Describing Anxiety To Those Who’ve Never Had It

It’s often hard to translate our thoughts and feelings into words. Most people will have experienced the feeling of anxiety at some point in their lives. However, feeling the emotion of anxiety now and again in response to distinct situations is quite different from living with an anxiety disorder.

Describing Anxiety To Those Who've Never Had It


Anxiety can cause every single muscle in our body to become tight and rigid. We feel stiff. There will be days when we wake up in the morning and everything hurts. Our whole body aches. We often try to consciously ‘unclench’ whenever we notice it, which can bring some temporary relief, but usually, we’ll find that it’s not long before we’ve unconsciously tensed up again.


Anxiety exhaustion seeps into every single cell of our body. Sleep doesn’t fix it. Rest doesn’t always help. It can be uncompromising and all-consuming. Many of us will keep trying to live our lives despite how tired we are. We will try to stick to the commitments we’ve made despite living in an anxious-exhausted-fog.

It can make it difficult to make plans because we might worry about whether or not we’ll have the energy to do them.

The Walls Close In

Anxiety can feel claustrophobic; as though the walls are closing in on us. There is a weight on our chest and pressure coming at us from all sides. The air can feel thin, and our breathing shallows. The pressure bearing down on our chest can physically hurt. It can feel like there’s no way out.

Struggling To Breathe

Our chest tightens, breathing shallows and speeds up; it can be difficult to take a deep breath. Breathing so rapidly can sometimes leave us feeling dizzy and disorientated. This can worsen our anxiety (which is understandable – most people would probably feel anxious if they were struggling to breathe!), and the worse our anxiety get the more we’re likely to struggle to breathe.

Is It Anxiety Or A Heart Attack?

Anxiety isn’t all in our head. It can come with numerous physical symptoms. Many of these could also be symptoms of something else. For example, a lot of anxiety symptoms, such as chest pain, numbness, and pins and needles, are things that people have also described experiencing when having a heart attack. In fact, it’s not uncommon for those with anxiety to present at A&E thinking that they’re having a heart attack.

It Can Be Paralysing

Anxiety can paralyse us. Sometimes our levels of distress are so high, that we can’t move. Our brains go blank leaving us unable to process our current situation or think about what we might need to do to tackle it.

We might feel physically paralysed. Our arms and legs can become numb, so we feel unable to move them. We might be so focused on trying to remember how to move, that we become completely unable to.

Many of us have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response, but humans (and other animals), have a third part to that response – ‘freeze’. When we’re faced by fear or panic, we freeze – just as deer often do when caught in headlights.

Annoyance And Frustration

Living with anxiety can prompt feelings of annoyance and frustration. We can feel annoyed and frustrated with ourselves for not ‘just sorting it out’ or ‘battling on through’.

We might get annoyed with those around us. Little things they do might get on our nerves and we can become increasingly irritable and start snapping at people (and then get annoyed at ourselves for snapping!).

Symptoms of anxiety itself can be annoying and frustrating, too. For example, shaking can make it hard to write or draw – which can be especially frustrating if our anxiety is triggered in high-pressure situations such as exams; a time when we need to be able to write legibly.

Low-Level Anxiety

Some of us have low-level anxiety bubbling away in the background almost all the time. There might be times when it rises, and times when it dips, but it always seems to be there.

Often, we will get used to it – it becomes out normality. We might have ways of managing and keeping it relatively at bay but struggle to get rid of it entirely.

It can reduce both our energy levels and our general capacity to engage with life.  We might have to learn about spoon theory, start to consciously manage our energy levels, live within our limits, and factor them into decisions and plans that we make.

Curbing or adapting our plans to accommodate our anxiety can leave us feeling as though we should be ‘trying harder’, despite the fact that we’re doing our best and our best is good enough. We often feel almost angry at our body and mind. This self-criticism can be worsened by our inability to ‘see’ anxiety.

Sometimes It Creeps In

Anxiety doesn’t always appear in a dramatic and rambunctious manner. Each of us will have different early warning signs but depending on how long we’ve been managing our anxiety, it can take us a while to pick up on them.

We might have been okay for a bit, and then start to notice some of these early warning signs – we could be feeling a little more irritable, notice our muscles beginning to ache and start having to consciously ‘unclench’ a few times a day, perhaps we start waking up a little more often in the night.

To those who don’t have anxiety, it might seem like we’re overreacting or panicking over nothing when we start worrying about these symptoms. In isolation, they can seem like nothing much. But for those of us with anxiety, they could signal the beginning of another difficult anxiety patch. This can be really scary.

