While it may seem to have sprung up over the past couple of decades, anxiety is actually something that humans have been dealing with for a long time. While the research and treatment of anxiety have developed more recently, people have been using their anxiety to shape art for hundreds of years. Here, we’ll look at some of the best poems that came out of each poet’s battle with depression, social anxiety, or an anxiety disorder.
There are plenty of poems covering just about any subject you can think of in the full world of literature. In the following poems, you will be able to compare and contrast your own feelings to the poets. Hopefully, these anxiety poems will help you feel that others can relate to the way you might be feeling.
Even in the midst of your own journey with anxiety and depression, I desire that you’ll be able to feel seen and understood through these poems. Let’s dive in…
What Kind Of Times Are These By Adrienne Rich
In this poem, Rich describes trying to explain anxiety to someone who may not care or understand. She does her best to paint a picture with her words: she lays out an intimidating forest, representing her anxiety and everything that makes her anxious in the world and country around her.
However, since she doesn’t want to scare off her listener, she says how she’ll “talk about trees.” Instead of addressing the whole of her anxiety and depression, she explains how she’ll mention bits of it, the bits that are familiar to the listener and not anxiety-inducing in their own right.
Rich really captures how it feels to explain anxiety and depression to someone who may have never experienced it. For all her sad poems, this one is probably the best at describing such a scene and encapsulating the emotions and disappointment that come while explaining anxiety and depression to someone who has never felt it. It’s not the best of birthday poems, but it does explain a turning point in her life.
Maitreya By Ralph Waldo Emerson
This long poem by Emerson is actually a story. Here, the genres of death poems and nature poems converge to really capture the heart of anxiety in the face of futility and then to offer a bit of hope. It doesn’t fall into the birthday poems category, but it does explain the turning of the years.
In the poem’s story, there are five main characters: men and one of whom is the Earth herself. The poet describes the hard work that the men do keep themselves alive and thriving, without ever giving a thought to the fact that the Earth will reclaim them and all the fields and wealth that they’ve been toiling to build.
Emerson almost mocks the men’s sureness that what they “own” is actually theirs. Then, towards the middle of the poem, we learn that the men are dead, and all that they fretted over was for nothing. In response to the fact that the “owner sees not Death,” the Earth itself sings about how all things return to nature.
Even in the midst of his observations about the futility of trying to amass wealth and the huge looming unknown in each person’s life, Emerson gives a ray of hope in pointing out that nature will continue. While many of our lives seem to be grasping anxiously at things that won’t last, there are still bigger things that will keep resolutely. They are out of our control, but they are also out of our responsibility.
Everyone Gasps With Anxiety By Jeni Olin
In this poem, Olin uses consumerist culture images to represent and explain the cause of her anxiety and depression. She addresses the feelings of being alone, even when surrounded by others. She talks about being uncomfortable, also when surrounded by all of the trappings of comfort. A lot of people struggling with social anxiety can identify with those images in this poem.
While Olin doesn’t end on a particularly hopeful note, she can point to what has control when she doesn’t. She acknowledges that the capitalist culture around her is doing more to direct her own life, even more than she can. She wants to be free from it, but can’t, so she’s willing to settle for a “fever dream” in its place.
Anxiety Is Like… By Ana Cristina and Christopher Diaz
Here’s an example from some modern poems about anxiety. In this upbeat spoken-word piece, the two performers do their best to not only explain anxiety but to give anxiety its own voice. They explain and act out situations that trigger their own anxiety disorders, and they describe what gives them social anxiety. It goes from birthday poems to awkward social interactions, and it seeks to explain what anxiety is like.
Then, they take it a step further. Instead of merely explaining these situations, the triggers become the voice of anxiety itself. They do a good job of building anxiety to be a third performer in their spoken word poem. In doing so, they come out stronger than anxiety by the end of the performance. It’s a hopeful note at the end of a piece that directly confronts their own anxiety and depression.
To Our Land By Mahmoud Darwish
Darwish explains “our land,” his native Palestine, as a place both beautiful and broken in this gripping piece. He addresses both the glory and the angst that surrounds him, and he comments on how powers outside the land are responsible for its fate. It’s among many new poems that he wrote to try to describe his struggle with anxiety in the midst of war.
At the very end of the poem, he twists the focus internally and applies all that he has said about the land to himself. He describes how even though there is chaos outside, “inside, / we suffocate more!” Here, he captures what it is to be anxious about what is happening around him while he feels helpless to change it. He uses the example of his land and his immediate surroundings to paint a picture of his own internal anxiety and depression.
Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not To Be” Soliloquy By William Shakespeare
This is probably one of the most famous poems in the English language, and it deals very clearly with the topic of anxiety. While Shakespeare is much more famous for his love poems, or maybe his birthday poems, this piece still stands out as his best poem of the day.
This sad poem is part of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and during this soliloquy, the titular character lays bare all of his depression and anxiety. He talks about the difficulty in deciding whether life or death is better and whether life after death is really better than the life he’s currently facing.
The whole speech encapsulates the fear of the unknown and the anxiety caused by having little to no actual control of the world around him. Even though he is the prince in a position of high power, he doesn’t have a grip on all of the circumstances that are dictating his life. This causes him depression and anxiety, and Shakespeare captured those feelings perfectly in Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Pomegranate Means Grenade By Jamaal May
In this beautiful poem, May describes a child coloring pictures and compares it to the pressure and anxiety of conflict. He draws parallels between what we are given and what they can become: new weapons or new tools. This applies to anxiety and the desire to see things change, as well.
He encourages the reader to push for positive change but ends with the warning, “there will always be those / who would rather see you pull a pin / from a grenade than pull a pen / from your backpack.”
People who struggle with anxiety and depression can resonate with this feeling that people would rather see you fail than try and succeed. While the road to coping with an anxiety disorder isn’t easy, it’s the nobler path; it’s always better than destroying yourself and those around you. May expresses this message with beautiful imagery and a clear appeal to the reader.
Anxiety: A Ghost Story By Brenna Twohy
Here’s another example from modern poems about anxiety and depression. This is a spoken-word piece. Twohy starts by explaining horror story tropes and poking fun at the ridiculous plots. Then, with a twist, she herself becomes the haunted house.
She describes looking for lasting love to find someone willing to live in a haunted house with her. She explains how the support and love of a partner can help with her anxiety and depression. What starts as humorous becomes a sad poem, but then she gives a spot of hope.
It’s a captivating performance, and the imagery really captures what it’s like to find hope and love in a great partner, even in the midst of anxiety and depression.
In This Short Life That Only Lasts An Hour bB Emily Dickinson
This poem is a short and sweet one to round off our list. The whole poem is only two lines long, but it sums up perfectly what it is to feel anxious about things that are outside our control:
“In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power.”
It’s not clear if the second line is a statement or a question. Is she commenting on the disparity between what we think we control and what we actually can control? Or, is she legitimately asking how much and how little is under our control?
No matter how you read that last line, either as a statement or a question, it certainly speaks to the anxiety and depression that can come from not being in control of a given situation.
Of course, while it is encouraging to read about the poetic struggles of others with anxiety, it’s also important to address anxiety head-on. If you face anxiety and need someone to talk to, please consider taking the next step and contact a therapist or counselor to help you. Amazingly, the difference having a professional by your side can make!
If you live with anxiety, reading a poem about anxiety can make you feel seen and heard. If you struggle with anxiety or anxiety feels too much at times, this article has selected a handful of poems that will hopefully bring you solace and comfort. Know that you are never alone if you struggle with anxiety. Instead, you can follow the lead of these poets and their poems and perhaps let your own struggle with anxiety give you inspiration for your next poem.