It’s time to wake up to the reality of anxiety.
In the wake of the death of beloved actor Robin Williams, there has been a lot of discussion about mental illness, the real pain it causes, and the need to take it seriously, yet I’ve also heard a lot of reactions that demonstrate a major lack of understanding. “But he had so much money!,” “But people all over the world loved him!,” “But he was so talented!,” are some of the things I’ve heard people say.
Usually, comments like this just make me sigh and shake my head, but recently I’ve had to deal with some loved ones who just can’t seem to grasp that my anxiety is a real thing – and this includes a few people who have struggled with severe depression! It’s starting to seem that anxiety may be one of the least-understood mental illnesses among people who’ve never had to deal with it.
It’s 2014, and to be honest, I don’t think that’s OK anymore! As we start treating the problem of mental illness in general as the serious problem that it is, it’s time for a better understanding of anxiety as well.
I’m Not Making Excuses
My friends and family often seem baffled by my anxiety. Sometimes they take it personally, or seem offended – for instance, when I cancel plans because I’m too anxious to leave the house. I understand their frustration; it’s not fun to have someone cancel on you! But to me, it seems like my loved ones often don’t try to understand where I’m coming from when I say that I struggle with this because of an anxiety disorder. They think I should be able to function just like them – but I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t expect that of someone with, say, diabetes or an autoimmune disorder. People still have a hard time understanding that mental illnesses are just as real as physical illnesses.
In my life, when my anxiety has led to difficulty with other people’s expectations, I’ve been accused of:
- Preferring to look at the negative side of things
- Being lazy
- Being stubborn
- Just not “wanting” to do something
- Being high-maintenance or a drama queen
- Not trying hard enough
- Playing the victim
- Making excuses
Please Try to Understand These Three Things about Anxiety
When my frustration with unsupportive loved ones came to a head recently, I realized there were some things I wanted to scream from the rooftops to make sure everyone could hear:
Yes, technically it’s “all in my head” – but anxiety causes real physical symptoms. These include having trouble breathing or swallowing, racing pulse, numbness in the body, stomach problems, headaches, trembling/shaking, and chest pain so severe that it feels like it could be a heart attack. Could you function normally if those things were happening in your body?
I believe in positive thinking, really! It’s just not always that easy. I think that I’m especially friendly to the concept of positive thinking, since I’m an advocate for natural anxiety relief techniques like visualization, meditation, etc. But please don’t think that I can be “fixed” by a little positive thinking. An anxiety disorder is more complex than that.
It’s not that I don’t care about you. It’s just that it’s not about you. I feel awful when I let you down because of anxiety. But please don’t try to make me feel guilty about it! When it comes to mental illnesses, try to understand that it’s not about you. (Of course, this isn’t to say you should put up with mistreatment because of someone’s mental illness.) But it’s just a reality that sometimes I might seem a little irrational, and I might not be able to do everything you do. Accepting this and supporting me through it is the best thing you could possibly do!
The Importance of Self-Care
If you find yourself relating to this, remember that self-care and setting limits is important! This means being assertive about your needs, and sometimes even distancing yourself from people who can’t respect that.
This can be difficult, especially if you are prone to feeling guilty. But please know that you do NOT need to feel guilty because someone doesn’t understand what anxiety is and won’t accept that it’s a real struggle. You should never feel bad about caring for your physical OR emotional health.