The Complete Guide To How Anxiety Feels
By: Sarah Fader
Updated May 13, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Anxiety is the worst kind of monster; it sneaks up on you, doesn't announce its presence, takes control of your life, and leaves you on its own terms. Its symptoms are wide-ranging, depending on your circumstances and your physiology. It can even disguise itself as other health problems, like heart arrhythmias (irregular heartbeat) and chronic pain. Worst case scenario, chronic anxiety can even cause diseases, such as high blood pressure, obesity, and chronic inflammation.
Anxiety is common-especially in the West. Whereas Eastern cultures focus on family and community, Western cultures tend to focus on the individual and work. People in the West may become isolated and over-worked, triggering feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, anxiety affects 40 million people in the U.S. alone, which is roughly 18 percent of the population. If you feel anxious, you are certainly not alone.
So how do you know what anxiety feels like? Use this as a complete guide to assess whether you are feeling anxious. Here's how anxiety feels:
Like you can't breathe
Feeling as though you are drowning or unable to breathe is a classic anxiety feeling. Recently, photographer Katie Joy Crawford created a photo series called "My Anxious Heart," in which she featured a photograph with plastic wrap around her chest and mouth. She captioned it: "They keep telling me to breathe. I can feel my chest moving up and down. Up and down. But why does it feel like I'm suffocating? I hold my hand under my nose, making sure there is air. I still can't breathe."
Sure enough, when you are anxious, you tend to suck in air, tensing your neck and chest muscles. You breathe shallowly instead of deeply. This disordered breathing pattern leads to an oxygen deficit.
Like your heart is beating out of your chest
During an anxiety attack, your heart pounds in your chest. Not only does anxiety make you overly aware of your heartbeat, your heart is also working hard to send blood to various body parts that need it. Your heart beats forcefully when your stress response is activated to provide your extremities with enough blood to fight or flee. The problem is that in our society, we are rarely confronted with a life-threatening situation-like an encounter with a tiger.
In modern society, stress tends to be subtler and more long-term. Our bodies react as if the stress were acute and short-term. Having your stress response (i.e., pounding heart) activated for a long period of time can cause health problems.
Like the world is leaving you behind
Depression often accompanies anxiety. When you are anxious, you are paralyzed due to being overwhelmed. When you are depressed, you lose motivation. The combination of the two mental illnesses can leave you feeling apathetic and tired. Even if you sleep away your days, deep down, you still have dreams and ambition. Because of this, you may become even more depressed and anxious.
Meanwhile, the world goes on. Your friends make big life changes and society still has expectations but with anxiety and depression weighing you down, you may feel as though the world is leaving you behind.
Like you are running in place
How does anxiety feel? It feels as though a million thoughts are racing through your mind all at once. Even though your mind is working hard, you may not be doing anything or going anywhere. It can feel like you've run a marathon but haven't moved an inch because you are running in place. This is particularly frustrating if you are overwhelmed by all that you must do.
Like you are dying
Anxiety can mask itself as other health problems, such as heart irregularities or asthma. In fact, anxiety often occurs with (or even before) other health problems. Health anxiety is a very common form of anxiety.
When your heart palpitates (or skips/adds a beat) and you feel like you can't breathe, you may want to check yourself into a hospital. If it is truly anxiety, going to a bustling hospital may make it worse. Instead, a relaxing meditation can do wonders to overcome feelings of dying.
Like your head is in a fog
It feels like your brain is foggy. Brain fog is a result of decreased mental function due to high levels of anxiety. In this state, your memory worsens, decisions become impossible, and academic tests are a joke. These mental impairments are not long-lasting, assuming you gain control over your anxiety.
Like you are drifting aimlessly
When you feel anxious, one day can morph into another without you really noticing. You may feel as though you are drifting aimlessly through life, without goals or the motivation to achieve them. An online counselor can help you snap out of the haze of days.
Like you are physically shaking
Think about the last time you gave a speech in public. If you are not particularly fond of giving speeches, chances are your hands were a little shaky. When the mind is anxious, the body is anxious. High levels of adrenaline and other stress hormones that coarse through the blood can make you physically shake.
Like you are afraid
When you know how bad anxiety makes you feel, you become afraid of anxiety itself. You worry when the next anxiety attack will hit and if you will be able to respond appropriately. Fear and anxiety are a vicious cycle.
Like there is pain deep inside
An adult's anxiety can be a result of early childhood trauma. Working through trauma on your own is difficult, especially if the trauma occurred in childhood. Carrying this trauma around with you prevents you from responding in a healthy way to current life situations. An online counselor will partner with you to work through the pain from childhood traumas so that you can respond in a calm, collected manner to all that life has to offer.
Like you are so tense that you might shatter into pieces
Muscle tension and anxiety are closely linked. Remember that when your stress response is activated, your body is preparing to fight or flee. To do this successfully, the muscles must be ready to fire. In the long-term, this muscle preparedness results in residual muscle tension and pain.
Like you just want to be alone
When you feel overwhelmed by environmental stimuli, the last thing you want to do is socialize. For people with social anxiety, anxiety is literally a product of social interaction. People with anxiety tend to isolate because they feel more in control of their environment when they are alone.
Like you are lonely
According to cognitive behavioral therapists, a large part of your anxiety may be due to cognitive distortions or viewing the world from a skewed lens. If you are alone, you may become anxious because you label yourself as a loser and tell yourself that nobody wants to be with you. You will wind up feeling sad and lonely due to your negative self-talk. Telling yourself no one wants to be with you isn't great motivation for trying to connect with others, and so the cycle of distortions stops you from doing what you want to do and promotes the feeling of anxiety.
In addition, it is common to feel lonely in your experience of anxiety itself. You may feel like you are the only one in the world with anxiety, but the reality is much different.
Like you're not good enough
Not only do anxious people often criticize themselves, but people who often criticize themselves have anxiety. It is a reinforcing pattern in which you repeatedly tell yourself that you aren't good enough because of your anxiety and become more anxious because you think you aren't good enough.
Like you have sensory overload
If you have depression, you feel numb; but when you have anxiety, you feel everything. Anxiety is sensory overload. In fact, people who are highly sensitive to their surroundings are more likely to develop anxiety because they become overwhelmed by environmental stimuli.
Like you are at war with yourself
When you have anxiety, you may be motivated to complete your to-do list, but you are paralyzed by your racing mind. In general, you want to participate in the world, but you don't feel capable of doing so. Feeling like you are at war with yourself is a common anxiety feeling.
Like you are overwhelmed
If you have too much on your to-do list, you can develop feelings of anxiety. Being inundated with tasks and responsibilities can leave you feeling overwhelmed. When you feel like you don't know where to begin, take one task at a time and then cross it off the list. The key is to say no to new commitments whenever possible and leave time for self-care and relaxation techniques.
Like you feel on edge
If you feel anxious for no reason, you may feel on edge. This feeling can cause you to lash out at friends, family, and coworkers because you feel tense and stressed. It can be difficult to reign in these feelings on your own, so you may want to seek the help of a professional counselor.
Anxious feelings depend on the person to a degree. Many symptoms of anxiety are universal, but if you have anxiety, you may not experience all these symptoms. Talking with a licensed counselor to sort through your anxiety and find a plan of treatment that will help you manage these feelings and the thoughts that underly them is the first step on the road to recovery.