This Is Anxiety

Sylvia Aguilar Zeleny
United States

Telling people about my anxiety disorder typically goes something like this:

1. Try to remember how to breathe.
2. Breathe in. (Off to a good start, I think, ever-optimistically. We’ve got this breathing thing down. Breathing like a pro.)
3. Pause.
4. Try to remember what words are, using the writhing morass formerly known as my brain.
5. Exhale.
6. Panic, as time stretches out and blood begins to rush in my ears.
7. Eventually figure out the right words and say them.
8. Caveat aforementioned words with all sorts of reassuring additional words to prove I'm not crazy, unstable, or unhinged.
9. Babble extensively and near-incoherently, providing plentiful evidence to contradict (8).
10. Hope for the best. The irony isn't lost on me: talking about having anxiety, as it so happens, gives me anxiety.


Anxiety is not a choice; some accuse me of enjoying the act of worrying or creating unnecessary drama for myself, and have called my affliction merely a “phase,” “season of our friendship,” “not trusting God enough,” or a “hard time in my life.” Unlike their advice, I cannot merely “get over it” or “stop worrying,”  because anxiety is a daily battle that I fight against.

Anxiety is the condition in which your mind plays a tape of your worst fears on repeat. Habitual circular thinking, muscle tension, and constant worry are an anxious person’s norm. It is a humbling experience to recognize my occasional need for someone to gently help point out to me my pattern of thinking something over and over and over again. It is even more difficult when I am on my own to catch myself before I begin to fall. Learning to recognize my thoughts on my own is exhausting because it's paradoxical: You are trying to catch yourself before the anxiety attack happens in the first place, and the anticipation of your own anxiety attack is anxiety-inducing in itself.

In order to cope with anxiety, it requires of me a constant choice to be in the present. Anxiety is a ubiquitous but manageable part of my biological makeup. Anxiety makes up a part to a whole and complete human being who is just as normal as you are. We have our own dreams, our own joys, and our own fantastical escapades that have us running around, loving and experiencing the magic of life—it’s just that those instances are seemingly rare in the midst of our anxious episodes.

I don’t particularly favor terms such as mental illness, crazy, disorder, disease, or condition, not because I fail to recognize that something is “wrong,” but precisely because I have suffered enough from my anxiety and thus refuse to allow it to label or define me. I have learned that anxiety is but another aspect to being myself, just as my infectious laugh or my love for life are engrained within my being.

I do not easily share about it, not because I am ashamed of myself, but because I know that anxiety can be difficult for others to accept or comprehend. Even entertaining the thought of putting my last name on this piece gives me chills, for I fear that one day, a school or parent could Google me and in reading about my honest, anxious struggles, deem me too “mentally unstable” to teach their kids. 

Los Angeles

Walking on the Monon Trail in Carmel, Indiana (Michael Conroy/AP)

I particularly hate quiet, long meetings where I can obsess so much over whether or not my stomach makes a noise I won't hear a word that's being said. The only exercise that ever worked for me was to write down everything I could possibly fear. The list varied with everything from a bug in my shoe while driving to nuclear war. As I read the list, I laughed so hard because it all looked so silly. It helped me see how ludicrous it all was... until the next day when I shook out my shoes before driving again.

I should mention that I have good reason to check my shoes. Once while I was on the air, working at a local radio station, I actually discovered a dead cricket in my shoe. I tried to maintain a calm, composed voice, while flipping the shoe off so hard it hit the back wall. So again, this was a case of, It happened to me before. It might happen again. To this day I'm relieved I didn't notice it while driving. I would have wrecked for sure.


Imagine each stressor as a blanket. The day-to-day stress is just a sheet, covering you as you lay in bed. Most people sleep with a blanket or sheet each night. This is nothing new; it's comfortable and normal.

Then you get a flat tire. Add a blanket. Then your job is in jeopardy because a grant may not be renewed. Add a fleece throw. Your child is sick. Add two duvets.

You start to feel the pressure. You have to take off the covers one at a time to stay comfortable—to help you breathe. To save you from sweaty, sleepless nights.

Imagine this, but your bedroom is 98 degrees at all times. Like a hot, humid, Miami day (without the cool beaches and strong drinks). Now add the blankets back on. This is what life is like for me.

Once all the blankets are on, everything becomes a nightmare. Chewing noises from my husband. The sound of a keyboard clicking. The way the air blows on my face. The sound of a fork on teeth. My chest feels tight. Every time, I'm convinced I'm having a heart attack.

This is what life is like with anxiety. I'm convinced I could have a heart attack any day. I read books about stress. Stress causes ulcers. Stress causes high blood pressure. Stress causes weight gain. Stress causes headaches. Stress can cause heart attacks. I'm sure I'm going to die every time. But somehow I survive.

Tallahassee, Florida

I had a backup plan for everything. If you gave me an apocalyptic scenario, I’d give you a plan to survive it. Zombies? No problem. I was resourceful. Once, I was abandoned by a friend two days after moving in with her in Eugene, Oregon. She left for vacation and never came back; I was evicted, lived in my car, worked and saved money for deposit and first on a studio, the left the state 15 pounds lighter a year later. I’ve lived in a van with my boyfriend on the street in ghetto-land, and shared a 650 foot trailer in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I’ve eaten ramen for 10 days straight and spaghetti noodles for a month. I splurged for spaghetti sauce and lime soda…

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James Hamblin, MD, is a senior editor at The AtlanticHe is the host of If Our Bodies Could Talk.


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