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So, You Think Anxiety Isn't Real

The picture is my psychiatric service dog with me during an anxiety attack
The picture is my psychiatric service dog with me during an anxiety attack.

After a year and a half of hospitalizations, misdiagnoses, countless medication changes and many unanswered questions, I was fortunate enough to get an evaluation appointment with one of the best mental health specialists in the country. My parents and I drove six hours south to meet this doctor to hear his opinions on my diagnosis and future treatment.

The evaluation process took more than five hours. At the end of the day, the¬†doctor said, ‚ÄúThere is no need for her to be on antipsychotic medication¬†because she actually has a severe anxiety disorder.‚ÄĚ

My parents were so happy to hear this prognosis, and¬†everything the doctor explained about the onset, symptoms and reactions I had to¬†medications made sense. At the time, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea¬†that I had an anxiety disorder because I didn’t understand how the severity of¬†what I was going through was a term I heard people say every day. Many times¬†people use the word “anxiety” when they¬†are describing feeling stressed or nervous about something. When I heard the¬†doctor say ‚Äúanxiety disorder,‚ÄĚ I thought he meant I was just a nervous¬†person. After learning more about anxiety disorders, I realized they are¬†real psychiatric disorders that can consume and change someone’s life and¬†future.

An issue I’ve seen many times for people with anxiety¬†disorders is others’ belief that anxiety isn’t real. When people are dealing¬†with anxiety, one of the most damaging statements they can hear is that they¬†are making it up or exaggerating their feelings. Some common examples are¬†phrases like:

‚ÄúEveryone gets stressed.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúAll students go through this at the end of the¬†semester.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúYou just need more sleep.‚ÄĚ

‚ÄúShe’s just trying to get attention.‚ÄĚ

As a woman with an anxiety disorder who also has¬†friends and family with anxiety, I’ve heard countless versions of these¬†statements. I usually don’t dwell on the¬†limitations I’ve had to deal with due to my disorder, but what I’ve faced over¬†the past few years illustrates that anxiety is real and should not be taken¬†lightly. For those who think I’m ‚Äúdoing it for attention,‚ÄĚ consider this:

I gave up my privilege to drive at night because I¬†became afraid of driving in the dark. I had to change the career path I’d¬†wanted since the seventh grade because I knew the job environment would¬†trigger my anxiety. Why would I want to leave the part time job I’d loved for five¬†years? Why would I throw away three years of college after being so close to
getting my teaching degree? Why would I want to spend three months in the hospital away from my friends, family and brand new kitten? Why would I spend¬†Thanksgiving in a hospital three¬†hours away from my family? Why would I want¬†to take medications after living my whole life drug and alcohol free? Why would¬†I stay home from my best friend’s bachelorette party in Atlantic City? Why¬†would I want to face mental health stigma? I have to see people graduate¬†college, get their dream jobs, buy their first houses and take spontaneous¬†trips just because they want to. Why wouldn’t I want to experience those things¬†too?

This is how anxiety has had an impact on¬†my life. I’m not¬†using anxiety as an excuse to skip school, get out of a test I forgot to study¬†for, get extra time on a paper I put off doing, leave work early or avoid my¬†adult responsibilities. When people use the word “anxiety”¬†as an excuse, it essentially tells the world that people¬†with diagnosed anxiety disorders can turn it on and off and are just¬†exaggerating their symptoms. Nobody would want to go through a battle with¬†mental illness if they had the choice. We are not doing it for attention.

Anxiety is a disorder, not a decision.

Follow this journey on Redefine Mental Health.