Whenever I start to explain that part of my mental illness diagnosis includes severe anxiety, I always receive confused looks. They are usually followed by judgmental comments about how “everyone has problems and stress in their lives”, telling me that I need to “learn to cope and work through it all”. I get told that I “shouldn’t let every little thing get to me” and that I’d be so much happier if I “stopped stressing over everything and just mellowed out”.
I have others that have gone so far as to make accusations about whether my anxiety is even real or just in my head. They’ll question how I could claim I’m “too anxious” to go somewhere to fill out paperwork yet am “perfectly comfortable attending things like farmer’s markets or street fairs”. I’ve tried to explain that it isn’t the same thing. I don’t have social anxiety. People and crowds are not my issue. My anxiety is situational and builds upon itself, making it harder to function in some situations than others.
I’ve tried to explain my anxiety again and again until I was blue in the face, yet I’ve been met with blank stares or judgments more often than not. I finally sat down and made an overly simplified chart, similar to the pain level chart used in doctor’s offices, in hope that it might be more relatable and help others understand.
The average happy and well-balanced person starts an average day with 0 anxiety. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, their rent and car payments have been paid, their family is healthy and happy. Life is good.
Little daily stresses might raise things to a 1 or a 2, but it’s nothing they can’t handle. Every now and then, there’s a 3, 4 or 5. Life happens. It isn’t always easy but it’s nothing that can’t be smoothed out and they know it won’t be long until they’re back down to a 1 or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with 0 anxiety.
People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis never see a 1 or a 2, let alone a day with 0 anxiety. Their good days start around a 3, their average days around a 4 or 5. It isn’t even that any major crisis may be going on in their lives causing their heightened anxiety. It is that their body and their mind are reacting and responding as if it was. And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong just adds to their anxiety until inside their heads they are in a complete panic, running around with arms flailing, screaming that the sky is falling, Chicken Little-style. Or even worse, they just wrap themselves in a blanket and shut down completely.
Now to get back to explaining the situational anxiety I mentioned earlier. High stress situations already start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are already considering every single thing that could go wrong. Every time there is a bump in the road and things don’t work out like they should, it adds more anxiety to the pile for next time. All it takes is a couple times where things go wrong before our bodies and minds start to panic when it comes to anything associated with that person, place or thing.
Managing our anxiety is not as simple as taking a deep breath, learning to think positive or not sweating the small stuff. We are not intentionally causing our anxiety. Our anxiety fires off somewhere in our subconscious. We have no control over it. Our mind starts sending out warnings and our body responds. We find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty. There are times we’re not even sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.
Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, we begin to have anxiety attacks. Our body goes into auto-pilot in a full blown panic. Anxiety attacks present themselves differently for different people, but in every case it is our body’s way of saying that it cannot take any more. Beyond the anxiety attack is the shut down, that numbness where you’re mentally, emotionally and physically too exhausted to think or function. I have not included a level 10 anxiety level because, though I have experienced many anxiety attacks and shut downs, I have never personally experienced anything beyond that. I do imagine there is something worse, though I am not sure what could possibly be worse than everything I have already been enduring.
That is not to say that conscious breathing exercises, meditation or other such exercises do not help. They can help pull us back into a state of self-awareness that can stave off a full blown anxiety attack. But they are not a panacea. They will not magically cure an anxiety disorder, just facilitate in pulling some people some times back into the here and now.
That is because an anxiety disorder is a mental illness. It is not something we are doing to ourselves because we are easily panicked or excitable. It is not something we’ve made up in our heads. Much like a diabetic can help regulate their highs and lows by eating at regular times and monitoring their sugar intake, someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety. But getting exercise or not eating that candy bar won’t cure diabetes any more than meditation will cure anxiety. It is our medical diagnosis.
I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone suffering with anxiety can testify that it is so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that the average person could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.
I know that it can be hard for those who have never experienced a mental illness such as anxiety to truly understand what we are going through. Please try to keep in mind, though, that it is not something we are intentionally doing to make our lives, or yours, harder. Our brains are always reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state. We have no control over it and are trying our best to manage our anxiety to the best of our ability. But it is a medical diagnosis that needs treatment. It is not something we can magically cure on our own.
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