks; this is not an intense period of fear and physical symptoms from which you calm down. This is more like a pot you put on the heat and slowly, slowly it begins to simmer. But there are physical symptoms here just like there are with panic attacks, and I want to address it.

We don’t talk about how anxiety feels physically, and so it feels embarrassing to talk about it. To be honest, some of the physical symptoms are things we’ve been trained by society not to mention. This feeds into the stigma of mental illness; if we feel like we can’t talk about what’s going on in our bodies, how are we supposed to holistically address our mental health? Through talking about our physical symptoms, we can actually help ourselves address the anxiety sooner, and thus feel the symptoms for a shorter amount of time.

So, that being said, things are about to get really real. I totally get it if that makes you feel weird or gross or whatever, but I encourage you to push past it. If you experience anxiety, you might see some of yourself in what I’m describing. If you don’t, you’ll have a better understanding of what your person may be going through.

When I talk about anxiety, I’m usually not talking about panic attacks. General anxiety — for me — is different. It’s different for each person, but usually it’s a sense of being on edge or nervous. This lives in the background. You can go about your daily activities, and you can mostly hide it from other people.

The thing is that this type of anxiety is also pretty sucky in its own way. It’s just less obvious. For me, this is a cumulative thing, and it’s very anticipatory. I have this kind of anxiety leading up to a big event: a move (hence my post today), a trip, an important day at work, etc. This kind of anxiety used to lead to a panic attack for me, and I’m sure it probably still can and will at some point. But what I want to talk about here is the collection of low-grade symptoms that kind of pile on top of each other and make it harder to function and fend off the actual panic.

For me, it starts with waking up suddenly, much earlier than I need to, with a racing heartbeat and a sense of being on edge. Sometimes there’s also some tightness in the chest and the need to go to the bathroom more often or more urgently than normal. I can usually sit through these feelings, using my anxiety checklist to help me feel more comfortable.

One morning or day of this is OK, but with each day it gets worse because the effects of sleep loss are tossed in the ring. In addition to waking up early and not being able to fall back asleep, I also have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. This leads to nausea and headaches, and a general feeling of malaise. While these are fairly mild, the cumulative effect is that, three or four days later, I’m dead tired, sleeping only four to five hours a night, and my temper is much shorter. Add to that the feeling of being on edge, and you end up in this weird state where you’re at once exhausted and feel like you’ve had a ton of caffeine. When I got to work this morning, my coworker had to ask me three times if my sister had her baby before I understood what she was asking.

All of these things ebb and flow; for me, they’re worst right when I wake up and as I’m going to sleep. And they usually go away completely once I’ve started doing whatever it is I’m anticipating. I know when I get home and start moving my stuff into my new apartment, I’ll feel much better. In a way, it’s actually a good thing I can’t fully alleviate the symptoms until it comes time for whatever I’m anxious about because it forces me to sit with the feelings and get used to them. This helps in general with dealing with anxiety because tension is the thing that makes it worse. If I’m not resisting, if I’m sitting with the feelings, I’m helping my own healing process.

Anxiety may or may not be like this for you or your person, but I encourage you to ask them if they want to talk to you about their experience. They may not, and that’s OK. But sometimes it can be really helpful to talk about the physical side of things because it helps us normalize the experience. It helps us get used to sitting with the feelings and practicing all of the strategies we know help. By asking us about the symptoms that are not-so-great to talk about, you’re actually helping us heal. And isn’t that what we all want?

Follow this journey on It’s Only Fear.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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43 People With Anxiety Share Their Biggest Fears

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Everyone is afraid of something. Even the most fearless and daring people have their limit.

But for people who live with anxiety disorders, fear isn’t always an occasional, ghost-jumps-out-at-you experience. This fear can become a soundtrack in their minds, looping doubts and worries. It can be hard to shut off. To get a better understanding of what this is like, we asked people in our mental health community to share their biggest or most “irrational” fear.

If you can relate, know you are not “crazy,” and you certainly are not alone.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “My biggest trigger of anxiety is when I’m in a room full of people. I start to panic and then fear more how I would look if I just got up and left.”

2. “My health. Especially since the birth of my daughter. I have a constant fear I’m going to get sick and pass away and not be around to see her grow up.”

3. “My biggest fear is having to open up to someone about my anxiety and depression, so I keep it all bottled up even though I know I should talk to someone. But every time I try I feel like they will think I’m insane or won’t understand, so I keep it all in and end up having a panic attack.”

