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How To Explain Anxiety To Someone You Love

How To Explain Anxiety To Someone You Love

At The Depression Project, it's our belief that one of the biggest reasons why there’s such a stigma and lack of understanding surrounding anxiety is because it’s a really, really difficult illness to explain.

For this reason, if someone hasn’t experienced it themselves, then it’s often extremely difficult for them to properly understand it – and as a result, they’ll often falsely equate it to something much less serious like just being “worried”, “nervous”, or “thinking too much”, for example.

Of course, this is a huge problem, because instead of then offering the level of support that someone with anxiety deserves, they instead may make annoying, dismissive comments like, for example, "just calm down”, "it’s all in your head”, “you just need to relax”, or “you’re just having a bad day” – since they’ve grossly underestimated just how gut-wrenching, debilitating and life-altering this illness can actually be.

So, in order to help solve this problem and therefore help you get the support and understanding that you deserve, we’ve drafted a letter on your behalf which you can use to explain to your loved ones:

  1. Exactly what an anxiety condition is;
  2. The kinds of things that can trigger your anxiety;
  3. Why you can’t just simply “relax”, “calm down”, “snap out of it” or “stop overthinking”;
  4. How utterly torturous and debilitating it can be to struggle with anxiety;
  5. How you’d like to be supported through it.

You’re welcome to edit this letter in any way you like, and to then send it to whoever you like as well. And, even if you don’t want to share this letter with your loved ones for whatever reason, then we're confident that you’ll still find it an extremely useful resource to help you explain your anxiety – since you can pick out the parts that resonate with you the most, and then relay them to your loved ones in any way you’d like.

The "Anxiety Letter" - To Help You Explain Anxiety To Someone You Love

Dear [RECIPIENT’S NAME],

I am giving you this letter because you are someone who is very important to me, and because I would like to think that if one of us is ever going through a difficult time, that we could be open about it, and in return, be listened to and supported. This is really hard for me to talk about, [RECIPIENT’S NAME], but as it so happens, I am in fact going through something extremely hard right now, so I’m getting in touch with you firstly, to help you understand what I’m struggling with; and secondly, so that I can suggest a few helpful ways for you to support me if you’d like to. You may be wondering why I’m writing to you instead of just calling or speaking to you face-to-face, to which I would ask you to please bear with me, because due to the stigma surrounding anxiety, it can be really, really difficult to talk about. It’s also not something I’m used to doing, so right now, I feel I have the best chance of expressing myself the way I want to in writing. After you’ve finished reading this letter, you’re welcome to ask me any questions you have, and in time, I hope to be able to talk about my anxiety with you in the same way that we talk about everything else.

Anyway, like I said, right now I’m struggling with anxiety, and before I tell you about a couple of the ways that you can help me through it, I’d really like to tell you a little bit about this illness. It’s really important that I explain this to you, because while you may already have a pre-existing idea of what anxiety is, it can affect different people in very different ways, which means that your understanding of anxiety may not match my own experience. Even more importantly, because anxiety carries a stigma and isn’t openly talked about very much, it’s unfortunately very common for people who’ve never been through it themselves to equate it to just being “worried”, “nervous” or “thinking too much” – when in reality, it’s a serious illness that is much, much, much more complex and debilitating than just being “worried”, “nervous” or “thinking too much”. So, to try to avoid any misunderstandings, I’m first going to do my best to explain anxiety to you.

To be honest, it’s a bit hard to know where exactly to begin, but I guess I can start by saying that at its core, an anxiety condition is one where a person’s “fight-or-flight response” is triggered when there’s no danger present. Now, that may not make things any clearer for you, so to help you know what I’m talking about, please try to imagine yourself in a really scary, dangerous situation – like, for example, if you were walking down a dark alley one night and then someone all of a sudden threw you to the ground and pointed a gun at you. In such an instance, you would kick into “survival mode” – also known as your “fight-or-flight” response – and as a result, a number of different reactions would likely occur in your body and mind. For example, your heart would probably start to beat really quickly, which pumps extra blood into your arms to prepare you to fight, and extra blood into your legs to prepare you to take flight. You may go pale or experience tingling sensations, because your blood is also rushing away from your skin’s surface so that you’re less likely to bleed to death if you get attacked. Your breathing would likely change from being slow in your stomach to being very fast in your chest so that more oxygen can be sent to your muscles, and as a result, you may start to feel dizzy. If you don’t then faint, you’ll probably begin to sweat, which in addition to keeping you from overheating, will also make you harder to catch. Not only that, but when it comes to your thoughts, you’ll almost certainly be consumed with fear, panic and worry, and your mind will be sent into overdrive trying to think of any possible way you can free yourself from this dangerous situation – am I right?

