Panic Life

Fighting Stigma and Living with an Anxiety Disorder

Explaining Anxiety to Others: Keep Both Hands on the Wheel

Your non-anxious friend might not understand what it means to be anxious.

Before I was open about living with panic disorder, I didn't tell anyone in my life about how I felt when I experienced anxiety. I was afraid that my intense feelings and bodily sensations would scare them. 

Now that I'm more comfortable in my own skin, I can better articulate to others (without fear) what it feels like to experience panic

Yesterday, a close friend of mine asked me "what does it feel like?" She wanted to know what happens to me internally when I'm anxious. "I've never had a panic attack before. What is it like?" She wondered aloud. 

I thought about this for a moment. I wanted to give her an accurate description of how I experience anxiety both physiologically and in my brain. After a short pause I said: "It feels like you're driving a car and suddenly, the brakes stop working." 

"Whoa," she replied "That sounds awful."

"Yeah. It's not fun." I replied. 

No fun is certainly an understatement. You are in that car. You have no choice but to drive. You can't stop it. The best you can do is be aware of your surroundings. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and breathe deeply. Eventually the car will run out of gas and slow down. But for now, all you can do is ride it out. 

Once I explained the "out of control" feeling to my friend in the car analogy, she was able to understand and have empathy for the symptoms that I experience during a panic attack. Having this dialogue with her taught me something: people who don't have anxiety can still understand anxiety. In fact, taking the time to explain your symptoms to others (even if they have not experienced mental health issues) can be valuable. 

In the past, I believed there was no point in taking the time to explain panic to my friends, because they wouldn't get it. I was wrong. My friend got it. She was empathetic and she was better able to understand what I go through. 

Try this: tell a close friend who doesn't have anxiety what anxiety feels like to you. Educate them and perhaps they will be better able to understand what you go through. 

Sarah Fader is a mental illness advocate and mother of two living with panic disorder in New York City.

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