Everyone experiences worry from time to time, but for people who live with an anxiety disorder, those feelings are often so persistent and so loud, they can drown out everything else. But if you’ve ever struggled to explain what anxiety feels like to someone else, you’re not alone. Because as awful and annoying as those symptoms can be, they can also be oddly hard to articulate.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety symptoms can range from things like feeling restless, worried, and irritable to having trouble breathing, sleeping, or concentrating. Symptoms of anxiety can also come in the physical form of stomach aches, headaches, chest pain, or other rogue pains. And, for some people, all of this can really mess with your day-to-day life, whether it’s screwing with your relationships or holding you back at work.
To the outside world, the things that cross the mind of a person who deals with anxiety may not make a whole lot of rational sense. They might wonder why you just can’t shake those feelings of dread even when everything in your life seems to be going well. Or maybe they can’t wrap their heads around why you feel intense, debilitating symptoms before an exciting event. Even people who often experience anxiety can realize the flaws in their thinking, but that doesn’t make it go away.
All of this is to say that it’s time for way more understanding and compassion when it comes to anxiety. Maybe then people can stop saying things like, “Just relax!” or “Stop worrying so much!” (which any anxious person can confirm are both deeply unhelpful statements).
So, whether you’re here looking for validation or to boost your own understanding of what it feels like to live with anxiety, pull up a chair. We asked 11 anxious people to answer the question: What does anxiety feel like to you? Here’s what they had to say.
1. It truly feels like the world is falling apart.
“I get this feeling like the world is falling apart and something terrible is going to happen. And in my head I understand that this fear is irrational, but my body feels like it’s the end.” —Anastasia S., 23
2. And it convinces you that you’ve messed up.
“Anxiety more often than not makes you remember some things you did wrong years ago at seemingly random times, makes you check your work multiple times, and still, when you come home you are not sure you did the right thing.” —Luka J., 33
3. It feels like all of your worries are swirling around you.
“Over the years, [my anxiety] has felt different depending on what's going on in my life and how stressed I am. Overall, anxiety feels like there's a low hum in the background of your consciousness that never allows you to slow down your brain. It's as if there's a spinning wheel of worry in your mind that's being constantly propulsed and tossing your thoughts around. You think about money, then your marriage, then your kids, then work, then your car, then money again, then your health, then your kids again...and on and on.” —Mike T., 33
4. Imagine being trapped in a vacuum.
“I would say that anxiety feels like a nervous, tingling feeling in my chest. Sometimes it's so bad that I feel like I can't concentrate on the things that are going on around me. I feel almost as if I am in a vacuum and like I'm not really there.” —Abi L., 36
5. You’re overthinking x1000.
“Living with anxiety feels like you are constantly on edge and constantly overthinking and worrying about things. For me, everything that I say, I rethink and overthink in my head wondering if I said the wrong thing, or maybe I offended someone, or maybe I talked too much and annoyed the people I am talking to. Everything I say or do, I rethink after it is done and I analyze it in my head and just keep on thinking about it until I have analyzed every aspect. … It isn't just about social settings, it's all the time; I analyze the work I am doing, I analyze the setting I am in, I analyze everything and just overthink everything.” —Madison T., 23
6. It’s a fortune teller with only bad news.
“Living with anxiety is like living with the worst fortune teller in the world. Instead of telling you fun fortunes, everything that is not perfect equals death. Your friend didn't text you back yet? They died. Or you're dead to them. Either way, now you have something to worry about.” —Susan L., 35
7. Basically everything feels like a risk.
“Living with anxiety feels as if you are in a condition that negates yourself. You are in the situation and don’t know the trigger. You feel hollow, unsafe, and think negatively about everyone and everything. You become suspicious of your surroundings and gatherings.” —Ronald W., 38
8. It’s a weight on your chest (or your stomach…or your whole body).
“For me, my anxiety sensations are strongest in my stomach and chest—like the nerves you might feel before a high-adrenaline activity like going on a roller coaster or speaking in front of a large audience. Except it doesn't dissipate after the activity or event is over. It persists throughout the day from each moment to moment. It's like a weight on my chest that I feel with each shortness of breath where I'm never quite able to catch it.” —Gio B., 33
9. There’s an endless stream of irrational thoughts that you just can’t shake.
“The day starts with me already worrying. What if I can't find a parking space, or what if someone hits me with a car and I die on the spot? What will my children do without me? While the children are at school, thoughts come to mind, such as what will happen to them in the event of an earthquake. Will I make it to pick up all three kids? Whose school is closer? Which way is the fastest way to get there? Anxiety is when your daily obligations seem endless, so under the pressure of the stress you feel you simply freeze and end up doing nothing, and then you panic about it, and so on in a circle. Anxiety is when you see that everything is fine, everyone is healthy, happy, and taken care of, and yet you have an irrational fear that something terrible will happen.” —Ashley D., 39
10. You’re always on the lookout for danger.
"Living with anxiety for me is like being a Yorkie with a Bobcat for a neighbor and always feeling under threat. I immediately look for the exit everywhere I go. I do not sit with my back to the door—ever. I am constantly scanning crowds for someone who just looks ‘off’ so I can protect myself and my loved ones." —Katie R., 66
11. And you never know exactly what shape it’ll take next.
“When I have anxiety, it makes me feel a few different ways. If I’m really nervous about something specific, my chest feels tight, I can’t stop worrying that the worst is going to happen, and I sometimes feel short of breath. If I’m just having a day where I feel anxious but I don’t know why, I am usually irritable and feel worn out.” —Alice A., 41
If you were nodding your head a whole lot (yup, totally, omg me) while reading this, you should know that you’re not alone. Here are some tips for managing anxiety symptoms when they pop up. And here’s how to tell if you should see someone for your anxiety.
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.