Now, all of these changes are the mind and body’s way of helping you to either fight the gunman or to run for your life in an attempt to escape – and in a dangerous, life-threatening situation such as this, your fight-or-flight response serves you well. However, like I said, when you have an anxiety disorder, not only do dangerous, life-threatening events trigger your fight-or-flight response like so, but non-dangerous, non-life-threatening events also trigger it too. For example, in my case:

[Here, we encourage you to list some examples of non-dangerous, non-life-threatening events that trigger your anxiety. For example, social situations (such as going to a party); tight deadlines (such as those relating to a work project or a university assignment); over-stimulating environments (such as busy shopping centres); circumstances that are out of your control (such as national elections); excess work and/or responsibilities; judgment and criticism; etcetera]

None of these situations likely feel dangerous, life-threatening or maybe even uncomfortable for you, and logically, I know that there’s nothing that’s actually dangerous or life-threatening about them as well. However, due to my anxiety condition, they scare me and trigger my fight-or-flight response – in a very similar way to if the gunman was standing over me in a dark and lonely alley. In particular …

[Here, we encourage you to describe what you feel in these instances – for example, overwhelming fear; racing thoughts to such an extent that you find it impossible to think clearly; hypervigilance to everything around you; feeling powerless; a rapidly increasing heartrate; sweating; trembling; nausea; dizziness; difficulty breathing; etcetera]

Again, I know these reactions aren’t “logical”, but regardless, I still can’t help them from happening. That’s why it hurts so much when people with anxiety are told things like “just snap out of it”, “it’s all in your head”, “don’t be so sensitive”, “just try to relax”, “you’re getting stressed out and worried for no reason at all”, “just stop thinking about it”, or “you really need to calm down”, for example. After all – trust me – if I could just simply click my fingers and magically calm down, then I would do it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately though, anxiety just doesn’t work that way, and if that seems really hard for you to believe – if it seems unimaginable that something so inherently non-dangerous and non-life-threatening can trigger such an extreme fight-or-flight response – then let me give you another inherently non-dangerous, non-life-threatening example that commonly triggers an illogical fight-or-flight response that you’ll likely be familiar with: spiders.

Let’s take a tarantula as an example – which, even though they’re enormous compared to other spiders, tarantulas are a thousand times smaller than a human being, and they’re not poisonous at all. As a result, they can’t cause a person any harm whatsoever, and therefore, there’s no logical reason to be scared of them. However, you in all likelihood know a number of friends and family members who are downright terrified of spiders – particularly huge ones like tarantulas – and you know that their fight-or-flight response would indeed be triggered by one. In particular, if a group of bullies for example held one of those people down and dangled a live tarantula by the cobweb right over their face, then they’d likely turn into a bulging-eyed, heart-pounding, shaking, screaming, hysterical mess. Even worse, if their tormentors then dropped the tarantula on their forehead and it started crawling down their face, across their cheeks, around their ears and all over their neck for example, then they might become so consumed with terror and their fight-or-flight response may intensify to such an extent that they feel physically ill and vomit; that they faint; or that because their heart’s pounding so wildly and they’re starting to hyperventilate, they genuinely believe that they’re having a heart attack and that they’re going to die. Of course, this would all take place regardless of the fact that they’re not actually in any danger at all, and regardless of the fact that there’s actually no logical reason to be so hysterical and petrified. However, there’s no point telling your friend or family member who’s terrified of spiders that, because even though their fear and panic isn’t logical, to them, it feels 100% real, and even though they’d surely love to be able to snap their fingers and switch that fear off, they simply can’t. In a very similar way, my friend, this is how it is for me with my anxiety condition as well. As much as I wish my fight-or-flight response wasn’t triggered by non-dangerous, non-life-threatening incidents, it unfortunately is, and sadly, I can’t just simply “relax” or snap my fingers and stop it from happening. Does that make sense?

