Explaining anxiety disorders has gotten easier over the years, but still continues to be a difficult endeavor. Many people can’t comprehend what is happening inside of the body, let alone what shows on the outside. After six years of being diagnosed with anxiety, I often find myself avoiding explaining anxiety to family and friends. But it is out of curiosity they would want to understand, so I always tried the best I could.
Often times, my monologue went like this:
“When there is a perceived threat, adrenaline is released to prepare the body for the fight-or-flight mechanism. When you have an anxiety disorder, the body is always mentally and physically prepared to fight the stimulus. This is exhausting, because there is no actual threat or stimulus.”
I never got much further then this without the other party drifting off. I soon realized that in order for someone to understand a concept, they have to be able to relate it to themselves in some way. So I came up with an explanation using what every person has used at least once in their life: an umbrella.
Having an anxiety disorder is like always carrying around an umbrella, but not any typical umbrella. The umbrella of a person with an anxiety disorder is heavy. It has to be dragged around wherever you go. The forecast could be sunny and bright for the rest of the week, but that slight possibility of rainfall means the umbrella doesn’t leave your side. Not ever.
So while there is no threat of rain, the umbrella still has to be there. You have to carry it around work. It has to always be with you in class. You can’t concentrate on homework because the weight of the umbrella is too much to bear. You get tired of carrying the umbrella around every day.
In more severe cases of anxiety, the umbrella doesn’t just have to be carried around, but it has to be open. It has to be protecting you from the rain that may not exist. This creates a shadow, a barrier that separates you from the world. In these cases, we can become depressed. The open umbrella doesn’t allow us to experience sunlight. It is even harder to close the umbrella again, but it is a relief if and when we finally do.
The worse part of having an anxiety disorder is that the umbrella feels like it will never goes away. It can only become lighter. Medications, therapy and a support system can take some of the weight away, but never all of it.
If you are a friend or family member of someone with an anxiety disorder, remember to ask us first if and how you can help. You may try to help carry the umbrella, when we really just need to sit, rest and take a breath. Please remember that you are not useless, and we appreciate your support. Sit with us until we are ready to get back up and carry the umbrella again. When we are ready, with your help, I promise we will go further then we ever have before.
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Thinkstock photo via Grandfailure