What Anxiety Feels Like
Anxiety is hard to explain. People will ask me, “What’s wrong?” The most honest answer I can think to give is, “I don’t know.” And I really don’t.
I’ve discovered the same is true for others who suffer from anxiety, depression, or other mental struggles. They have a hard time explaining the pain to others. It’s not like a headache or a muscle cramp, where the hurt is so easily located.
I recently read a helpful book on depression by Zack Eswine called Spurgeon’s Sorrows. He details the famous preacher’s struggles with depression and the ways he dealt with it throughout his life and ministry. There was a quote in the book from Charles Spurgeon himself that was so incredible, so accurate, that I’ve read it dozens of times since:
“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.”
Sheesh. That’s about as raw and real as it gets. And this is coming from one of the greatest preachers of all time.
There is a chapter in Eswine’s book devoted to the use of metaphor to help explain depression. Spurgeon often used metaphors in his sermons as he talked about mental anguish. He was inspired by the Psalms, which paint vivid pictures of both physical and mental pain.
Creative metaphors can help those who suffer explain their pain and those who do not suffer better understand the pain of others. So I want to attempt to write some of my own metaphors (technically they are similes) based on my experience with anxiety. Some are humorous and others are dark, but my hope is that you see a clearer picture of the silent, unexplainable pain that many others feel.
Anxiety feels like passing a cop when you’re going 20 over the speed limit. In a split second, you go from perfectly calm to totally frazzled. Your stomach drops, and your heart jumps into your throat. You slam on the brakes, but it’s too late. You’re busted. Everyone experiences this feeling from time to time, but this sensation of sudden panic is a regular occurrence to the anxious person, swelling and slowing with different levels of intensity.
Anxiety feels like being lost in a cave. You haven’t experienced true darkness until you’ve been in a cave with zero light. Directions are irrelevant. You can’t tell which way is deeper into the cave and which way is out. If it weren’t for gravity, you wouldn’t even know up from down. You feel around for something familiar, only finding endless, rough walls. The darkness is consuming, slowly suffocating you. Running and screaming are a waste of energy. Even panic seems pointless. All that’s left is despair and waiting, hoping beyond hope that someone knows you’re there.
Anxiety feels like eating something bad for you. Your stomach immediately recognizes an intruder and begins to toss it around with somersaults and turns. Everyone experiences butterflies in their stomach, but this is more like bats in the stomach. You want to throw up, but at the same time, you’re terrified to do so. There is a strange connection between your gut and your mental state. The pit of your stomach seems to recognize your suffering before your mind does.
Anxiety feels like being chased by a bear. A beautiful hike in the mountains turns into a track meet as you run for your life. Your body activates its fight-or-flight response system which is designed by God to keep you alive in dire situations. Your heart races, your sweat glands activate, your muscles tense up. Science tells us that our body does amazing things in these pressured moments, many things we don’t even realize. Our vision becomes narrower and more focused. Our blood moves away from the skin and to vital organs. We become stronger, faster, and smarter than we normally are. All of this comes stock on a healthy human body and is designed to help you outrun the bear. But what happens when there’s no bear? What happens when you experience all these same feelings in your own home, at your workplace, or driving down the road? What if there’s absolutely nothing visible to be afraid of and therefore nothing to fight but your own mind?
Anxiety feels like watching that scene in Jaws when the theme song begins to play and you know any moment the giant shark is going to show up and eat someone. That feeling of dread starts small and builds as you anticipate the attack. With every dramatic “dunnuh” from the piano theme, you get more nervous because you know exactly what’s going to happen but you don’t know when. You try to brace yourself for the worst, but you can’t help but jump when the shark makes his entrance. That sensation of building suspense can be fun at the movie theater but torturous when you experience it as you lay in your bed at night.
Anxiety feels like isolation. No one seems to understand, and they couldn’t do anything about it if they did. The distance between you and them becomes more apparent when they say things like, “Just stop worrying about it. Trust in God.” You want to be alone, but you also want to be near people. You need to talk it out, but you fear it will only make it worse. Even God seems distant. You echo what the Psalmist says in Psalm 88:13-14, 18, “But I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you. Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? . . .You have taken from me friend and neighbor—darkness is my closest friend.”
Anxiety feels like an ocean. You are in the middle, all alone, with nothing to hold you up. You tread water, but your muscles are nearing exhaustion. You thirst for the water you are surrounded by, but you know drinking it is out of the question. Your eyes continually scan the horizon for something, anything, but the only thing that’s coming is wave after wave. Each one washes over your head and pulls you further and further into its depths. “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (Psalm 88:6-7).
Of all the metaphors, the ocean one is most helpful and accurate. It depicts the constant struggle and hopelessness that depression and anxiety can bring.
But in the midst of the ocean of my anxiety, God has given me life preservers to cling to. They don’t stop the waves from coming, but they allow me to stay afloat as I ride them out. In the next few posts, I want to share with you some of those life preservers that have carried me in the midst.