This Is Anxiety

Yet my anxiety symptoms continue to have a feather trigger. Stomach cramps that threaten to make me call in sick, holiday arrangements that produce shared custody arguments between my daughter and her ex, everyday work and home life stresses, natural menstrual cycle fluctuations, or even the sudden slamming of a textbook on a desktop can awaken my demons. Suddenly I’m sweating, my tongue goes numb, and my mouth tastes metallic. If I accept it and ride it out calmly, it may subside in less than an hour, leaving behind only a week or two of the residual effects of shakiness, muscle fatigue, and general anxiety symptoms mild enough to cover up in public. If I fight it, I’m right back to wanting to be dead.

Talking about it scares people. They think I’m suicidal. My score on a stress survey given at a recent educators’ stress management seminar even proclaimed that I was. Other participants visibly shuddered when I, in turn, reported my score aloud. Colleagues aren’t the only ones freaked out. My children become bewildered when I slump into one of my “moods.” A well-meaning friend suggested I admit myself into an institution where “this thing” could be conquered once and for all.

I don’t know what “this thing” is, or if it can be “conquered once and for all...” I only know I am not alone. ... We are often silent and hiding out of shame and embarrassment, but we are here. I may be proclaiming this reality in seemingly stark solitude, but I am not alone.

Bonanza, Oregon

I leave the house less and less. Social interactions are more and more stressful. The drinking I had given up for more than a year is coming back with force. I take melatonin every night to sleep because it's the only thing that shuts my brain up. Of course my depression is coming back because I feel terrified to leave our home most days. When I do it's only familiar places. Did I mention the ectopic pregnancy in August of this year? Yeah, it sucked. And screwed me up even more.

I'm looking for a new doctor, hoping to get some help, but at this point I have a very hard time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. And my brain just never stops. The term is “catasrophizing.” When someone figures out how to control it, please shoot me an email or something.

Liz Francis
Richmond, Virginia

I'm still battling it, but thanks to therapy, medication, a supportive family, and a new, exciting job offer, I no longer feel the weight of my self-doubt. There are moments where I panic, but I don't let it completely wash over me like it did before.

Changing one thing in my life didn't do it. Overcoming my anxiety and depression was a slow, gradual change that took everyone in my life and all of my strength to overcome. I had to learn to notice when I was handling a situation well, and to give myself credit. I had to learn how to articulate my feelings to those around me, and not shut off completely. The process of retraining your brain is a grueling and exhausting one, but it can be done.

I'm so glad The Atlantic is doing a series on this because too often when I attempted to reach out for help, the only piece of advice I got was "just try to calm down." It's so much more than that. We are not powerless, but we have to start thinking about anxiety in a new way.


Exercise is usually touted as a way to ease anxiety and depression. Studies prove its efficacy and the doctors all recommend it. What happens, however, when it is exercise that causes you to have panic attacks? What is the treatment plan then?

I’ve been afflicted with panic disorder since childhood, except I wasn’t officially diagnosed until after college. I have always been an active person. I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly guys, so you either played ball with them or didn’t play outside at all-and I had speed, so I always was a contender in races. The full-blown panic attacks didn’t start to occur consistently until I started to run competitively in junior high. For a while I had an inhaler because they thought I had exercised-induced asthma. However, it probably doesn’t take a medical degree to realize that when you suddenly start to sweat, can’t breathe, and have chest pains in the shower at the age of 12 that my shortness of breath wasn’t caused by constricted airways, rather, a malfunction of neural pathways.

Several decades worth of panic episodes while exercising which, in me, triggers an instant attempt to alleviate the perceived breathing difficulties by grabbing at and lifting up my sports bra at the sternum has left its mark not only on my psyche but also in the form of a bruise-like callus on the breastbone (this also lends itself to even more panic with every new boyfriend to whom I have to explain the crippling panic episodes that happen while attempting to walk the dog).

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He writes the health column for the monthly magazine and hosts the video series If Our Bodies Could Talk.

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