What's anxiety? What does it feel like?

"As someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, I know what it feels like to be restricted by overwhelming feelings I often can’t make sense of. I’ve experienced the heart-clenching fear, the paralyzing sense that you’re trapped, and the feeling of being completely out of control while desperately trying to get that control back. I’ve avoided situations entirely because I know it’ll trigger my panic, and I’ve missed out on so much because my anxiety has prevented me from doing things deep down I know I wanted to do."

If you know what it’s like to be prevented from living your life because of fears you can’t seem to rationalize, you’re not alone.  According to the World Health Organization survey, anxiety disorders are the world’s most common mental illness:

20% of adolescents experience some form of anxiety disorder, while 70% of those who have attempted suicide suffer from anxiety as well.

Anxiety disorders come in all shapes and forms, and trigger different responses from different people. Psychologists have differentiated anxiety disorders into the three categories: generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. While anxiety can be triggered by different things and situations, most who experience anxiety have felt:

shortness of breath, pounding heart, sweating, insomnia, and constantly being on edge.

It is important to note that anxiety is common to everyone, and can even be healthy, but when that anxious feeling turns into avoidance, it is often a sign outside help is needed. Luckily, a variety of coping strategies exist that help make anxiety a lot more manageable. Most importantly, surrounding yourself with a positive network of people who support you emotionally can be the best way to help you heal. People with anxiety take time to recover, and by having that support system you know you are not alone in that process." - Kristin Magaldi


How do I know when what I'm feeling isn't standard anxiety?

  • Does it feel like you are incapable of not being worried? 
  • Can you only focus on what will go wrong in certain scenarios? 
  • Are you very worried about something that, rationally, you know has an incredibly small likelihood of happening?
  • Is your anxiety interfering with your life in negative ways? As in, is it hurting your relationships, your job, your family? 
  • Are you having panic attacks?
  • Do you find yourself hiding, running away, or staying home to avoid social interactions out of dread?
  • Is your anxiety making you miserable and unhappy more often than not, even if it isn’t otherwise impacting other areas of your life?
  • Answering yes to a few of these scenarios would indicate that your anxiety may have exceeded what is “reasonable,” and has become truly problematic for you.

What if I have a range of symptoms that don’t cleanly fit into any one particular disorder?

One thing that’s a bit confusing for a lot of people is that many of these disorders tend to share symptoms with other similar disorders as described in the DSM-5. And some people might exhibit one or two symptoms for a particular disorder, but not enough of the symptoms to actually qualify as having that disorder. That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a problem with anxiety, though, or that you can’t get help.

So, for example: Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include “persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. And social anxiety disorder is “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.” And you might exhibit symptoms that align with both disorders, or that partially align with them both but not totally or completely with either one. And so on.

From a practical perspective, the biggest thing you should pay attention to isn’t so much what type of anxiety you may or may not have, but rather if your anxiety is interfering with your life, in whatever form it does take. Your doctor can help you narrow down explicitly what’s wrong, if it’s necessary. Or they may choose to help you out in other ways, without settling on a specific label or diagnosis.

Psychotherapy? Medications?

It sounds intense, but psychotherapy is just therapy for your mental and emotional health. The most common form for anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy, meant to change your patterns of thinking toward what is scary and dangerous, as well as change the way you react, particularly avoidance. Your therapist can also help you learn different coping mechanisms. If you cannot afford or access a therapist, or if you need additional support, you can always request a Peer Counselor. 

As for medication, general treatments include sedatives (think Xanax) to give a temporary calm, and other medications meant to stimulate your serotonin production. Since you have to take them for months at the right dose to be able to see an effect, and the same medication doesn’t work for everybody, it’s important to work with a psychiatrist to figure out what’s best for you. Some people don’t need medication at all; some people only need medication during particularly stressful times in their lives; some people benefit from taking medication consistently. It’s important to figure out with a doctor what works best for you.