Did you now that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States? Depression used to be the most common, but recent studies have shown that anxiety has become the most common mental illness. In fact, 18 perfect of adults have anxiety according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That translates to roughly 40 million Americans that are suffering from the illness.
Anxiety is difficult; not only for those suffering from the illness but also for those around them. You probably feel helpless when your friend is having an anxiety attack or tells you that they feel like they’re having a heart attack. “What can I do to help,” you ask. “I don’t know,” is likely the response that you get. And that’s incredibly frustrating; you want to help but can’t and your friend doesn’t know how you can help either.
The problem is that anxiety is not logical and it’s definitely not rational. In the back of our minds, we know we’re not really having a heart attack but convincing the part of our mind that’s freaking out over it is pretty impossible. Anxiety is a personal battle that we’re having inside our minds.
Before we begin our list, let’s take a quick look at how it feels to suffer from anxiety so that you can get a basic idea of what your loved ones are going through.
What does anxiety feel like?
For those lucky enough to not know what anxiety feels like, we’re put together a few descriptions that we feel adequately sum up how it feels to suffer from the illness.
1. Where’s the fight?
“Having anxiety is a lot like playing a video game. You know when you’re wandering around and you hear the fight music playing that lets you know that there are enemies around? Yeah, that’s constantly playing but you can never find the enemies no matter how hard you search.”
2. I’m drowning
The above image is a perfect representation of anxiety. You’re “falling” into a deep, dark void and you’re completely freaked out but there is nothing around to be scared of. Of course, that doesn’t stop you from feeling completely freaked out. You feel as if you’re drowning and the harder you struggle to come up, the further you sink. Taking a breath is painful and you’re afraid that you’re never going to be able to breathe again.
With these two scenarios in mind, let’s move forward with what your anxious friends desperately want you know about their illness.
1. It’s okay to not understand
When talking to loved ones who also have to “deal” with our panic attacks and anxiety, we’re often told by them, “I don’t understand.” And it’s definitely frustrating for them and we’re sure that there’s a certain level of guilt associated with not understanding. At least according to my fiancé and parents, there is.
However, we don’t want you to feel bad for not understanding what we’re going through; a lot of times what’s going on in our brains isn’t something we understand either! We don’t expect you to “get” what anxiety is like unless you have anxiety, and even then it manifests itself in different forms so we still don’t expect you to fully understand our perspective on it.
We also want you know that while what we’re experiencing may not be “real” to you, it’s plenty real to us and it makes perfect sense. Please just bear with us!
2. Anxiety isn’t just limited to our minds; our bodies feel it too
Anxiety is incredibly exhausting. Even on good days when the mental illness feels more like a shadow rather than an overbearing presence, it’s affecting us in negative ways. Anxiety and panic put a lot of stress on the body, leaving you feeling tired and completely overwhelmed.
“For those with anxiety disorders, your fight or flight response is constantly being
triggered,” Jamie Howard says. (Jamie Howard is a Ph.D. and is a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the New York City Child Mind Institute.) “Your brain sees the situation as life threatening and sends signals to your body in order for it to deal with the threats.”
This means that your heart rate is increased, breathing is shallow, you’re sweating, and trembling. You may even feel sick to your stomach or become physically ill. Of course everyone experiences anxiety differently, but these are the most common reactions when having a panic attack. Keep in mind though that constantly being on alert can leave the anxious person feeling fatigued and sore.
So when we tell you that we’re too tired to do an activity despite having an “easy” day or a full night’s sleep, that’s why.
3. We’re constantly preparing for the next attack
Even when things are fine and going well, our minds and bodies are on constant alert waiting for the next attack. “When will it happen?” “Will I be on my way to work?” “What if I have a panic attack at the grocery store when I’m picking up things for dinner?” “Will there be someone around to help me if I have a panic attack?” “What if it’s a heart attack this time, will someone phone the hospital?”
In short, we’re on constant guard waiting for the next attack to sneak up on us. Of course, this can also lead to panic attacks (we’re our own worst enemies here, bear with us) but we can’t help it. The world is full of dangerous and embarrassing situations and we’re afraid of ending up in one. We’re also afraid of what the repercussions will be of having a panic attack in X at Y.
4. We often feel like failures
Nothing makes us feel worse or more helpless than not being able to do something. Whether we’re unable to leave the house because of our anxiety or simple unable to visit a friend in need, we feel like complete failures when our anxiety gets the best of us. Nobody wants to abstain from these things; we simply can’t help it.
We often hear from our therapists, “well you wouldn’t be mad at a cancer patient who can’t get out of bed, would you? So why be so harsh on yourself?” However, it’s definitely not that simple for us. We want to be able to go out and do things, but sometimes it’s just impossible for us.