The second thing that’s really important to understand about anxiety is just how excruciating, debilitating and life-altering dealing with this illness can actually be. After all, having your fight-or-flight response activated so frequently – sometimes every day, sometimes even multiple times a day – takes an absolutely enormous toll on a person. In fact, it takes such an enormous toll on me and affects my daily life so drastically that I find it really hard and challenging just to put its severity into words. But, to try to help you understand, I’ve written some of the ways that other people describe this condition below – each of which I can really relate to:

[NOTE: Below, you’ll find plenty of short descriptions of anxiety – many of which have been voted “extremely accurate” by The Depression Project’s community. If you find it hard to put your anxiety into words, then we encourage you to include the ones that most resonate with you into your own personal letter (the more the better, we tend to think). Of course, you can also include your own explanation here of how crippling anxiety is too – we’ve just included these descriptions to help you out]

  • “Dealing with anxiety means having a feeling of dread, fear and overwhelm that’s constantly hanging over you.”
  • “It’s the inescapable feeling that something terrible is about to happen – whether to you or to someone you love. And, even though you know that logically, it probably won't happen, the fact that it theoretically COULD happen completely overshadows the fact that it probably won’t, and leaves you feeling completely and utterly consumed with panic.”
  • “It’s mentally and physically exhausting. For me, it’s crying all day and not being able to put into words what is wrong. It’s throwing up and not being able to eat. It’s feeling like something horrible is going to happen – real or imagined. It makes me question everything. It’s ugly. It causes me to lose sleep. It’s petrifying. It makes me feel like I’m trapped in a deep dark hole with no way to escape.”
  • “Having anxiety is like being constantly bullied by someone who knows every weakness you have .... and whenever they feel like it, they use your weaknesses to emotionally hurt you.”
  • “You can’t sleep … tears rolling down your face … heavy sweating ... racing heart … heavy chest pain … trembling … shaking … on and on and on …”
  • “Anxiety is not just feeling a little bit worried or nervous – it’s a debilitating illness that takes over your whole life.”
  • “Anxiety is a living hell – and you’re in it alone because since it’s so difficult for a non-sufferer to understand, instead of supporting you, they dismiss it as you just being ‘worried’, ‘nervous’, ‘overdramatic’ or ‘illogical’. That’s probably the worst part, to be honest – that having anxiety makes you feel so lonely.”
  • “For me, anxiety is like holding everything in your arms and trying to balance it all without dropping anything – before someone then places your most precious possession right on top. At that point, I start breathing really fast, my heart starts thumping so hard that I think it’s going to explode out of my chest, my body starts aching and then … I drop it all.”
  • “It’s like constantly treading water and only being able to keep your mouth above the surface. It’s totally debilitating and exhausting for the mind and body.”
  • “Having anxiety feels like you’re losing your mind and going crazy. It’s like being in a state of emergency that needs immediate attention – but there is often no probable cause or solution. It is crippling, exhausting and feels soul-crushing. It’s like being relentlessly haunted by a ghost that no-one else can see or hear except you, and you can't make it go away – it just pops up when it wants, how it wants, and without invitation. Anxiety is unrelenting, dreadful and means that you’re constantly in a state of deep fear. IT IS TORTURE!!”
  • “It’s like being on a rollercoaster you’re terrified of that’s getting faster and faster – and you can’t get off.”
  • “Anxiety for me is exhausting, frightening and makes me upset because I don’t always know why it happens.”
  • “This illness is like a malfunctioning smoke alarm. When a smoke alarm works, if there’s a fire, then it warns you of the danger and tries to keep you safe. However, if the smoke alarm goes off every time you’re trying to make toast, have a shower or eat dinner for example, then it’s going to drive you crazy – and that’s what anxiety is like.”
