The Mighty Logo

When the Fire of Your Anxiety Is Fueled by 'What-Ifs'

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

So many times I have worked to help others understand my daily battle with anxiety. Yet, so many times, I feel as though I fail. Unless you “live” it, it is virtually impossible to understand it. Honestly, trying to explain and validate it, while not shamefully falling back into a pit of humiliation, is just plain exhausting.

I am a visual learner. I always have been. For me, trying to create a visual for others, a persona for this relentless, seven-letter thief, is the only way I can even imagine to bridge the gap between their world and mine.

I have used the rocking chair analogy. Imagine sitting in a wooden chair. Locked in. Seat belt fastened. Handcuffed. Bolted down. No room to wiggle. No way to stop it. No chance to take a breath. Rocking back and forth. Worry and peace. Back and forth. Fear and courage. Back and forth. Worry and trust. At the complete and utter mercy of this merciless thief.

I have painted the image of a monster and being enclosed in a glass box with this beast, day after day, while you watch the rest of the world carry on. Heart pounding through your chest. Sweat dripping from your upper lip. Gasping for breath. Feeling as though you can’t pull in enough oxygen to remain conscious and steady on your feet. You want to run for your life, but you are literally frozen in fear.

Yet, that still doesn’t seem to be enough. Once again, failing to bridge the gap between the “What are you so worried about?” world and “Why can’t you understand why this is bothering me?” world that coexist on a daily basis in my own life. While falling suddenly back deep “into the trenches” of my personal battlefield, feeling both defeated and completely frustrated, a new image came to mind. This time, a fire.

When you think of an outdoor fire, such as a bonfire, you imagine it in a variety of stages. In my experience, each of those phases is the perfect correlation to a bout/attack of anxiety. When a bonfire begins, it is generally expansive, hot, blinding and at times, uncomfortably hot. After a few minutes or perhaps a few hours, the fire begins to dim and becomes tolerable and calm once again. Eventually, as the night wears down, the blaze has transformed into a pile of crackling, glowing coals, and you feel content enough to step away, knowing it will eventually burn out.

Anxiety? It is absolutely no different for me:

Your thoughts pile up rapidly. Mind spinning. Whirling. Out of control. Suddenly, the intense bottling up of worries and emotions racing through your mind’s closed circuit track bursts into a full-blown anxiety attack. The littlest “sticks” (the what-ifs) only add fuel to the fire.

Your mind has exploded. You are uncomfortable. You want to step away, but you can’t. You try every measure possible to dim the heat and flares.

After some time, whether it be seconds, minutes, hours or even days, your mind begins to settle down. You flip through the rationality of your thoughts. You find yourself back in a more peaceful place, though limited. Knowing that literally anything could send you back into a tailspin, just like those twigs and sticks re-energize the strength of a bonfire.

You find yourself calm enough that you can once again gain a tiny bit of control over your mind. The coals are burning, but they are not inflamed. You trudge through your day-to-day life, cautiously, knowing at any given moment, the fire can intensify once again.

Quickly, you begin to realize just what an impact those steadfast and unrelenting “what-ifs” truly have on the intensity of your blaze, your anxiety. Just how much they are at the very core of fueling your anxiety’s flames.

What if no one talks to me at the party? What if the news story on the television this morning happens to me? Why wouldn’t it? What if I don’t get the job? What if I get in a car accident on the way to work today? Shouldn’t I just stay home?

What if my daughter gets sick? Really sick? What if I get sick? Really sick? Who will take care of my family? What if the plane’s engines stop working on our flight? What if someone tries to rob our house while we are away?

What if my friend doesn’t call me back? Is she upset with me? What if I fail the exam? What if my dog gets lost? What if everyone looks at me if I arrive late to the meeting? What will they think? What if no one cares?

With each thought, with each new “what if” and seemingly irrational belief, the blaze refuels once again, sending flames skyrocketing and our anxiety through the roof. We wait for the intensity to quiet down once again so we can enjoy the tranquility, even for just a brief time.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: November 26, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home