Everyone’s experience with mental health is extremely different. No two experiences are exactly the same. While one person may shut down during an episode, another might become very hyper and active.
It’s like a light switch. One moment, everything is amazing. I am getting what I need to complete finished, have had positive interactions all day, and just walked away from a joyful, laughter- filled conversation with my friends. We were dying over yet another meme from “The Office” she found on Twitter — the one where Dwight compares himself to a mongoose. Still giggling, my thoughts turn to college, and I cannot help but smile at the thought of a brand new adventure. There is still so much for me to learn in the topics that entice me, such as writing and biology; when I go to college, I will be able to delve much deeper into those subjects than ever before. New people, new places, a new home. Life is beautiful, wonderful and full of an abundance of joy and light. I believe so strongly in my future and all it holds. Most importantly, I trust the future, whatever it may hold. In this moment, I am content.
Switch! All of a sudden, fear. The laughter that just filled my ears disperses, and I struggle to my seat. Pulling out notebooks and my favorite pens, I can feel my current mindset slipping away. Something is wrong. My hands become shaky, and I can feel my heart starting to beat faster in my chest. I shake it all off, and begin taking notes on the class material. I listen to the teacher explain and gesture about the classroom, but I don’t hear what she’s saying. I’m somewhere else now. Flashbacks soar back and forth across my vision, intertwining hypothetical situations into the already-overwhelming mix. Images flash across my eyes, and I start to feel numb. I feel in danger, threatened, targeted, unsafe. I feel anxious. It’s almost as if my body knows what’s coming before I do, and is telling me through the burning sensations in my chest and head. While everyone else around me works peacefully on their homework assignment, I gasp for breath at an attempt to prove to myself I am still alive. I feel an incredible amount of fear, as if someone is pointing a gun right at me. This feeling of terror explains the tears beginning to form in my eyes.
These sudden and abrasive switches between completely calm and happy to utterly terrified and paranoid happen several times a day for me. Most of the time, there is no known trigger to the switches. I’ll just be driving down the road, and all of a sudden feel an immense sense of panic and worry. If you could understand how I felt in a moment like that, you’d assume I had just seen several bears chasing my car. Or another situation where one would be pushed into fight or flight mode very quickly.
These attacks happen everywhere and anywhere. Walking down the school hallways? Definitely at least 10 of those episodes. Hanging out with my best friend watching Netflix? At least three times. Working at the job I absolutely adore and feel comfortable at? Yes, even there. No place is safe from the monsters lurking around every corner.
I have an anxiety disorder. I like to say it doesn’t have me, that I am so much stronger than this damned thing, but there are definitely times where anxiety has me right in the palm of its suffocating hand. I am completely and utterly at the mercy of this horrendous monster. It can steal my state of total content and replace it with a panicked soul, gearing up to fight. It robs me of my logic, of my ability to process, understand and see things clearly. All prior knowledge of a situation seems to have been chucked from my mind, leaving nothing but the shell of a girl who cannot fathom the situation before her, let alone act gracefully throughout the encounter. Things I have already cleared away and organized within my brain are taken out and simultaneously thrown all over the place. Old issues I had already resolved are now out in the open again, and so is the panic each issue carried.
And when the messy, anxious Hannah meets other people — oh boy. Nothing good ever comes from interacting with anxiety Hannah, especially when it’s about important issues. I think I just come off across as a girl who cannot control herself — who seems “crazy,” obsessive, and “just needs to get help and get over it.”
Yup — someone actually said those words to me about my mental health conditions.
But if only they knew. If only they knew the lack of control I possess during my anxiety episodes, the constant feeling of fear and feeling as if death himself is breathing right on my neck. All my logic is gone. All past grievances, which had been peacefully resolved, are dug up again and rehashed. From the other point of view, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to deal with this sort of inconsistency. I know I would surely be frustrated and annoyed at the person for acting this way, probably even mad at their actions.
But as someone who is on the other side of that fence, I now understand. I understand the reasons for every simple outburst and frightening action. The person you are so used to dealing with and interacting with is no longer here. All of their logic, patience, ability to comprehend and process information is gone. What is left is a person who, right now, is being told by their body that they are going to die soon. They are in fight or flight mode, doing all they can in the hopes of staying alive. Don’t blame all of the pestering, annoyances and problems on the person. If anyone, blame it on the vicious monster named anxiety which ripped through your friend’s body and tore them apart from the inside out.
Because when your friend gets released from the claws of anxiety, they don’t need angry comments and accusatory tones greeting them as they are trying to catch their breath from their brush with the unthinkable. It is the achievement of a lifetime to get through episodes like that, but instead of a welcoming hug, they might be greeted with anger and betrayal from those closest to them. This only pushes the person further into the dark hole that is mental illness and can create trauma for them that will, in the future, have a profound and devastating effect. Be compassionate to them when they break free from the suffocation they were just experiencing. Help them feel safe, and only then will they be able to start to process everything going on.
I have faced traumatic experiences in the past, and I now believe that how others acted towards me during the entire process only made the problem worse. It has left me with an inability to process what happened in a healthy and normal manner. Months later, I am having episodes where it feels like the situation is occurring for the very first time. This makes it difficult for me to sleep, function, and process emotional information and situations. This inability to process things only increases the anxiety and depressive episodes I face, as my brain literally has no idea what to do with the information it is being handed. So instead of working through the apparent threat, my brain releases numerous hormones and sends me into fight or flight mode, resulting in severe panic attacks and extreme depressive episodes. Just like the light switch, it flops back and forth between the two extremes, resulting in mental torture. “Normal” one second, panicking another.
So that is how it really is — what it’s really like behind the scenes of an anxiety attack and the effects that attacks have on the actual person experiencing them. It’s terrifying to lose all control over one’s reasoning skills and processing abilities. So if you’re ever in a situation with an extremely anxious person, remember this:
1. They’re not themselves right now — everything they say or do should be taken with a grain of salt and not held against them for all time.
2. They are terrified! They might actually feel like they’re dying, or that the worst case scenario is going to happen and everything is going to fall apart.
3. Their ability to process new information or derive thoughts through logic is totally impaired. You might as well be talking to a rubber chicken or something.
So, have compassion. See it from their point of view. Do all that you can to help the anxious person reclaim control over their mind and body. In the long run, overall care of this person it is the best thing you can possibly do for them. How the situation is handled has a great impact on the individual’s long-term health, whether it may be apparent or not.
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Thinkstock photo via Jeffrey Hamilton