Thursday, 14 September 2017

How having anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.

Hello you, can we have a  chat about anxiety? Yours, mine, anyone’s.

And can we help those who’ve never experienced anxiety to understand it a little better by explaining to them how having anxiety can be like being given a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag?

Content notice: Discussion of people with anxiety and how some people struggle to support them. Also contains some swearing (because, when you’re writing about real things … you might as well be real about it). 

So, if you’re up for that chat … read on …

Next month (Oct 2017) I’m going to be co-hosting a workshop, with the mental health charity Mind, in which we’ll introduce people to the idea of blogging for, and about, mental health. And, while I don’t consider myself a #mentalhealthblogger as such, I don’t shy away from sharing my wobbles through life. 

And while sharing can’t necessarily prevent wobbles, it’s good to know there are other wobblers around. They give us something to grab on to, and even if we feel ungainly and awkward while grabbing, at least the reaching out keeps us from hitting the floor. 

And the only way to learn that there are other people experiencing these things is for one of them to talk about it; and today it’s my turn. If you need to grab on right now, this post is for you.

So, yes, anxiety.

For the record: I don’t have a current medical diagnosis of anxiety. I have had in the past and, these days, while anxiety relating to my phobia is frequent, the more generalised anxious episodes I'm talking about today are thankfully few and far between.

However ... this summer I experienced something which gave me a slight anxiety attack. Afterwards, when it crossed my mind to blog about the event, it really made me stop and think about how we talk about anxiety, how we emphasise battling through it, getting over it, feeling the fear and doing it anyway, which - to me - doesn't feel like always the best approach. But, before I write that post, before I tell that tale, and consider those questions ...

I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain this particular kind of anxiety to someone who hasn’t experienced it. 
  • Because sometimes people are anxious for no fully explicable reason, which can be hard for both the individual and those around them to comprehend. 
  • If we admit to feeling anxious, the people around us, led by a genuine desire for us not to be upset, can sometimes respond with things like: “Well don’t be” or “There’s nothing to worry about”, “You’ll be fine” etc. 
  • And while the “Don’t be upset” attitude is genuine and well-meaning … it’s also less helpful than it’s aiming to be. 
(Of course, there are also people who are just Ignorant Shits who think you should just pull yourself together, but I don’t think they’re reading this right now. But if you are, hey, just don’t be a shit eh? And that’s that problem solved.)

What I want to do now is offer up a couple of comparisons, an analogy or two, a Forest Gump-ism if you will ...
  • something that might help non-anxious folks appreciate how baffling a sensation anxiety can be
  • how it can feel like a loss of control
  • and how external it can feel, even though it’s happening inside your own body. 
If there’s someone in your life who you‘d like to ‘get’ it a little better than they do now, shove this under their nose and see if anything helps them understand (you know how people like to hear things from several sources before they quite believe in it!)

So, here we go …

How anxiety is like having a funfair goldfish thrust upon you ... and other stories.

Just like that feeling when you suddenly wonder if you’ve left the gas hob on, the bathroom window open, or the back door unlocked, there are times when a sensation like dread, panic, or turmoil, descends on you, fully formed, from out of nowhere. It just creeps up on you. Hits you. Washes over you.

That’s anxiety. 

Because, often in those situations:

  • it’s not like you’ve actually been sat there all morning actively thinking about the gas, the window, or the lock. 
  • It’s not like you’ve been turning the over the idea in your mind like a gem stone in a polishing tumbler. 
  • It’s just something that popped up, something that suddenly occurred to you … and, try as you might, you can’t un-occur it. 
And, just because you tell yourself:
  • Of course you’ll have locked the door, why wouldn’t you? 
  • When have you ever just walked out and left it? 
  • You definitely did. 
It really doesn’t stop that niggling doubt, that increased heart rate, that whirring mind, that prickle of panic-sweat in your armpits.

