What is it Like to Have an Anxiety Disorder?

Imagine being in a room with a tiger no one else can see.

The tiger stares at you constantly. It licks its lips. You try to tell other people about it, but they can’t understand. They cannot see this lethal predator in the corner of the room. They cannot feel the brush of its pelt as it slides up against you the moment you have to venture outside. They cannot hear its throaty breath in your ear as you pick up the telephone for that important business call. Your tiger is yours to deal with unseen, and it follows you everywhere.

He’s a bit of a coward, though. He’s always in the corner somewhere, but around enough people you know and like, or in moments of quiet joy even, you can convince yourself that he can’t attack. Not here. Not now. Sometimes, when you’re particularly busy he won’t bother you that much, either. Your mind is occupied. He’s willing to wait.

Still, there’s that gnawing little knowing thing in the back of your mind telling you that he is waiting. Like that word is magic, a spell to sap your strength and deliver it to him, as soon as you realize this, he seems to grow. You panic. You’re out about to meet a new business client for the first time, or take a train journey you’ve never embarked upon before, and your tiger is growing.

And here’s the tiger’s really clever trick: when you notice he’s grown, he grows some more. You’re trapped now because the noticing and the growing happens so fast, in such a twisting way where one feeds the other, that you can’t even catch a breath. Your tiger grows and grows until he fills the entire room. No one else can see him, and no one else can feel his weight, but it is there. It presses down on you until you can’t breathe and all you can think of is, of course, the tiger. It snarls in your face, and with its claws sliding under your skin, it begins to move you. Your tiger begins to make you twitch. You want to get away but the tiger has you. Your limbs lock up and your jaw aches from chattering. You’d call for help if you could but your mouth is rattling too much. And what would you say if you could? They can’t see the tiger. They can’t feel how it’s worked its way inside you and is slowly cutting you open. And it’s such a heavy weight on your chest, and you’re so out of breath, and your body aches like you’re having a heart attack. Maybe you are. Maybe this time the tiger will finish you off. Maybe this time…

But it doesn’t, of course. The tiger’s clever. It’s much more fun to play than kill. So eventually, when your mind has returned to enough reason to let the fear pass, and it can be hours and hours, the tiger will go back to sitting in your eye-line, in the corner, licking its paws. Licking them and waiting. This is so you know that it will happen again. Maybe it’ll be the mortgage approval you’re waiting for, or maybe it’ll be that exam looming that you need to pass, but he knows that eventually, even when everything is going well for you, he’ll sniff out a tiny, minuscule fear, and with his golden eyes shining, make it something you can’t ever forget.

Now, I’ve had an anxiety condition for as long as I can remember, but it was only last year that I was formally diagnosed. My condition’s actually on the milder end of the spectrum — which is somewhat curious to me because it never feels mild and to think there are people who suffer more really is heartbreaking to me. The question I often get asked, though, is why did I leave it so long to see a doctor? I have to explain, that’s part of the tiger’s trick.

You don’t want to worry other people. You don’t want to waste the doctor’s time. Everyone feels anxious at some point in their lives. You’re being silly. This is so stupid. The doctor will be angry. You are a terrible person. You should be ashamed of yourself. You are weak. You are worthless. You are wrong.

The tiger’s got a wide vocabulary for blame and shame, and it convinces you that not only should you suffer in silence, that you’re not really suffering at all. That you’re a great big fraud — and the worst part is, a lot of people will agree. You see, because they can’t see what the big deal is, they think you’re just being unreasonable. This is the curse of invisible diseases, and particular those that affect your mind. You are labelled as weak because you can’t carry on like everyone else.

“It’s only going to the shops, what’s wrong with you? You’ve been into town hundreds of times. Stop being a drama queen.”

There’s also the fact that even when people do understand that you have anxiety problems, they don’t understand that anxiety never actually goes away. You learn to ignore the tiger, and it can get easier over time the more you do something, but the tiger’s still there. It’s still waiting. That means that even on a moderately good day, it can take you an extraordinary effort just to, say, talk about something personal in a blog like this. It takes so much energy, and so much careful wrangling with that tiger that you might not have energy left for anything else. Life doesn’t give you a break though, and like other invisible illnesses, you just have to try to carry on. The key thing is, though, you don’t have to do it on your own.

In the UK, we’re in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s focus is on anxiety disorders which are a leading cause of mental health problems around the world. Mental health charities are increasingly concerned that anxiety as a condition is growing, and there’s evidence that young people in particular are affected. In addition, the condition seems to impact women particularly hard, as well as sexual minorities.

There are a lot of ways to help with anxiety disorders, though, from interventions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which helps you challenge the cascade of negative thoughts and empowers you to break anxiety cycles, to general lifestyle management tips like eating a balanced diet, exercising (some evidence shows yoga may be particularly beneficial), and creating a good sleep schedule.

There’s one other thing that non-sufferers can do to help take the sting out of anxiety for someone else. It’s very simple. When someone tells you their tiger is in the room, don’t try to minimize it, and don’t say it’ll go away. Just be there for the person who is struggling, let them talk it out and, if necessary, do whatever they need to help them get through this even if it means sitting with them as an anxiety attack plays out. It could mean so much to them. In fact, it’s meant a great deal to me.

Personally, I’ve found that sharing this problem with my partner and my close family, even though it was one of the hardest things to do, has made a big difference because it’s helped me realize I don’t need to struggle alone, and helped them to realize that there is something genuinely wrong when I hear the roar of my silent hunter friend.

If you’d like more information about anxiety or would like help dealing with a disorder, you can find resources here.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Pat Phillips
Pat Phillips4 years ago

Very helpful description

Lorraine Andersen

Thanks for the aticle. I have a good friend who suffers from anxiety, and I used to suffer from panic attacks that caused anxiety. Nice to see other people made aware of what if feels like.

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson4 years ago

Steve Williams gives an excellent example of what an anxiety disorder feels like.

Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago


Lukasz Maj
Lukasz Maj4 years ago

i got something like that in dreams,but tiger is only cute pussycat,when i wake up paranoid is only with me so not so bad,can handle with,"to think there are people who suffer more really is heartbreaking" a lot of compassion to them,its good movie about it "A Beautiful Mind"

Luna starr
luna starr4 years ago

I think it is part genetic and part learned from "anxious" parents;it is hell

Mary B.
Mary B4 years ago

Excellent article, thank you.

Janis K.
Janis K4 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

ScoTT S.
ScoTT S4 years ago

Annie Laurie, unfortunately your analogy of the nearly extinct trapped animal doesn't fit with the reality of panic attacks and anxiety disorder. YOU, not the tiger, are the trapped animal facing extinction.

ScoTT S.
ScoTT S4 years ago

Finally, someone who is able to perfectly express what I have been unable to all these years. Thank you Steve Williams.