We also know that it’s frustrating for you. You really wanted to go to the bar with our friends, but we simply can’t make it; it’s too scary out there for us. You’re disappointed and we know that. However, you’re nowhere near as disappointed in us as we are in ourselves. So please, be kind and gentle with us because we’re incapable of being that to ourselves.
5. We’re not lazy
We can’t tell you how many times we’ve been accused of being lazy by loved ones and friends who simply don’t understand anxiety. “Why is your house a mess, it looks disgusting! You could have at least done the dishes.” Yeah, maybe we could have but bringing it up in such a manner isn’t going to inspire us to suddenly get out of bed and deep clean our house like some kind of cleaning genie.
Some of these tasks, even the simplest ones like washing a single dish, become what’s known as the “impossible task”. Your mind and body have a violent reaction to even the very idea of doing this task. The task is always different and varies from person to person to so we’re never sure what tomorrow’s impossible task will be. So please, be patient with us and understand that if we’re lying in bed or on the couch, it’s not because we’re lazy.
6. It’s not your job to fix us
Speaking candidly, this was one of the hardest ones for my fiancé to accept. He’s a fixer and likes solving problems but when he couldn’t fix what was wrong with me, he began to feel helpless and frustrated. Of course, this just made me feel equally frustrated and helpless. But just know what we don’t expect you to fix us; we know deep down that you can’t.
It’s impossible to take away our anxiety; you’re not someone that can rewire how our brain works. Also, don’t try to coerce us into doing things that we don’t want to do. “Oh, you’ll feel so happy if you go the bar with our friends.” No, no we wouldn’t. It feels invalidating and like you don’t believe us when we tell you we can’t do something.
But you know who can fix us? Doctors and therapists. We might balk at the idea, but encouraging us to visit a doctor who can prescribe medication and working things out with a therapist are a great start to fixing ourselves. Gently encourage and support us along the journey.
7. Decisions are extremely hard
Our brains are constantly going 100 miles an hour and firing tons of “what if” scenarios in the background. We exist in a perpetual state of alert, constantly on guard for the next threat to come in and send us over the edge. Because of this, a lot of attention is devoted to “protecting ourselves” so making decisions can be difficult. We’re too busy trying to plan out how we’re going to get from our current location to the hospital if we have a heart attack and if EMS will make it to us in time.
We know it’s frustrating when you ask us to make a decision and we simply can’t. But don’t think it’s because we’re just being picky or difficult; our brains are preoccupied with other things and decision-making is impossible. Putting pressure on us to decide can also cause us to panic and in some cases, go into a full blown panic attack.
8. Sometimes our symptoms aren’t visible
Since anxiety is mostly confined to our head except for when it makes physical manifestations, you may mistake us for neurologically normal people or assume that we’re having a good day. We may also hide our anxiety and choose not to tell you that we’re freaking out. Don’t take it personal; it’s exhausting talking about anxiety and sometimes we just don’t feel like letting you know the battle that’s raging in our heads.
9. We are people too, but we’re still sick
Would you tell a cancer patient that they’re not sick? No, you wouldn’t and the same should apply to us. When we tell you there’s something wrong with us or that we’re not normal, don’t play it off and say, “you’re fine, you just have a mental illness.” This completely invalidates our anxiety and it can be frustrating. It can also be dangerous because some that suffer from anxiety might assume that if you see them as being fine and that this is “normal”, that they don’t need to seek treatment.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t treat us like people (because we still are), but do want you to realize that we aren’t okay. Just treat us how you’d treat anyone else who was sick; acknowledge something is wrong and support us as best as you can.
10. We’re more than our illness
Personally speaking, this is the one that I want all of you to know: we are NOT our illness. Yes, it is a part of us, but it’s not who we are nor is it who we want to be. It’s also not even our personality. Yeah, we know that one is difficult to accept, but it’s not. We don’t want to act “crazy, mean, and irrational” for no reason. These are just side effects of our condition.
Let’s take the flu for example. When your loved one is sick, you don’t think that their grouchiness, fatigue and other symptoms are who they are do you? Well, the same applies to those of us suffering from anxiety (and trust us, we’re still struggling to understand that anxiety isn’t who we are). These are consequences of our illness that shouldn’t define us.
Do you or a loved one suffer from anxiety?
If you feel up to sharing, we’d like to know if you suffer from anxiety or if you know others who do. If you do, then does the list feel accurate to you? Are these things that you or your loved ones wish others knew about anxiety? Did they help you gain a better perspective of what it’s like to suffer from anxiety? And if you feel up to sharing with us, we’d also like to ask what your own experiences with anxiety are like. We also want you to feel free to add things to this list that you feel would help others when it comes to understanding anxiety.