This is What Anxiety Feels Like

Many people feel anxious, but what does an Anxiety Disorder feel like?


I’ve suffered with an anxiety disorder since I was a child, and for many years I just thought I was a worrier, and I always felt there was a derogatory association with being a worrier.

Many people believe you need to have reasons to be anxious.

We all suffer anxiety: going into an exam, taking your driving test, being late for work, when you’re about to give a presentation, travelling, and more. You get that flutter of worry in your belly, nausea, light-headedness, fear of the unknown, fear of failure… but the difference between GAD, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and situational anxiety is that those symptoms and emotions go away. You know that your exam will be over in a few hours, your driving test will be complete, you’ll get to work, that presentation will be finished, you will have reached your destination and the worry will be over, and you will move on. The reason for your anxiety will be resolved.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder does not give you that luxury.

Imagine those symptoms continuing for the rest of the day, the week, the month…


© Lisa Shambrook

I’ve learned a lot about my anxiety. I’m on antidepressants and my anxiety has been much lower, but I recently mentioned to my husband that I was feeling anxious again. Now, he’s incredibly supportive and very understanding, but to someone who has never experienced depression or severe anxiety it’s a difficult condition to comprehend. I tried to explain that there were several things on the horizon worrying me, but there’s more to anxiety than that.

There doesn’t have to be a reason.

I tried to explain what anxiety felt like.

It’s like you are treading water with no land in sight. This is what anxiety feels like.

You believe you will drown. This is what anxiety feels like.

Now, common sense tells you that a log might float by and you could grab it, or a boat might sail past and rescue you, or a lifebelt might appear – but as your brain puts those ideas out there, it also brings in a rolling fog. Now you’re treading water in fog and you can’t see anything. This is what anxiety feels like.

That log will float right by, that boat will sail right past, and that lifebelt is out of reach. Pretty quickly, as anxiety heightens, the waves about you grow and you’re treading water in fog and ten foot waves. This is what anxiety feels like.

That log is about to tip off the wave above you and knock you out. The boat is off course and will never find you, and that lifebelt, well, it’s gone. This is what anxiety feels like.

To top it all, beneath you a whirlpool whips up, you can’t breathe, you can’t keep your head above water, you’re getting pulled under, and you will drown. This is what anxiety and a panic attack feels like.

Anxiety removes the common sense option. Anxiety tells you you’re going to drown and your mind cannot get past that.


© Lisa Shambrook

Depression is often referred to as the Black Dog, and you can’t command the black dog to return to its kennel, instead it jumps at you and hangs about your neck, or it pulls you down and holds you in a half-nelson. Anxiety is a Boa Constrictor. It’s a snake that coils about your legs and works its way up your body, squeezing and coiling tighter – and it doesn’t let go.

If you’ve never experienced long term anxiety it’s very difficult to understand.

Sarah Fader started a hashtag a week or so ago on Twitter @AnxietyHashtag and people began sharing #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike Find out more in these articles: Huffpost and Psychcology Today.

Sarah has opened a floodgate of understanding and validation for those with anxiety, and I asked her how she came up with the hashtag:

‘I started the hashtag because I was feeling anxious about not hearing back when I texted a friend. That thought resonated with people on Twitter and I wanted to give them a chance to articulate what anxiety felt like to them.’

-Sarah Fader CEO and Founder Stigma Fighters

It is liberating. Firstly, we know we’re not alone, and secondly, it offers an insight into what life is like with an anxiety disorder.

understanding-self-harm-the-last-krystallosJust a few examples… Severe anxiety is exhausting to live with, both for the sufferer and their family.

I’m working with my therapist to find ways to deal with my anxiety, and I’m currently using ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I’m finding the more I accept and acknowledge my anxiety, the more power I have over it. Learning to recognise and use this will take time and effort, and anxiety is likely to always be part of my life.

Take time to understand the debilitating nature of this condition and use patience and compassion when we need it.  

Validation is the first step to helping someone recognise and cope with their anxiety.

How do you manage and what helps you when you feel overwhelmed and lost?

16 thoughts on “This is What Anxiety Feels Like

    1. Lisa Shambrook Post author

      Thank you, Tess, counselling is working well, and I’m gathering tools that will hopefully help me throughout my life. Facing my anxiety disorder is a step towards feeling much more emotionally stable, I’ll get there xxx

  1. Miranda Kate (@PurpleQueenNL)

    Hey Lisa, good post. I used to suffer non-stop anxiety in my early 20s, therapy helped me.

    Recently my acupuncturist suggested a book about breathing, (unfortunately it is currently only in Dutch, and yet to be translated into English, although they are working on it,) but the most significant thing was that we should be breathing only 6 times a minute, but a lot of people are breathing 16 times a minute – which puts the body in stress mode (and anxious mode). This is a full breath, from inhale to exhale. The count is, inhale for 2 counts (seconds), exhale for 4 counts and then hold for 2 counts, then start again. Exhaling for longer is more important than inhaling, as otherwise we are not exhaling enough of the carbon dioxide. (breath in through nose, out through mouth). You can sit with a clock and count your normal breaths to see your breathing pattern – or ask someone to sit and count them for you if easier (focusing on your breathing can change it) and then you can practice breathing only 6 times a minute by sitting and doing this for 10 mins at a time. I have managed to reduce mine (at rest, outside of practicing) to about 8 times a minute (I think), so your brain/body will eventually retrain to it. To begin with it is strange, but I then really felt my body relax. Breathing affects every single part of your body, and also how you hold tension in your muscles, etc. etc.

    Also Negative Emotion addiction can play a part, as you body and subconscious mind will automatically take you to these states. (I did a blog post on this, although I didn’t specifically mention anxiety). I learnt of this through Norval Rhodes, who does energy work, about how we hold negative emotions in our body – he did a ‘heart wall removal’ for me, and it made the world of difference to many things, and changed how I thought about how I hold emotions in my mind. You can get a free assessment. It’s really fascinating. He is a Reiki instructor too.

    Welcome to chat more if you want to. I need to chase up about that book (it was a free pdf), I need to spread it about.

    1. Lisa Shambrook Post author

      I’ll try the breathing method, Miranda, I find myself very tense much of the time which then gives me painful shoulders, neck and back. This is made worse at the moment with my antidepressants which make me clench my teeth, making the tension even worse. I even broke a back tooth!
      I’m planning to reduce them soon which might help reduce the side effects.
      I think the thing with anxiety is learning to manage it, to find the tools which work for you. Energy is definitely something I’m interested in. I’m working with my counsellor on Mindfulness and Acceptance. Just having a few tools at my disposal has made a huge difference.
      Thanks for your support, Miranda, it helps to know those who’ve been through similar! ❤

      1. Miranda Kate (@PurpleQueenNL)

        I used to clench my jaws a lot – chew gum, it releases the tension and works the muscles until they are tired in a less destructive way. I am not a big gum chewer, but in times of stress I find it helpful. My mother used to grind her teeth in her sleep in high stress times, the noise of it used to wake me in the next room!!

  2. Ellice

    Hi Lisa, I just love everything about this post. You have worded perfectly, the way anxiety actually feels. For me, I relate most with the boa constrictor. I suffer really bad chest pain when things are at their worst. I also regularly get that feeling like when you miss the bottom step and your body is launched forward. I too have been trying to work through ACT but I need to put a lot more effort into that.

    Thank you for being so honest and helping me feel like I’m not alone on this fight. You are such a role model to me. I hope there are much brighter days ahead for you. Xxx

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