What Anxiety Feels Like To Me
Trigger Warning: detailed explanations of anxiety symptoms. Anxiety and depression in general.
Disclaimer: Read THIS in full.
If you missed the first few posts I made about anxiety, check out these links:
Anxiety - I was Finally Diagnosed
Anxiety and Bullying - My Story
I want to start off by saying that this post is not meant to invoke sympathy for me in any way. This is not a sob story and I’m not looking for your attention. I am sharing because I know there are others out there who, as I did, are struggling to find help and a proper diagnosis. It can be very dark, depressing, and lonely wondering what is wrong with your body and not have any answers from professionals who are supposed to know.
It took me decades to get diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder because I had no idea that our emotional/mental state could produce such real, physical symptoms. And so many regular physicians are not necessarily trained to recognize mental health disorders, especially when they can so closely resemble physical illness.
One of the main reasons I was at last diagnosed was because I had spent a good amount of time researching my symptoms on my own when doctors couldn't find anything wrong with my body. The other reason was that the doctor I finally saw actually suffered from anxiety herself and already knew what to look for.
If you read this and are feeling similar things, maybe it will prompt you to seek out other opinions. Maybe reading through my experience will start a conversation with your doctor about mental health if you haven’t found a cause for your suffering.
Our mind is EXTREMELY powerful. More than you may even think. We can literally create illness in our bodies because of the thoughts we think and the emotions we feel. Now, this is not to say that every illness or disease is caused by our thoughts and emotions, but certainly, more than we are led to believe.
Since The Early Days
Anxiety kicked off for me in elementary school where I was terribly bullied, escalated during my deeply religious days, and continued with ups and downs, good days, bad days, good months, bad months...
Back in my childhood, teens, and 20's my symptoms were relatively minor compared to how they unfolded and then exploded in 2012 when I had a complete mental breakdown that finally led to my diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
There were long stretches of time before I was diagnosed when I didn’t notice any specific symptoms, they were so random...probably mostly due to the fact that I had no idea that it was anxiety I was experiencing.
But the closer I got to July of 2012, the shorter those good stretches got, until one day, there were no stretches of good days. Every day was a bad day. For months. From the time I woke up to the time I went to sleep.
The Year I Broke
In 2012, when I hit bottom and had a breakdown, my anxiety symptoms were at their height.
Each day would usually start waking up to a full-blown panic attack. My body was already freaking out BEFORE I even became conscious that I was waking up. When I would fully come to, my heart would be racing and pounding, I would be sweating and feeling like I was going to heave and then have to rush to the bathroom where I would have diarrhea until there was literally nothing left in me.
Right after I was diagnosed, I couldn’t even drive. I was so off-balance and dizzy that I was afraid that I would cause an accident. Sometimes I would start to hyperventilate so badly that my fingers and toes would get numb, the tingles finding their way up my arms and legs towards my center.
It was so awful that I wanted to die.
I cried every day. I was scared all the time. I had to literally force myself to eat because I felt so retched and nauseated, but I knew if I didn’t eat, I would continue to lose weight and become unhealthy.
I finally found this amazing list on anxietycentre.com right around the time I was diagnosed that helped me so much with being able to understand that my symptoms were actually due to anxiety and not some other exotic or deadly disease.
Even though I had been through so many tests and ruled out every possible disease, I still doubted that what I was going through was actually due to years of unhealed anxiety. So many of the symptoms were so bizzare It was hard to grasp.
I’m going to go through the list and talk about the symptoms I had related to the items on the list. If you want to read Anxiety Centre's full list, CLICK HERE. It starts off with some explanation of anxiety and then about the middle of the page the list itself starts.
If you are interested in the medical science behind why anxiety symptoms present you can register with that site. You have to pay per month if you want to access some of the resources, but it's WELL worth it in my opinion. It took away so much of the mystery for me.
P.S. I am not affiliated with them in any way, I just find their info very useful and helpful.
In the paid membership there is an e-book that details how the stress response works and how our body responds to the fluctuating hormones and the changing nervous system when dealing with anxiety. For a shorter, free version of the stress response and how symptoms are developed because of it, CLICK HERE. https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety/stress-response.shtml
I don’t have all these symptoms I list below all the time. They are random and can happen at any given time, though its usually shortly after a period of stress, sadness, anger, or fear or anything that triggers the anxiety response. The further between my attacks, the less I have symptoms and the less intense they are.
