Your question: Can anxiety make me feel awful?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Anxiety is part of life, but it is also a displeasurable experience. You feel anxiety when an external demand (work, family or any other aspect of your life) becomes too overwhelming to handle.

Therefore, no one is to blame for feeling anxiety. It is involuntary and natural, and it is treatable. However, it becomes a problem when it is chronic, i.e. repeated and intense, even in situations that appear to be no cause for concern or distress.

Particularly, anxiety is related to automatic thoughts. These occur suddenly and overwhelmingly, generating a feeling of abrupt worry about specific issues. Automatic thoughts do not necessarily have an origin and can affect you negatively in your daily activities. These thoughts can generate this awful feeling you mention, as they are usually related to self-esteem and questioning about one’s own life (1).

Yes, anxiety can make you feel “awful” because it involves a whole clinical picture of physical and psychological symptoms.

What does awful mean to you?

For each person anxiety works differently, therefore, the meaning and origin will be different. The discomfort associated with anxiety is divided into three aspects: physical, emotional and psychological. Anxiety makes you feel “awful” for a set of these symptoms and not for one in particular, among these stand out:

  • Physical symptoms: shortness of breath, headache, stomach pain, dizziness and fatigue.
  • Emotional symptoms: desire to cry, deep fear, apathy, deep sadness.
  • Psychological symptoms: thoughts of death, desire to run away, constant worry about yourself or others.

Some people experience only some of these symptoms, others experience all of them. In general, having anxiety evokes an imbalance in the body that will inevitably make you feel awful, crazy, exhausted or miserable. Emphasis on “makes you feel,” because anxiety is a passing perception, a moment in your life that does not define you. Having anxiety does not make you a negative, troubled or crazy person, but a human being who needs help to improve his or her coping strategies.

Why does anxiety make you feel bad about yourself?

People with anxiety experience excessive fear or worry, causing them either to avoid situations that might precipitate the anxiety or to develop compulsive rituals that lessen the anxiety. 

The origin of anxiety is varied, associated with both biological and psychological aspects. On the one hand, anxiety is linked to the release of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. The whole chemical imbalance that you inevitably experience in anxiety is responsible for the associated physical and emotional symptoms.

On the other hand, the psychology of anxiety is fairly well summarized in the cognitive triad (2) explained by the American psychiatrist Aaron Beck. This theory explains that you construct your reality based on your perception of yourself, the world and the future. In anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, the cognitive triad is negatively affected, generating a pessimistic view of these three aspects. Thus, when you feel anxious you feel miserable, undesirable even, you feel that the world is a frightening or unpleasant place, and you see no hope for the future.

How to deal with your anxiety?

To deal with the discomfort caused by anxiety there are different techniques. If your discomfort persists, it is recommended that you see a mental health professional who can give you personalized strategies to deal with your particular anxiety.

Emotional diary

An effective strategy is to keep a record of your emotions. In a journal you can write down and specify exactly what you mean by “awful”. It is important to learn to name your emotions to eventually work on them. In this document I attach a link to an image that shows a circle with different emotions. You can look at them and find one that gives a name to what you are feeling in an anxiety attack, and then you would be clearer where to work to improve.

Counting backwards

There is also a very effective technique called “5, 4, 3, 2, 1”. This consists of using your senses to dissuade emotional discomfort at a specific moment. It is useful when you are experiencing a lot of physical agitation or you feel that you have a lot of unpleasant thoughts, and find it difficult to control your emotions. Wherever you are, you will focus on identifying 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.

Whether you are in your room, in a car or a public place, you can sit and practice this exercise in silence, breathing slowly as you do it as many times as you feel necessary to decrease the anxious symptoms. With time of practice this exercise will become easier, and you will realize how helpful it is to focus on your essential senses when you are overthinking things that make you feel bad.

In my experience…

Anxiety can certainly make you feel awful, but the feelings and thoughts aren’t random. As much as anxiety makes you feel frustrated with yourself, I guarantee that you are not a failed or problematic person for having anxiety. Everything your mind tells you is a product of congenital distortions and not reality, so through practice and self-awareness, as well as psychotherapy, you must learn to value yourself as an imperfect person, doing your best to improve by coping with the problem of anxiety.

I hope that with these suggestions you can improve. I recognize and applaud you for seeking professional counseling, because it shows that you want to feel better and you are on the right path to change the things that make you feel bad. I believe that you have the capacity to improve, although sometimes your mind makes us believe that there’s no solution.

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