I wish you could understand my anxiety

In 2013, more than 3 million Canadians over the age of 18 were reported as suffering from a mood or anxiety disorder, and more than 27% of these people indicated that the condition seriously impacted their quality of life. Canadian youth are also affected, with roughly 1 in 5 persons between the age of 12-19 experiencing some form of anxiety or mental health disorder.

The Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada describes two kinds of anxiety:

a) normal anxious or uptight reactions to stressful situations like writing an exam, public speaking, or going on a date, and;
b) anxiety disorders that can severely impair a person’s ability to function in their every-day life.

Different types of anxiety disorders have many different causes, and there is a complex interplay between a person’s experiences, brain chemistry, and genetics that defines how and to what degree they will be affected. Medical conditions, traumatic experiences and substance abuse are also believed to trigger the development of anxiety disorders, and anxiety symptoms are something we will all encounter at some point in our lives.

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What exactly IS anxiety?

Anxiety is defined as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” To some degree, these feelings are considered normal, as we all have to face difficult decisions, painful situations, and an unpredictable future. In persons living with anxiety disorders, however, these feelings are intensified and reactions to these feelings are exaggerated.

What does it feel like?

Anxiety affects mental health but has physical and emotional implications as well. Persons suffering from anxiety typically describe experiencing:

  • A sense of panic and overwhelming feeling of fear
  • Feeling like they are losing control
  • Racing heart rate or heart palpitations
  • Dizziness and lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath or rapid breathing
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Feelings of weakness, numbness or tingling
  • Having a lump in the throat or feeling like they are being choked
  • Knots or butterflies in the stomach
  • Feeling the urge to vomit or urgently needing the washroom
  • Headaches
  • Feeling unreal, or like they are in a dream
  • An overwhelming need to escape

These symptoms are most often experienced simultaneously, and since so many of them are practically invisible, it can be impossible to tell whether or not someone has anxiety or is dealing with an episode.

People with anxiety are often embarrassed by their condition as many of the symptoms are unpredictable and overwhelming. Anxiety can be debilitating, and it affects those suffering from it more than they usually let on.

Here are 11 things people with anxiety would like others to know. Keep these in mind the next time someone opens up to you about their anxiety.

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1) I’m not crazy.

Until very recently, most forms of mental illness carried the extreme weight of social stigma and misunderstanding. If someone was mentally unwell, they were branded as being unstable, crazy, and even dangerous.

As more and more people are opening up about their individual struggles, mental illness is beginning to lose its dark and misleading brand, and instead, attitudes of awareness and compassion are taking its place.

2) I’m not just “being flaky”.

Having anxiety makes it exceedingly difficult to stick to the plan. It is totally unpredictable, with the intensity of symptoms ranging from mild to severe at any given moment. Sometimes even the idea of leaving the house can be too much, and more often than not if someone cancels last minute, it’s because they have hit a threshold that is beyond their ability to handle.

When anxiety forces someone to dip out on plans, it doesn’t mean they love you any less or that they don’t want to see you. They are just in way over their head at that moment and need some time to relax and re-center.

3) What I mean when I say, “I really just can’t right now.”

Anxiety can make just about anything overwhelming. When someone reaches a point of being over-stimulated, sometimes it is too difficult to confront whatever might be triggering them in that moment. At this point, their anxiety might be causing them to shut down mentally and emotionally as a way to self-preserve.

If they say they just can’t, that they need a few minutes, or that they need to be alone, what they probably mean is that things are too much for them right now, and they need to retreat to a safe space to settle and to more comfortably deal with whatever is coming up.

4) It isn’t always something you can see.

Someone can appear totally normal on the surface, but they don’t have to be shaking or doubled over to be experiencing anxiety. Symptoms can, at times, be crippling, but more often than not anxiety is experienced as purveying or underlying discomforts that won’t be something you will be able to see just by looking at someone.

Anxiety is not always psychologically disruptive, either. Muscle spasms, breathlessness, heart palpitations, and headaches are all symptoms of anxiety, and many anxiety sufferers experience greater physical issues than they do mental or emotional.

5) It is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting.  