Sometimes, I only experience chronic fatigue and other times it's a handful of symptoms all at once. Some days I feel pretty dang good, some days I feel like utter shit and I can’t do anything but the bare minimum. Sometimes the symptoms are familiar and sometimes new ones pop up.
Even though I have patches of rough days, the good patches are getting longer and longer. Of course, it’s not a straight line, more like hills and valleys that trend upward. It’s a lot of work and healing doesn’t happen overnight, but it DOES happen. I will get into how I manage my anxiety symptoms and how I have been able to gain healing in a later post.
I don’t talk a lot about all of my symptoms to people because I’m not sure that anyone would want to sit and listen to me ramble on about the specifics...but I did feel like it is an important thing to share for those willing to read, especially for those who feel alone and for those who live with someone who is struggling with anxiety.
Hearing other people talk about their anxiety symptoms was very helpful to me, and still is. I feel less alone. Hearing or reading people talk about their symptoms in detail has relieved a lot of my fear...because my anxiety is triggered in part by new, strange symptoms in my body. And there can be a lot of new and ever changing symptoms.
The following are just my symptoms that I have experienced through the years, I generally do not experience these all at once. And there are many more symptoms that other people experience which are on the list that I linked above.
My Emotional/Mental Symptoms:
Easily Overwhelmed Emotionally - This is by far the most common emotional/mental symptom for me. Because there is always so much going on in my mind, and because my body gets tired quickly, I become overwhelmed pretty easily. The overwhelm usually makes me feel like crying, sometimes like I want to just collapse onto the floor and have someone take care of me because I just can’t. Some of this may stem from sensory processing issues as well.
Having to make decisions, feeling compassion for others as if I am living their life, taking on the weight of the world and all the things that need to be fixed on this planet, being completely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of suffering all over the place...having too many things to do in one day...
Sometimes even having a happy, exciting conversation with someone can throw me into overwhelm.
Altered State of Reality/Consciousness - Moments of detachment from reality where suddenly everything becomes surreal. I am aware that I am in a body, but that my body is not me. I am aware that I am looking in the mirror at a body but that the mind that is causing me to look is not actually that body. The feeling that I have no idea what the human body or anything I know is. Feels like a dream. Feels like I’m watching things, observing things, standing outside of my body.
Honestly, I am quite enjoying this one these days. I know not everyone is into achieving altered states of consciousness, but I wonder if anxiety has been a benefit to me in this way that it is easy for me to kind of slip out of my body, spiritually speaking.
I actually lean into this “symptom” now. I used to be afraid of this feeling, but now I invite it as something to explore, and it's taken all the fear away from this specific experience. I also wonder if there are other anxiety “symptoms” that I have experienced that are not really having to do with a disorder, but a change in perception of reality. Perceptions that are similarly induced by things like Ayahuasca or other mind-enhancing chemicals or drugs or even by deep meditation.
It sounds very similar to states that are practiced by spiritual gurus and seekers, so I’m playing with it when it happens, just to see and learn.
Agitation/Anger - A near-constant for me was getting irritated very easily. I used to think this was a stupid personality default, but the more I reflect, I see that a lot of it is a product of having anxiety because everything just gets to be too much and I start getting angry about it. Not that it’s an excuse for being angry...it just helps me to see that sometimes, when I don’t know why I’m reacting so strongly to something, it's because of the background anxiety that I might have right then.
Sudden urge to escape or run away - It really is sudden for me. It happens so randomly too. I will get a bursting feeling of needing to run out of the house or escape my life or scream at the top of my lungs. It's like a need to shed my body and be free of it.
Fear of Losing Control - During massive attacks, this fear is extremely intense. For me, it feels like I am holding onto reality with every ounce of mental strength I have...and if I were to let go, I might never come back. I will get images in my head of being catatonic, completely detached from my body and reality as I know it. The sense of anxiety in my body and in my mind can be so overwhelming that it feels as if I don’t know how to live anymore. It feels like my body wants to control me as if it has a mind of its own.
