What Anxiety Feels Like

The following image was on Facebook a few months ago. It was re-posted or liked by a couple of my friends. They thought it was amusing.

I did not.


Am I saying it’s not funny? No, humour is subjective, after all. To deny or decry someone being able to find it amusing is not my point.

What I can say, with one-hundred percent honesty, is the second I saw that picture and read it to the end I recognised my own thought patterns. I said to myself, That’s my anxiety. Right there. It’s basically a chart.

I’ve gotten better at – perfected, really – accelerating the process of contemplating a problem, taking it from what is (usually) small or inconsequential and turning it into a Big Fucking Deal. When I was first becoming truly aware of my anxiety in my teenage years, I would spend hours – days – going mentally, step-by-step, through potential scenarios: when I was being bullied, I would plan out my day as best to avoid those people who were doing it, what I would do when it was happening, how to ignore them, what time was best to go the canteen, when to cross the road after school to walk home, when to leave the playground. I could go on.

Later, during my eating disorder, the mastery over controlling my weight was – I thought – a mastery over my anxiety (“I’m winning, see?”). It was very important to be the thinnest person in the room and for a few years I was the thinnest person in a room. Really, I guess, the eating disorder was how the anxiety physiologically presented itself and, as I recovered, the anxiety gradually returned to its mental roots.

Or so I thought.

You see, I’ve been my own doctor about it, essentially. The only times I’ve been treated have been externally funded or provided: first while I was at university, second when I had my breakdown and my previous workplace allowed me one visit to a psychologist, and third with my post-partum anxiety with Riley. During one of these phases, I can’t remember which, I was diagnosed with GAD. And each time the funding ran out, I didn’t continue. At university, it was because I didn’t like the therapist, and later because I didn’t want to be burden on the household budget (Adam and I were living together then). Am I saying I didn’t consider myself to be a worthy enough investment? That my self-confidence and self-worth was that low? I wish I could say no, blaming it instead on my youth and fierce independence. The truth is, I’m not sure. I do know I said to myself a lot: I can sort it out on my own.

And I did.

Or so I thought.


I have had a pain in my stomach since February.

I was first diagnosed with an ulcer when I was fourteen. This was in the early 90s, before they discovered the majority of stomach ulcers are caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium. Back then, it was generally believed – by us laymen – that ulcers were caused by stress. When I was diagnosed with mine, ‘anxiety’ as a term was rarely used. Neither was stress, for that matter.

“Karen is a worrier,” was the preferred nomenclature. “She worries far too much.”

To this day, I don’t know if that bacterium caused that ulcer, because I’ve tested negative to it, and as that ulcer healed in time, I’m not sure it matters now. So when the familiar pain came back in February, I did my best to ignore it. When I couldn’t any longer I saw a doctor. I took medication. The pain went away. Then came back. With a vengeance.
It came to a head over Easter, when I was in bed, clutching my stomach, nauseous, unable to eat, in pain, my bowels behaving in a terrible manner (I’ll spare you the details), and I thought to myself the diagnosis of gastritis the doctor gave me was wrong. Had to be. All sorts of dire alternatives presented themselves, even though there was no evidence – and tests have come back negative – it didn’t matter.

That is how anxiety is for me now; instead of mulling over something for days, like I did as a teenager, I immediately short shift and head straight for Worst Case Scenario. Not just for myself, the kids too. It has to stop. I feel sheepish at this tendency to catastrophise. It’s not healthy.

Back at the doctors (again) the other day he asked me, “Do you have a mental health plan? Has anyone set one up for you before?”

I blinked. I didn’t even know what one was. In those few times I’ve been in care, that hadn’t been mentioned. When dad died, I was advised to get grief therapy. I didn’t. When I’ve sat in doctors chairs in the past, they’ve written me Valium prescriptions, which I’ve taken, gladly.

But I need to do more. I need to try and re-program how I think and react to situations. Ulcers may not be caused my stress, true. But gastritis can be.

And I sure as hell don’t want it any more.


Image by: Mariana Zanatta

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Karen Andrews is the creator of Karen Andrews. This is one of the most established and well-respected parenting blogs in the country and is a two-time finalist in the Best Australian Blogs competition. She is also an author, award-winning writer, poet, editor and publisher at Miscellaneous Press. Is an exercise junkie (when she finds the time).


  1. John says

    So many points of resonance here.. with my Fam. The anxiety mirrored Beth’s ( my wife ) and the h.pylori my daughter’s path to intestinal health.
    I wonder if I could someday speak of this with you and offer support and lessons learned from our challenges, defeats & victories ?
    best wishes Karen.

  2. Super Sarah says

    Big hugs, I hope you are on the mend at least physically, the mental healing takes longer and is quite a journey. Last year both Amy and I were diagnosed with GAD, with elements of Panic Disorder and that chart from lost pen to DEATH mirrors how I think about many things in my life. It was heartbreaking to sit in a child psychologist’s office listening to her describing what was going on in my daughter’s head and knowing it was exactly what was going on in mine. On one hand I felt entirely responsible, on the other, completely vindicated. Its not my fault, its just the way we are wired. We are both so much happier and funnily the cognitive behavior techniques designed for children are actually way more effective for me than my grown up therapy was! Hah, I could theorize that is because I am immature, or I can face the reality that my anxiety started to manifest in childhood and was masked by many other things, I didn’t even really know that the way I thought wasn’t the way everyone thought for the longest time, even into adulthood. With post partum anxiety I was able to recognize that I didn’t have to feel like that anymore, I could ask for help. Take care of yourself xx

    • says

      A few psychologists I’ve been recommended to specialise in CBT, so I might give them a go, based on your good experiences Sarah! Big hugs to both you and Amy. Glad you’re getting help too xxxxxxx

  3. says

    After DPCON I went home and I wrote the post I had always thought about. I got up early one morning, sat outside and while watching the sun rise the thoughts and feelings which had been bubbling away inside me all poured out. I haven’t shared the post, and honestly I’m not sure if I ever will. Thank you for sharing your post. I have had a MPH for the past three years, and with the support of my wonderful psychologist and CBT I can now identify my depression and anxiety triggers and take steps to either reduce/avoid these episodes. I hope you are on the mend both physically and emotionally soon xx
    Lauren recently posted..My day in 100 wordsMy Profile

    • says

      Hi Lauren, thank you for commenting and I’m glad you wrote that post, even if you keep it to yourself, I hope it was beneficial to get it out. I’m also so glad to hear you’re on top of your mental health as well xxx I’m feeling better now than I was :)

  4. says

    I am also dealing with Anxiety and it really is not an easy thing to deal with. People think that it is just all in the head and if you try to not think about it it will all go away, How I wish that’s true. My anxiety also makes me think of the worst case scenario and even if I’m told that it is farfetched, I still find it hard to shake off the feeling. What I hate is when people think that I prefer to think that way, I want it to stop if could I would but I just can’t it’s not that easy. I’m getting better now though, I’ve been finding ways on how to manage my anxiety and so far I’ve found enough to help me get through rough times, but I’m still searching though I don’t think I can ever have too much. Thank you for sharing your story, I wish you all the best.

    – Abby

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