And, if I tell you that everything’s fine, that I’m sure you’ll have locked the door, that you can just stop worrying about it … will you?

Can you? 


That’s anxiety. 

Because someone experiencing anxiety can’t just switch it off simply because that would be the most rational and productive thing to do. 

Once you’ve panic-sweated, you’re stuck with panic sweat. It’s a reality. Thinking calmly might certainly prevent an escalation, but it’s only a clean-up job after the fact – the event still happened, it’s still something you need other people to take seriously if their support is to be of any use to you.

And, yeah, it’s hard for someone to put themselves inside you head – especially when, during an anxious episode - you yourself may not be too sure why you feel that way. And it’s not always easy to ask for support. 

So, in order to explain to others this slippery, wispy, spectre of a sensation that wafts in unbidden and – more importantly – unseen …

... let’s try thinking of anxiety as something tangible, something concrete, something that can be witnessed and accepted as ‘real’. 

Something we can hold. 


How about we think about anxiety as a funfair goldfish that’s been dumped on you? 

OK? OK then.

Say you’re going about your business one day, doing your thing, living your life, and then someone emerges in your peripheral vision, carrying a goldfish in a plastic bag, the kind you win at a funfair. And they’re a little out of breath, a touch distracted, they keep looking over their shoulder, and then ...

... they hold out their arm saying “Here, hold this this” while thrusting the plastic bag towards you.

And you take it, because – of course you do – it’s a goldfish in a plastic bag what else are you going to do? Let them drop it?

“Thanks for that” they say, while turning on their heels to leave. And you attempt to object, opening and closing your mouth in a manner not unlike the goldfish you’re holding, but they carry on regardless declaring: “I’ve got to dash, I’ll be back for it later” before vanishing.

And you don’t really know how you got into the situation, you don’t know the backstory (Why you? Why now?) all you do know is that you’re suddenly on your own … with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag to handle.

And you’ve got shit to do, you’ve got to go about your day, get stuff done, act like a functioning adult; and as if everyday life isn’t tricky enough, you’re now going to have to try to do all of that while taking a f*cking funfair goldfish along with you.

That’s anxiety.

Then you bump into someone you know – someone who doesn’t have to carry a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag with them – and they ask how you are. And although you feel silly, embarrassed and awkward confessing it, you do. You tell them that – because you’ve suddenly got a goldfish in a plastic bag that you have to carry around, you’re actually struggling a little to do all the normal things that everyone around you seems to be managing without issue.

That’s anxiety.

And this person (who isn’t an Ignorant Shit) doesn’t like the idea of you struggling so they try to ‘fix’ the situation. They say things like: “Well, just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag then, and it’ll be fine. You can get on with things like I do and you can stop worrying”.

“Oh” you say, thinking for a second that you’ve found a kindred spirit “So you know what this is like then? Have you also had to struggle along with a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag? What worked for you? How did you change things and get back to ‘normal'?”

And they frown a little, and tense-up, and think you’re being sarcastic. 

“No” they say, “I’ve never had a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag myself. But, if I did, and if it stopped me doing the things I wanted to do, then I’d just stop having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.”

And your heart sinks a little while you try to explain that it really isn’t as simple as all that
  • That you didn’t ask to have a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag today, it just sort of happened to you. 
  • That you didn’t opt for one for the attention.
  • And you did try to get out of the situation, 
  • And yes, you do know that you could put it down but that – seriously - that’s not as easy a job as you’re making out. 
  • Because – it’s vulnerable and wobbly and you’re not sure what’s the best approach. 
  • And well, it’s in a plastic bag for a start, it’ll probably roll off the table, or leak or burst and the fish will probably die and then the whole situation will be so much worse and it’ll all be your fault and everyone will be staring at you and wondering why you can’t just for god’s sake handle something as simple as a goldfish in a plastic bag like anybody else would!
And they look awkwardly at you like you just said all of that out loud, because you just said all of that out loud.