4. “My biggest fear with anxiety is that it will win. Win in my work place, my relationships and my self-worth. The fear of all of my insecurities coming true — ‘They don’t care about you. They wouldn’t care if you walked away. You’re naive for even thinking they benefit from having you in their lives.'”

5. “I fear starting a family and having my anxiety affect my children. It terrifies me that my mental health could have an impact on the life I bring into the world. I hope someday I can overcome this fear so my husband and I can start a family of our own.”

6. “My biggest fear is lots of people paying attention to me at one time because I’ve done something embarrassing or wrong.”

7. “All of my anxiety stems from my irrational fear of vomit. Known as emetophobia. Have had the disorder since I was 7 years old.”

8. “I’m afraid my anxiety will ruin my children’s childhood. I know it’s irrational, but it’s a like a little black raven sitting on my shoulder telling me I’m a bad mother.”

9. “My biggest fear is that I’ll end up alone. Not because I’m too unbearable to someone, but because I pushed them away because of my anxiety.”

10. “My biggest irrational fear that comes from anxiety is that my husband will eventually learn to hate me because of my anxieties and then leave me. I’m getting better every day, but there are still times I feel like I need him to say the right things more often, just to quiet the voices in my head. They’ll sometimes scream to me that because he’s quiet, he’s mad and looking for a way to break the news that he’s leaving me. It’s sad and makes me feel horrible for thinking it, but it’s an irrationality I live with almost daily.”

11. “Answering the phone.”

12. “My biggest trigger is the fear of death. I fear it so much that I don’t actually live. It’s terrible.”

13. “I feel like I’m a horrible friend because I often need space/time alone. But then I panic if I text or call or message them and don’t hear back right away. I instantly feel like they hate me.”

14. “I fear failure. My capabilities and strengths are great, but my anxiety makes me feel that I am never good enough.”

15. “My biggest fears, especially with my social anxiety, is that constant thought of being unwanted and unimportant. Always being terrified of others’ opinions of me. Also the thought of not having a purpose and wondering what on earth I’m supposed to be doing with my life.”

16. “I’m pretty sure everyone I love is going to die 100 percent of the time. Late getting home? They probably died in a car accident. Minor outpatient surgery? They’re gonna die. Breathing a little funny? Cancer. Death. I constantly have to remind myself not everyone is dying in real life just because they are dying in my head.”

17. “I fear things at random. Sometimes it’s that my family got in a horrible car accident. Other times it’s of tripping in front of people. My fear ripples with the events happening in my life. They come back and fall away like a yo-yo. My anxiety never lets me have peace. Every moment or so some horrible scenario flashes in my heart and leaves my heart racing and my eyes burning with tears.”

18. “My biggest and most irrational fear is that my anxiety will make me a person I don’t recognize, and that I will lose everything and everyone I hold dear because of it.”

19. “My fear is not that others won’t be able to accept me, but that I will never be able to accept them because I cannot see them clearly; my perception is so out of line.”

20. “My biggest fear is the unknown. Not knowing how things will turn out, whether it’s a party or the afterlife. It’s a very broad spectrum, and life is obviously full of unknowns. Instead of seeing unknowns as a fun part of life, my anxiety turns every unknown into a worst-case scenario.”

21. “I have social/general anxiety and agoraphobia. My biggest fear is losing the people I love and not being able to have a family, which only makes my anxiety worse. I worry this illness will isolate me more than it already has and ruin my dreams. It scares me every day.”

22. “I fear my anxiety makes me unlovable.”

23. “I have bad social anxiety and it causes me to think when I go out in public everyone’s staring at me and saying terrible things about me.”

24. “I have a deep fear and avoidance of bird poo. I know nobody wants it on them, but even the memory of poo being there freaks me out. I remember my mom telling my her cousin or friend lost her sight when a bird pooped on her face. When I hear ducks overhead I cover my head like a bombs going to drop.”

25. “I fear that while taking a shower I’ll slip and fall and the paramedics will see me naked.”

26. “I’m afraid all my friends will get tired of me, either because I’m boring or a burden. I am too much and not enough at the same time.”

