The Anatomy of Anxiety

Trigger warning: This post contains an extensive discussion of anxiety.

How did an elephant get into my room? I’d wonder as I woke up.

I didn’t want to open my eyes, because when I opened my eyes I’d see that there was no elephant sitting on my chest. It wasn’t an elephant that was making it hard to breathe. It was my brain, and I was waking up to another day that would be a struggle. I didn’t want to get out of bed because then I’d have to deal with a harsh and unforgiving world that wouldn’t want to help me cope with my anxiety disorder. They wanted it to disappear.

Anxiety is rarely how it is portrayed in movies. Anxiety is not (necessarily) hyperventilating or screaming or ending up in the hospital with a dose of Ativan. Anxiety can be quiet. The anatomy of anxiety hides deep inside of oneself and rarely will make a visible appearance. It so often is a battle that people will fight on their own.

Open up your textbooks, students, because today we will study what the anatomy of anxiety looks like.

I once thought that I was crazy, when in reality it is a common issue, and I do not want any one of you going through the same thing.

So, what does an anxiety attack look like? Please realize that you may experience only a couple or all of these effects. Generally it would be around four at one time to be counted as a panic attack.

You may experience trouble breathing. This could mean hyperventilating or it could just feel like every breath is a struggle. You may feel like you cannot catch a deep breath, or you may feel, like I often do, that an elephant is sitting on your chest.

You may experience chest pain. Sometimes this is just tightness in the chest and other times it is actual pain. This is one of the more concerning aspects of a panic attack for some people, because it can feel like one is having a heart attack. This would often be why someone shows up at the hospital. They believe that they’re having a heart attack when in reality it is just panic.

You may experience a numbing sensation. You may feel like your hands and feet have gone completely numb. They may also feel tingly.

You may feel dizzy. This could be feeling lightheaded or being concerned that you are going to pass out.

You may sweat excessively. Some people may be drenched in sweat while others will have clammy hands.

You may have hot flashes or cold flashes. You may feel like you’re running a fever.

You may feel shaky. Sometimes you might actually shake but oftentimes one just feels shaky without physical evidence.

You may feel dread. You may feel like something horrible is going to happen at any moment and that you need to get out of the situation immediately.

You may feel like you’re going to die. The sense of dread may turn into a fear of death or thoughts that something is seriously wrong with you.

There was a time when every day I would wake up having a panic attack. My main symptoms were feeling numb, struggling to breathe, dizziness, shakiness, and a feeling of dread. Due of this feeling of dread I often struggled to get to school, because I would feel that if I were gone something horrible would happen to my family. Every time that I left them I was worried that it was the last time that I would ever see them again and this brought about a sense of terror.

I would go to my parents room and tell them, “I can’t go to school today.” I’d be shaking really hard. I’d sometimes had just been sick to my stomach.

I was always told that I had to “push through it” and function when I really had no idea how to do so. I had been taught no coping skills. I had no way to vent what was going on inside of me. I also had been accused of throwing “little baby tantrums” because I “didn’t want to go to school”. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. I was scared and instead of holding me tight through it I was screamed at day after day as I felt my self worth being yanked away layer after layer.

The school I was going to at the time did not help matters. I have been writing a memoir about my escape from abuse, and in the chapter I am currently working on, I have been writing about the issues that happened during the school year. Featured in the chapter is a list of what I will talk about. I’d like to share this list with you so that you can understand my anxiety in going to this school every day.

  1. The story of how leaving my phone at home and having an empty tea cup was a huge deal. 
  2. The story of how my friend  dyed her hair too black so she almost got kicked out. 
  3. The story of how my other friend almost got kicked out of school for reading. 
  4. The story of how someone clogged the toilet so we were banned from the bathroom. 
  5. The story of how you must have direct permission from the school secretary to walk around at a field trip in areas that we were told we could go (featuring: why going to the bathroom is unacceptable). 
  6. The story about how people who self harm were shamed during a chapel service. 
  7. The story of how someone flushed a tampon so we were banned from the bathrooms a second time. 
  8. The story of how a student pulled a knife on another student who teased him and teasing was banned instead of knives.”

As you can probably see by this point in the post, anxiety is a common issue with me and like I said earlier I thought that I was crazy for so many years. I don’t want you to feel like you’re crazy. If you’re going through this please realize….

You are not alone.


The Vagabond Dreamer

P.S. I’m trying to make friends with that elephant that sometimes follows me around. I think I’ll name him Bob.


3 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Anxiety

Add yours

  1. I can relate. I have struggled with anxiety for a very long time, and for a long time, panic attacks were regular. It was hard when I didn’t understand what was going on, and no one told me what it was. I didn’t know what it was when I was so scared, for no reason at all, so scared that my hands couldn’t hold onto a vegetable peeler. And of course, getting yelled at for it didn’t help.

    (hugs to you)


  2. Oh my goodness, this is beautiful! The way my anxiety hits, it makes me feel sick. When I was younger, my parents got a divorce, and I never wanted to leave my mother, so at a young age, I realized I could make myself sick when I was afraid to go back to my father’s house. Now, anytime I am in a situation that I find even the slightest bit uncomfortable, a wave of nausea washes over me, and I can’t breathe. There is always a tightness in my chest, and your writing has demonstrated this in a way that is tasteful, and very easy to relate to. I applaud you for being so strong. 💛


  3. My dear, your experiences in life thus far have been so horrible, and I am truly sorry. I know what it’s like to get reprimanded for having an anxiety attack. I know what it’s like to live in an environment where it’s so toxic breathing is difficult, let alone feeling, or living. I’m so glad you got to leave.


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