When You Don’t Know the Reason for Your Anxiety

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It’s 4:30 a.m. and I’m wide awake. An hour and a half ago, I bolted awake feeling anxious. There wasn’t even a specific thing weighing on my mind, just this broad, generalized sense of urgency, a feeling that things just weren’t right and I needed to wake up.

I know there will be no more sleep tonight because my mind is already racing, my thoughts bouncing around from one topic to the next. My leg bounces a mile a minute. I try to focus my thoughts, but my brain won’t stay on anything long enough to process it.

There are many times when my anxiety locks tightly to something and wont let go. The thoughts become repetitive and increasingly louder and more urgent. There is no way to focus on anything else. It beats down on me like a hailstorm, cold, wet and jarring. There is no ignoring it because its voice is booming, drowning out anything else going on.

There are other times, though, I cannot even pinpoint why I am anxious. The urgency is still there, though it is surrounded by a dull fog. I know something is eating at me because  I cannot focus on anything else. For the life of me, though, I cannot put my finger on it. Yet my anxiety is in full force just the same.

I’m jittery, uncomfortable, unable to focus. My chest is tight. I have trouble catching my breath. I try to calm myself with breathing exercises, but I cannot center myself. I have this strange burst of energy but no will to use it. My brain has grabbed that energy to fuel its racing. I’m wide awake. My thoughts, like my sentences, are choppy. Nothing quite seems to flow. I cannot focus. I cannot rest. I cannot get comfortable. My anxiety is jarring, like percussion being banged on haphazardly without any rhyme or reason. It is loud and bracing, impossible to ignore.

I feel itchy, shaky, edgy and uncomfortable. I am annoyed and agitated though I cannot even explain why. Some days, my anxiety wraps its head around a thought or concept and will not let go, holding it in a stranglehold, allowing me to focus on nothing else. It will often link itself to other things I am struggling with, making it even harder to cope.

When my anxiety attaches to my depression, it becomes that parrot that repeats all the bad in my life on an endless loop. It asks me what else I could have expected and makes me question how much is ultimately my fault. It is unyielding, unwavering and unforgiving. It eats at me, making me feel inherently and hopelessly a mess. My depression feeds it a steady dose of fuel, so my racing thoughts never seem to slow or falter. My anxiety pushes for me to beat myself up for everything, whether it was my fault or not.

When my anxiety combines with my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I am bombarded by a steady barrage of emotions that threaten to push me into a bad place. One of the most common themes my anxiety clings to that triggers my PTSD is safety. Once my anxiety has grabbed onto that fear, my brain reminds me repeatedly that I am not safe, not safe, not safe, I can no longer concentrate on anything else. Though I try to reassure myself that everything is OK, doors are locked, everyone is safe, it is to no avail. My brain won’t listen to reason. It becomes a battle to fight off an anxiety attack or worse, to be yanked back to those times when I truly was not safe.

One of the most frustrating parts about struggling with anxiety is that nobody truly seems to understand or sympathize. People suggest I just breathe, not realizing it feels like there is a weight on my chest and I can barely catch my own breath. I’m told I should just try to calm down and try to focus. I would love to do that, but I feel like I have no control over my mind at this point. I swear I’ve yelled at my mind a million times, “Stop! Enough!” but it never listens. It has gone on a 100-mile-an-hour joyride along a dangerously winding cliffside road, and I’m just along for the ride.

The worst, though, is when I am asked what exactly I am anxious about or when someone tries to use logic and reason to convince me there is nothing to stress about. Often, I honestly don’t have an answer about why I am feeling this way. I don’t understand it myself. As I try to explain it, my hand shakes and my mind just cannot form the words. I know I’m anxious, I’m restless, that something is definitely wrong, even if I cannot always put a finger on exactly what it is. I know they mean well, want to understand what I’m feeling and try to talk me down, calm me down. But how can I explain my anxiety to anyone else when I don’t even fully understand it myself?

