What it's Like to Have High-Functioning Anxiety
“It’s silent anxiety attacks, hidden by smiles.”
The sound of my racing heartbeat is deafening. I’m pretty sure — no, I am 100 percent certain — my heart is about to pound itself right out of my chest. The room is starting to spin, and everything is closing in on me before I can react.
Sounds and movement are amplified beyond normal recognition. It’s nearly impossible to process what’s happening around me.
My throat feels like it’s closing, which is absolutely terrifying. If I can’t get more air soon, then I’m afraid I am going to suffocate. My chest is constricting. With each passing moment, it feels tighter and tighter.
My legs are like Jell-O. If I try to move them, then I just know they will give in on me. I’m afraid I’ll collapse. So I find a wall to lean against for support, or I plop down on the ground.
The rest of my body feels funny, too. Everything is surreal, and I feel as though I’m on the outside looking in. I don’t feel like I actually own my body or can control any of it.
I can’t focus. I can’t process. I’m simply trying to get through this. I have zero control.
My body’s fight, flight, freeze has kicked in. My reaction depends on the circumstances, although I usually freeze at first. Then, I fight until I get enough strength back in my legs to engage in flight. My legs finally support me and carry me away from the (incorrectly) perceived danger as my mind races a million miles an hour and screams with questions and blame.
Speaking of support, during a panic attack, I need support. I need real, true, genuine compassion. Please.
By the way, I am fully aware that my attack is not rational. I know this is not the proper response, and I’m not in real danger. My mind and body, however, are telling me otherwise. I am absolutely terrified, and I feel like I’m reduced to a childlike state.
Please, stay with me. Assure me that I’ll be OK. When I have a public attack, it shatters my heart if I’m ignored. I’m struggling through this attack, really, truly struggling. So the least someone can do is ask if I’m OK and see me through it. I know it’s probably awkward, but put yourself in my shoes. I’d choose awkward any day over the panic that I’m experiencing as my mind and body are screaming, defying me and losing control.
When my head starts clearing, I remember coping skills I have learned in therapy, and they help. When I can get to my medication, I’ll take it and that will also help get me through this. Yet, those aren’t magical cures, and it takes a lot out of me to get through a panic attack.
For me, once the physical attack on my body is over, I still have a recovery period that can last days, especially if others witnessed the attack, because I experience so much shame and humiliation. Getting over those feelings is just plain hard. I continue to bash myself for days because I feel reduced to so little. Once it’s all over, I keep pushing forward.
Please, do not judge a person struggling through a panic attack. It’s simply a human problem, and we all have those. Instead of judging or avoiding, ask how you can help. Lend a hand or an ear. Most importantly, practice compassion. You may not be able to tell, but your presence and compassion can go a long way.
Although depression is something I struggle with most, I also have anxiety. Most people who know me think I’m fearless, because I don’t show it much, but on the inside there’s a whole other story going on. I’m usually so focused on my depression I forget about my anxiety — but last week my anxiety hit really hard, and I would like to tell you a little about that.
I was walking around the bus station, trying to find a place where there’s no people. My bus was only in another hour, so where can I go during that time? I tried some shops, but got too many suspicious looks from shopkeepers when they saw me just hanging around. I tried walking around, but there were too many people, people just all over the place.
A flashback came into my mind from the previous day when I was waiting for a train. The platform was something out of this world. There were so many people, you couldn’t even walk. I felt sick. Someone accidentally shoved me and I had to jumped out of his way, right past the yellow line. Suddenly the train came whizzing past. I jumped, terrified, but there was no place to jump to. People started pilling out of the train, more people shoving, trying to get on the train, and then me, just standing, concentrating on keeping my lunch inside.
I felt sick now as I walked around the bus station. I decided to just wait by the platform where my bus is supposed to come to. But there were tons of people. I waited and soon more and more people started coming. “Don’t throw up, don’t throw up,” I whispered to myself. I wanted to lie down. I felt like I was going to faint. I wanted to be at home! Tears filled my eyes. I saw someone approaching me, obviously to ask me if I’m OK, but I was terrified. I ran. I ran to the only place where there was no people — out the door to where the buses are parked. Everyone knows the number one rule of the Jerusalem bus station — don’t go out the door until the bus arrives, it’s too dangerous to be out there for too long because of the fumes. But I didn’t care about the damn fumes anymore, I just needed to get away from all the people! I felt dizzy. I felt nauseous. I hoped I wouldn’t disgrace myself.
A few minutes later a few people came out as well. I didn’t mind much because it wasn’t too many people. But then a bus warden came and told everyone to go back inside. They all listened to him. But I didn’t. There was no way I was going back in there. Definitely not. He started shouting at me, I was too dizzy to explain why I couldn’t go back inside, and just then the bus came and I rushed on the second the door opened. I felt nauseous the whole long journey home, and the rest of the day.
That is what “people anxiety” is for me.
