How to describe anxiety to those who don’t experience it

I’ve heard it time and time again: “anxiety is JUST excessive worrying.” I found it difficult and frustrating to attempt to explain what was happening inside my mind to someone who had never experienced any resemblance of lingering anxiety. From a mental health professional standpoint, I do like to clarify to people that anxiety itself is universal. Everyone experiences a bout of anxiety at some point, right? Major presentation coming up, first date jitters, recent promotion transition. But when I’m discussing anxiety as a whole, I’m referring to GAD, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

I have noticed that my experience with anxiety has gotten increasingly worse as I’ve gotten older, despite the fact that I have been educated and trained to handle anxiety. You’d think being able to counsel others about how to manage their anxiety would prove that I know how to manage my own, but there’s the misconception. I know my healthy coping skills and I know how to ground myself as needed, but these things lessen anxiety’s impact on my body rather than diminish it as a whole. That is not just excessive worrying. Have you ever felt that you’re a very supportive person but struggle when it comes to your own mental health and process?

But the focus of this post is not about anxiety in itself, but rather this notion that some have that those with anxiety are being dramatic in some way. When I try to describe anxiety to someone who has never experienced it at this level, I find myself stuck. I have been told that it is simply excessive worrying and I “just need to stop worrying.” How can I stop my mind from jumping to 8 potential conclusions to a conversation? How can I stop my heart rate from racing and immediately feeling sick to my stomach because I am fearful of something my mind told me may happen? What I’ve decided to do to best describe what anxiety feels like from my perspective was to jot down a handful of anxious thoughts I had as a result of one action that still shakes me to this day.

SITUATION: (Approximately 4 months ago) Working at my retail job and ringing up a customer who had erratic behavior and was muttering various things about how America is ruined.

ANXIETY: Am I safe? What’s under his coat? Does he have a gun? Is he stable? He is not stable. Get him out of the store. Do not alert him in any way. Get him out. Get through the transaction. Act normal. Do not mess this up. My heart is racing. I feel my heartbeat in my throat and I’m having trouble breathing. Can he tell I’m terrified? (Customer begins acting in a more severe paranoid manner, scaring customers surrounding him) If he has a gun, what do I do? I’m facing him and I should turn my body. I need to turn my body and try to block a bullet with my arm. That’s the best solution, right? I can’t be shot in the chest or head. That’d immediately kill me. I don’t fucking know anything about general safety and here I am needing to know. How far away am I from the phone? Can I call for help in time? (He begins commenting on the downfall of America and what my generation has done to cause it) He wants me dead. This feels personal. Just pay for your fucking tea and chocolate bar and leave. Am I going to die today?

I checked security cameras when he was in the store and this interaction lasted only 2 minutes and anxiety had convinced me that I was going to be physically injured by this man. Anxiety also told me how to position my body if I were to be shot at. Is that just excessive worrying? No. That is anxiety. Customers were also so scared that one called police and others did not want to go in the parking lot until police arrived. This reassured me that my anxiety was not playing tricks on me, but rather trying to protect me. How do you explain that to someone who has never experienced it? How can I describe that excessive worrying is ONE single aspect of anxiety and so much more is entangled in it. I hope by jotting down thoughts I had experienced in that moment, it may help give a clearer view as to what it feels like to experience anxiety, rather than simply excessive worrying.

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