7 Things You Should Expect When I’m Having an Anxious Episode

Like many mental illnesses, my anxiety comes and goes in waves. It’s cyclical, but not in a predictable way like my menstrual period, for instance. My anxiety doesn’t give me warning or time to prepare for its arrival – it just hits hard and fast. Sometimes the intensity is less and sometimes I have to be heavily medicated because deep breathing just doesn’t cut it.

Regardless of the intensity, when coping with an anxious period while attempting to carry out my everyday life, I start to act a little (or a lot) different in an attempt to deal with what’s occurring in my head. It’s these changes in behaviors that I feel like I need to explain – not because they require an explanation to be acceptable – but because they can look concerning and/or irrational when in actuality they make a lot of sense. Below are some of the ways my anxiety might manifest during a particularly difficult time and potential ways for others to be helpful when I need assistance pulling myself from the unyielding grip of panic:

1. Quietness and Withdrawal

When my anxiety hits, my brain feels like a tornado with a million thoughts swirling around causing destruction and building strength the longer it goes on. To deal with the natural disaster occurring in my head, I will often “shut down” to the outside world. I may appear despondent, uninterested, distracted, or reserved. It’s not that I’m not taking in what’s going on around me, but I often can’t respond to it because I am beyond overwhelmed between the thoughts in my head and the reality I’m facing.

What helps?

Don’t ask me to explain anything or put words to what I’m experiencing – I most likely won’t be able to. I probably have a running list in my head of tasks to be accomplished, so it is helpful if someone asks, “What can I do?” and then goes and does it, even if the instructions seem menial or obscure.

2. Sensitivity to Touch

When I’m in an anxious state, my brain and body are on high alert. I’m in a “fight, flight, or freeze” state and cortisol is coursing through my body. The slightest touch can actually feel painful and cause me to have a visceral and involuntary reaction to separate myself from the stimulus of that pain. I may pull away from someone’s touch, even someone I love and care for immensely. If my body’s senses are particularly overwhelmed, I may even push the person or animal touching me away to provide a literal physical barrier between myself and the source of physical connection.

What helps?

Give me space and absolutely do not force physical affection upon me. While giving a hug may be helpful and comforting in some circumstances, when I am highly aroused by anxiety it can actually be harmful.

3. Increased Irritability and Frustration

My husband often knows when I’m anxious just by my speech patterns. I become curt and easily frustrated when things aren’t occurring in the way I would like for them to. Often, things that wouldn’t normally bother me become catalysts for me to snap. I may become short-tempered and increasing volatile, resulting in verbal outbursts I would never succumb to under normal circumstances.

What helps?

Please don’t question my reasoning when I’m in this space and whatever you do, do not mutter the words “calm down” or any other similar sentiment. That is a surefire way to send me off the edge, probably resulting in me saying things I will regret. Instead, don’t comment on my emotional liability. Just be present and responsive if I do request something of you.

4. Unable to Rest/Sleep

When I’m anxious, I usually can’t slow down enough to rest or sleep until my anxiety is resolved (or until I take medicine that forces me to go to sleep, which is also a completely understandable option). Sometimes I need to take physical actions to resolve my anxiety, especially if I’m nervous about something getting done on a tight time frame. Other times, there is literally nothing for me to do, but the rumination in my head keeps me from resting. I may appear unnecessarily busy during this time – constantly finding new tasks to accomplish – even things unrelated to my anxiety itself. No matter how much I achieve, I still feel the compulsion to do more, as if the more I do, the closer I am to the end of the anxious episode.

What helps?

Let me do my thing and if you can lend a hand in getting something done, then please do. Please do not tell me to “take a break,” because I literally cannot. It’s like having “ants in your pants” – the last thing I want to do is to be still. Bonus points if you can provide the time and space from other people so that I can get things done uninterrupted.

5. Inability to Eat

Usually when I’m anxious, I’m so busy in my head that I forget to eat. If I remember to eat, it’s common that my GI system is not on the same page, resulting in several unpleasant physical symptoms, of which I’ll spare you the details. I may go all day without eating or eat a seemingly bizarre assortment of food – whatever I can grab quickly and/or the few things that sound appealing to me and won’t upset my stomach.

What helps?

Please, for the love of God, do not comment on my food choices or lack thereof. If you happen to be making food or picking something up, by all means, extend an offer, but don’t take it personally if I decline. It’s helpful to me if the house is stocked with easy to grab snacks that I enjoy so that I can keep my blood sugar somewhat stable without having to cook an elaborate meal. If it’s slim pickings in the house, grocery shopping is always appreciated.

6. Rapid/Irregular Breathing

Anxiety often brings with it a plethora of uncomfortable physical symptoms from stomach upset to headaches to rashes, but the most noticeable one for the outside observer is usually the change in my breathing patterns. It’s common for someone who is anxious to have fast, shallow breathing and even hyperventilate. It feels a lot like I imagine suffocating might feel in that no matter how much I try to get air, I constantly feel like there’s never enough (which only makes me panic more).

What helps?

If you know how to coach someone in breathing, go for it! If not, try making reassuring statements, not commands (i.e. “calm down,” “take it easy,” etc.), but affirmations such as “I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together” or “You’ve gotten through this before and you can do it again.” I find that verbal reassurances can go a long way in helping me involuntarily regulate my breathing again.

7. Exhaustion

When I’ve run myself ragged and my body is fried from all the stress hormones, I will be bone-tired. I may quite literally be unable to keep my eyes open. All the doing and thinking and worrying and ruminating has taken its course and I literally have nothing left to give. I can easily sleep 16 hours or more in this state and it may last for days or even a week or more.

What helps?

Do whatever you can so that I can sleep as much as possible. Pick up extra chores around the house, help with the kids, run the errands – whatever gives me more time to sleep. If possible, make sure the environment is one conducive to sleep (i.e. quiet, dark, comfortable temperature, etc.) and just let me rest until my energy is replenished.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor will it resonate with everyone who has anxiety. Everyone has differing symptoms and preferences for relief. I can only speak for my personal experience, as it’s the only one I know, but I hope this will encourage you to ask those in your life who struggle with anxiety what is helpful to them.

Alternatively, if you struggle with anxiety yourself, I hope this encourages you to think about what you find most helpful during a period of increased anxiety and empowers you to ask for what you need. To my friends and family that provide me with what I need when I am at my most vulnerable: Thank you! Your small actions make all the difference!

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