One of my greatest struggles with anxiety stems from a societal misunderstanding about what exactly anxiety is. Because of this, I have been sharing my story in snippets here and there, the ups and downs of my mental health over the years.
Education is the key to change. The first step to understanding something is being open to learning about it. I hope one day we can live in a world where engaging in therapy, meditation and mindfulness are not seen as the acts of crazy people. I hope one day we can all understand that we are human, we are emotional, and we need each other. I hope one day we can converse honestly about who we are without fear of rejection.
Here are 7 things I wish everyone understood about anxiety:
1. Anxiety is real.
Anxiety is not all wrapped up in the head. It is coupled with intense physical symptoms. It is not someone being a hypochondriac. It is not unwarranted. And, it is the most common mental disorder in the United States.
2. Anxiety is normal.
If a bear was rushing toward you in the woods and your reaction was to shrug your shoulders and say, “Whatever,” you’d be screwed.
Fear and anxiety are natural. Anxious thoughts are fed by instincts and heightened by experiences; to some degree, worry and nervousness are normal. Anxiety is a state of self-preservation. Without it, we’d all be bear meat. It is when the anxiety becomes persistent that it is classified as a disorder.
When you tell anxious people that their worries are irrational, you are forgetting that their triggers are shaped by a lifetime of circumstances. Okay, so that man on the bus isn’t staring your friend down with the intention to mug her. But maybe she was mugged before, and now she’s on edge, paranoid, perpetually in self-defense mode.
Anxious people are working on distinguishing between real and perceived fears, but they’ve got a background story they’re also sifting through.
3. Anxiety is not a sign of weakness.
Emotions show our humanity. Sometimes those emotions become overwhelming. Taking positive steps toward controlling them takes an incredible amount of strength, a fortitude that people with good mental health might never know. People seeking to improve their well-being should be given a pat on the back, not have backs turned to them.
Additionally, society holds such a negative connotation of treatment that using it as a resource is scorned. While unlocking the mechanisms to deal with anxiety comes from within, very rarely can this be done alone. An individual might have all the tools to improve his or her well-being, but sometimes he or she needs to be directed to them, be that through a counselor, self-help books, group meditation, medication or even a friend.
Saying “there’s nothing wrong with you” to an anxious person is a slap in the face. Anxious people don’t love themselves any less. They do, however, recognize that they don’t feel well and are taking healthy steps toward feeling better.
4. Anxiety does not prevent happiness and fulfillment.
Happy people have anxiety, too. Anxiety-ridden people are leading fulfilling, soul-searching lives. Many worrisome individuals even turn uncertainty into productivity. Adrenaline rushes can be used to do good.
5. Anxiety does not go away.
There is no cure for anxiety. How can we cure something that is innate and natural? Again, we’d all be bear meat. Instead, treatment for anxiety disorders covers coping techniques. Getting to a point of stability is not an easy fix but rather a process. These strategies minimize the anxiety but they do not—they cannot and should not—eradicate it.
6. Anxiety should be talked about.
From social to intimate and professional settings, a stigma is placed on mental health disorders. They are seen as taboo. In fact, this stigma is a major contributing factor to the reason 60% of people with mental health disorders never get the treatment they need.
When I went through Hurricane Joaquin, I found that the best treatment for dealing with the traumatic event has been to talk about it. I have found strength within myself through others, from those who sat down, asked how I really, truly was, and offered their complete, focused attention—time and again. During relief efforts, I witnessed healing in island survivors when I myself took over the role of listener and followed them as they led me through the remains of their homes and told me their stories, pointing to the tree they clung to or the crawl space they climbed into.
When people with anxiety talk about anxiety, they are not looking for sympathy or answers. They are seeking an outlet to purge, accept, cope, learn and move on.
7. Anxiety should not be avoided.
Try this experiment. Close your eyes and picture a pink elephant. Imagine how it looks, feels, sounds, what it is doing. Now open your eyes and clear your mind for a minute. Close your eyes again, but this time, don’t think about the pink elephant. Wait a minute and then open your eyes.
Chances are, you literally thought about the elephant in the room.
If you are a smoker trying to quit, your urge to smoke is only heightened by constantly trying to smother the desire with thoughts of not smoking. If you’re cutting out sweets from your diet, repeating over and over that you should not eat that cookie only increases your want for that cookie. Suppressing negative thoughts—don’ts and no’s—is a torturous mind game.
Western culture nurtures a sense of avoidance, not commitment. But this backfires in a progressive nation. It creates unreliable relationships, uncomfortable work settings and missed deadlines. It undoes the very thing it was meant to fix.
In contrast, accepting and acknowledging situations, such as anxious thoughts and sensations, is the only way to deal with a hardship. Pretending it doesn’t exist or brushing it under the rug doesn’t make it go away; the problem is simply hiding, waiting to rear its head unexpectedly.
If someone you know is experiencing anxious thoughts, resist saying, “Don’t think about it.” Trust me, then he or she is definitely thinking about it.
Have you encountered similar misunderstandings when it comes to anxiety? Do you have a special coping mechanism? Share your thoughts in the comments below.