Panic Attacks

Panic attacks can be terrifying. The panic can engulf us. It can be so intense that we struggle to stand, or to move to a place of safety.

They can look (and feel) like a heart attack. Panic tends to be a sharp, concentrated form of anxiety. Physically, we might have chest pain, pins and needles, difficulty breathing, numbness in our fingers and toes, a tight chest, ringing in our ears, hot flushes, chills, and a racing heart. We could feel shaky, sick, need to go to the toilet, and feel faint. It usually comes on suddenly and settles down again within an hour.

These symptoms, though not usually dangerous, can be extremely debilitating, and might wipe us out for the rest of the day.

There are times when we can feel panic attacks bubbling up or know situations that might trigger them. However, sometimes they appear seemingly out of nowhere.

If we regularly get panic attacks, it can stop us from doing things we want to do or going to places we want to go. We might have to adjust our lives to lower the levels of stress we’re likely to experience, for example by studying part-time instead of full-time.

Anxiety Attacks

Many people use the terms ‘anxiety attack’ and ‘panic attack’ interchangeably but they’re not the same thing.  There isn’t an official definition for the term ‘anxiety attack’ but it’s often used to describe a particularly intense period of anxiety. Whereas panic attacks often centre around sudden debilitating fear and panic and come on in a flash, anxiety attacks tend to be longer-lasting.

Time-Consuming And Tedious

Anxiety can take up a lot of time. It’s an awful lot quicker to lock the door and drive to work than it is to lock the door, get in the car, worry that we’ve not locked the door, go back and check that it is locked, get back in the car, drive halfway down the road, pull over because we’re worried we’ve left the hairdryer on, run back to our house, check the hairdryer (it’s off), lock the house again, run back to our car, worry that we’ve not locked the door (again), run back to triple check (it’s locked), run back to the car again, and set off for work.

Situations like this can happen over and over and over again as the day goes on. Needing to check, and re-check, so many things can take such a long time.

There are lots of rituals and routines that many of us use to manage our anxiety. For example, we might have a routine where we do the same household job on the same days each week no matter what crops up or how much time or energy we have. There may be things that we feel we need to do a certain way, even if there’s a faster way of doing it.

The things we do to try and manage our anxiety can be extremely tedious. We might not want to complete them or have the energy to complete them, but feel compelled to do them anyway.

The Amount Of Work It Can Take

Living with anxiety can take a whole lot of work. To manage the very ‘basics’, such as getting dressed or making breakfast, we often have to battle through a never-ending stream of unhelpful thoughts and reason with the anxiety killjoy in our head.

Many of us learn skills to help us manage our anxiety. These skills could include things like learning how to manage our breathing, how to self-soothe, what our sensory needs might be and how to meet them, methods to manage the stream of thoughts in our head, such as different reasoning tools, things we can use to cope with our low-level anxiety such as fiddle toys, and different ways to manage times of high distress.

Living with anxiety can take so much learning, experimenting, and remembering to action the things we’ve learned at the time we need them (rather than three hours later). We often need to organise our life around the limitations of our ‘coping’, the things we have to do each day to keep us well, and any appointments we have. It can be a huge amount of work, and much of this work might be invisible.


Some of us take medication to try and manage our anxiety. There are different medications we can try including anti-depressants, long-term anti-anxieties, and sedatives. As much as these medications might help us, they can also come with undesirable side effects.

These side effects can include blurred vision, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, a constantly dry mouth, a change in our appetite, constipation, sickness, indigestion, diarrhoea, and more. Some of these side effects will disappear over time. Others might stick around. Alongside side effects, it could also affect our ability to drive, whether or not we can drink alcohol, our weight, the amount we need to sleep, and other aspects of our lives.

Medication isn’t a ‘quick fix’. Often, we’ll have to weigh up whether the benefits of a medication outweigh the side-effects we experience. We will often need support and therapy alongside any medication we take, too.

Recovery Time

When we have a physical illness, such as flu, although it’s a horrible experience, it will usually pass within a week or two. When we break our leg, the hospital will normally be able to give us an idea of how long it will be before we can weight-bear again.

With anxiety, it’s not usually so clear cut. Every person’s recovery looks different and people define recovery differently. For some, recovery is about reaching a point where they feel able to manage their illness as well as possible, for others, recovery means having almost no, symptoms at all.

We will all respond to different treatments in different ways. For some, medication might be what they need while another person might need a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

The variation in our recovery ideals and the way we respond to different treatments can make almost impossible for anyone to predict how long anxiety will be a part of our life.

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