Fear of Impending Doom - A sense that something bad is going to happen. That everyone I love is going to die, something horrible is on the way or that something is going to ruin my plans. Most of the time it has nothing to do with anything in particular, just a general sense that something terrible is going to strike. It’s not at all a logical thought and it comes out of the blue...could be while I’m laying in bed, driving, or doing any other mundane kind of thing.
We all have had moments of worry about something going wrong. This is much more than that. It is a deep feeling of unearthly dread that you just can’t pin down. Literally, everything feels wrong. No one can save you. No one will help you and you’re all alone in a world of doom and destruction.
Heightened Awareness/Self-Awareness - Not sure how to describe this except that I am acutely aware of what I am thinking, how I am behaving, and what my body feels like at all times, all the people around me, all the things happening around me…the noises, sites, smells, fabrics and things touching my skin…all of it. I’m hyper-aware. All the details, all the emotions, all the feelings in my face constantly.
This is kind of a general state of being for me. I’m not sure that it has ever fully gone away. It’s just that sometimes it overwhelms me and other times it feels “normal”. Whatever that it.
Overthinking/Racing thoughts - They just don’t stop. I wish I had an off button. Endless questions and the inability to make a decision. The questions come from a place of wanting to know all the things...all the truth...all the interesting and strange things.
I encourage questioning everything because it helps a person see outside their narrow perspective, but sometimes the level I get to is insane and it causes me to stress out and break down. And of course, being aware of everything and overthinking leads to me not being able to make quick decisions...or get so caught up in the what-ifs that I panic, cry and lose my shit. The only time I seem to be able to catch a break is when I meditate and practice thoughtlessness.
Confusion/Brain Fog/lack of concentration/memory loss/easily distracted: We all get it from time to time and it is linked heavily to stress of any kind. I notice it much more when I have periods of heightened anxiety.
Crying for no reason - This one comes up a lot for me. Sometimes I’m sure it’s the fluctuating hormones of perimenopause, but the other times it has no known cause. I just feel off. Sad. Strange. I have no idea why and it makes me cry.
Sensory Overload -https://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-symptoms/sensory-overload.shtml
This is similar to the first symptoms I listed above in the "emotional" section, but in this case my symptoms are felt physically, not just in my mind.
If I were to give first place to any anxiety symptom, it would be this one. I still struggle with this on a daily basis. It’s particularly bad when I have to leave the house to run errands or travel or do something out of my ordinary.
The overload comes from too much stimulation in my system either all at one time or built up through the day or a few days. Smells, sounds, sights, feelings of things on my skin…
It can top off very quickly, even in a matter of minutes or it can take a few hours to days depending on what I’ve been doing or how often I can take a break. Most often it leads me to need to take a nap in a quiet place, sometimes it makes me cry and other times I feel physically ill. It generally makes me feel like I cann't handles one more sound, one more smell, one more thing to look at or one more touch from anything or anyone on my body.
Again, some of this may be related to sensory processing issues, my actual brain/neurological function in connection with my nervous system.
Example 1: going shopping. The bright lights, all the people, all the products to look at, the decisions I have to make about the products, the music playing in the background, all the smells associated with all the products and all the people. Even a short trip to the grocery store can overload my system.
Example 2: Going to one of my son’s school programs. So many people. So much noise. So much bumping into each other and sitting close and getting too hot...god...the clapping and the shitty sound system are completely insane.
Example 3: Going to the beach for a few hours. I fucking love the beach so this is very disappointing to me. But many times I go for a leisurely time with a friend...and all we do is talk and lay in the sun, something that should be relaxing...I’m absolutely exhausted mentally and physically when I get home. It’s the wind, the talking, the watching people, the hot sun, all of the incoming stimuli.
Chronic Fatigue - I’ve never been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome but what I feel like lines up pretty well with it. It’s probably the most common symptom I have and it’s something I deal with still most of the time. It’s been something that I’ve struggled with as long as I can remember even back to childhood. Anxiety began early in life for me, so I’m not sure if the fatigue is solely due to anxiety or if my physical body just has a harder time recuperating than most people’s.