  • “It’s exhaustion, fear, isolation, loneliness, guilt, lack of confidence, constantly over-analysing every little thing, tension, sadness, sudden terror, then a brief respite, then terror again, intrusive negative thoughts, misery, mood swings … and that's all in just one day.”
  • “I explain it as having 100 different tabs open on your computer, and each one needs an answer to a question that’s typed in it … but you don’t know which ones are a priority and need to be read first; so you get scared you’ll pick the wrong one and that as a result, you’ll mess up a whole bunch of other open tabs because of the wrong choice you made.”
  • “It’s being on the verge of panic at all times.”
  • “For me personally, it’s that worried feeling you get when you’ve forgotten something important. But, that feeling doesn’t go away – even when you know you haven’t actually forgotten anything.”
  • “Think of a time when you’ve been your most nervous. Now, multiply that by 10, and imagine it always being there with no relief in sight.”
  • “The feeling that something’s wrong … but you don’t know what … and your chest feels tight thinking about it … yet no matter what you do, it doesn’t go away.”
  • “It’s the worst pain in the world. I hurt inside and I can't catch my breath. I can't stop it and it comes when it wants ... my brain is not my friend right now.”
  • “Feeling like you're leaning back on a chair that’s about to fall – it’s that feeling, constantly.”
  • “Anxiety is not being able to sleep because you’re obsessing and overthinking and worrying about something that happened two years ago. Logically, you know that it’s in the past and that it doesn’t matter anymore, but you still keep worrying and overthinking and obsessing about it. You just have no control over your mind, and you’d give anything not to feel this way.”
  • “You feel scared / terrified for no reason at all. Everything is too much / too overwhelming / too scary. Going to get the shopping becomes unmanageable. You never believe an answer even if it’s from a doctor. You feel that if you have to live like this, then you’d rather be dead.”
  • “Imagine obsessively stressing about the tiniest, most insignificant details of your life – and wanting so badly to be able to stop stressing, but not being able to. It’s an illness of the mind that’s pure and utter torture.”
  • “Imagine that all day long, you're terrified of something awful happening to you and everyone you love. Because of these feelings, you're distracted, exhausted, you can't sleep, you can't focus, and you feel irritable. Your heart’s racing, you have stomach pains, and bowel issues frequently occur. And, whenever you tell anyone, they dismiss your panic by simply reminding you that there's no logical reason for you to feel this way. So now, you're worried, scared, exhausted, feel sick, irritable AND you feel stupid and alone because no one understands you. Welcome to anxiety.”
  • “It drains your confidence, energy and makes you feel like a prisoner of your own mind. It can make you have pins and needles, or feel so ill that you can't eat or keep food in, or even make you feel that you’re having a heart attack. You feel constricted, sometimes breathless, and the lump in your throat along with all the other physical symptoms just increases your worry. Insomnia becomes the norm. It feels like something bad is about to happen all the time and you feel overwhelmed by doom. You feel ruled by fear and overthinking. Your anxiety uses your fears against you, to debilitate and destroy your potential. It leaves you a shell of who you would otherwise be. It destroys your confidence, and makes you vulnerable to those who see this weakness and use it to their advantage. Even if they don’t take advantage of you, they’ll blame you for your anxiety – as if it’s your fault you feel this way. As a defence mechanism, you try to mask it as best as you can, and then you feel isolated and extremely alone.”
  • “Anxiety has made me feel so overwhelmed, scared, stressed out, panicky and made my heart beat so fast that it’s caused me to faint.”
  • “It’s fear of the unknown … fear of what may happen ‘if’ … fear of an accident to myself or my loved ones … fear of drowning … just plain fear. It’s illogical and all-consuming. It can engulf me for days or weeks … then there’s respite for a while, but during that time I’m worried about when it’s going to come back … and when it does, the cycle starts all over again.”
