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How to Explain Anxiety When Someone Asks

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School started a few months back, and with the start of school came extra stress and worsened anxiety. Although I have only had two major panic attacks since school started, that hasn’t stopped my anxiety from showing. I have sat in the waiting room of my counselor’s office many times, honestly at least once a week. She has me writing down things that are too hard for me to say aloud. Now with that, I often get the questions of “What’s wrong?” or “Do you need to leave?” and while I don’t mind the questions, I have a hard time answering them. So in the midst of a panic attack, I kept track of everything I experienced. After weeks of reading how other people described anxiety and going through different scenarios which can also simulate the same feeling, I have finally put it into my own words. So this is what I show people when they ask:

You know that feeling when you’re walking down the stairs fast and you miss the last step? Your heart skips a beat and starts beating out of your chest. Even though it was a simple mistake and nothing bad was going to happen, your heart is just pounding. You can hear the sound of it in your head. Once your feet are on the ground and you are safe, your heart is still beating uncontrollably for the next few minutes.

Or when someone tells you bad news and nothing seems to work? Everything freezes and all you hear are the words they just said repeating over and over again in your head, you can’t focus on anything else, you can’t form words to say anything. You are frozen but you can still see everything moving around you. You hear them speaking but you don’t know what they are saying. Somehow, you managed to continue a conversation with them. But you can’t focus or process anything and a million thoughts are racing through your head.

Then there’s the feeling when you were younger and you got called down to the principal’s office and you had no idea why. On the walk to their office, your legs turn to Jell-O and your arms start to shake but you can’t figure out why you got called down. Running through every single possible thing you have done in the past week, you form the worst case scenarios in your head. Nothing really helps. As you reach out to open the door, all you can feel is your legs not being able to hold you up and arms shaking.

Remember when you were younger and you went swimming with your older cousins/siblings? You were the youngest and everyone was playing around. You wanted to be like everyone else so you jumped into the deep end, even though you couldn’t swim well. Then as you jump off the edge, you jump further than you intended. You hit the bottom of the pool or go deep down into the lake. You process it in your mind and you start swimming upwards. You can feel yourself running out of oxygen. You can’t breathe. Once you hit the surface of the water, all eyes are on you. Everyone is staring at you and you just can’t seem to catch your breath. You get pulled out of the water, but you struggle to breathe and everyone is still staring at you.

Then that one time when you were in high school and the teacher announced there was a pop quiz. Your heart drops down into the pit of your stomach. Suddenly, it’s like a cage of butterflies released into your stomach but not the good kind. They are hitting your stomach and going in every direction. You feel like you are about to puke. Every single thing you learned in the last week has vanished from your memory. You cannot recall a single thing. This quiz could make or break your grade. The butterflies get faster and faster and suddenly you are clutching your stomach.

Finally, there’s that time you had a huge presentation the next day. First period, and you were going third. No matter how you tried to get around it, it would always be there. You had to present. You have been putting this off for as long as possible. You even missed a day of school in hopes to get out of it. But now it dawned you. There was an impending sense of dread, of doom, of fear. You couldn’t shake this, no matter how hard you tried. These impending feelings were going to be there until you finished with the presentation.

Now take all of those feelings, remove the scenarios, and experience them all at once. That’s how I feel every day, constantly. My heart beats so fast that I question if I’m actually alive. My thoughts race so much that I can’t comprehend them or anything else. My arms shake beyond control and my legs feel as if they will give out at any minute. My breathing is ragged and I can’t catch my breath, no matter what. Everyone is staring at me, no matter what I do. My stomach is on roller-coasters all day long, so I cannot eat or even drink anything. Then there’s the feeling something bad is going to happen, that I’m going to die, that I will make a fool of myself. Just hanging above my head for no reason at all. This is what happens when the phone rings, when someone walks in with a pass, when I hear a familiar voice, when I wake up, when I think about the future, when I go into crowded spaces. Most of the time though, there isn’t even a reason as to why.

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Getty Images photo via alexkich

Originally published: December 12, 2017
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