Anxiety is draining on every level. The body’s fight or flight response has evolved to help us survive in times of stress, but in persons with anxiety, this system is hyperactive, leading to states of over-agitation and excitement. Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline are typically higher in anxiety sufferers, and prolonged circulation of these chemicals is known to cause sleep disturbances, wear down the activity of the immune system, and can lead to a variety of other health problems.

Long story short, many people with anxiety are almost always tired, and if anxiety is running particularly high, or someone is having a panic attack, they are likely to be even more run down than normal.

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6) It’s not something I can control.

Many people describe anxiety as feeling like they are drowning. No matter what they do or try, or how well things may be going, there always seems to be a wave of dreadful energy that follows them around, and that will wash over them at totally unexpected times.  

Although thinking positively may be grounding in certain situations, and each person has ways of channeling or calming a particularly difficult attack, finding solid footing again can be extremely difficult, and anxiety and its symptoms aren’t something that can just be turned off.

7) It might seem like nothing to you, but it is real to me.

Anxiety might cause a person to intensely react to something that would normally be deemed harmless, or to obsess over a detail or possible negative outcome in ways that are extreme.

The tendency to dwell, to overreact to a perceived threat, or to become inflated by whatever strong emotions are happening at the time might not make sense to you, but for the person with anxiety, these feelings may be overwhelming, or all they are able or focus on in that moment.

8) Sometimes nothing works.

Anxiety can be very unpredictable, with symptoms being triggered by just about anything, and sometimes nothing at all. When a person experiences an attack or flair-up, it can feel as though everything in the world is narrowing in on them, and like they are being suffocated by an unknown source.

These moments are particularly difficult, as it can feel as though they are spiraling out of control and that nothing can stop the tailspin. Deep breathing, meditation, and other mindfulness techniques can be helpful, but sometimes nothing can quell the intensity of an episode, and the only option is to “roll” or be present with the force of the emotions and sensations.

9) Medication isn’t always the answer.

Physicians often use anti-anxiety medications like Benzodiazepines, or SSRIs to treat anxiety, and although many anxiety sufferers have experienced varying degrees of success using medication, a large number of people also report adverse side-effects to these drugs and opt for other choices.

Anxiety is a diverse condition, with causes and reasons that go deeper than any substance, supplement or seminar may be able to correct. Generally, it takes a marriage of differing approaches and combinations for any one person to find relief, and what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to be the best fit for someone else.

10) Your patience and understanding are everything.

Anxiety can be debilitating, and its symptoms can be extremely disruptive to normal habits and healthy ways of life. People who suffer from it typically struggle with insecurity and have the tendency to isolate themselves from family and social circles as they struggle to maintain balance in the face of their condition.

Having the support of people who accept them for who they are, and who are able to be understanding when anxiety gets in the way or makes things difficult, can ease the level of embarrassment or discomfort a person has to go through. This can make handling the symptoms much less challenging, and may even help to relieve the intensity of the situation.

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11) I am doing the best I can.

Living with anxiety can be a moment-to-moment battle. Dealing with symptoms that challenge and compromise every aspect of a person’s health and stability can make even the simplest of tasks extremely difficult to get through.   

In a condition that can be crippling on all levels, to someone living with anxiety the smallest accomplishments can be milestones of achievement. Although some days or episodes are much worse than others, it can often take everything a person has to be able to show up to whatever is in front of them.

Support and recovery

Trying to understand what it’s like to deal with anxiety can be a struggle for those of us who haven’t personally had to face it. Supporting someone who is dealing with anxiety can be equally as confusing, as anxiety has many faces and affects every person differently.

There are as many approaches to dealing with anxiety as there are factors that may contribute to it. Combining self-care management, different forms of therapy, and, in some cases, medication can greatly increase a person’s likelihood of recovery. A diagnosis does not necessarily mean a life sentence, and many people with anxiety are able to manage their symptoms or work through their condition entirely and lead healthy and fulfilling lives.


As with any mental health condition, seeking treatment and support is better than suffering or trying to push through alone. If you or someone you know is dealing with anxiety and needs help managing the condition, or just needs someone to talk to, try reaching out to a trusted friend or family member, or seek professional help from a counselor or therapist.

Article provided by Lindsay S. Dunlop