Sarah Fader, CEO and founder of the non-profit organization Stigma Fighters, started a movement on Twitter #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike and it has taken the internet by storm. This one hashtag has allowed hundreds of people to express their feelings and/or experiences of the impact anxiety has on their lives. Most people suffer in silence because anxiety tells us nobody will understand, and a lot of people don’t. If you don’t have an anxiety disorder, if you’ve never had a panic attack, it’s nearly impossible to explain how debilitating it is. I think Sarah’s trending hashtag is going a long way to open people’s eyes about how the anxious mind works.
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when I was in college. Before my doctor put a name to what I was going through I felt confused and disoriented, and even then it took me a long time to get a grasp on what I was dealing with. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but I think the one thing that is universal is that it is truly awful. My panic attacks affect my whole body; I shake uncontrollably, my hands go numb, I cry, my heart pounds, I hyperventilate, and every time I fear that it will never stop. These attacks are often not prompted by any particular event or situation. Sometimes #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike for me.
I also think of anxiety like waves in the ocean crashing against the sand. Some waves are small, they cover your feet in sand trapping you for a moment. These might be situations where you’re in an awkward social situation and don’t know what to say, or you think anything you say will sound stupid. Fortunately, you can pretty easily lift your feet from beneath the sand and remove yourself from these situations. However, just like the ocean, the waves get bigger. You find the waves crashing higher around you and throwing you off-balance. Such situations may be more difficult to navigate out of, like work situations that cannot be avoided so easily. You worry that others find you incompetent, resent you for asking so many questions, fear they are talking behind your back. Whether any of this is true is inconsequential because your mind tells you it is all very real. It feels as though you are being pulled under water, sucked in by the riptide, tossed around like a rag doll without knowing which way is up or down. Often #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike in my day-to-day life.
Anxiety affects relationships as well. You think, I haven’t heard from so-and-so in a while – they obviously don’t care about me anymore. That person didn’t say hi to me this morning – they clearly don’t like me. It’s so much easier to isolate myself than try to maintain relationships that I don’t feel are reciprocated, #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike. People don’t understand me, they don’t like me, they’re not worth trusting because if they did know how messed up I am they definitely wouldn’t like me. I try to keep my negative thoughts and feelings to myself. I don’t think I have anything of interest to say so I rarely post on Facebook. I feel lost and alone while knowing fully that there are hundreds of people out there who feel much the same way I do. I feel like I will be judged, ridiculed, and shamed for how I feel and who I am if I am honest about it. Maybe not on Twitter, maybe not on my blog, but definitely in ‘the real world’. That, my friends, is stigma at its most potent. And that is also why Sarah Fader’s trending hashtag #ThisIsWhatAnxietyFeelsLike needs to be heard, to help people like me feel less isolated. A simple hashtag that unites a whole group of misunderstood people who are suffering mostly in silence stands together.