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5 Things I Want My Friends to Know About My Anxiety

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1. Just because I’m not acting “anxious” doesn’t mean I’m not feeling anxious.

There’s this stereotype that if you have an anxiety disorder you’re always panicking and talking fast or crying — some of which can be true, but more often than not it isn’t. Anxiety doesn’t always look like a panic attack. I can be listening to you tell me a story but desperately trying to calm my mind down at the same time. This leads me to tend to not pay attention and forget a lot of what you say. No, it’s not because I don’t care what you’re saying! My mind is racing, and I’m trying to settle it so I can pay attention to you!

2. I’m not intentionally being flaky. Please don’t give me a hard time about it.

Some days I feel great and I’ll make plans with you and hope with everything in me I can follow through , but sometimes I just can’t. Some days I won’t make concrete plans because I know my anxiety could act up. I know this frustrates you, and it frustrates me too. Sometimes the anticipatory anxiety becomes too much. Maybe I didn’t sleep the night before because my mind was racing, so my anxiety is acting up. I’m not flaky. Please don’t make me feel guilty about it. Trust me I do this to myself enough.

3. Please don’t disregard me when I try to reach out.

Reaching out for me is more difficult than you think. Simply saying, “I’ve been in bed all day” or “I just want to feel normal again!” doesn’t mean I’m trying to throw my whole disorder at you. It doesn’t mean I want advice. Sometimes I just want you to say, “I know, it’s OK.” Please don’t just ignore it until I change the subject. That can cause a downward spiral of thoughts about me being “selfish” or “talking about my anxiety too much.” Sometimes I just need reassurance that someone knows I’m struggling and will talk about it with me.

4. Don’t push yourself on me.

I know it can be hard to feel me pushing you away. It’s hard for me too. But please don’t force yourself upon me. Don’t make me feel bad for not wanting to hang out with you. If I hang out with other friends it might just be because I’m more comfortable around them when my anxiety strikes. It’s not you. It’s the anxiety.

5. Anxiety takes a lot out of me.

Constantly being in a high state of anxiety can be mentally and physically exhausting. I might not want to talk at the end of the day because I’ve been constantly trying to push thoughts out of my head and calm myself down. Having to constantly remind yourself to use “breathing techniques” and that “everything will be OK” is so time consuming. It really doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything else. It might seem like I had an “easy” day if I only had one class, but it’s so much harder than that.

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When Anxiety Makes You Feel Like a Prisoner at School or Work

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Work or school can be a tough place to deal with anxiety. Even though I liked school and have had the fortune of enjoying almost every job I’ve had since college, there are times – many times – anxiety makes me feel captive, chaining me to my desk as I resort to white-knuckling it through the rest of the day.

Eight hours is a long time, unless you’re on vacation. If the day could be broken up into smaller pieces so you could say “I’ve made it halfway through the day” or “only one hour to go,” it might seem more manageable.

At a previous job, I listened to a radio program during lunch – 92.9 dave FM’s “Radio Free Lunch” (now a sports talk station). Everyday there was a theme – songs about summer, songs about superheroes for the latest comic book movie release, songs with the cheesiest lyrics for National Grilled Cheese Day – you get the idea. I looked forward to it every day. I enjoyed the anticipation of what songs they’d play to fit the theme and it meant my work day was halfway through.

Maybe there is a favorite podcast you can listen to during lunch, or even for 10 minutes as you take a quick walk through the hallways.

At another job, there was an automated email I received everyday at 3 p.m. The email was simply a status about a system I managed, no big deal. But pretty soon, I was looking forward to that email. It signaled I had only one more hour of work. I’d see the email and buckle back down for one more hour. Because I could make it through one hour.

These are simple, silly things. But sometimes it’s those things that get you through. Try to think of natural “breaks” in your day at school or work, and use those as milestones to tell yourself “you’ve made it this far!”

