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How I Explain What Generalized Anxiety Disorder Feels Like to Me


I’m standing on the train when I feel a tight pain in my chest, my heart beating too fast. I am suddenly aware that I cannot breathe. I am drowning. My body breaks out into great bouts of sweat, heart rising to my face. I’m going to pass out, panic rushes over me. I get pins and needles down both arms and legs, and my hands begin to cramp, curling up towards my wrists. My hands are seized from the lack of oxygen, “scared” doesn’t even begin to describe what I’m feeling. I think I’m dying. Am I having a seizure? I’m having a heart attack! I can’t breathe! I try to stand up, but my legs are so weak I can hardly walk. A kind woman calls an ambulance, and two men help me off the train.

This is what living with anxiety can be like. Thankfully there were people there that day to support me through what I later realized when the paramedics arrived was a severe panic attack. It was the worst one I’ve experienced in the past five years of living with anxiety.

Experiencing a panic attack never gets any less frightening. It’s such an intense emotional reaction. Your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, and it’s completely terrifying. My anxiety is often heightened after having a panic attack because I’m filled with so much uncertainty about when I’ll have another one.

There are different types of anxiety. I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), an illness that makes me feel anxious and worried about everyday things or seemingly nothing at all. I know my worries are often unrealistic, but that doesn’t make them easier to deal with. I often feel like I’m not in control of my emotions, and when my anxiety is bad it affects every part of my life. I have trouble sleeping, eating, working, maintaining relationships, concentrating, and breathing.

Having anxiety is very different to the feeling you might have before taking an exam or in a stressful situation. Anxiety’s intense symptoms can last for longer periods of time. Anxiety isn’t something I can control by calming down, thinking positively or taking a few deep breaths. When my anxiety is bad I practice self-care by doing yoga, making sure I exercise, and trying to get enough sleep; these things help to manage my illness, but they don’t cure it.

There are moments of “normal” me, anxiety dormant. Days where the physical symptoms aren’t as present, I’m happy and not getting stuck in the thoughts that can often consume me; but the next day I don’t know how I’ll ever get through this. It can be exhausting and completely overwhelming. I can quickly get lost in my head: I’m worthless, no one loves me, I’m too much. These thoughts are irrational. I know my friends don’t hate me and that I’ve already checked my alarm clock five times, but every day I have to battle with myself.

Some days I feel like I’m coping, others I crumble into a heap of tears and shaking hands.

On my worst days, anxiety is this awful, uncomfortable feeling in my stomach, butterflies and nausea. I’m breathing in short shallow breaths. There’s that familiar tightness in my chest, I feel unsettled and shaky, irritable and like I might start crying at any moment.

It’s hard to understand what anxiety feels like, it’s hard to articulate it as well. There’s still so much stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health problems, but if you think of anxiety like any other illness it becomes less difficult. Therapy and medications help to manage my anxiety, but sometimes when I’m really unwell I need more support, so I go to the doctor and see my therapist. No matter how much I look after myself, I still have days, weeks or months when I struggle to cope.

It can be hard to find different strategies that help lessen the symptoms of anxiety. Some days I just have to sit with the feeling, knowing it will pass eventually. When things get too much I know I need to be kinder to myself and reach out and ask for help.

Having people around me who don’t make me feel like I need to apologize for my anxiety helps immensely because even though I am a person with anxiety, my illness doesn’t define who I am.

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Thinkstock photo by sergio_kumer