The Difference Between 'Natural' Anxiety and a Mental Illness

Anxiety feels different for everyone. For many people, it’s a natural part of life — the quickening of your pulse when your child won’t pick up his cell phone; the beating in your ears when curfew comes and goes and he doesn’t appear. The apprehension in your stomach with every moment of silence. And then: the relief and anger that floods you when he finally appears, whole and unharmed. Anxiety dissipated. That is “normal.”

Then there is the other anxiety: the waking up with a start at 2 a.m., certain your child is dead in his bed. Not being able to breathe until you have checked his respirations and pulse for yourself three times. The feeling of doom in the morning, like you know something terrible is going to happen today, something life-altering and horrific but you don’t know what. The feeling that persists and won’t go away, no relief, like a pit in your stomach, a hole in your very being. What if this time, you get into a car accident? Maybe today, you will lose someone you love. Or maybe you’ll die. The feeling of nervous apprehension, of waiting. Nothing ever happens … or something does. It doesn’t go away.

Sometimes it’s different. Sometimes, it’s that pervasive feeling of forgetting something, like when you pack for a trip, you’re on the road and you just know you’ve forgotten something but you don’t know what. It’s feeling like something is missing, maybe something you never had. Like longing for someone you never knew, or a place you’ve never been. Friends you have yet to make. The feeling of not belonging anywhere, that maybe you never will. It’s doubt — maybe they’ll leave you. You’ll have no one. You aren’t good enough for them. That’s why. What if they just won’t tell you?

Anxiety is different for everyone. For some, it’s part of the normal trajectory of life. It should be that and nothing more. Anxiety is a part of life. It should not be taking over your life. No one should have to live with anxiety so severe, it is disrupting life. Live life, not anxiety. Fight it, treat it. No, it’s not easy. But it’s worth it.

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Thinkstock photo via Volodina

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