  • “Being scared of everything – even though you know you shouldn't be. And, because you’re in this state, you feel so tired and exhausted and broken that even simple tasks like having a shower seem completely overwhelming.”
  • “Think of a time when you were caught unaware by a very loud and sudden noise. In that instant, your mind and body froze in panic and you feared for your life. Now, imagine having that exact feeling several times a day for little to no reason, and for long periods of time. That is anxiety.”
  • “Anxiety is feeling so scared and overwhelmed that you tremble. I can’t really describe it without sounding like I’m just overreacting or being a drama queen, but it feels as if every nerve is short circuiting … like I can’t breathe … and it makes me feel shaky and nervous for hours after it attacks.”
  • “For me, anxiety feels like that sensation when you sit on your leg for too long. Plot twist: it never ends.”
  • “I overthink everything. I lie awake at night obsessing over worst-case scenarios and how I would deal with them. I always feel like people think negatively of me and if people are nice, I wonder if they're just pretending. I always expect the worst to happen, which makes me paranoid, and also makes it quite hard to trust people because I'm always waiting for them to hurt me or leave me. I think people probably look at me and my partner and wonder why he's with me and think he can do better. Being in crowded places is sometimes a sensory overload and can cause a panic attack for no reason. Often I have panic attacks for no reason.”
  • “Having anxiety means always being blamed – because everyone around you thinks that you should just snap out of it, and that if you don’t, you’re just being weak or dramatic or looking for attention.”
  • “Imagine staring a lion in the face when it has its teeth beared and it’s about to pounce. You try to move but you’re frozen stiff, you’re sweating, you’re terrified, your heart is pounding, you can’t catch your breath, and you’re fearing for your life. When you have anxiety, your mind sees a lion almost everywhere you turn.”
  • “It's when you can't settle down or make even simple decisions. Sometimes going to visit a friend becomes a major tug of war with yourself. I think: if I go, will they see how anxious I am? Will they get mad or think I'm crazy? So, I just don’t go, because it’s easier … but then I feel lonely and isolated.”
  • “Anxiety is always worrying and never feeling relaxed … just waiting for the next bad thing to happen.”
  • “It’s like a giant elephant is sitting on top of me … suffocating me … killing me”
  • “Always being far too aware of your surroundings … because you constantly feel as if there’s danger lurking around the corner.”
  • “Not feeling safe or secure. Not feeling in control of anything. The terrifying feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment.”
  • “It feels like you overthink to the point where your whole body is fighting against you. You want to scream, to cry, to yell, to lash out, but all you can do is be still on the outside while your insides feel like a raging storm. You want to sleep but it feels undoable. There's another voice constantly whispering to you, stopping you from doing the things you need to do. Your stomach hurts. You feel alone, helpless ... you completely lose control of yourself and your body. The only rest is when you finally, finally get to sleep and wish not to wake up.”
  • “Your body feels like it’s on a rollercoaster all day long – one minute you are up, the next you are down. When you are down, it feels like you’re trying to breathe after running a marathon, while simultaneously having someone’s hand over your mouth trying to suffocate you.”
  • “Irritable and annoyed by everything. Most people don’t understand that these are even symptoms of anxiety, and that they really rob you of enjoying your life.”
  • “It’s like trying to breath under water. The more you try, the harder it is. The water pressure on your lungs is like your fear numbing you when you try to do something. It is physically and emotionally exhausting. You just feel tired all the time.”
  • “Anxiety also comes with so much frustration. I’m so tired of people who don’t understand saying things like: ‘you just need to stop overthinking everything’. It upsets me so much, because if I could just stop overthinking, then wouldn’t I do it?”