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What It Feels Like to Have 'Imposter Syndrome'

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I’ve been reading a lot lately about “high-functioning” depression and anxiety. I possess both. Most of the time I am able to be a high achiever and people who don’t know me well don’t realize how much I struggle to keep on the straight and narrow. One aspect of this I have seen over and over in my reading, and was recently made aware of within my own counseling sessions is imposter syndrome, or feeling like a fraud.

Trapped in seemingly successful achievement but shrouded in self-doubt, it is almost impossible for us to accept any success. In school, if I made a 98% in a class I kicked myself because why wasn’t it a 100%? At work, if ever I am called into a meeting with the supervisor I am filled with dread that I will be fired or chastised for something… often I don’t have any idea what it may be for, but I expect myself to fail and fail big. It gets to where I am working in a job, a career I love but am terrified to actually go to work for fear of screwing up, or more precisely, for fear of being pointed out by my boss that I am a total failure.

I spend so much time trying to prepare myself for these punches that I never notice if I am getting a raise or if I am proud of my own work. It is never-ending expectation of failure. I feel like an imposter. I have imposter syndrome.

When people tell you not to forget about those of us who succeed but are incredibly depressed or have insurmountable anxiety, they are explaining that while to you we may be succeeding, to us we are complete failures. And no one ever validates our feelings or recognizes we are feeling that way at all. We are constantly disappointing ourselves, but we hide behind a calm veneer. We feel we should be doing so much better. We go home to stare at the empty walls of our minds where all our achievements are supposed to hang, but we’ve torn them all to shreds.

We beg you to see us! We beg you to tell us, “You may not believe it, but you’re doing a great job! And if you need me to, I will continue to remind you of that for as long as you need.”

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Anxiety, and the Words I Wish I Had

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There was a time in my life that I had so much anxiety and so few words.

To articulate what I was experiencing required some sort of understanding, an understanding I had not yet achieved.

How could I describe the mental battle that took place each time I left the house? How could I articulate the racing thoughts that often washed over me like a warm ocean wave, leaving me drowning, lost, and gasping for air? How could I find words for the bodily sensations I often experienced – the lightheadedness, the feeling of my stomach dropping to my knees, the feeling of my cheeks burning hot, the nervous nausea? How could I articulate these things when I did not understand them? How could I articulate these things when I was still in denial that they were happening to me?

A simple conversation or circumstance could send me to a mental and physical place that was completely indescribable and thus a place in which I was truly isolated – a place I did not yet have the language to escape from.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my dear friend why I left her house so early, why I spent most of our time together sitting in a chair in her kitchen, white knuckles gripping my phone. I wish I had the words to tell her I was experiencing a panic attack (or maybe I was actually dying?) and that I wished with all my heart I could just “get over it.” I wish I could tell her I knew the trigger that caused my panic attack was irrational (I mean, I rationally knew it was not a life-threatening thing) but that my body somehow didn’t understand, my body was on a downward spiral of panic that was moving fast and didn’t stop. I wish I could tell her I so deeply appreciated her invitation, her hospitality, her friendship.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my college roommate why I seemed to suddenly be busy when she was sick. I wish I could tell her that sickness was a trigger for me. I wish I could tell her I wanted so deeply to stay and care for her, to bring her soup and crackers, to tell her she would be OK, but my anxiety was so incredibly overwhelming that I did not know how to fight it. I wish I could tell her that each time my hand touched a public surface my thoughts would become fixated on the germs I was inevitably carrying and the extreme urge to remove them. I wish I could tell her the urge would not go away until burning hot water and soap hit my hands, until I breathed in the alcohol smell of hand-sanitizer and felt it burn my sore chapped skin, entering into the cracks and making me feel clean again. I wish I could tell her that sometimes when she left the room I Cloroxed every surface, breathing in that fresh lemon scent and for the first time breathing deep. I wish I could tell her I wanted the kind of friendship that thrived the same in sickness and in health but that it didn’t seem possible for me.

I wish I had the words then.

I wish I had the words to tell my professor that I missed class because I thought I was dying.

I wish I had the words to tell my sister that I dropped her off early and went home because I was having a panic attack.

