Here it comes. You can feel it the minute you open your eyes. It’s going to be one of those days. One of those days where everything feels like too much. The simplest task is overwhelming and it takes enormous energy just to do things other people do without a second thought. It’s a beast and you hate that you struggle with it, but what’s worse is that others just don’t get it.
The name of this beast? Anxiety.
Anxiety is the most common mental health diagnosis worldwide. In the US, over 40 million adults (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder, including Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), Panic Disorder, and specific phobias. While each of these has a unique set of symptoms, the primary symptoms include a persistent, overwhelming sense of fear, worry or dread, an intense sense of restlessness and tension (which may come across as irritability), and a state of hyperarousal, anticipating the worst. Physically, these symptoms manifest as your heart pounding in your chest, shortness of breath, racing thoughts, stomach upset, headaches, sweating, and fatigue.
For those who suffer, the experience is miserable. And for those who don’t suffer? Well, they often just don’t know what to say or do to help support their loved ones. So here are 5 things people with anxiety want you to understand.
- “Calm down,” doesn’t help. Nor does, “It’ll be okay,” “try not to worry,” “just think positively,” or “think of all the things you have to be grateful for.” In fact, statements like these, however well intentioned, only make a sufferer feel worse.
What’s so wrong with trying to be positive and responding with encouragement? When we’re trying to support someone, it seems only natural to want them to focus on the positive. In fact, there is a great deal of research to support the concept of positive psychology and the benefits of practicing gratitude.
However, when someone is in the grips of a panic attack or significant anxiety, responding with cheerful platitudes such as these feels dismissive and invalidating. Rather than acknowledging that person’s emotional state, these statements have the effect of minimizing that individual’s pain, which in turn makes the person feel emotionally unsafe. They may feel judged, embarrassed for sharing their experience, or feel guilty for not being able to “just be positive.”
- Anxiety disorders are about the “fight or flight” response in overdrive. As human beings, we are all hard wired to survive, and our “fight or flight” response is part of what helps us detect and react to life threatening situations. For people who suffer from anxiety disorders, this response is triggered in the body even when it may not be necessary. Essentially, the brain and the nervous system react to a perceived threat the same way it would react to an actual threat.
What this means for the individual, is that their anxiety response feels outside of their control. It’s not something they can “talk themselves out of.” Many individuals understand that the anxiety they feel about something is not “rational,” or justified. Yet understanding that the threat is not real or substantial does not diminish their fear response or make it go away.
Trying to “reason” with someone struggling with anxiety by telling them their fear is irrational is just another way of dismissing and invalidating their pain.
- It’s debilitating. The emotional and physical toll that anxiety takes is all consuming. It keeps sufferers from being fully engaged and present in their lives, taking them away from friends and family, and often preventing them from pursuing social and professional opportunities that they otherwise would have.
Excessive worry, feelings of dread, maintaining a state of hyper-arousal, racing thoughts…these common symptoms of anxiety are emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Suffers have described the experience of anxiety as follows:
“I felt like the walls were closing in on me and everything was going dark.”
“Anxiety makes my body freeze, while my mind is rapid-firing. I am immobilized by fear and paralyzed in my thoughts.”
“My whole body is tense and constricted and I can’t breathe.”
“Everything is overstimulating when I’m in that state. And everything is grating. I am irritable when anxious because I have no emotional bandwidth. I just can’t do anything in that state.”
These experiences of anxiety have a cumulative effect and lead to other negative thoughts and feelings, such as guilt, shame and depression.
- Anxiety is very different from stress. Trying to “commiserate” with someone who suffers from anxiety by chalking it up to “stress” is also not helpful. Stress is something almost all of us experience at some point in time, and is defined as feeling emotionally overwhelmed in response to a hardship or challenging event. We experience stress during times of duress or transition. We also might feel stressed when we have too much to do and not enough time to do it. Regardless of the circumstances, stress is our reaction to the event.
Anxiety, in contrast, is a pervasive apprehension to a vague or undefined threat. When we are in a state of stress, we typically have a sense of what’s causing the stress and what we might be able to do to manage it or address it. We might welcome help or support. However, anxiety is much different. Asking someone who’s experiencing extreme anxiety “what can I do?” or “what do you need right now?” can add to their frustration because they don’t know. Their brain and their body have been emotionally hijacked. If they knew what they needed, they’d do it. Anxiety is more than being emotionally overwhelmed.
- Things that help: offering support in a non-judgmental way, providing emotional safety for that individual, allowing them to feel seen and heard. That may sound like: I’m so sorry you’re hurting.
I am here.
I hate that you’re in this space.
Can I hold your hand or sit next to you?
Those who suffer from anxiety often describe feeling very isolated from friends or family who don’t understand. They may feel shame, they may feel self-conscious, they may feel hopeless or helpless. Having someone by their side who can validate these feelings, validate how terribly difficult it is, and validate their pain can go a long way. Demonstrating empathy and compassion helps sufferers know they are not alone. For more information contact us on (805) 842-1994