This Is What Anxiety Actually Feels Like
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Anxiety Is Being A Balloon Ready To Pop, But Never Knowing When The Pop Is Coming

How a childhood fear helped me articulate what it's like to live with anxiety.

girl holding pink balloon in her hands

Something a lot of people don't know about me is that I have a very genuine fear of balloons. When I was little, I was just afraid of balloons popping, but now, I can't stand looking at them or even touching them. They make my palms sweat, the hair on the back of my neck stick up, and they instantly tell my brain, "you need to get out of here now because one of those things is going to pop."

What started as a simple, reasonable fear turned into a massive panic spiral. The fear became far less about the actual popping and more about all the moments that lead up to it. Because before a balloon pops, someone has to have a balloon. Then that person has to blow it up and let the air out a few times — each time sending my hands rushing to cover my ears, mind you — before deciding they've had their fun and now they're going to blow it up all the way. Then they start blowing it up, for real this time, and they don't stop, and my hands are pressed against my ears as I hum to block out the noise and my heart races and I can feel droplets of sweat forming on my back. The balloon reaches what surely must be its maximum girth, but no, the person keeps blowing and the balloon keeps getting bigger.

"It's going to happen now," I tell myself. "Right now, don't keep going, that's as big as it gets, you're going to pop it." And finally, one of two things happen: either the person blows the balloon until JUST before it can pop, ties the end, and has created a bubble of contained air that will spend the rest of its existence ready to burst like a volcano, or the balloon pops.

If you haven't figured it out already, I also have anxiety.

Until recently, I've mostly been able to keep my anxiety at bay, but in the past few months, it has gotten incredibly difficult to manage, to the point where I get physically sick. The frustrating thing about anxiety is that even when every rational part of your brain is telling you that everything is fine, anxiety is hanging there in the corner like a fly that won't stop buzzing in your ear telling you "everything is not fine." And no matter how small that voice may seem, it overpowers everything telling you otherwise, and it's all you can believe.

I don't tend to get anxious about specific events or situations, but rather about the anticipation of those things. It's not the actual environment that makes me anxious, but the unknowing of how I'm going to react to it or what's going to happen when I'm there. It's anxiety over the thought of being anxious. I've struggled to articulate how my anxiety feels, because logically, I know it doesn't make much sense. But the past few days have gotten me thinking, and I may have finally found a way to explain how I feel.

Anxiety makes me feel like a balloon. I'm always either ready to pop or popping, but I never know when the pop is going to happen, so I just spend every waking moment on edge, unable to focus on anything else. Yes, I'm afraid of the popping, but the anticipation over when it's coming is what's truly agonizing. It doesn't matter if I'm not even blown up yet and I'm still just a floppy piece of latex sitting around in a bag; I know that at some point I'll either be filled with air until I'm so fragile that I can be destroyed by something as tiny as a toothpick, or I'll be pushed a fraction of a breath past my limits and pop instantly.

I know that in life, a situation doesn't always have to end with a pop. Everything could turn out totally fine. But whether it's rational or not, the anxiety is always there, because anxiety doesn't give a shit about what's "rational." It's not rational to go into a panic spiral over something as trivial as balloons or phone calls or any other of my anxiety triggers, but the spiral always arrives just the same regardless.

Be gentle with your friends who have anxiety. Don't invalidate their feelings or chastise them for not "thinking logically" or for being "overdramatic." Anxiety is a demon that you cannot truly know until you've felt it for yourself, but next time you see an anxious friend, imagine being a balloon floating above a porcupine. Imagine that moment right before the balloon pops. Imagine the tension and anticipation, the way time sustains itself and stretches those few seconds into what feels like hours. That is what my anxiety feels like.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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