Anxiety is a common illness, one that’s finally being talked about, but still often misunderstood. It’s invisible, and because our fear can seem irrational, it’s easy to tell people to ‘just stop being scared’. But it’s never that easy, because if all it took was ‘just having positive thoughts’ or ‘just stop being afraid’, no one would be suffering from anxiety. That’s why I like using analogies when trying to explain what anxiety feels like because sometimes it’s easier for people to understand fear coming from a horror movie or an abusive partner than fear coming from someone’s own mind.
I previously wrote some posts about this as well, comparing anxiety to a crashing computer and to the feeling some of us get after watching horror movies. You could also compare it to the panic after being lost in a big supermarket as a kid, or the panic of losing your child in a big supermarket, or being chased by a wild animal, or walking home alone at night through a dark alley in a new city. With the only difference that all of those feelings are temporary, and anxiety isn’t.
Two of my favorite ways to explain what anxiety feels like is comparing it to living inside of a haunted mansion, and being in an abusive relationship. They both illustrate pretty well what it is to live with anxiety, but are also great examples of how to deal with anxiety, how to overcome it and how to support those suffering from anxiety.
Having anxiety means living inside a haunted mansion
Constantly haunted by worst-case scenarios, it’s impossible to let your guard down for just one moment. Behind every door there could be a monster, every person you meet is a possible demon, behind every corner someone is waiting impatiently to scare you, and every mirror shows off a distorted version of you. There’s nowhere to hide, maybe for a while, you’ll feel safe inside a closet or underneath the covers of your bed, but it won’t take long before the demons find a way to you there as well. And the more you let all of it get to you, the more scared you get, the easier it becomes for the monsters to scare you, the easier it becomes for them to win. And at the same time, you have no idea if the horrors are part of your imagination, or if they’re real and dangerous.
While I’m not literally haunted by demons, ghosts, and mythical monsters, I like using this analogy to explain what anxiety feels like. I like giving my fears a face, calling them monsters. It makes it easier to fight those fears, and it’s easier to explain to others as well. For people without anxiety, monsters and demons are easier to visualize and understand than the constant anxious feeling that’s there without a noticeable cause, fear of failing, tunnel vision, negative thoughts or feelings of worthlessness. And everyone has been to a haunted mansion at a themed park or has seen some sort of horror movie, which makes the feeling easier to understand as well.
While I have my anxiety under control these days, I’m still followed by monsters, that will most likely be there for the rest of my life. Except that in this case, the monsters aren’t horned demons escaped from hell but fear of failing, fear of not being good enough, fear that things will go wrong, worst-case scenarios, anxiousness and condescending thoughts about myself. And I can keep it under control the same way people survive the monsters in those horror movies: by being strong, being brave and fighting back.
Anxiety is an abusive partner you can’t break up with
“You’re not good enough”, “No one will ever love you”, “You’ll fuck up that meeting, because you’re not good at anything”, “Your voice sounds really awkward right now”, “You’re ugly”, “If anyone finds out about me you’re dead”, “I’m hitting you because you have to learn how to behave”, “It’s your own fault I hit you, you could have prevented it by being better”, “You won’t find anyone better than me”, “I’m hurting you because I love you”, “Your nose looks a lot like your mom’s and it’s disgusting”, “Don’t go outside, nothing good will come from it”, “Cancel that coffee date with your friends, they hate you anyway”.
Anxiety is a lot like an abusive partner, and here I speak from experience. Both anxiety and abusers are good at talking down to you, telling you things will go wrong, making you believe you’re worthless, that all the pain you experience is your own fault, and that the future has nothing but darkness in store for you. And both can be incredibly convincing and hard to break loose from.
Just like my abusive mom loved to tell me I’d fail whichever test I had coming up at school, my anxiety tries to convince me I’ll fail at work, or just at life in general. And just like my abusers yelled at me for crying over their words or actions, my anxiety causes me to feel bad over feeling bad. One day I might feel great, look at myself I’m beautiful, but it doesn’t take much for my abuser/my anxiety to start pointing out all my flaws. Whether the abuse is coming from an abuser or my own thoughts, it’s easy to get tricked and believe every single word of what they say.
And it takes a lot of effort to escape from them, to be free and finally love yourself and believe in yourself. It takes a lot of time, work, and close friends to build up that confidence again. Which is why it’s so important that anyone suffering from anxiety receives support and validation. You don’t want to tell someone who’s getting abused that the abuse isn’t real, and in the same way, you shouldn’t invalidate the feelings of anyone suffering from anxiety. They’re experiencing the same kind of abuse, it’s just coming from their own mind instead of a third party, which doesn’t make it less real or easier to deal with.
We need strong friends, who will prove us our abusers were wrong, who will show us the world isn’t all that bad and who will support us in our journey to self-love and happiness. We need people who help us escape from our haunted mansion or abusive partners, we need people who will support us and help us battle anxiety. Even just being there and listening is more than we have ever had or expected to have.
Do you know of any other ways to explain what anxiety feels like?