Talking Anxiety: The How

Imagine there’s an elephant in the room.

*Photo by mike dennler on Unsplash

[Unusual, maybe a little awkward.]

Now imagine he’s sitting on your chest.

[Oh boy. He’s heavy. Breathing is difficult, and gosh, how do you get this guy off of you?]

And now imagine that elephant is still on your chest, and also that room you’re in is flooding.

[Okay, now you’re not sure what to think about first. Do you focus on moving the elephant and being able to breathe, or figuring out how to tread this flood, and also maybe you should try to stop the water from pouring in?]

You, me, the elephant, the flood. That’s anxiety. Or rather, that’s how anxiety feels for many people.

It’s an interesting thing, though. Anxiety is very personal, and different people experience it in their own unique way. Unanimously unpleasant, but still…. unique.

When I was preparing to write this essay, I threw an anonymous call out on social media to hear from other people, in their own words, how anxiety feels to them. What it’s like in the moment. Terrifying, nerve-wracking, puzzling, exhausting.

One person told me it was like being trapped in a broken elevator, with the walls caving in.

Another, swimming in jello.

Someone else, a trembling energy that made her nauseous and fidgety.

And maybe the most succinct of all: a paralyzing overwhelm.

While literally everyone who has explained their version of anxiety to me — during this social media experiment as well as over the last year — has told a different story, the theme is the same.

It’s a feeling like you’re stuck. A feeling of no control.

No control over your body, your breathing, your heart rate, your thoughts. No control over the outside world.

Personally, for me it’s come in the form of a racing heart, of unstoppable thoughts (remember when I said I thought I was literally going crazy?), usually of which are about my health, and sometimes, in a fun plot twist, like my throat’s closing.

But, it’s not.

And there’s not really an elephant on your chest, or even bricks. The ground isn’t actually quicksand, and the people around don’t hate you.

It’s anxiety.

Most likely you’ve been right next to someone feeling all of these feelings, in the exact moment that rancid anxiety was swirling in their chest and making it difficult to even remember their first name, never mind whatever it was they were supposed to be doing before it hit. You probably didn’t even notice, because mental health isn’t like the flu or a cold. There’s no runny nose to see, or a fever to measure. It’s inside.

Anxiety is invisible, to most everyone other than the one experiencing it.

Although it doesn’t just go away and anxiety attacks aren’t a “one and done” for most people affected, you can learn ways to manage it. To understand what’s happening in the moment, and cope with your symptoms so they don’t visibly impact how you behave or live your life. Anxiety is often described as highly treatable — whether that’s through talk therapy or meditation or exercise or a prescription — but that doesn’t mean anxious thoughts are any less traumatic after you’ve counted down from 10 for the fiftieth time, and doesn’t necessarily make you anxiety-free forever.

If you experience anxiety, know it’s okay to reach out when you’re feeling uncomfortable. It’s okay to ask for help. Find a friend or a loved one you can confide in, or better yet, a licensed therapist. It’s okay to share how you’re feeling, and to be reminded that any lack of control or overwhelm doesn’t make you less important or smart, not one lick less talented or strong.

You don’t have to get over that mountain alone.

*This essay is Part 2 of this month’s weekly series on anxiety. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here. Stay tuned for Part 3, coming next week.