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What Anxiety Feels Like

I’m going to tell you a story.

Last night I had probably the worst bout of anxiety of my lifetime. If not the worst, definitely top five. In the grand scheme, it wasn’t a huge deal, because I was at home, safe and alone with my wife, so all I had to do was lie down and ride it out. It was also self-inflicted; I did some things I know can cause it, and knowing full and well I was putting myself at risk, I went ahead and did them anyway. So that part was my fault, and it was stupid, and I won’t do it again.

But lying there in bed, hoping and praying that the madness would just release me long enough to close my eyes and go to sleep, I had one lucid thought:

Nobody knows what this is like.

Now, that’s not totally true. A lot of people deal with anxiety/depression/panic disorders, and while it’s impossible to know that anyone is feeling the exact same thing you feel inside your own head—it can feel pretty lonely in that locked room—chances are good I’m not the only one on earth who’s experienced these very feelings. But every time you have an attack like this, it feels like you’re the only one it’s ever happened to, because it’s terrifying, and it’s odd to think that others are going through these same things and not talking about them.

Because that’s the thing; we don’t talk about them. I’ve gone most of my life without mentioning this to anyone, and just recently have I begun confiding in my closest friends and family members. There are two reasons for this:

  1. It’s embarrassing. I don’t know why, but the idea that my brain does things to me that I can’t control, and these things can be awfully scary, isn’t something I like to share. It makes me feel weak, and crazy.
  2. It’s extremely hard to explain. The words we use for this stuff—anxiety, panic, etc.—do a terrible job summarizing what you actually feel. When I hear “anxiety,” I think, “oh that person must be worried about something.” At least I did, before this shit started happening to me.

In reality, it’s nothing like “worry,” or “paranoia” or even being “anxious.” Those feelings make sense; they all have causes, and clear ways to deal with them. Anxiety—the one I’m talking about—makes no sense. It has no cause. It’s just your body and your mind going doomsday on you.

Because I don’t tell people—and because, even if I do tell you, it’s hard to understand if you haven’t gone through it—I’m going to try to explain what a full on bout of anxiety feels like to me. This is what happened to me last night.

First, it’s a tingle of sorts, and the world slows down. Your hands, feet, and most of the rest of you goes numb, and your mind begins to feel detached from your body. You get the feeling you can’t control what you do, even though your extremities still work. Your realize what’s happening and try to stop it, and this makes it worse.

Time gets weird. Imagine an hour of your life as a straight, solid, foot-long line. There’s a beginning and an end, and at the end of the hour, you can look back at the solid line and retrace the way things happened in order. Now imagine I go and cut a piece out of that line at every inch. This is how anxiety feels; you understand what’s happening to you at the moment, and you can piece together the events that got you there, but trying to remember how you went from one thing to the next is fuzzy.

The present feels like the past. Not sure what this means, but I kept repeating it in my head last night.

The sounds you hear echo in your head, and before they’re done ringing, you start to question if you really heard them in the first place.

You question everything. Am I really doing this? Is that door actually there? Is this person really talking to me?

Finally, there’s what happens when you close your eyes. You hope it will give you refuge but, closing your eyes during an anxiety attack doesn’t make things better. It’s not always the same, but with my most recent bout, I saw light behind my eyelids, and I could not quiet my thoughts; rather, they yelled at me, anything and everything I had thought that day, and some other stuff I don’t remember thinking, ever.

So yeah. It doesn’t feel like being nervous about something. It feels like you’re losing your mind. It feels like you’re going fucking insane.

Then there’s the afterward. Even after it’s all over, the general disconnected feeling can stick with you for days. I’m eating a sandwich and writing this at noon the day following my incident, and even now I still feel foggy and not quite right. You start to hyper-focus on the way you’re feeling. Am I normal yet? Is it still sticking around? How long is this going to take?

It’s manageable. I’ll get through it and forget about this stuff for months. But then I’ll feel an attack coming out of the blue, and I know I’ll be in store for another long process. The anxiety, the recovery, the worry about it happening again.

There’s a reason I’m finally writing this down, and it’s not because I just finally feel like I should say something. No—I know what I have to do to get myself back on track, and unless I was prompted, I would’ve treated this ordeal just like the rest: be quiet and move on. But I woke up this morning, and I saw a hashtag.


Yeah, a damn hashtag. The things I usually scoff at and regard as lazy, wannabe activism. I don’t even know who or what “Bell” is. (Okay, I just googled it, it’s a Canadian phone company, and they’re using today to encourage people to talk about mental health issues.) But I saw some people tweeting it this morning, and talking about mental health, and it just seemed like a perfect coincidence. Normally my cynicism would prevent me from buying into the idea that a telephone company would have an interest in helping end mental illness. But I’ve had enough cynicism lately, so screw it, let’s talk. This is my talk.

I don’t have a point, here. I’m not trying to make you think about the world differently or “ask the right questions” when you’re talking to people with anxiety or anything like that. I’m just telling you what’s going on. Because I’ve been quiet about it, and I know other people have too. When this shit invades your body and brain and puts you in a little personal hell for a little while, it feels like you’re alone in it. But you’re not alone in it; none of us are. And just that thought alone helps a little bit.


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