What Anxiety Feels Like (For Me, and, Maybe, For You. With Cartoons.)

I often think that anxiety probably has some helpful prehistoric function, like sensing that a large, hungry carnivore is on the prowl and being the one to let the rest of the group know.

But in the absence of large, hungry carnivores (or other clearly perilous situations) anxiety sometimes feels as useful as the appendix, though it flares up even more often, and can’t be easily removed.

For me, anxiety can run in circles, like a sad, neurotic dog in a too-small pen, or a hamster on a little exercise wheel. And there are different paces–different circles, different wheels–that my anxiety puts me through. Because my dad is awesome, he illustrated it for me thus:

hamsterstressSometimes, as the illustration above shows, the hamster is such a wreck that it can’t even decide which wheel of anxiety to run on. It hops on one wheel and then remembers that there are a few other wheels that need to be run upon. And then the person in whom the hamster dwells (me, or, maybe, you) tired and distracted, and things like this happen:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.24 AM

And things like this:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.35 AMScreen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.55.51 AMAnd at the end of the day, after all that hamster-wheel-whirring, the person with anxiety sometimes feels like this:

Screen shot 2013-07-01 at 8.56.03 AMPraying can help. Cooking can help. Knitting can help. So can walking, stretching, and talking to other people. All of these things, and others, can be very, very helpful in directing all that hamster-energy more fruitfully and less tiresomely.

But for me it has been helpful simply to notice the pattern of anxiety and liken it to an exercise-addicted hamster. Hamsters are so cute, for one thing, so I feel like I want to be kind to the poor little thing, and, therefore, to myself. By giving the anxiety a little Life of Pi type identity, I can better recognize what’s happening and choose to step off the wheel, whispering a kind little ‘farewell for nowto the hamster, who then nods gratefully and curls up to take a nap.

{you may also like ‘How Not to Help Someone Who Is Hurting.’}

13 thoughts on “What Anxiety Feels Like (For Me, and, Maybe, For You. With Cartoons.)

  1. while we are years apart in age I think we could have been friends. then again we may not have been much help to each other. then again just having a friend who “gets it” might be the help we need when we are hurting. I hate it when anxiety is simply passed off as “sin”. I guess it is in a way (not trusting) but it takes more than that to process through our anxiety or sometimes simply acknowledge the little guy. loved this Rachel.

  2. A hamster running obsessively on a wheel…yes. But a hamster who can’t even choose which wheel on which to run at any given moment…YES! That is what it feels like. Exhausting. (As a side note: as a child, I called it a “hampster” and I realized while typing this comment that I kinda still want to do that…)

      1. And, in this instance, a hampster could really hamper you🙂 (just let that cute mental picture sink in).

  3. Mother loves the hamster. She has the original and is talking about framing it. He just might become an icon of sorts..

  4. Oh, I love this. Sometimes I think that noticing, and letting naps happen (for hamsters and me) can be so life-giving. I struggle with anxiety too, which I like to call my “burden for the world.” This allows me to sound greatly spiritual. Good thoughts, and I always love your cartoons!

  5. Ha, brilliant analogy! I can get like that too. If my mind is wirring and I can’t sleep, I find it helps to get up and write down everything that’s worrying me or that I have to do. Somehow that lets my mind relax and also helps me see some things that I’m thinking I have to do that I could actually just not do, or do a half-arsed job of.

    I also love the verse ‘Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof’. I try to think of sleep time as time inbetween the troubles of one day and the next.

  6. IT’s when the hamster wheel is spinning so fast the hamster can’t get off that gives me the most trouble, Rachel. Like you, I’ve found that identifying the wheels can help avoid getting on them in the first place. But that can be hard and there are still times when sleep is interrupted by a spinning wheel that seem to have a turbo charger attached.

  7. I do think that worrying can produce good results, if it results, say, in long-term planning for the future, contingency planning for possible emergencies, etc. So, I worry about the IRS getting on my case if I don’t do my taxes from abroad, and as a result, I am totally compliant and have never yet had a problem. I know other Americans who have never given it a thought and are now having problems as the IRS cracks down on American expats. BUT, this can be taken to extremes and dominate my thoughts/time much more than it should. And so it is with worries about health and the future and finances. It has to be a balance and I have to talk myself down a lot from always trying to avert the disasters that hardly ever happen.

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