I wish I had the words to tell my friends that I stayed in another night and missed another event because I was struggling. I wish I had the words to tell them I wanted more than anything to just get over it but that instead I had to fight through it and I needed them to fight through it with me.

Somehow over time, I found the words.

Holding tightly to a warm cup of coffee, with a shaky cracking voice, speaking soft whispers to my dear husband, I found the words. In the plush chair of my therapist’s office and on the crinkly wax paper laid on the doctor’s table, I found the words. Slowly, not eloquently, I found the words.

As I searched and stumbled for them, the words began to find me. I learned names: anxiety disorder, panic attack, trigger. I learned humility. I learned to say: I need help.

As I began to speak, I began to understand. As I began to speak, I began to accept myself, to allow myself grace. As I chose to pursue the bravery of speaking my truth, I began to understand my truth, to understand myself, my story, my experience. Listening ears and fixated eyes received me, words of validation fell soft from careful lips.

I wish I had the words back then.

But I am learning the words now.

And I promise to try to speak them.

Even when I don’t fully understand – I promise, I will speak. Even when I am ashamed, even when I am afraid, even when I feel alone, I will speak. I will speak to the people in my life, and we will find the words together.

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What Goes On in an Anxious Mind When Someone Asks to Have a 'Quick Word'

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“Could I just have a quick word with you in my office?”

An innocent, harmless little sentence but one which strikes fear in to my heart. With my anxiety I tend to live my life one hour in to the future. If I have a situation coming up which I know will do a “spinal tap” on my anxiety dials, I need to know at least an hour beforehand. That’s how long it usually takes for the meds to kick in. Hearing this sort of instant request disrupts my plan for the day, and it brings instant terror.

As I walk towards the office the anxiety starts to build like the painful wail of an air-raid siren. Gradually getting quicker, stronger, more unsettling. My mouth dries, the fidgeting starts before I’ve even reached the room. My mind is already assessing temperature (both of myself and the destination); if I have anything on me that can be used as a distraction tool e.g. notepad/pen, glasses, keys; the possible duration of the “quick word;” if I’ll be able to stand or be forced to sit face-to-face and how loud that air raid siren is screaming. We’re told that manufacturers of computer processors design lumps of silicone that can handle millions and millions of bits of information each second – that ability has nothing on the anxious mind! That’s how the inside of my head feels at times like these. To the other person I may appear to be listening, giving information and asking questions. From the inside it is a completely different story.

When I speak I often feel as if it isn’t me somehow. Sure, I’m operating the jaw and muscles and words are coming out, but a part of my odd brain is asking, “Who is speaking? Is this my voice?” There is also the continual swirl of questioning what the other person is thinking about me. Do they think I’m waffling and talking rubbish? Do they think I look anxious? Are my clothes hanging OK? Do I look fat? Can they see my discomfort? Judgment is a big part of my world and has been since I was a boy.

When sitting in an airless room with the door shut and no distractions, all the questions and judgment assessments go in to hyper-drive. Like I said, a supercomputer is but slate and chalk next to anxious grey matter.

Less painful but still uncomfortable for me is meeting people in the street whom I may not have seen for a while. It’s as if my whole nervous system gets a strange kind of shock. The sort of shock you get when you have a sleep twitch. My brain seems to instantly split in to three concurrent trains of thought.

  • I haven’t seen this person in ages and I’m interested to hear what they’ve been up to.
  • Oh no – I don’t want to be trapped here on the street, I don’t want the anxiety, and I don’t want to hear all about your interesting life because mine pales in comparison and it makes me feel boring, inadequate and worthless. I want this encounter over ASAP – I want them gone!
  • Guilt, self-loathing because of thinking the above point!

They seem to last hours, and I then spend ages afterwards analyzing them in nauseating detail. Even a supercomputer must plug in to the power supply somewhere, and there must be an Off switch. How I wish I had one of those.

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Thinkstock illustration by Digital Vision.

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