At their core, people want to belong and feel purposeful. We crave connections with each other — to something larger than ourselves.
In the age of social media, Twitter and blogging often welcome that type of intimacy. I frequently find that my online friends “get it”. I don’t have to explain myself when I tweet about chronic pain or feeling like a Mac Truck ran over me. I don’t have to justify my spinning thoughts even though I feel crazed and like it’s not normal. Often, I recognize my values and my identities reflected in the topics other people are writing about or the pithy remarks they’re Tweeting. These connections exemplify for me how to elevate and insert my voice into important conversations. It makes me feel less alone and gives me some justification for how necessary my (and others’) writing is!
For the sake of connection, finding #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike was so important to me. I follow the creator, Sarah Fader, on Twitter, and for the better part of a year our lived experiences of chronic pain and anxiety have converged via the Twitter sphere. For me, reading these Tweets all weekend was incredibly empowering and also very overwhelming.
For the most part, talking about anxiety, real anxiety, is taboo. I often talk about my worries, and what causes me stress, but the real crippling everyday feelings that occupy my life and mind, such as the heavy feeling of ambiguity, the frenetic feeling associated with not having a plan, or my obsession with time that makes me fear being late, are almost always off limits. By not talking about these anxieties and my feelings, and consequently devoting painstaking effort to appear put together, I’m bolstering the facade and mindset that minimizes and stigmatizes mental illness. If we all devote more energy to talking about anxiety, we can find solace in the well-deserved feeling of relief we experience when we learn that we’re not alone in life’s expeditions.
The hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelslike took my Twitter by storm this weekend. It was second only, possibly, to the Grammys! While at first, the possibility of contributing to this hashtag felt crusting to me, after a while I found that even just reading the Tweets was really reassuring! I could relate to folks’ feelings of inferiority in relationships and accomplishments, the overwhelming uncertainty and dread about sending text messages and emails, the fear that I’m overreacting or imagining how bad something really is, and the constant sensation that my mind is playing tricks on me.
I didn’t tweet anything using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike for several days. I wasn’t sure how to put my thoughts into 133 characters or less. Actually, the task itself gave me anxiety! At times, reading the posts made me feel like I couldn’t breathe. Except I also felt moments of relief and sincere connection. The subsequent intimacy and connection to others that I gained by reading people’s responses and realizing that I’m not alone is no more dangerous than avoiding my feelings and experiencing my story in isolation.
I’m ready to write now; the words are spilling out of me!
This Is What My Anxiety Feels Like
It feels like the sense of invincibility that comes from attempting to do it all and simultaneously avoid whatever is actually pending and important. It feels like unstoppable energy, and confidence that accrues from the electric feeling in my fingers and toes when I’m fueled solely by caffeine and adrenaline — it’s like possibility and efficiency are bubbling out of me! It feels like yearning for the sense of pride that is practically palpable from beating the odds, or defying the expectations. It feels like feeling normal is temporary and maintaining that buzz requires believing I’m in control when I’m absolutely out of control. It feels like every time things feel actually fine, that feeling quickly diminishes and is replaced by intense, immobilizing sadness and isolation. It’s like in moments where I feel like I’ve “found me” I too quickly remind myself that this won’t last long. Usually this feeling lasts just about as long as it takes to take a deep, satisfying breath and recognize that for a moment I can breathe again. That realization makes even a glimpse seem like I’m watching someone else’s life from the sidelines. Anxiety makes me feel like an observer in my own life.
At its core, my anxiety is all about control. Perhaps it’s because I can recall so many times when I didn’t get to be in control of my life [read: abuse & chronic pain – although I can’t get into that right now]. I always fight my environment and circumstances to feel in control; it’s comforting, reliable, and trustworthy – except not really. It’s actually so deceptive. It’s a made up, abstract concept. Control reveals it’s malicious self when I’m not looking. When I feel like everything is finally manageable, the perception of control laughs in my face, and shows me how wrong I actually am [read: every excuse I ever had about compulsive exercise and not being hungry – more on that soon]. Control is a falsity. It’s a mirage. And, since I’m compulsive I literally get trapped in a vicious cycle of catching and chasing control. Since as early as I can recall needing control, I can identify how almost all of my attempts to ascertain control were various forms of self-harm. Most recently, it looks like excessive exercise and compensatory, disordered eating behaviors. Craving control isn’t glamorous, and any threat to that poses a likelihood for a compulsion to kick in – a false sense of manufactured control.
My axiety makes me feel like I can’t stop. I keep myself busy to avoid attending to the spinning thoughts in my head. I’m always thinking so quickly, so often, so intensely. It’s hectic, more appropriately chaotic, It’s also exhausting. Mostly though, it’s really really really overwhelming.
Sometimes it feels like I’m in a room and the walls are all my thoughts. If I could find some way out, a way to break down the walls, a way to push past the barriers that are my thoughts, I’d escape into fresh, crisp air. I’d be able to breathe again.
I’m just thinking too much about everything! I spend too much time reconsidering a conversation with a friend, trying to decide when to send a text so it won’t interrupt people, rereading sent emails for typos and potential misinterpretations that cannot be rectified anyway, worrying that what I submit is barley good enough (that I can only fool people for so long – so therefore rereading and questioning myself until I make myself literally sick), observing and responding to my perceptions of social dynamics, I could go on and on (clearly)!
I want to slow down. I want to pull up on the breaks and tell my head “STOP”. I grapple constantly with this paradox, when I’m not working (and I’m doing something for me) my mind is spinning thinking about all the things I need to be doing. And then I start thinking faster, allocating every minute and attempting to convince myself it will be okay. It feels like a frenzy, like if I don’t harness my thoughts I won’t be able to turn off the anxiety. Conversely, when I start working I can’t even focus on what I’m working on because I’m thinking about a million, minimally important, other things.
I Need Air
My anxiety is like when you’re swimming. It’s like that precise moment right before you come up for air. The anticipation of a deep breath is quickly quenched by a satisfying inhale. However, if this action is repeated, for example if I were to quickly dart back under the water, then the repetition of anticipation and ascertainment may be associated with a feeling of never getting enough of what you need or incessant wanting. So, the gasp of air may be nearly enough to sustain your stroke and stamina but not to fully satisfy your desire.
My anxiety is fueled by an insatiable want for full, deep, satisfying breath of air! And, as I relentlessly seek out this feeling of serenity I’m coming up against tall, sturdy walls of abruptness and urgency instead
Life is full of messy, uncomfortable, painful moments. And most of the time, we’re totally unprepared for how “real” life is about to get. It sneaks up on us, and then avoidance becomes our best alibi. Most of us are more comfortable staying a safe distance away from ourselves and our feelings – it’s easier than doing the work of reuniting our actions, intentions, and feelings. However, in those difficult moments we must practice balancing the opposing feelings of being fully present and running away. That’s scary! Yet, those are the moments in which we grow. We grow when we lean in to moments of discomfort and vulnerability. The anticipation is bound to be terrifying and reason enough to avoid disclosure at all costs, but in the end it may be relieving.
Feeling so deeply, being present in a place of hurt or pain, and embracing your own truth can leave you breathless. It’s brave. You may even find solace in sharing your story and discovering the power of knowing you’re not alone!
Want to participate? Tweet using the hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike or follow Sarah Fader on Twitter to see what others are saying!