Either way, on bad days the fatigue makes me feel like I’m developing a cold or the flu, but never fully manifests into being sick. It can feel like even though I get 10 hours of sleep, it’s just never enough, I’m not refreshed and could sleep all day. My body is heavy and it takes all my effort to just get through the day and do the bare minimum to keep the house running. Sometimes I am so tired that my body feels like collapsing and I cry at the drop of a hat.
Thankfully, I am at a place where my bad days are not every day like they used to be. But even on my best days I still tire more easily than most people even if I’ve been taking really good care of myself.
Backpain/Neck Pain/Headaches - Anxiety makes me tense. Being tense causes my back and especially my shoulder and neck area to become very painful and tight. Sometimes to the point that I develop a terrible headache that is so bad I get nauseated and can’t think at all.
Of course, sometimes sitting at the computer too long or sewing for hours does it as well, but I know it’s related to anxiety when there is no apparent reason for the pain or headache and I have recently been feeling fearful or concerned or have had panic attacks.
Body jolts/Zaps/Buzzing - Out of the blue come these zaps or jolts. Strange, sudden feelings of being stuck with a hot poker or an electric poker...like a cattle prod...I’ve never been zapped with a cattle prod, but I can imagine it feels like an anxiety symptom. LOL! It's hard to explain this sensation. But it can sometimes feel like a buzzing too. Like when you hum with your lips closed, just enough to make your whole mouth vibrate and buzz. I usually feel the buzz through my whole body, not just one area. The zapping or jolts are usually in one specific area.
Body Shaking/Trembling - This is a very common one for me. In fact, sometimes this is the first symptom that warns me an attack is coming on before I recognize it. For me it feels like shaking when you get too cold, only I’m not cold, I’m sweating.
Chest Pain - This used to be enough to make me scared something was wrong with my heart. The pains are like stabs right through my heart or in that area. Sharp, sudden pains that can take my breath away. P.S. if you are having chest pains, go get them checked out for fuck’s sake!
Heart Palpitations - Fluttering, skipping beats, strange sensations over and around my heart area. Between the chest pain and heart palpitations, I was sure something was seriously wrong with me. But I’ve had EKG’s, x-rays, echocardiograms, MRI’s and CT scans, plus a few days wearing a Holter monitor at home. Nothing is wrong with my heart.
Uncontrollable Swallowing - This is so obnoxious. And damn frustrating. When it happens (it hasn’t for years) it’s super annoying. It feels like there is always spit or mucus that needs to be swallowed. Even if there is nothing there, the urge to swallow is impossible to resist.
Excessive Energy - Sounds like a contradiction to the fatigue. And I’m telling you, it doesn’t make sense to me either. I can feel completely exhausted physically and mentally, while at the same time be wiggling my foot like crazy or bringing out my inner circus.
Frequent urination - This sounds strange, but I guess it’s a thing. It’s been a while since I’ve read all the info about how the body works under anxiety and I believe the peeing all the time has to do with the body trying to get rid of an overload of hormones like adrenaline. This is something that only happens to me when I’ve had a moderate to a severe panic attack, not usually when there is just mild background anxiety. It comes on after the attack is in full gear and then lasts for a few hours.
Clumsiness - This is pretty common for me and seems to be associated with dizziness. After an attack or during a bad anxiety day, I tend to run into things more often, drop things, and just am generally uncoordinated.
Sugar Cravings - Another interesting symptom. Our bodies burn through so much energy with stress, anger and anxiety. So, it’s no wonder that we can get to craving high calorie, tasty treats!
Difficulty Speaking - This only happens to me during very severe episodes and hasn’t happened for many years. It feels like my tongue gets thick inside my mouth and kind of paralyzed. I can still feel heat, cold, and pain on my tongue, but it’s like the nerves just won’t send the signal to the muscles so I can speak properly. As if my tongue has grown in size and is filling my mouth to such a degree that I sound unintelligible, a little like a drunk person sounds slurring their words.
Lightheadedness/Dizziness/Fainting - I have fainted or nearly fainted a handful of times from a panic attack, but most of the time it presents as a lightheaded, airy feeling...kind of like being drunk without the heaviness that you tend to feel with alcohol.
