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By unveiling how anxiety affects people’s lives, we hope to spread empathy, ideas for coping, and a more open conversation on mental health. This is a powerful perspective.

Wren, a 49-year-old woman who lives in the Southwest region of the United States, has lived with anxiety since she was 3 years old, when she experienced debilitating night terrors. This former nurse has since had to leave her job and live on Social Security disability insurance due to the grip anxiety has had on her life.

Here’s her story.

When did you first realize you had anxiety?

Around ages 3 to 5 years old, I received medical treatment and hospitalization for night terrors, which were moderate to severe. I’ve had anxiety in some form or another throughout my whole life, since I was old enough to remember.

How does your anxiety manifest itself physically?

After an unpleasant thought pops into the back of my mind, sometimes with no apparent stimulus at all, I can become very ill feeling or extremely uncomfortable with a myriad of sensations.

These sensations might include:

  • hot, sweaty flashes and cold shivers at the same time
  • a lightheaded, dizzy feeling
  • a sudden jolt of awareness that my heart is racing even if I’m in a perfectly still position
  • an awful sensation that my heart is pounding unnaturally hard while at the same time feeling fluttery or airy
  • dry mouth and difficulty swallowing
  • the feeling of being on the verge of vomiting or passing diarrhea simultaneously
  • tingly lips and fingers
  • tunnel vision

How does your anxiety manifest itself mentally?

It sometimes begins with a startling or intrusive thought, which upon further introspection, causes discomfort, fear, shame, dread, or other highly negative and unpleasant emotions.

Other times it can come on gradually. I’ll have a vague awareness of being trapped or a perceived inability to escape my current environment if it became necessary.

I also have the mental sensation of thoughts coming faster and faster until they overlap or run into each other, and any ability to think in a logical manner seems impossible.

On occasion, I feel embarrassment that I must appear ill or frantic to others and have a desperate need to be with or immediately speak to a loved one, close friend, or other safe person.

What kinds of things trigger your anxiety?

The scope of triggers at this point is incredibly large and innumerable. It can be either loud noises — such as people talking nearby, a door slamming, or a car horn honking — or typical sounds that come from being in public, like dishes clattering in a restaurant or children playing.

Even in the safety of my own home, I’m bothered by the lack of sound when no TV or radio is on. In the silence, I often imagine hearing my thoughts or other unknown voices, which is frightening.

How do you manage your anxiety?

Most methods are either ineffective or only temporarily effective. I typically attempt to manage my anxiety by doing deep breathing exercises.

Sometimes, I use an ice pack or cold cloth on either my forehead or throat in an attempt to deal with hot flashes or lessen the sensation of my heart pounding. Mental exercises, such as counting in my head or reciting prayers or personal mantras over and over again, can also help.

Very rarely, I will visit a mental health chatroom online or play calming relaxation videos on YouTube. On few (even rarer) occasions, I have reached out to a close relative or dear friend with my fears in hopes they will dissuade me, but it always seems to fail and ends in embarrassment.

What would your life look like if your anxiety was under control?

I would be continuing my work as a nurse in one of a few different ways, either by returning to work as a hospital nurse and taking care of surgical patients or possibly by opening my own business of home health nursing care.

Perhaps if I was a little younger and had been able to, I would have traveled to areas of disease or destruction with different help agencies, such as the Salvation Army or Red Cross.

My two grown children would be living happy, productive lives, either working in a field they love or settling down with a significant other they love. My mother would be set in a beautiful home where all her needs and wants were met or even surpassed.

I would have published some books or written poetry. I might have even joined a pop band many years ago and enjoyed writing and performing music with good friends.

But most of all, without all of my anxiety, I would just be living a normal life — holding down a good job, relaxing on my days off with friends and family, eating healthy meals and sticking to a good exercise regimen, enjoying many creative outlets, organizing my home, and being a good friend to others.

Jamie Friedlander is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for health. Her work has appeared in The Cut, Chicago Tribune, Racked, Business Insider, and Success Magazine. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found traveling, drinking copious amounts of green tea, or surfing Etsy. You can see more samples of her work on her website. Follow her on Twitter.