“Can’t You Just Calm Down?” A Deep Dive Into Anxiety


Elaina Freeman, Writer

Dear Anxiety,

You do not define me. You have never defined me. Now please stop disrupting my life. 



             I’ve struggled with an anxiety disorder since I was eleven years old. My transition to middle school was nothing short of disastrous. That entire summer was defined by one anxiety attack after another. I was terrified about going to middle school and that fear presented through anxiety. Anything you would have worried about as an incoming 6th grader, I was worried about it and somehow found ways to create worries. I couldn’t get out of my own head to see the fresh start in front of me. Truthfully, everything became so much harder and anxiety attacks became daily.  My anxiety got better for a while, until the following April. If I went to bed with an anxiety attack, I’d wake up in one. My life began to be consumed by anxiety.  Anxiety began to define my every move. I was living in one big anxious cycle, trapped on the same channel forever. I was formally diagnosed with anxiety  in July of 2021. This diagnosis made so much sense to me. 

                  Anxiety is a term that people have heard but don’t really know what it means. When the conversation began about me having anxiety, at first I didn’t think that it fit me. I grew up around family members that struggle with anxiety and from their experiences I didn’t think I had it.  I learned that anxiety  presents differently in different people which is why it looked differently for me and my family members.
                       I don’t really talk about my struggles with anxiety around most people my age. I’m not ashamed that I struggle with it.  In fact if I’m asked about it, I have no problem talking about it. The reason I don’t actively talk about it is because I don’t want that to be the only thing people know about me. I don’t let anxiety define me and neither should other people. It’s also not necessary to know about me because I am so much more than anxiety. Anxiety is  just part of me, not the whole thing.

So what does anxiety look like? Well I can’t talk about anxiety generally, because there is nothing general about it. It is different for everyone and shouldn’t be discussed with a one size fits all mentality. Picture a hamster wheel. Once the hamster is placed on the wheel, it can’t do anything to get itself off. It is forced to spin on the wheel until its owner takes it off.  That’s the best equivalent I can think of to describe my anxiety.  For me I call this feeling an anxiety loop. 

       Getting caught in an anxiety loop is one of the worst feelings. It’s immensely consuming and draining. It can make you feel completely awful about yourself and if you let it, it will swallow you whole.  One of the biggest ways my anxiety presents itself is through apologizing. If I say something that upsets someone else, I can’t just apologize once.  I need to apologize enough times to make myself feel better. Even if someone accepts my apology the first time, I can’t let it go. It might be over for the other person, but I simply cannot let it go. Other people don’t really understand this and just expect me to say “I’m sorry” once and have that be the end of the story. 

                    All people see about my anxiety is me leaving the class to go on a walk and when I come back, it’s  obvious I’ve been crying. The truth is, I try to stay in class for as long as I possibly can. I don’t want to let my anxiety stop me. If I can control it, I can stay in class and try to restrain myself from having an anxiety attack in front of my peers. However there are days when I just can’t let myself get out of the anxiety loop. I’m stuck on replay, and my brain is consumed by worry and constant fear.   

                                  For me an anxiety attack can last anywhere between five minutes and two hours. My heart starts pounding. It feels like an entire percussion section is taking over the rhythm of my heartbeat. My mind starts racing. Every thought I have is traveling at 75 miles per hour. My eyes and heart both start feeling heavy. My eyes begin to fill with tears. My hand begins shaking. No one else would notice this, but I always do. I go utterly silent, letting the loop take over. For those who don’t understand or never have experienced this, this is exactly what an anxiety attack feels like.

              Everyone has felt anxious at some point in their lives. This anxiety could have appeared before an important game or a large test.  However there is a distinction between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder.  The National Institute of Mental Health describes this difference as “Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. Many people worry about things such as health, money, or family problems. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For people with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time.” 

      During times of anxiety, the words people say around you can drastically impact you. Even if the anxiety is taking over, the words of those around you will still find a way to seep through. There are many people who don’t fully understand anxiety and will say things that they believe to be helpful. In actuality, it can be  upsetting. The absolute worst thing you can tell someone during an anxiety attack is to “just calm down” or any variation of that. By saying “can’t you just calm down”, it feels like they think you have more control over it than you do. If we had the power “to just calm down” we would. Calming down can be accomplished, but it just might take some time.  Be compassionate and supportive rather than dismissive or judgmental. Ask them if they want to talk about what’s going on and let them know that you’re there for them.  Remind people to breathe, that they’re ok and  that this feeling will pass.  The biggest tip I can recommend to help someone through anxiety is to distract them.  Anxiety can be consuming and getting the person to talk about something else will really help them. Judging someone for being anxious will never help them. 

Anxiety is complex and there is so much to understand about it. Anxiety should be approached with compassion and empathy.  There are so many people around you that may in fact deal with anxiety. On Mayo Clinic, it details some common symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms include “Feeling nervous, restless or tense, having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom, having an increased heart rate, breathing rapidly(hyperventilation), sweating, trembling, feeling weak or faint, trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry, having trouble sleeping, experiencing gastrointestinal(GI) problems, having difficulty controlling worry and having the urge to avoid things that trigger anxiety”. 

           There are ten different types of anxiety disorders listed on Mayo Clinic. These ten disorders are “Agoraphobia, anxiety disorder due to a medical condition, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, substance-induced anxiety disorder and other specified anxiety disorder and unspecified anxiety disorder”. 

                    With midterms approaching, anxiety is up across the school. For the majority of the school, Tuesday will be the first time we have taken a midterm.  As someone who gets anxious only hearing the word “test”,  I’ve felt my anxiety go up with every conversation about the looming tests.   Even though there is anxiety surrounding the tests, there are ways to not let the pressure consume you. When I feel my anxiety rising during tests, it’s imperative to remind myself to take a breath and keep going. As long as I’ve studied the material, I’ll be fine. The biggest thing you can do to help yourself during anxiety is to know that you are okay. When it comes to tests there is not a lot that you can control about the situation. You cannot control how hard the questions are and you cannot control what questions you are asked. All you can do is try your best and know that one test does not define you. 

         You may be wondering why I’ve decided to publicly be this open and vulnerable. The truth is, because I want others to know that if they’re struggling with anxiety, they’re not alone. Anxiety can be extremely consuming and it can feel like you’re floating on an island by yourself. When someone offers you a life jacket, grab it. Dealing with anxiety is hard but it feels a lot easier if you have someone to talk to about it.  This person can be anyone ranging from a parent, a sibling, a friend, a teacher or a counselor. I promise you talking about what’s going on will make you feel better in the long run. 

     Over the years, I have found some strategies that work for me to manage my anxiety. Some of the strategies that work for me are distraction, journaling, grounding exercises and breathing techniques. There are a thousand strategies out there that can help you. Some people exercise while others paint. Just because something doesn’t work the first time, keep trying it with an open mind. These tools only work if you practice them. 

            I guess my biggest piece of advice is to truly just be kind to those around you because you never know what’s going on in someone’s head.  Anxiety can try to destroy you, but you have the ability to take the reins and change the story.  Treat yourself the way you would your best friend if the roles were reversed. I know it can be scary but I promise there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. If you take anything away from this article please let it be “What’s mentionable is manageable”(Mr. Rogers).