Anxiety and how I experience it
Anxiety – the emotion vs the condition
I often hear people say, ‘that give me anxiety’ or ‘I feel really depressed’ and whilst I know it is important to acknowledge how people are feeling, it is also important to differentiate between feeling an emotion and experiencing a condition/disorder. Everyone can feel these ways at certain points, but that does not mean they have a mental health condition.
The main way to differentiate between the two is to examine how frequent the feeling is, and how much it impacts everyday life.
If only feeling the emotion in response to certain events and situations, then it is more likely to be a normal emotional response. Also, if the feeling is relatively short-lived, then this is also a good indicator that there is less cause for concern. Yes, some situations may cause additional stress, but that is more around the situation than general anxiety/depression/etc.
If those feelings are lasting for extended periods of time, or happening frequently with seemingly no pattern, then it may be worth seeking additional support.
Level of impact
When considering the level of impact, I think it is important to look at how difficult those feelings make it to function normally. If those feelings are unpleasant, but you are able to work through them – without suffering negative effects – then I would not be as worried. My concern comes from when I am unable to work to the best of my ability because my mind is always preoccupied; similarly, if I am becoming avoidant of certain situations to prevent myself from feeling those emotions.
For example, in the past I have become overwhelmed when working with lots of people around me. To avoid this, I offered to take on additional duties. I also asked to change my role at work so that I could work alone. This should have been a warning sign to me, but I simply thought I was just being helpful at the time. ather than considering the effect it was having on me.
So, if you find you can’t carry out your regular responsibilities and tasks, then you may benefit from support.
How anxiety – the emotional state – is for me
Regular anxiety, the nervous and a little bit restless type, for me is a bit like waiting to go on a rollercoaster. I feel anxious like that when I know something is coming up, and it is not always negative. Sometimes this feeling can be alongside excitement and can be a really good motivator. I find, sometimes, that I work better with a little bit of anxiety to sharpen my focus and make me really determined to see something through to the end.
A good example is when I would have an assignment deadline looming. I could get really focused and fly through my work to get it done. However, I would feel unmotivated up until a few days before because “there’s plenty of time”. However, once the anxious feelings started, I would get antsy and need to get to work. It felt like it was easier to sit down and work rather than to put off any longer.
This type of anxiety, I don’t mind, because I know that I will feel relief once the thing that I have to do is finished.
Anxiety – the disorder
Anxiety, the disorder, feels a lot more ominous. When I feel anxious in this way it is as if I know there is something bad going to happen but I just don’t know what to do to fix the situation. It makes me feel lost and helpless. This also makes it harder for me to work. Whilst emotional anxiety motivates and drives me forwards, disordered anxiety makes me withdraw and avoid tasks. I find that I tend to start tidying and cleaning when I feel this way. The reason being that, when feeling anxious, clutter makes me feel trapped and as if my personal space is being encroached upon. By cleaning and organising, its as if I am making space (both mentally and physically).
Another thing I have found is that this tidying is my way of trying to reclaim control. My anxiety exacerbates when I feel I can’t change the situation, so I look to the things that I can change. In university, this resulted in either deep cleaning the house I shared, or rearranging my bedroom at 2 in the morning – seriously. I would feel like I could relax because my bedroom was a ‘mess’.
My symptoms of anxiety
When I am feeling anxious, I experience a number of effects – both physical and emotional. Over time I have come to see that there is a pattern in how my anxiety develops.
Firstly I will start to feel hot and sweat more. I don’t know if this is from increased circulation and adrenaline, or from me tensing my muscles and exerting myself without realising.
Next my mouth will go dry and my breathing will become sharper. I will become even more thirsty but nothing will quench my thirst.
After this, I start feeling a bit light-headed and dizzy. I will also notice that I start to work faster and rush a little bit. This is where I tend to start really noticing how I’m feeling as the first few steps happen shortly after each other. I will usually try to take a little break or shift my focus onto another task in order to either distract myself, or take some of the pressure off me.
If I continue to feel anxious at this point, either because the stress is too much or I am unable to take a break, then I may start feeling like my stomach is churning, which can progress to cramping. I will also feel tingling in my fingers and hands and the feeling of being hot will get even worse.
One of the later stages for me is that I will be able to feel my heart beating rapidly (palpitations) which can be quite unnerving, especially when I first felt it. It is also made a little worse by the fact that I have an arrhythmia – which means that my heart does not have a regular heartbeat. So, when I am feeling this palpitations, it is more noticeable when my heart misses beats or has extra flutters. I have had this checked by an ECG and the doctors do not seem concerned. It also has not prevented me from having general anaesthetic, it is just unpleasant to experience.
A further effect of continued anxiety and stress is when I get tunnel vision, as if there is a black vignette effect placed on my vision. This makes my blindspot bigger and sometimes it is as if I cannot see out of one eye. This was extremely worrying the first few times I felt it as I worried I was going to pass out. Here I need to sit down and have a cold drink to feel better.
Finally, I can experience something called depersonalisation. Here, I feel as if I am shrinking within my body and I am not actually a part of it. Instead it is as if I am wearing a suit with limbs that extend out but I control them from the centre of the suit. This feeling is extremely disorienting, but also seems to bring a sense of calm. It feels as though I have stepped out of the situation and am just observing the scene. I feel myself cool down and I am able to relax.
The sounds of everything going on around me get a bit muffled, and sometimes I cannot clearly understand what someone is saying to me, as though I cannot understand the language they are speaking. I feel as though this is my body and minds way of protecting itself from the perceived threats of the anxiety. My emotions can feel like they are turned off, and I work purely on logic and the task at hand.
Once I get through the stressful situation, it is as though I stretch out to take control of my body again. The best way I can describe it is like putting on a coat. I get the sensation of my arms reaching out and flexing back into their normal state.
What does this mean when it comes to anxiety?
What I have learned from all of these experiences is that anxiety comes and goes, whatever form it is in. I have insight into when I start to experience those symptoms, and know how to bring myself back down.
Another surprising thing I found, is that I can trust myself to still function when I am most stressed. My body goes into auto-pilot and still manages to get through whatever is going on. I have taken this to mean that I can actually be more capable than I thought in the past; and I am actually able to complete complex tasks whilst not fully being present. I just do it. This is reassuring to me, and relieves some pressure when I next encounter a similar situation.
My advice for managing anxiety
The best advice I can give is to recognise the source of your anxious feelings. If you are able to identify the specific cause, then it is easier to come up with a plan to either work around the anxiety, or to solve the situation. However, if you have feelings where there is no clear cause, then it would probably benefit you to seek advice from either a doctor or a therapist. They may prescribe you some self-help exercises around mindfulness and stress management, offer you medication (such as beta blockers), or a combination of the two. I am not a medical professional or therapist though, so I cannot tell you exactly what to do.
The main thing to remember is you will not die from anxiety, you will get through it, and you will be ok. It can feel awful, and be distressing whilst in the moment, but you will survive. Then, if it happens again, you can think ‘I have gotten through this before, I can do it again’ and each time it will become easier. But don’t feel ashamed of needing any support from others, I have had therapy and also medication to help me manage my anxiety, until I have been able to develop strategies for coping. I am still learning, and sometimes feel overwhelmed, but I will continually get better and keep moving forwards.