So … this is how I feel when I'm anxious:
- My heart pounds -- not fast, necessarily, but hard. It feels like someone could actually see my chest moving if they looked at me.
- My mind spins in circles, coming back over and over again to the same one or two ideas in rapid succession.
- My thoughts tend to be expressed as actual words in my mind, sentences like "I can't do this!" are most common, but I actually hear them in my head in an increasingly panicky tone.
- I breathe more quickly, though not to a "hyperventilating 'til I pass out" extent.
- My stomach feels tight, "in knots," and kind of nauseated.
- I feel trapped, like there's no way out of whatever situation I'm in.
- I feel a tightness/pressure in my chest.
- I feel a lack of control. I feel incapable, unable, powerless, not enough, like I'm failing, like I should be able to do something I'm not able to do.
- I feel a strong, purely visceral need to run away.
- My thoughts are disorganized, making it nearly impossible to figure out what's happening and what to do about it. I just keep going back to the frantic "I can't do this!" kinds of thoughts, instead of being able to think of any problem solving.
- I can't deal with other people pretty much at all. I don't want anyone talking to me or asking me questions. I feel overwhelmed by other people's problems. I especially don't want to be in any way responsible for their health or happiness or anything. I just want to hide.
- I can't do much planning. I can't think about a situation, analyze what is needed, and come up with a plan. It all feels too overwhelming and I can't keep all the pieces in my mind at the same time.
- Information overload. When trying to read the instruction manual for a new item (phone, vacuum cleaner, digital watch, etc.), I become easily frustrated and give up. I can usually only manage 2 or 3 pages at a time, so I can't really get a grasp on the big picture or how the different pieces/functions/ideas relate to each other.
- This information overload also often influences how I interact with books, tv shows, news articles, and sometimes even emails. Reading more than a few pages of anything more complex than a romance novel or an already-very-familiar fanfic (and I usually skip around in these, reading only the best parts) usually ends in frustration and leaves me close to tears.
Some of this is acute (the pounding heart, the spinning thoughts, the hyperventilation, etc.), but a lot of it is more chronic. Not constant throughout my life, but often present for long periods of time when my anxiety is flared up. So, for example, my anxiety flared up more than a year ago, in October 2011, and never really got a lot better. Since then, I haven't been very comfortable dealing with people, and attempts to volunteer have been emotionally disastrous (leading to the previously described sobbing in public more than once). I've spent a lot of time metaphorically hiding (and yet, paradoxically, often feeling trapped), feeling like I'm powerless/unable/a failure/not enough, having trouble with organized thinking, and having trouble planning. I gave up facilitating the writing group at CWC, even though Crystal and I had been the ones to actively and repeatedly advocate for it for months before it was created, because planning and leading it (being responsible for giving everyone constructive feedback, dealing with attendees who are in some way disruptive, etc.) was way too much. I've even been having trouble just attending support groups, because I get so upset listening to other people talk. It often makes me want to just run out of the room, and sometimes I've actually done so.
As for how this all differs from how I feel when I'm not anxious … well … in pretty much every way. When I'm not anxious:
- I usually feel calm and capable, with organized thoughts that allow me to solve problems in efficient and creative ways.
- My thoughts are fairly linear, except when I don't want them to be (such as when I'm brainstorming or doing something else creative). The linearity or lack of linearity of my thoughts is generally under my own control. If anything, my thoughts tend to be more linear than I would prefer, pretty much the opposite of when I'm anxious.
- I feel confident that I can solve problems myself or find the appropriate help to do so.
- I like to be around other people, like to be social and friendly, and particularly enjoy helping others. I'm generally comfortable, confident, relaxed, and happy around people, even if I'm not "the life of the party." I have a tendency to be self-conscious in groups, but I usually overcome it pretty well when I'm not anxious. I make friends easily, often making the first move to get to know people better, listening to people to learn who they are and what they like, and suggesting outings with individuals or with groups.
- I juggle multiple close friendships simultaneously.
- I am very organized and enjoy planning. I like tangling with complex problems, even just books with convoluted plots or elaborate language or movies/tv shows with multiple intertwining sub-plots.
- I like research. I'm good at finding relevant material, teasing apart various threads of information, and forming them all into cohesive ideas.
- I have a great attention span and often read for hours at a stretch, watch movie marathons, organize and write stories or papers, and the like.
- I juggle multiple projects, such as simultaneous schoolwork, paid work, and volunteer work. This led to big problems in grad school (my big initial "crash and burn" that started all this mental health difficulty), but it was common for me as an undergrad and in my first 5 or 6 years after college.
I'm going to continue thinking about this, but this is a good start. It's great that my therapist suggested this, actually, because I've discovered a couple of things since I started working on it on Wednesday:
- I have significant anxiety more often than I realized. Now that I'm watching for the acute symptoms, I've noticed them pop up at least a few times every day: tight chest, pounding heart, breathing fast, etc.
- Many of these symptoms, though I recognize them now that I'm watching for them, were pretty much invisible to me before. For example, when my chest got so tight, I immediately thought, "Aha! That's anxiety!" … and then immediately afterward thought, "I never consciously realized that that was a sign of anxiety for me." It's been like a voyage of discovery, however cliche that sounds.