What my anxiety is not:
1. A convenient excuse to get out of something I don’t want to do: Now I probably won’t tell you I’m having panic attacks or that I’m too scared to do whatever it is. I will use another excuse, but people who know me will know the truth. If I didn’t have anxiety, I’d be so happy. But I do, and it’s limiting. There’s only so much anxiety one person can handle before they become way over-stimulated and stressed out and end up with panic attacks. Pushing the limits can be beneficial, but it needs to be on our terms, in a safe environment, with people who will be supportive. Knowing your limits is important — you wouldn’t push yourself to the point of breaking a bone or collapsing, why push to the point of panic?
2. Me being dramatic and looking for attention: I hide my panic attacks very well, so nobody has ever seen me have one. This means people may think that I’m making up having panic attacks, or looking for attention by claiming to have anxiety. They may think I’m looking for pity or I’m “acting out” by saying I have anxiety; people are often annoyed when others outwardly show constant “issues” including mental health problems like anxiety. The reality is, I do have severe anxiety, and I will try to hide it as best I can so that people don’t think I’m looking for attention or being annoying, but sometimes I can’t hide it.
3. The cause of all of my problems. I know anxiety has very many physical manifestations. It can cause so many issues. However, it is not the only cause for most people’s illness/disability. People, most often women, sometimes get denied the appropriate medical care they need because doctors will brush off symptoms of serious diseases as anxiety. In fact, I know people who have genetic conditions that cause severe pain and heart conditions who have been placed in a psych ward because it’s been labeled “anxiety.” Later on down the road, a doctor actually looked at them and realized that they’ve been having problems related to a severe physical condition all along; sometimes this causes irreversible damage.
Imagine you broke your arm, and you know you broke it, but everybody around you thinks that when you say you’re in pain you’re just looking for attention or that your pain isn’t as bad as you say it is. You ask for an x-ray to try to justify yourself, but they tell you to stop being “such a girl” and to “suck it up” and just handle the pain because it’s “not that bad.” First, your arm doesn’t get treated so you now have permanent damage; second, you start to doubt yourself and consider whether or not these people are right — they’re medical professionals after all, they should know what’s wrong. And lastly, you get some medications shoved at you, or if you really push that you’re in pain you get sent to a psychiatric hospital. Congrats, by the way, because now you have a diagnosis of anxiety/depression on your chart, which means that any time you see a doctor from now on? They will assume that whatever you say is wrong is actually just a manifestation of a mental illness.
4. Something that I can just turn off: There’s often not a quick fix when I’m feeling anxious. Medication and therapy can certainly help, but the attempts to try to keep us positive, or to not think about whatever is it that’s causing anxiety, and the well meaning, “Oh don’t worry about that!” are not helpful. Pushing the anxious thoughts away often makes them worse, and you can’t just say to stop worrying and assume that it’s going to work. It doesn’t work like that.
5. Logical: You can’t talk me out of being anxious, you often can’t talk me down from panic. You can’t reason with anxiety, reason and logic are not always the cure. The worst part of it is that we know that it’s not logical, we know we shouldn’t be worried about X or Y, we know we shouldn’t be having these intrusive thoughts, but we cannot help it.
6. A joke: My anxiety is not something I should be teased over, it is not funny. Anxiety affects my self-esteem already, but making fun of me for it? That is incredibly unsupportive and cruel. I already know that it’s silly (see “logical”), I’m already embarrassed that it’s not under my control, and making fun of me, or even just the fear itself, is really hurtful. I don’t need you to coddle me, I’m not asking for you to talk me through whatever it is, but I am saying no need to tease me about it.
What my anxiety is:
1. Illogical: What you’d think would be anxiety inducing is not actually what causes me anxiety, and the opposite, things that you’d think are silly are the things that make me anxious. Heights, public speaking, spiders, huge exams, going to the doctor — all things that some people are afraid of, but don’t bother me. Frogs, trying new foods, being home alone, staying away from home overnight (only overnight, not being away from home during the day), any type of social setting (even one that I’ve been in countless times before) are all things that cause me significant anxiety
2. Impactful: It affects the way that I eat, sleep, exercise, socialize, learn, literally everything I do is affected in some way by my anxiety. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I literally will have anxiety about anxiety. No joke. For a while I was afraid to go to class because I had a panic attack in that class and I was scared it would happen again. I have anxiety now about the fact that certain situations may make me anxious, which prevents me from fully doing everything that I want to be able to do.
3. Frustrating: I honestly I hate it. I know some anxiety is OK, it’s healthy, but the constant worrying, intrusive thoughts and random panicking are not healthy for me, and it puts stress on my body. I have way too much cortisol in my body, which affects my weight, which subsequently affects my self-esteem.
4. A real condition: Medications are not happy pills, they do not change our personalities (usually); most of the time they’re things that take weeks, months to build up in our system for us to even notice effects. Side effects can be scary, and can affect self-esteem. Plus the stigma of medication for mental illness also can affect how we see ourselves. Therapy helps, exercise helps, eating right helps, but that isn’t always enough.
5. Scary: Ironic, anxiety is scary… but panic attacks are terrifying, and so are the intrusive thoughts. Panic attacks literally make you feel like you’re dying. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking I was dying when I was in grade school. I never told anybody, but when I started having panic attacks again in college it was the same, I thought I was having a heart attack. The intrusive thoughts are also incredibly scary. I know that I shouldn’t be thinking these things, I know that I don’t believe what my brain is saying, but it’s in my head, and it makes me feel like I’m going to end up dissociating and doing things I don’t want to do, that I’m going to lost control over my mind and body. Now that is a terrifying feeling.
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Thinkstock photo via kotoffei