27. “My most irrational fear would have to be thunderstorms. Thunderstorms provoke full-blown anxiety attacks for me. When there is a thunderstorm, my mind goes into panic mode and I assume the worst. I don’t see it as a thunderstorm, I see it as the possibility of something really bad and scary happening. Even though I know it is just a thunderstorm and that it is not dangerous like I think it is, anxiety doesn’t understand that.”

28. “Honestly: Windmills, zombies and loud voices.”

29. “My biggest fear is that one day, I’ll become so much of an inconvenience no one will want to be around me because I’ll be so much to handle. My biggest fear is becoming completely alone and having no one to turn to.”

30. “Being approached by sales/charity promoters in public sends my anxiety and blood pressure through the roof. I hate feeling rude by ignoring them but being approached by someone I don’t know makes me irrationality anxious, and then I feel silly for getting so worked up!”

31. “I’m afraid certain things are symbols for what is about to come. I am terrified of dead birds. If I see one, I think someone is going to die. It feels like it is a warning. Also, I’ll get nervous and scared when I start to see the same numbers in a row on the clock. (11:11 or 3:33). It has nothing to do with anything and I know it is silly, but my heart will race and I am uncomfortable just looking at the numbers.”

32. “Losing control.”

33. “My biggest fear is one I go to bed with every night. I fear my house will catch on fire and everyone inside (my kids, my husband and my cats) will die. I’ll lose everyone and everything I have. I think about it every night. I have extra smoke alarms and two fire extinguishers — none of it seems to bring any peace of mind.”

34. “I’m terrified of ordering food or paying for things. Terrified the person will get angry with me for moving too slowly or if I give them the wrong amount of money or if I mess up my order.”

35. “I get scared every single time I leave the house, that I’ll have an attack and throw up in front of everyone.”

36. “My most irrational fear is that when I’m riding in a car I will lose control of my body and jump out. I have to have the child locks engaged and if there are no child locks, I have to put things between me and the door.”

37. “My biggest irrational fear is space. The unknown of what we are, what life is, really makes me feel suffocated and anxious. I used to love everything about space; from going to the planetarium, to watching ‘Cosmos,’ ‘Interstellar,’ ‘The Martian,’ and my all time favorite show, ‘Dr Who.’ But then something clicked in me and made me fear it. I would get dizzy and feel sick to my stomach when I would watch anything about it. I can’t run away from it and it frightens me. And writing about it makes it seem so stupid and crazy to fear, but I do. I know it’s because I think too vast and that can be considered a great thing, a sign of intelligence. But for me, it’s crippling, embarrassing and frightening.”

38. “I can’t even go to the shop for milk without my hair and makeup done to my own personal standard. It scares me to the point of tears and panic attacks.”

39. “My biggest fear is being left by everyone I care about. That I’m just a placeholder till they find someone better.”

40. “The most irrational fear I have is that I’m going to spontaneously combust, tied with that I’m going to swallow a rat (if I see a rat, I panic and I’m scared that if I panic too much insanity is going to make me swallow it like I did in a dream when I was younger) and that I have maggots in my ears… [I] have to keep trying to convince myself that’s it’s not real and that touching wood multiple times is going to stop it.”

41. “I have an extreme fear of the dark. I need to have some form of night light, and someone to sleep in bed with me, or I only get three or four hours of sleep a night. Every sound, every object in the dark terrifies me. I cannot get myself out of bed if its dark in the room, and if I do it take hours for me to build up the courage to do so.”

42. “When I hear sirens, I think something happened to someone I know. I play out the entire scenario in my mind and forget sometimes it didn’t happen.”

43. “My biggest fear is that my mental illness is ‘all in my head.'”

You are not defined by your fears. If you live with anxiety, there are resources that can help. Visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of American to find a therapist, local support groups and more information about anxiety disorders.

*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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4 Things I Wish My Friends Knew About My Anxiety at Prom

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Prom is supposed to be an exciting experience. You get to pick out a dress (or tux), go to a nice dinner and enjoy a night full of dancing and fun. Prom is something most people look forward to, but for me it went a little differently.

But just because I have anxiety and get overwhelmed at times, doesn’t mean I don’t want to join in on the fun. Here are some things I want my friends to know:

1. I promise I’m not mad or annoyed. I’m just overwhelmed.

For me, the most stressful part of the night was taking pictures. We took pictures at a beautiful local park, but so did everyone else! Hundreds of people from schools all over came to take pictures, and between the flashing cameras, hovering parents and waiting to get our picture taken, I had a lot of anxiety at this overwhelming place. I want my friends to know places like this can overwhelm most people, much less people who have anxiety. If I get quiet or snap at you, please know it’s not you. I enjoy your presence — nights like these can just be a little tougher than others!