Unable to relax - Another ongoing symptom that is probably with me more than I am aware. My physical appearance may look chill, but inside I really struggle to relax and let go. Much of the time I feel wound tight inside...maybe akin to being ready to fight. It’s getting better, as I learn to live in the moment.
Falling/Dropping Sensation - This is a pretty insane symptom. It still makes no sense to me. It hasn't happened for a very long time, but there had been times when I would be at home going about my day, shopping for groceries, or just out and about when suddenly the floor would feel like it was falling out from underneath me. Enough that I would reach out and grab a wall or table to keep from falling through the floor.
It feels like the ground or floor is just gone for a moment. That it loses all solidity. Maybe a bit like standing on a trampoline and then trying to walk...or like an elevator on its way down...that initial jolt as the elevator begins to go down and you feel weightless for just a moment. It’s a wavy feeling and completely unstable. This would hit at random. I could be completely calm, carrying on with my day, I can’t stand well because the floor is jello and I’m sinking into it. And then because of the odd feeling, it would trigger an actual panic attack.
Sickness/Illness feeling - Another symptom that I am not sure is directly related to anxiety or if it's just my body. It’s a feeling like I described earlier...like I am starting to get sick with a cold or flu...sore throat, achy body, stuffy nose but mostly just tired. It never forms into an actual sickness, but just remains at the initial feeling when you tune in and go, “I think I’m getting sick”. That point when you feel unwell, but aren’t sure if you’re just run down or actually getting sick. This is another frequent feeling I get when my stress response is high or when I have been doing too much physical activity.
Feeling odd/different/foreign/wrong or strange - Common with me. And it’s different than the impending doom feeling. It’s kind of a creepy feeling. Something just doesn’t feel right. Nothing specific. Things just feel wrong. My body feels wrong or off. My mind feels wrong or off. It’s so bizarre and weird. So very weird.
When anxiety is bad, it makes me feel like I need to peel off my skin...or try to find a way out of my body. My body doesn’t feel like mine...or I don’t feel like me...it makes me have to cuddle with my husband or huddle on the sofa...makes me feel like hiding at the same time as ripping out of my clothing and running away from whatever the feeling is inside of me. I have the intense urge to shake it off like a dog shakes off water. Or like when you see something gross that gives you the shivers.
It feels crawly and agitating. Several times it has gotten so bad that I will physically pull at my muscles and skin because if I don’t, I might freak out. It doesn’t happen that often and is getting less and less but the feeling is so horrible.
It’s such a gross, yuk feeling that I almost always end up crying when I feel like this.
Restless Legs - The needing to move my feet or my legs. Bouncing them up and down while sitting in a chair, wiggling my feet if my legs are crossed on the sofa, moving my feet in bed, rubbing them around on the sheets or on the carpet to make them “feel better”. It feels odd to just sit. But I do practice calming myself.
At night in bed, my legs seem to really freak out sometimes. They will just feel strange, like a weird nerve surge and I will HAVE to move one of them or both of them. It's very uncomfortable. It never lasts all night and seems to go away more quickly if I can meditate before sleeping or calming myself before I get into bed.
Pressure around chest/back/lungs - Kind of self-explanatory. Everything in those areas just feels tight or restricted, making it hard to breathe or relax.
Startling Easily - I rarely experience this anymore, but it's really noticeable when I do. Everything makes me jump. A toy falling. A door shutting. A phone ringing...
Weakness - Kind of goes along with the fatigue. If my anxiety is high, my body just doesn’t want to move. Pulling pants on or lifting a pan or pushing myself out of bed...seems like I am using every ounce of strength. Everything feels weak. My lungs, my legs, my arms, my face...
Digestive issues - Pain, constipation, diarrhea, bloating, nausea. Depending on the level of anxiety, I’ve experienced all of it. Mainly nausea and diarrhea during bad attacks. It can take a few days to clear.
Dry Mouth - It gets so bad when I have a massive attack. Feels like my mouth is paper dry. No saliva seems to work up at all.
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And that’s my list.
I hope this has been helpful for you if you have been experiencing similar issues. Or if you feel like someone you know may benefit from reading this, please share it with them!