Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Almost everyone is familiar with anxiety, the jolt of panic you feel when you think you’ve lost your keys, the rumbling dread while you wait to give a presentation, or that feeling when someone you care about says “Listen, I need to ask you something” in a really serious voice and you fumble through your mental rolodex of everything you could have possibly done wrong in preparation for what they’re about to say which is actually just, “Do you like my new hat?”
Anxiety can feel like different things for different people at different times, though feelings of dread and panic seem fairly common across the board. A friend once described it as “the feeling of being on a rollercoaster just before its drops, but 24/7”. For me, it’s a gnawing feeling of impending doom that can last for hours, weeks or months. It’s like there’s a small mouse trapped inside my torso, sleeping on my stomach, or sometimes just leaning with one elbow on my heart or lungs – physical pressure and constant nebulous fear.
As anyone who lives with it will tell you, anxiety can be incredibly debilitating, interfering with your ability to simply do the things you want to, which over time can erode your sense of self. Sometimes these uncomfortable sensations can escalate quickly and seize control of your body in the form of a panic attack, during which you might hyperventilate, sweat, have scary thoughts and quite frankly feel like you’re dying.
But as powerless as anxiety may make you feel, there’s power to be found in understanding just why you might be panicking all the damn time.
When I was around 22 I started having panic attacks whenever I got on a bus or train, which was a pretty good and completely horrible indicator to me that I needed to slow the fuck down and pay attention to my body. I remember looking out of my bedroom window each morning, down the street, and having truly no idea how I would get there, like it was a tightrope, like the pavement was made out of quicksand, like wild animals were on the loose.
Anxiety is often characterized as a fear reaction to some kind of unspecified or overblown feeling of threat, but the truth is, all marginalized people live with fear and threat as part of their intrinsic daily reality, be it the structural oppression at the core of society, making it way harder for certain people to thrive (e.g. worrying, “will my Muslim name get my visa application rejected”?), or the microaggressions we encounter as daily reminders that ultimately we are “other” or less than (e.g. "where are you really from?"). Women, queer and transgender people, particularly those of color, endure great strain just by existing, because the rich, straight, white men who hold power globally and in our institutions and workplaces simply do not have our wellbeing in mind. It’s grim, but when you think about the constant reality of street harassment and sexual violence against girls and women, the scarily disproportionate number of black people incarcerated or murdered by police, the trauma of poverty or living as an undocumented person, the terror of surviving as a trans woman of color despite the very real threat of assault or murder every time she leaves the house, surely the question becomes: why wouldn’t we be anxious?
A few weeks ago I left New York City to go on a day trip. My date and I joked that we were nervous about going to a place where we would likely be the only queer people of color, but agreed that sometimes white people have nice things like beaches and crab shacks and that it was worth giving it a go. We were just 20 minutes out of the city when a white woman in the car in front of us began shouting into her rear view mirror and frantically gesturing at us without making it clear at all what she wanted. Unnerved and bewildered, we drove on, only to be pulled over by cops ten minutes later asking if we had “been in an accident”. Hiding our fear, disbelief and rage we explained calmly and charmingly like the Good Brown People we are that there had been no accident, and then we waited patiently for 30 minutes as both the cars were checked for signs of collision — for no reason other than one more white person’s racist imagination.
The wait was tense, a second police car pulled up to join, and passing cars slowed down to look in as we wondered what the white woman had told the police, if they would find or fabricate a reason to detain us, what would happen to the rental car if they did, and how it would affect my visa status. I wanted to comfort my date with a hug or a kiss but we did not touch each other for fear that we would reveal our gayness and be discriminated against further. So we sat facing forward, telling each other it would be ok, and dealing with it quietly as we have been trained to do. Despite being hugely protected in that moment by the fact neither of us are black, and despite eventually being told we were free to go, the psychic toll of an experience like that is huge. So is the energy it takes to regulate your heartbeat again, process some of what just happened, bury the lingering feelings of humiliation, anger, anxiety, recover quickly for yourself and each other, joke, smile, put the playlist back on and drive further into a place you are unwanted.
The daily experiences of marginalized people are littered with little intensities like this, the cat-call on the way to school, the sly comment about your hijab, the group dinner you can’t afford, the “you don’t sound black”, the “are you a boy or a girl?” Over time we can internalize these micro-aggressions as a sign that we are somehow defective or powerless or unloved, which can really fuck with our ability to trust ourselves, our intuition, our experiences, our worth, our feeling of safety, our ability to heal. It’s exhausting. Just because women, queer and trans people, and people of color have learned to thrive against a rigged system doesn’t mean we aren’t suffering. On the beach that night my date told me their dad used to say “the sea spits out everything it doesn’t want” and I was relieved because that, at least, felt fair.
Our bodies do not exist in a vacuum. There are lots of reasons for anxiety, including biochemical factors, imbalances in brain chemistry which for some people can be addressed by medication and psychiatry alone. The thing is, no one knows what you need better than you do. The role of society is chronically underplayed in diagnosis and discussion around mental health because it is more convenient for the powers that be; pharmaceutical companies, educational institutions, legal and political systems, if our attention is focussed inwards, on what is wrong with us. This, combined with all the systemic elements of oppression, makes it harder or impossible for some people to access the care they need.
As a mental health professional working with people on Medicaid who have “chronic mental health conditions”, I see first hand the barriers faced by marginalized people when trying to access adequate care. These include lack of money, lack of support in navigating and advocating for oneself within the healthcare system, and (fear of) not being believed. As one of my own clients, an elderly black woman put it “I was never diagnosed, I was just called a bad child”.
While it can be empowering to learn the discomfort you live with isn’t because you’re broken but actually an appropriate response to living in a hostile environment, this knowledge alone doesn’t fix everything. In fact, it can feel really lonely, overwhelming and disheartening to have all this information about the psychic toll of oppression, seemingly powerless to change anything. For this reason it’s really important to do what we can to find or create micro-communities for ourselves in real life or online. To fill these communities with people who understand our experiences or at the very least believe and support us completely when we communicate them. This could look like a friend who goes with you to the doctor to help you advocate for yourself; a therapist who is skilled enough to draw links between the manifestations of your trauma and the systemic oppression you have faced; someone who can validate your everyday experiences, remind you that they make sense, brainstorm ways to feel more comfortable in the moments that hurt.
These could include taking a walk or doing some exercise, writing a list of all the things that could be making you feel anxious, watching TV, masturbating, meditating or other grounding activities, getting your eyebrows done, texting someone you trust, doing nothing in particular and letting the feeling pass when it’s ready.
If you feel really anxious in certain environments, with certain people, consider that maybe it’s them and not you. Say no to things and people that make you uncomfortable so you can make space for alternatives — they will come. Listen to your body and let it guide you to places of fun and safety. Many of us are probably going to live with anxiety in some form, on and off, for the rest of our lives, so we might as well try to approach it with gentleness, curiosity and the understanding that this doesn’t mean we are fucked up. We also might as well remember to really celebrate small victories; finding time to eat breakfast before work, not checking your ex’s Instagram, making your friends laugh. These moments are as important as the painful ones and deserve as much attention and pride as we can muster. They are proof of our survival, against the odds.