The ugly misconceptions about anxiety
No, we can’t just ‘stop worrying’
When I was diagnosed with anxiety three years ago, and more recently PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), I had no idea what it meant. I’d always just assumed everybody had it, that it was common thinking to assume my best friend had been involved in a fatal car accident every time they missed my call.
I thought most people experienced a domino of destructive thoughts everyday, meaning standing behind an elderly lady in a queue for my weekly shop quickly escalated into loud, intrusive, overwhelming visions of her choking and me being unable to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre on her.
Anxiety can be a crippling and deeply debilitating condition, which makes the simplest of tasks seem unimaginably difficult. Unfortunately, much like many other mental health conditions, anxiety is often misunderstood which can leave sufferers feeling incredibly isolated and alone. Put plain and simply, anxiety has wreaked havoc on my life. It has caused me to temporarily drop out of university, and recently even caused me to have suicidal thoughts. Still, when people ask me why I haven’t been at university, my instinct is to tell them I’ve been ill with a “real” illness, like tonsillitis. But, why, when I’ve been suffering with an incredibly destructive disorder, must I still feel the need to conceal it?
The first thing I want to point out: anxiety affects different people differently
Some people may be able to balance work, university and social life, with the stresses of anxiety. Some may choose to avoid busy social situations for fear of having a panic attack. Or, like myself, some may totally need to take a break from university (which is absolutely fine by the way).
This is how mental illness differs from, lets say, flu. If you have flu, there are certain symptoms you will be exhibiting, which are pretty universal. With anxiety, you may find it hard to compare your experience with somebody else. I’ve met some of the most sociable, easy-going, seemingly happy people who tell me they have anxiety. This doesn’t mean their anxiety is any less real, or unworthy of the time and care it takes to understand it.
There seems to be this stereotypical idea of anxiety being attached to people who are shy, timid and socially awkward. I have a busy social life, I like going out, meeting new people and having a good time. This doesn’t make my anxiety any less real and it certainly doesn’t mean that the problem has disappeared. For every ‘good’ day I have where I’m actually able to make it out of bed and out of my house, there is a ‘bad’ day where I am crippled by multiple panic attacks which leave me completely exhausted and often feeling hopeless and low.
Although you may not be able to ‘see’ anxiety, it exists, it’s very real and often quite physical
When I’m having a ‘bad’ day, all colour drains from my body. I look pale and people often remark on how ill I look. Panic attacks cause my entire body to shake, my muscles begin to twitch uncontrollably and I often feel as though I’m about to faint with dizziness. These very physical symptoms are in no way imagined and aren’t easily stopped.
Imagine that sense of imminent danger you get when your body has a “fight or flight” moment. Now, imagine carrying that surge of panic and adrenaline with you constantly. Panic attacks are basically our fight or flight responding when there isn’t any ‘real’ reason to be panicked. My body is tricked into thinking danger is pretty much constantly on the horizon and therefore adrenaline is shot into my blood stream, bringing with it all of the physical symptoms.
You don’t have to experience panic attacks to suffer from an anxiety disorder. I happen to have panic attacks, that’s just part of my condition, but many anxiety sufferers may be panic attack free. This doesn’t mean they don’t experience the physical impacts of anxiety, and it certainly doesn’t make it any less real or debilitating.
Anxiety can take many different forms, and no category is any more or less debilitating than the other
There are various different anxiety disorders which somebody may experience. These disorders can range anywhere from GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), which is usually categorised by relatively high constant feelings of anxiety to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which occurs after experiencing a traumatic event. People like myself may also experience combinations of these disorders, which as you can imagine, can make day to day tasks overwhelmingly difficult. Don’t look at anxiety as an umbrella term which should only be used for people who are ‘worriers’ or ‘over-thinkers’. Anxiety disorders exist over a wide scope and should people experiencing anxiety should not be boxed into one category.
It’s OK to take medication, but it isn’t for everyone
If somebody is diagnosed with tonsillitis, they’re given the appropriate medication to help their body fight the infection. Yet, if somebody with an ‘invisible’ mental health condition is given medication, there’s a huge stigma attached to it. Think of it as a deficiency, where I need to take a pill to get my serotonin levels back to normal. There needs to stop being such a stigma attached to taking medication if you’re suffering with a mental health condition.
However, for some sufferers, medication doesn’t help. There are other forms of help available, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and counselling, which can greatly help people suffering with anxiety disorders.
We’re not being dramatic or attention-seeking and no, we can’t just ‘stop worrying’
Oh, if only it were that easy. The fact of the matter is my body has been conditioned to release cortisone and adrenaline at the tiniest events. I can just be sitting in the sunshine, enjoying some cider, when I’ll suddenly feel a slight ache in my chest. Something as minuscule as a muscular ache can trick my body into overwhelming panic, and before I can even attempt to calm down, I’m hyperventilating and shaking uncontrollably, not so easy to stop, I can assure you.
It may seem irrational to you, but to me, it’s very very real
I can objectively understand how irrational my anxieties are. Anxiety causes me to have highly intrusive visions of horrific scenarios, which can make walking down the street feel like a death trap. I know that my thoughts are irrational, and at times ridiculous, but they’re real to me. You might not get worried standing in a room full of people, but for some people, it can feel like the most claustrophobic situation in the world. If somebody trusts you enough to open up about their particular anxieties, take the time to understand them, instead of dismissing them as irrational and silly.
But it does and will get better
If somebody had told me two months ago that I’d be writing openly about my struggles with anxiety, I would have probably had a panic attack (oh, sweet irony). Often, I’ve felt completely helpless and trapped inside my own body. But the moment I began acknowledging my anxiety as a part of who I am (whether it be temporary or permanent), my world seemed a little less scary.
I spoke to my doctor, friends and family openly about my anxiety disorders and through understanding the disorders themselves, I was able to understand my body and its reactions a little more. I now choose to nurture and thank my body for its amazing responses, instead of running away from it.
The best advice I can give to anybody suffering from any mental health disorder, is to talk about it and to give yourself a break if you need it. Help is out there, and you are not alone.