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To my anxious friends,
We are warriors. Strong and beautiful in our differences, mighty and courageous in our similarities. But we are often also worriers. And with that comes the responsibility of acknowledging that sometimes, we have an innate ability to escalate someone else’s emotions or actions through what we thought would be a normal conversation.
While we are well built for understanding the emotional complexities of others (sensing fear under anger, resentment under tears), we can let our feelings escalate up to a mountain levels – when yesterday they were mere molehills. I do it – we all do it – not because we mean to but because our mind propels us in that direction. We ride the roller coaster of thoughts (“What are they really thinking?” “Why won’t they message me back?”) at a speed where brakes aren’t effective – we are used to just holding on until we feel it slowing down.
A lot of the time, there’s nothing we can do about it – we have so much going on in our heads, a wild thought swarm of buzzing, stinging bees trying to be heard. We can’t change who we are, but we can change the way it manifests in our reactions.
It sucks to admit you’re wrong, especially when you know the incident was motivated by your own anxious feelings. You have to remember it’s OK to be wrong! It’s OK to make mistakes! None of us in this world are perfect (except puppies, they can do no wrong), and you have to accept your flaws to be able to move past them. This starts with surrounding yourself with the best people – and I mean, the best people. The people who treat you with respect, the friends and family who love you and will fight for you. Those are the people who will help you when you’re riding the roller coaster; they can help you notice the triggers and guide you through understanding your own reactions when things get hard.
Don’t settle for less. While we need to understand our own reactions, we can also be too passive in situations, in fear of starting an anxiety cycle. Stand tall, and don’t let your beautiful self be walked over in a situation where you are treated with malice or disrespect. You deserve the respect you give to others.
In saying that, it’s important not to disrespect those who don’t understand your anxiety. Chances are, they’ve never (knowingly) dealt with a person with an anxiety disorder. They might tell you to “calm down,” or “stop taking things so seriously.” These phrases can be hurtful and overwhelming to process. But take into account they were probably not said with the intention to hurt you. It can be hard to dissect the intentions of words, but we can acknowledge that some phrases have completely different meanings to people living with and without anxiety. But we can educate. We can teach. The great thing about having anxiety (I know, how can you pick just one from all the great things?) is that we can help others understand their own diagnoses and help them not to feel lost on the roller coaster.
Worriers, we are strong. We are powerful. And we can use that power to educate others – because in today’s world, there’s no better time than now.
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Thinkstock photo by Yue_
Dear sweet child,
I see you. I see your anxiety disorder. I know you don’t quite understand how your mind works. I didn’t understand my mind at your age either. You are strong. You will learn how to cope, and I know you already are. You are beautiful, and you are worthy.
There will be dark days, but there will be bright days too.
I see the things that go on in your mind. I know the irrational thoughts rushing through your head. You cry when you cannot buckle your own seat belt like you could yesterday. I see that it’s not about the seat belt at all. It’s a fear of failure. When you melt down in your sports practice, I see your embarrassment. The “tantrum” you’re throwing isn’t about the exercise you didn’t complete. It’s about not measuring up.
I see you chewing on your jacket as we wait to talk to your teacher after school. You chew on your clothes. When I was your age, I chewed on my hair or bit my nails. I would do it without notice until a parent or teacher got on to me, and I would stop for as long as I could remember not to. You’re not chewing on your jacket because it’s a bad habit and you’re choosing to be defiant; the chewing on your jacket is an outward expression of the anxiety bubbling up inside you that you aren’t able to understand or name. You don’t even realize your brain is wired differently than others’.
I see your struggles, your fears, your deepest insecurities behind your behaviors. I know you can’t explain it, but we both know it’s there. And I will love you through it.
Your anxiety can drive you forward. It comes with its challenges, but it is also an extremely motivating factor to achieve great things. You are so smart. If you weren’t ridiculously intelligent, you wouldn’t be able to analyze all of the pieces of your environment that cause your anxiety. You have a big heart. You care, and you care deeply. I don’t know what you will do yet, but I do know you will change the world.
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Anxiety is always being scared you won’t fit in.
Anxiety is not going into places because you’re scared you will get weird stares.
Anxiety is having to talk to yourself and calm yourself down every second of your day.
Anxiety is a constant struggle. Not many people understand what I feel like, and they judge me.
Danielle, why can’t you just come in with me? It’s not a big deal. Danielle, why can’t you just do this one simple task?
It’s sad when you don’t have an answer for it. You don’t know what about being out in public makes you so uncomfortable that you try to avoid it all together. You don’t know what is actually scaring you and making you so nervous. You have to think about your every move.
Sometimes, I look at other people and wonder why I am like this. Why can’t I just be “normal” like them? Why do I need a safety blanket everywhere I go? Why can’t I go anywhere alone and feel safe and comfortable with myself?
Anxiety is overthinking the simplest task or overcomplicating the simplest thoughts. People out there feel the same. You’re not alone. Always remember that.
Real People. Real Stories.
We face disability, disease and mental illness together.