2. I will need to take a break once in a while.

When the music is really loud and people are crowding around the dance floor, I suddenly feel like I’m trapped. The noise, the people and the uncomfortable dress — it all hits you at once. I want my friends to know it’s not because I didn’t want to dance with you, I just need to step out for a couple minutes to breath, gather my thoughts and relax. Taking a break helps me calm down and allows me use my coping mechanisms so I can get back on the dance floor. It’s amazing what a few minutes to collect myself can do for my anxiety!

3. I need and appreciate your support.

I know at times you may be annoyed I need another break or need reassurance, but know I appreciate it more than you will ever know. I’m trying my hardest to fight the demons inside me and have fun. Sometimes it’s hard and I understand it can be hard on you too, but when you have my back it can mean the difference between a panic attack and just a two minute break. I couldn’t be more thankful for the people I spend these nights with.

4. We will have fun! 

Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean we’re going to have a bad night! I want to dance and run around and have fun too, I might have to adjust and learn to push myself a little in the process. But I want to enjoy this night with you and I’m glad we were able to!

Prom is such a fun time, and although easier said then done, try not to let your anxiety take away your happiness and focus on just letting go and having fun!

The author at prom.
Lexi at her prom.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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To Those Who Think I Cancel Plans Because I 'Don't Feel Like Going'

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I am going to be very, very honest here. I wish it was that simple. I really do. If only I could tell you that I canceled a lot of plans because I “just didn’t feel like going.” It’s just not the truth, it’s not even close.

I cancel because I can’t go. I cancel because my head feels like it’s about to explode, because my legs feel like they’re going to break and, most importantly, because every fiber in my body screams “fear, fear, fear.”

I cancel because I have severe social anxiety.

Days, sometimes even weeks before an event, my anxiety kicks in. My brain starts to make lists of how awful it’s going to be, how I’m going to embarrass myself and how everyone will laugh at me, point at me, or talk about me. As a response, my body gets tense, and that’s where the panic attacks come in.

Trouble sleeping, breathing and functioning. It’s exhausting.

That’s what makes me cancel plans. And even after I’ve canceled, the anxiety stays with me for hours. People might think I’m an awful human being. People may think that I’m doing exactly what the title of this article says. Believe me when I say, “I can’t come to your party.” It’s not because I don’t want to, but because at times it feels like an impossible task.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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Dear Anxious Mom, Only You Can Convince Yourself You Are Enough

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During my pregnancy I did what I’m sure a lot of mothers-to-be do: I listed the things I would do differently from my mother. Then I immediately reminded myself I would definitely find myself saying or doing things that would make me think (or my husband say), “I’ve (you’ve) turned into my (your) mother!”

Once my beautiful daughter was born, I switched gears. Being someone of anxious nature (not the way the term is loosely used: “I am so anxious!” “I can’t find my keys, I’m having a panic attack!” I mean actual anxiety), I started worrying about all the negative things, physically and emotionally, my daughter would inherit from me and how I had basically doomed her from the start and how could I think passing on my genes could be a good thing?

One day, in the middle of a terrifying anxiety attack, I realized part of the source of the anxiety worrying about my daughter. I so pitied her for having me for a mother, screwed up as I was. And I asked myself a question I’ve been asking my husband since we got married, “Why do you love me?”

Another day, when I was experiencing one of my first postpartum periods and reliving the excruciating pain of first-day cramps, I felt sorry for my daughter, knowing there was a good chance she would suffer her periods as badly as I did in my teen years, one time almost to the point of passing out. I felt as I if I had chosen to give her painful periods and how horrible of me for doing that.

When we took her for her one-month check-up, the doctor told us she hadn’t gained any of her birth weight back. While it was a good thing she hadn’t lost weight, she hadn’t gained like she was supposed to (her need to nurse every hour even after nursing for 40 minutes suddenly made sense). I clearly understood that in no way was I at fault for not producing enough milk and yet I felt terrible for not realizing she wasn’t getting enough to eat for four whole weeks. I felt disappointed that my ideal of exclusively nursing for a full year came to an end so soon. I felt inadequate that I needed to supplement her with formula.

