Most people have experienced anxiety at some point. Running late for an important meeting, getting ready before a date, speaking publicly for the first time—anxiety is within the scope of the human experience. In fact, it’s a perfectly normal reaction to stressful situations.
This fact is both positive and negative for people who live with anxiety conditions. It’s beneficial because most people have some understanding of what anxiety feels like, and may be more sympathetic to someone who experiences daily symptoms. But because anxiety is “normalized,” it can often be downplayed as a feeling everyone experiences rather than a serious health condition. Example: “Oh I know exactly how you feel. I had a panic attack last week when I thought I lost my wallet.”
These comments can make individuals experiencing an actual anxiety disorder feel dismissed. So, it’s important to learn the difference between anxiety, the feeling, and Anxiety, the condition (capitalization used for distinction).
What Does An Anxiety Disorder Feel Like?
It’s easy to assume that because we all experience anxiety, we have an idea of what living with Anxiety might feel like. But that’s simply not the case. Experiencing anxiety includes being nervous or stressed out in situations that naturally create those feelings, like a job interview. Living with an Anxiety condition makes you feel overwhelming fear and distress constantly—even in everyday situations. There are many types of Anxiety disorders, but they all share these symptoms:
Feelings of apprehension or dread
Feeling tense and jumpy
Restlessness or irritability
Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger
Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
Sweating, tremors and twitches
Headaches, fatigue and insomnia
Upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea
A friend of mine who lives with Anxiety once described her condition like this: Imagine your mind as a typical four-burner stove top. At all times, there’s a small pot at a rolling boil on the back burner. That’s Anxiety. Every possible thing you could ever be anxious about is floating around in this pot, churning all day long. Depending on what happens throughout the day, a thought can pop up out of the pot and intrude your thinking—“Oh God…did I lock the front door?” Then it goes back down—“Yes, of course.” Then other thoughts pop up—“Why did my boss give me that look the other day?” “Am I saying the right things?” “Do I look okay?” “Do I smell bad?” The churn is constant.
If something goes wrong, the churn worsens. And the small pot might even be replaced with a medium-sized pot. More water. More pressure. More thoughts. On days when Anxiety is severe, a large pot will slam onto a front burner—your anxious thoughts taking center stage on the forefront of your mind.
Panic attacks? Those things so many people joke about having? Here’s what those really feel like… Your heart beats with an increasing pace. Your chest tightens around your pounding heart—creating a painful tension. It hurts to breathe. You gasp for air, as if trying to breathe in high-altitude where oxygen is sparse. Your thoughts are racing as quickly as your heart is pounding. Your stomach is in knots. You feel nauseous and dizzy and afraid. You feel trapped. You start to cry. Then you cry so hard you give yourself a headache. All of this happens within minutes, but it feels like years.
This is what it’s like to experience an Anxiety disorder. There are 40 million Americans who deal with this on a regular basis.
How To Show Sympathy
So, if you experience symptoms of anxiety—but never to this extent—be mindful of what these 40 million people may be going through. If a friend is having an anxiety attack, don’t assume you know exactly how she is feeling or undermine her struggle. Be understanding and supportive by consoling her in a way that’s specific to the situation.
Let’s say she is having a panic attack after having a fight with by her boyfriend, Tom. You may not understand why she is hyperventilating or rolled into a ball crying her eyes out. You may even think she’s overreacting. But remember that someone with Anxiety cannot control this type of behavior—it is a symptom of their mental illness. And she needs your support.
You could say something along the lines of: “I know your feelings are so overwhelming in this moment. I know you feel afraid that the pain and problems with Tom are never going to stop. But they will. You will get through this, and you may even laugh about it later. A year from now, this won’t matter.” The key is to say something soothing and calming while still acknowledging her pain.
Sometimes it can make a world of difference just to validate another person’s struggle, even if you don’t fully understand what they’re going through. You can be the person who makes someone feel accepted and supported during their darkest and most difficult days.
Laura Greenstein is communications coordinator at NAMI.