This is what anxiety feels like

Have you ever felt stuck? Like you’re on a sold-out flight in an airplane that can’t yet move from the tarmac, and you’re in a middle seat. Like your bed sheets have wrapped around you too tightly and you’re sweating, frantically trying to untangle them. Like you’re in a rental car that’s wider than the vehicles you’re used to driving, trying to get out of a tight parking spot while in a rush, sweat dripping down your cheekbones and a slew of cigarette smokers are watching your every move.

I used to have these dreams as a kid where I was unable to escape, and though I’m not sure, I think they were set in a more compressed, narrower version of the upstairs nugget of bedrooms in my grandparents’ house, a place I spent a lot of my time growing up.

I’d be in this hallway, but I couldn’t get out. I had only one door that I could see ahead of me, the keyhole pressed up against my chest. I would need to crouch just to see through. Inside, a cluster of gears only made themselves known, like I was looking at the back of a clock. After focussing too much on what I could see through the small hole in the door, I would find it hard to breathe, like when you’re on the highway with the window open and the wind makes it impossible to inhale. Then, I would get this whiff of mothballs and metal.

For an entire quarter century, I’ve lived with anxiety. How I’ve described anxiety above is exactly how it feels – but without the metaphor to make sense of it all.

It’s just there, flowing into your mouth and down your oesophagus like heavy, salt water waves. You feel crazy, so you keep quiet because you can’t justify how you feel. There is no reason that you feel a literal ball in your stomach, there is no reason that your vision is fogged.

It’s taken me a long time to realize that maybe I don’t need justification. It’s taken me a long time to have the strength and say, “This is my normal self.”

No, I am not anxious every day or every moment, and live content for most. However, when the anxiety does creep in, and I win the fight to beat the panic attack, the next few days are like a hangover – my eyes are heavy, I just want fresh air and productivity is minimal.

It has taken me years to train myself how to react to, live with and control my anxiety.

Exercising, learning how to be happy with my body, developing a positive relationship with food, not being afraid to tell people how I feel when I feel it, excelling at work and always accepting a challenge, reading inspiring stories about people who also live with this monster, turning the trauma I experienced as a child in the schoolyard into motivation for change and seeking support from professionals and friends are ways I get through it.

But, sometimes these tools don’t work. Sometimes, the wall I’ve built breaks and I’m back in that small hallway staring through the keyhole, gasping for air.

The only solution to living with anxiety is understanding that the little beast that comes out every now and again is part of who I am and it is not my fault, nor is it yours. It is something I will never be rid of, but something I will only continue to learn how to deal with.

Sometimes, I feel like even my skin is too tight, like I just want to move to a desert island with my cat and live in pure bliss, alone and enlightened. Like even though it’s sunny out, I look outside and focus on the three clouds trying so desperately to get attention instead of the gorgeous sunshine.

Most times, though, I am happy, passionate, positive and excited. Most times, my anxiety is at bay, napping until a little leak begins, then grows and grows and grows until all I can focus on is that I forgot my life jacket and there’s no way out.

For me, it sweeps in when I’m alone. During stressful situations, I have no fear and I always take the plunge. And for each of us, it is different.

Anxiety is not just stress. It is not just thinking too much about something negative. It is not just a bad mood. It is not just holding onto things for too long. It is not just caring too much. It is not just being overly sensitive.

This is what anxiety feels like. I’m talking about it because October 10, 2016 is World Mental Health Day. You should, too.

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