And they say “Oh, so, are you like, frightened of funfair goldfish or something? Is that why you’re panicking? Do you think it’s going to kill you or something? Because, it won’t kill you, you know? I think you’re getting this all out of proportion. Just breathe. It’s only a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. Don’t think about it.”

And – after considering the best place you could shove the goldfish in order to stop them talking - you explain that:
  •  No you’re not frightened of funfair goldfish in plastic bags. 
  • You don’t think they’re going to kill you.
  • They’re not something you spend your life dreading, in fact, most of the time they don’t enter your head.
  • But that actually none of that rational thinking matters right now, because right now – no matter how you try reframe the situation – whether you think about it or not, there’s no mistaking it – you’re still standing here holding a bastard funfair goldfish in a plastic bag. 
  • You just are. 
  • It’s happening. 
  • And it’s happening now.
That’s anxiety.

And eventually the person (who really isn’t an Ignorant Shit, they just don’t get it because, unlike you, they’ve never had to carry a funfair goldfish in a carrier bag around with them) looks you in the eye, realises they’re not helping, and says “Is there anything I can do?”.

And at first you want to cry a little because, part of you is just not used to people being so thoughtful, while another part of you feels ridiculous and not worthy of their consideration. 

But you have a think, and you give them some options, some ideas of things they could do to help you while you've got to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag.

“Well,” you say … 
  • “You could maybe just sit with me for a bit. It might get a bit lonely what with me being the only one here having to hold on to a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag so, some company might be nice.” Or … 
  • “You could try to distract me. Tell me a joke, give me something to focus on or fiddle with until I can get rid of this thing.” Or … 
  • “You could tell me that you know it’s not my fault, that I didn’t think my way into this, that anyone can find themselves suddenly having to hold a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag, that it can happen to the best of us.” Or … 
  • “You could remind me that ‘this too shall pass’ – that goldfish don’t last for ever, that the owner will come back soon, that I won’t be carrying this for all time.” 
  • “Or … if I’m really struggling with this whole having to carry a funfair goldfish around with me thing, you could tell me that - if I can’t carry on with business as usual - you won’t think any less of me if I just take it outside/home/somewhere quiet and just wait it out.”
And then, you say "Oh, and when it does pass – which will probably feel quicker now I’ve got some company – but when I’m no longer struggling to hold this thing together and stop it bursting all over the floor and ruining my entire day …
  • ... after that I might feel a bit tired, a bit vulnerable, a bit silly – so maybe then you could make me a cuppa, pat my hand, kiss my forehead
  • (Obvs. that last one depends on who they are. Don’t let the Ignorant Shits kiss your forehead #ruletoliveby) 
  • ... and then we could just carry on like it was no big deal.” 
And then the person who didn’t get it before, gets it a little more.

And where before they were uncomfortable with you having a funfair goldfish in a plastic bag - because they felt helpless, out of control - they now begin to feel useful, like there’s something they can do if it ever happens again.

Which it might. Because that’s just caring for funfair goldfish for you. And anxiety.

They're both unpredictable but better when shared ... and orange*. 

 (*Anxiety isn’t really orange, I just put that in to see if you were still paying attention.)


So ... what do you reckon? 
  • I don’t pretend this analogy reflects everyone’s experience of anxiety, yours will be different. 
  • If you have your own way of defining, describing, giving a shape to you own experiences of anxiety … do share those too. Someone else may read your version and relate to it.
  • But if this one does help you, or someone you know, get their head around the amorphous confusion that is ‘Anxiety’ …then please ... 
  • Take it, use it, adapt it and let me know what you think in the comments or via any of my online homes.  
  • And please - if you can - share it ... so others might find and benefit from thinking about anxiety as a funfair goldfish! 
  • And any time you're welcome to join me with your own responses or stories using the tag: #anxiousgoldfish 

Thanks for letting me chat about this with you today. I hope something sticks in your mind and comes in useful when you need it to. 