On a daily basis I questioned my parenting. Am I giving her enough attention? Is she happy? Does she get enough fresh air? Do her diapers fit her comfortably? Is it OK that I went back to work nine weeks postpartum? Is it OK that she seems to love the babysitter [almost?] as much as me?

Then one day, while doing guided imagery, I envisioned myself as an infant. I tried to picture infant-me ecstatically happy, like only an infant can be, hands clapping, big toothless grin. And the image that came to my mind, the face of that infant, was not my own. It was my daughter’s. As I tried to imagine happy infant-me, I saw my daughter clapping her pudgy hands, smiling widely, with her two bottom-front teeth clearly visible. And that’s how I knew I was good enough. I am a good mother. The picture of a happy, healthy infant in my mind, in my subconscious, was the one I had helped create and raise.

No matter how many times those whose opinion you value most will tell you you are a good mother, the only one who has the power to convince you, is you. It is so much harder than it sounds. It’s not telling yourself “I’m good enough, I’m OK.” Anyone can lie to themselves. It’s knowing it. Not having to tell yourself. It’s feeling it. It’s knowing you’re more than good enough. Your best is truly best for your child. Your best made this child the happy, giggly baby she is. No matter how flawed you think you are. No matter how screwed up you think you are — that flawed, screwed up person created and raised a beautiful happy baby. You are the perfect mother for your child.

The Mighty is asking the following: Are you a mother with a disability, disease or mental illness? What would you tell a new mother in your position? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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In the Moments I'm Here, but My Mind Is Gone

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I write this in hopes that the next time an argument or conflict causes a person to dissociate, those around them will understand what is happening in their mind. As a disorder that causes the mind to flee the body as a defense mechanism, dissociating separates the victim from the situation, but to everyone else they are still “there.” During times of conflict when this occurs, it seems like the person dissociating stops listening, refuses to speak or respond, or is giving some type of stubborn cold shoulder. When questions are being asked but you are not mentally there to perceive and answer them, people tend to get upset.

 Please, take a moment right now to engross yourself in the thought process of someone dissociating during a conversation, and maybe next time you can help them feel safe enough to “come back to reality” instead of getting even more upset and heightening their flight-response.

***

We are sitting in your car, talking about some issues we’ve been having lately, issues that bring up personal events in my life I am never fond of talking about. As the questions began digging deep into my past, my mind does all it knows to do to protect me: leave. I want to answer your questions, I want to look you in the eyes and I want to be responsive right now as you grow angrier at my lack of emotion. I want so badly to be able to control my mind, but unfortunately those of us suffering from mental illnesses cannot always do so. Hopefully most have a person beside them that makes “coming back” a little bit easier, the way that I have you.

Heart racing; I feel a pen cap my fidgeting fingers have found. Life is continuing around me, but all I can hear are the clicks as I open and close it,

open and close it,

open and close it.

My chest aches where my heart is, crying a desperate plea of desire for the pain to cease. 

I hear you talking, I feel the tension, I see warm breathe crafting clouds of smoke each time your mouth opens and closes, opens and closes, opens and closes…but I can only stare straight ahead.

How can I look you in the eyes? Those eyes perceive life through a lens of grace and gentleness. Those eyes remind me of everything beautiful in this world. 

You stop talking, waiting for my response.

Silence.

I try to speak, but it feels as if something is caught in my throat. The dull pain in my chest makes me nauseous as I swallow and attempt to say something…anything — knowing it could be the difference between “see you later” or “goodbye.” I try to talk, but my body surrenders control as the throbbing extends to my stomach. Breathing becomes a task as the snow covered tree branches out the window of your car blend together, forming a blur of wonderful white and brown lines.

Next to me, you stare. Waiting. Expecting. Hoping.

But my mind has gone blank. I can’t remember any particular thing, I can’t remember anything. I close my eyes, trying to shield myself from the faintness, from the migraines. I am out of my body, on the outside looking in; away from the hurt, the pressures, the disillusionments of this distorted world. Finally — stillness, tranquility, peace.

I feel a hand on my shoulder, and am violently dragged back into reality.

Fear, panic, terror. I want to leave again, to never come back.

But that hand belongs to you, and you are worth staying for.

I turn towards you. How can I avert those eyes? Those eyes perceive me through a lens of grace and gentleness. Those eyes remind me of everything beautiful in this world.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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