I put my hand on my husband’s heart.
“It’s like there is an engine in my chest. And it’s revving, revving, revving for no reason. That’s what this anxiety feels like.”
His look of confusion didn’t really change.
“So even if my mind is fine, even if I know I’m okay and I’m not worried or stressed about anything in particular, my body is still being flooded with all this unnecessary energy. And then the sensations in my body try to tell my mind that I’m not okay. This battle to keep my mind and spirit calm and focused on what is true while the engine in my chest keeps spinning and roaring — well, it’s exhausting.”
I leaned my head on Chris’s shoulder and tried to slow my breathing.
My husband and I don’t speak the same emotional language. Mine has a lot of words; his, not so much. We also have trouble communicating about mental health. It’s another language rooted in experience I’ve had a crash course in since being diagnosed with clinical anxiety seven years ago — a language I wish that I and others close to me would have had decades ago because I’m pretty sure this has been a life-long struggle. Even though my husband loves me and wants to support me, it’s hard for him to understand me. So when my anxiety recently flared, seemingly out of nowhere, I grappled yet again over how to explain it.
It feels strange to say this, but that image of a car engine inside my chest feels like God’s grace. It’s His mercy — His ever-present help in times of trouble — that becomes everyday real when He meets my real need with His creative wisdom.
I’ve tried a hundred different ways to put my anxiety into words. It’s not the same as worry or stress. It’s not trying to control a situation or merely fixating on a problem. It’s a physiological experience. Like coffee jitters in my heart. Like the mental swirl of a dozen waking dreams that you can’t escape. An outer calm with an inner chaos. Like an exposed nerve that viscerally reacts when it touches something too hot or too cold.
I can’t tell my husband to just Google anxiety because no single definition or description can aptly capture an individual’s experience. Mental illness is a nuanced beast that attacks every person differently. I have a friend whose arm gets itchy when her anxiety flares. Another friend gets a migraine. Someone else I know gets mentally stuck in every worst-case scenario.
The unique manifestations of mental illness can make it a very lonely experience.
Am I making this up? Should I just keep it to myself? Should I try to ignore it and move on?
The internal battle is real. But here’s what I’ve learned: It’s worth it to push through the pain, fear, and awkwardness to tell someone how you really feel.
It’s actually God’s grace that I would even ask Him for help in putting my anxiety into words. For years I believed it was better to hide, deny, or defend my feelings. It felt safer to self-protect rather than open up my vulnerable heart and hurting mind to the chance of being misunderstood. And it’s a very real possibility, right? I’m sure it’s happened to you too. Others can minimize your feelings, dismiss your experience, give poor advice, or tell you to just get over it.
Even so, there is power in bringing our struggles out of the darkness of isolation and into the light of shared experience.
When I refuse to hide, I open myself to the light. Shame can’t live in the light. Fear doesn’t grow in the light. Freedom and growth and truth are songs of the light — songs that someone else needs to hear.
And I remind myself that my revving engine chest does not disqualify me from receiving God’s promises.
I whisper the words written on my heart: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
I trust you, Lord. I trust you.
My heart races on for the moment, but I know that I am held and loved. And so are you.