*No funfair goldfish were harmed in the making of this article.


  1. Thanks for this Julie. I've had a few friends suffer anxiety attacks when with me.Sometimes I've been able to help, sometimes I haven't. But every time, I've had no idea what I was doing..., or even fully understood what they were going through. This definitely helps.

    1. Thanks Ify - it's so good to know you've found it useful, and thanks for sharing across social media too! You're wonderful!

  2. What a brilliant post - so cleverly written. It must be very hard for someone who has never had a 'goldfish' trust upon them to understand the pressure that it can cause. And I say that as someone who has spent many, many years goldfish-less, a few years with one and currently have a goldfish from time to time. It is horrible to have phobias and fears, and very hard to explain why something scares you so much, you can't imagine that feeling inside unless you've experienced it. Having a goldfish can stop you going places and doing things - my concern is that I will agree to going somewhere or doing something completely goldfish-less and then, boom, the goldfish appears. So the next time I think, no I won't agree to go there because although I feel ok now, I remember how bad I felt last time and I don't want to go through that again. I know deep down the best thing would be to go, and deal with things IF they happen but I'm constantly bombarded with the 'what if ...' scenario. I need to try and concentrate on the 'yes that did happen last time, but I dealt with it and survived, so that's what I would do if it happens again'. Easier said than done.
    Bravo Julie - a great blog post.

    1. Thank you for sharing your goldfish tales Deb - they're funny things aren't they? Emerging at odd times throughout life, declaring themselves part of your life now whether you like it or not. And that narrowing down of opportunities and experiences is just the most painful thing about it. It sneakily steals so much from us. Thank you so very much foryour comment and your support. x

  3. Wishing you well for your workshop! and hoping that your word picture anf the vibrant way you tell your story will be really helpful to them and to your readers :).

    1. As always your support is most welcomed and appreciated Alexa! Thank you!!

  4. While I'm lucky enough to never have had a full-blown goldfish, I do have the occasional "unlocked back door" episode, which always makes me feel foolish afterward. This was very helpful and hopefully I will be of some aid to any friend who shows up with a goldfish.

    1. Thanks Kathy - I reckoned the door comparison might be a good one to use - we all get that sinking feeling sometimes don't we? Thank you for taking time to comment - I hope the goldfish idea does come in handy one day.

  5. I liked this a lot! I think my anxiety is like being in one of those classic old school Nightmare on Elm St type movies. I get anxious around lots of people and nervous about people talking to me- I never know who might be a bad guy... the weapon of choice always seems to be words.

    1. That's really interesting Gypsy and so vivid - I can see exactly how those are weapons you'd want to avoid being around. And anxiety can eat away at your trusting capacity can't it? Thanks for taking time to comment!

  6. This is spot on, a great analogy, thanks for sharing the insight, hope it helps more people get it.

    1. Me too Catherine - I'll keep trying to promote it to get it under new sets of eyes! Thanks for your support!

  7. As always, your writing is vivid and wonderful. My favorite part of this analogy is the idea of struggling to get all your shit done while carrying a goldfish around. I have Asperger's, so I feel like I'm always carrying around at least one goldfish when it comes to interacting with the world....sometimes there are more. When I'm trying to get out of my house it's like, "Okay, how am I going to get myself and my goldfish ready for public display?" Sometimes we manage it, other times...we might just sit and look at each other through the plastic bag.
    Thanks for this insightful post!!

  8. I’ve jist come across your blog from your IG page. Many years ago I pulled my back this led to an anxiety attack that left me totally paralysed and unable to breathe. The doc said it was the worse one he’d heard of but assured me it wouldn’t happen like that again. Its tried but not succeeded. Anxiety has never left me but my when things are okay I’m okay. When stuff happens I get tension in my back this brings in anxiety and I get locked inside myself and my head’s in bits. At it’s worse like now it can last for weeks with moments of clarity when I can see the wood for the trees.


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