When anxiety doesn’t mean “panic attacks”

I have an anxiety disorder.

Let’s get some stuff out of the way:

  • I don’t know my exact diagnosis.
  • Yes, I’ve seen a therapist.
  • I’m not on meds (yet).
  • I became aware of it in the past 15 months.

I first labeled my experience as “anxiety” when I started having anxiety “attacks.” They were pretty infrequent and relatively innocuous, but very uncomfortable. My whole chest would tighten and breathing became difficult. My body would go numb, or depersonalize, and I would have trouble focusing. They often seemed to happen without an obvious trigger, and making them go away wasn’t obvious either. I tried breathing deeply, distracting myself, talking myself out of it. Nothing was very effective.

Misunderstanding “panic attacks”

I’d previously thought anxiety only “counted” if you had panic attacks–episodes that were completely debilitating, and obvious from the outside. A description:

A panic attack is the abrupt onset of intense fear or discomfort that reaches a peak within minutes and includes at least four of the following symptoms:

  • Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
  • Feelings of choking
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Nausea or abdominal distress
  • Feeling dizzy, unsteady, light-headed, or faint
  • Chills or heat sensations
  • Paresthesia (numbness or tingling sensations)
  • Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
  • Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
  • Fear of dying

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

I’d never had what I considered a panic attack, so I’d never considered that I might have an anxiety disorder. That’s why I’m talking about it now: I want people to realize that anxiety does not always have to exhibit in extreme ways to affect your life.

(Sarah Wilson describes her anxiety experience as an “anxiety spiral.” That feels like a good description for what I experience.)

Over time, I started to learn more about anxiety, and I got better at identifying it in myself. That yielded some surprising revelations. Outside of the anxiety “attacks,” which are pretty obvious, I was struggling with unusual levels of anxiety that exhibited in ways I just hadn’t previously recognized.


I often became irritated with my husband when we were driving to events. We’d get in the car, and suddenly everything he did would bother me. And sure, he has annoying behaviors like anyone, but I could tell that this was more extreme than that. It was abnormal for me, and I was never quite sure what was going on.

As I studied my anxiety more, I eventually realized that this irritation was a response to deep anxiety. I don’t like being in public–or even at family or friend events–most of the time, and I also feel anxiety around driving/traffic a lot of the time. The two combined to make anxiety a common and powerful feeling, but it usually exhibited as irritation.

Now that I know how to identify those situations, I can redirect my irritation. I’ll turn on music or practice breathing deeply. Sometimes it helps just to acknowledge that I’m feeling anxious.


Sometimes I would lose hours (or even days) to doing “nothing.” I would endlessly scroll social media, watch YouTube videos, binge TV, or read book after book. This was not positive consumption. It was driven by anxiety, and I was trying to numb what I was feeling by distracting myself.

That realization helped more than beating myself up for being lazy ever had. It helped more than all the productivity tricks I’d implemented.

I used to think I was just bad at adulting. I had to trick myself into getting things done, using elaborate scheduling and productivity hacking. Even then, I tended to swing from one extreme to another.

Then I ran across this tweet:

“I’ve been on anxiety meds for almost 3 weeks & I’ve already lost 12 lbs, scrubbed my entire house with a tooth brush, run out of chores and sorted half of my life problems so please never question how debilitating anxiety can be”

That’s when I started to wonder if my “bad adulting” had something to do with mental health. In the 2 months since, I’ve observed the ups and down, how my mental health relates to my productivity and motivation. There definitely seems to be a link. Some days, I wake up ready to take on the world, more productive by noon than I am in some entire weeks. I don’t think the difference is “laziness” or “lack of motivation.”

Why am I telling you this?

I’ve only very recently begun talking about my anxiety with family and friends. It’s a complicated experience that affects my life significantly. I’m still reading and talking and learning how to recognize and cope with this thing happening in my body.

Writing about my anxiety feels risky. I’m a private person, and this is a very public forum for a complicated piece of me. But I’m sharing for one very important reason: I hope someone who has been struggling will read this post and recognize themselves.

I have benefited incredibly from other people who have been willing to publicly discuss their mental health experiences. Hopefully I can pay it forward a little now.

3 thoughts on “When anxiety doesn’t mean “panic attacks”

  1. Thanks for sharing, I can relate to all of this. I think that mental health is something that people need to learn to separate from personality. When things go wrong that person is simply not themselves for a period. Managing those difficult days are key to surviving for the good days.

  2. Pingback: Book review: First, We Make the Beast Beautiful | Lyse of Llyr

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