I suffer panic attacks. Life often feels like a balancing act: caffeine intake, exercise, sleep, food choices, movie selections, goals to accomplish – you get the recipe wrong, and you’re asking for an attack.
My experience isn’t everyone’s, however. I read so many lists of things that “every” person with anxiety supposedly experiences, that “every” friend should know if they want to help. Sure, some of it rings true, but so much of it has nothing to do with me and it drives me crazy to be defined by others’ too-broad lists. It’s a symptom of a greater evil – a desire to classify and cure all forms of mental illness, to compartmentalize and, intentionally or accidentally, to marginalize. So here’s a list of what, to me, is NOT true about anxiety.
Myth #1: The symptoms of anxiety are common to all anxious people.
Anxiety runs the gamut from a mild difficulty around which one can still function to a crippling daily bombardment of terror. It can come suddenly out of nowhere or predictably in certain circumstances, and it can be about any number of subjects or even nothing at all.
For years, I convinced myself I didn’t really have an anxiety problem because I couldn’t easily pigeonhole it into one of the classic anxiety disorders defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. My attacks weren’t about nothing; they were always about death. I could trigger them myself if I thought about death long enough. They didn’t happen very often or over a specific period of time. And not being able to define my problem in the context of an external diagnostic system made me feel like a phony. I didn’t have anxiety, and I didn’t deserve to complain about it. I was just being silly. That’s a bullshit thing for a teenager to have to feel when they’re sitting there in the shower bawling their eyes out because one day they will, inevitably, die.
This is a truism that applies to so many different aspects of life and self-identification: external sources don’t know your experience. They can’t. If you’ve got anxiety, you’ve got anxiety, and no manual is going to justify or deny that for you. What those manuals can do is help inform you of the wide variety of methods you can use to help yourself out of whatever you’re experiencing. Which brings us to another myth . . .
Myth #2: There is one best way to help all people who experience anxiety.
The other night I told my husband we couldn’t watch the Nostalgia Critic review of the movie Casper. I didn’t have to say why. He knows me well enough by now to leave it alone and watch it on his own time. So, tell me, exactly how many other people with anxiety would this no-watching-Casper treatment apply to?
I hope it’s obvious that a mental hardship (not necessarily a disease, a disorder, or even a problem) with symptoms as broad as anxiety would also have a wide range of legitimate treatment options, and the most important part should go without saying: that the person with the anxiety is the one with the final word on what they will and will not allow in terms of treatment and help.
This is something we often miss with mental hardship. It’s your brain that’s “broken”, so it must be a reasonable assumption that a broken thing can’t be trusted to fix itself. In certain extreme cases, that may be true, but it’s a rare case of anxiety that doesn’t come and go. A person not currently in the throes of anxious grief is certainly capable of explaining how they want to be handled when they are having a problem. The phrase, “What can I do to help?” is a powerful one. Use it. As genuine and good a place as you’re probably coming from, you can really, really mess with an anxious person in the middle of an attack by doing and saying the wrong things.
If I can presume, let me offer a word of caution to fellow anxious folks: you know yourself best, but please be open to others’ insights. The best help I got was from a counselor I was almost too proud even to go see for the two sessions I really needed him. I thought I could take care of it myself and no one could tell me anything I hadn’t already considered. I knew in my bones the book was closed on the afterlife, and the inevitability of my cessation was crushing. And all the counselor had to say was, “I know you think you know, I know it feels concrete to you, but what if you can tell yourself, logically, it’s impossible to know? What if you can force that room for doubt?” At the time, I smiled and nodded and thought to myself, “That was a nice load of crap.” Now, I tell myself this every single time the panic looms. It still feels like a lie, and it probably always will, but I humbly admit I don’t own the answer, and it helps. Help can come out of anywhere.
Myth #3: When people are anxious, it shows.
That depends. For the big stuff, probably you’ll see some classic symptoms. Maybe it involves panic attacks, maybe it’s physically apparent – but maybe it’s not. To beat to death a tired cliché . . . that whole iceberg thing. Ten percent above water and all that. You know it.
I don’t like getting people all riled up about my anxiety. It’s tiresome. So, unless I really need a hug, I’m likely not to mention how long it takes me to calm down enough to get to sleep some nights. If someone never looks anxious, always seems bubbly and happy, doesn’t seem to have a care in the world . . . it’s still not reasonable to assume they never have a moment of oh-my-God-I’m-going-to-die-right-now pants-soiling fear for no reason. You just never know. It doesn’t make their troubles any less real or worthy of regard if they don’t open up to you about it.
Myth #4: Everyone who has anxiety wants to be fixed.
Confession: I do. I really do. But not with drugs, and not at the expense of anxiety’s benefits – that high-strung, “dancing on the edge of something awesome” kind of feeling. I don’t believe it’s possible to simply excise the part of me that breaks down in terror at the thought of death while leaving the rest of me intact. It’s a lament I hear often with various forms of mental illness: no treatment, please, if it means any kind of loss of self.
That’s the real bitch of it. Much as we may want to, we can’t ignore that the problem is in our brains and our brains are our selves and our selves have been built with anxiety (or whatever) as a fundamental component. So sure, I’d love for mental illness to be taken as seriously by both the medical community and society at large as a tumor or diabetes is – but I’m tired of the concomitant assumption that viewing it in that light means it needs to be treated with the same sterile hand. It’s been my experience (and I’m positive I’m not alone) that like it or not, my brain is myself and altering that means altering me, which seriously limits the options with regard to fixing it. I also know dozens of people who feel that life is much better, and they feel more like themselves, when they can manage their symptoms with a pill. Both are fully understandable, legitimate approaches to dealing with mental illness.
Understanding goes a long way toward helping someone with their anxiety. If you see a problem in someone else, maybe ask them about it and see if they’d like you to do anything or even just be there for them. If you see it in yourself, find someone to talk to who will listen. That last bit is critical. Most importantly, don’t let this post or any other external source make you think your problems aren’t worth tackling.
Kaitlin Bergfield is a writer, neuroscientist, aspiring author, and desperately devoted new mommy. Her hobbies include reading far too much into song lyrics, getting unhealthily worked up about politics, and building tragically ephemeral monuments out of Duplo blocks. She pines for the days when she got enough sleep to feel even remotely human, let alone rested. You can find her blog here.
Photo credit: “Sore Ankles” by jnyemb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.