Like I said, [RECIPIENT’S NAME], unfortunately, I can relate to so many of these descriptions, and I hope they help you understand just how excruciating, debilitating and torturous having anxiety actually is. Not only that, but I hope they also make it clear that anxiety is much, much, MUCH more than just feeling “worried”, “stressed out”, “nervous” or “just having a bad day”. All of these things are temporary feelings that everyone experiences from time to time, whereas as the above descriptions show, anxiety is a devastating illness that can affect every single aspect of your life. Unfortunately, that’s not an exaggeration, since in my case, [insert the ways that anxiety affects you personally. For example, by making it harder to concentrate at work, by making you feel too tired to be able to socialise, etcetera]. This is why I may have – unintentionally – been acting a bit differently from usual lately, or why you may have found me to be less responsive to communication or a bit more isolated. If that’s the case, then I am sorry. I promise you it’s nothing personal and that I’m not angry with you or anything. It’s just because I’m going through something extremely challenging right now, and almost every day, it’s taken its toll on me.

If you’d like to help, [RECIPIENT’S NAME], then there are a couple of things which you could do that, while they may seem small or insignificant, would really, REALLY mean a lot to me.

The most important thing is just to understand what I’m going through, and to not judge, belittle or criticise me for it. After all, it’s hard enough having to battle an illness like anxiety, but if the people who you care about most in the world don’t take it seriously or think worse of you for it, it not only makes someone with anxiety feel really upset, but also extremely alone and misunderstood. This is exactly how I feel when I hear things like “just snap out of it”, “just don’t be so sensitive”, “you’re so overdramatic”, “you’re just having a bad day”, “just calm down”, “you’re just looking for attention”, “it’s all in your head”, or “just do XYZ and you’ll feel better”. On the other hand, however, by simply acknowledging how difficult and painful anxiety can be and doing your best to understand it, it makes me feel respected instead of belittled, and goes a long way towards helping me feel less isolated and alone.

Secondly, it would really mean a lot if from time to time, you’d be there for me if I need someone to talk to. As you probably know yourself, it can often be really cathartic to talk about what’s troubling you, and this is particularly true when it comes to anxiety – because like I’ve said, it can be an extremely, extremely lonely illness. Of course, I’m not expecting you to be available to support me 24 hours a day or anything like that, but just knowing that I’m free to call you if I need to makes me feel very loved and cared for. The same goes for if you call or text me from time to time to ask if I’m OK, or to invite me to do something fun together like go for a walk in the park or to watch a movie, for example. I may not always feel good enough to take you up on your offer, but again, just knowing that you’re there for me will in and of itself make me feel much, much better.

[Now, insert any additional ways that you’d like to be supported as well. We’ll leave this part up to you, since it will depend on how you as an individual like to be supported, as well as what your relationship is to the person you’re sending this letter to, etcetera]

OK, [RECIPIENT’S NAME] – I don’t think I have anything left to say except for THANK-YOU. This has been a really difficult letter for me to piece together, because like I said at the start, it’s hard to open up about something as personal as an anxiety disorder – particularly because it’s an illness that a lot of people stigmatise. But, the fact that you’ve read this far means the absolute world to me, so once again, I would like to say thank-you.

All my love,

[YOUR NAME].

P.S. If you have any questions about anything I’ve written, then feel free to ask! I promise I’ll do my best to answer them :)

Additional Tips For Using This Letter To Help You Explain Anxiety To Someone You Love

We really, really hope you’ve found this letter to be a helpful way of putting your anxiety into words, and we really hope you can use it to assist one or more people you love to better understand what you’re going through. In saying that, though, please bear in mind the following:

  1. This letter may not describe your anxiety perfectly – since of course, anxiety can indeed affect different people in different ways. For this reason, we encourage you to edit it in a way that suits you and that makes this letter feel like your own, so that what you end up giving to your loved ones accurately reflects your own individual experience with anxiety and the ways you’d like to be supported through it.
  2. Secondly, like we said before, rather than giving your loved ones a letter like this, you may prefer to explain your anxiety to them face-to-face or over the phone, for example. If that’s the case, then you’re of course welcome to mention any parts of this letter that you find helpful. For example, if you found the “tarantula” metaphor accurate, then you’re welcome to use it to help you explain how anxiety-induced fears that aren’t necessarily logical can still be extremely real and traumatising. At the end of the day, that’s really what the purpose of this “anxiety letter” is – to help you explain your anxiety to your loved ones, regardless of the medium you choose to do so through.

All our love,

The Depression Project Team.