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A Metaphor for People Who Are 'High-Functioning' With Generalized Anxiety Disorder


If you have been to the beach, perhaps you know the sensation of standing on the wet sand right at the water’s edge, where the waves have softened into tiny splashes, and it feels much safer than being out in the big surf itself.

But as you’re standing there, enjoying the cool rush of the water over your bare feet, eventually you notice — the ground is shifting. The sand is sliding around and out from beneath your feet, not exactly disappearing, but not stable enough for you to remain standing as you are without having to adjust your stance.

This is the experience of being high-functioning while having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). The day may be bright and beautiful, the sun shining in the sky and warm on your skin, laughter and games happening around you as the sun sinks. But despite all of that happiness, the ground is slipping out from under you, and you have to constantly move, regularly squirm and frequently tense your body in order to make it from moment to moment.

And quite often, no one around you has even the smallest idea of what you’re feeling. They don’t notice the sudden flinch, or the tension that ripples through your shoulders, or the way you might throw out your hands a little to steady your balance. No one may see you glance down, confused, reorienting yourself as you check that the world isn’t completely gone from underneath you. You’re still here, you’re still part of the scene. You just have to reposition yourself and get your bearings again.

Sometimes, you can’t. Sometimes you have to shuffle back up the beach a short ways, retreating from the overstimulation of the water still rushing and receding against your legs, and the sand not quitting in its attempts to shift back out into the sea. If you have to return to your towel, find the shade of an umbrella, maybe distract yourself with a book, or music or interacting with someone else, that’s OK. If you just have to sit there, feeling the more stable sand beneath you, reminding yourself that this part of the world isn’t falling away under your feet, you can do that, too — and eventually, you’ll be able to breathe again.

I talk to my friends, coworkers and family quite often about my panic attacks. I am honest about their frequency and their intensity, and how it feels to have that metaphorical sand slip away from me, making my legs shake and my heart leap, and I have to run back to my towel, no longer enjoying the proximity of the ocean. They know that I struggle.

But sometimes I feel like I can’t walk away from the water’s edge, no matter how badly I want to. The rest of the beach feels just as unsteady, if a little less damp. It’s still noisy, still bright, and still full of people and sounds and smells that I can’t always categorize. The sand is uneven everywhere, and there will be days where I just have to give up and leave the beach.

But it’s OK, even when that’s the outcome. Not every day is good with GAD, and the bad days can leave you holding on tight to anything you can reach, trying to ground yourself somehow. The important thing, the thing that I always have to remind myself, is that not every day is bad either. That some days the sun will stay warm, not get too hot, and I won’t get caught up in the stomach-plunging fear of feeling the sand slip away; I can run into the surf too and play and forget for just a few minutes how hard it can be to breathe when the world won’t stay still.

Some days it is harder to hold my ground than others, and that is OK. Because I know the tide will come in again and put that sand right back where it belonged, and I know the sun will come out again tomorrow to light up that beach, and I can try again.

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Thinkstock image via UpPiJ