When I first started talking about my anxiety disorder, out loud, with humans who weren’t B, my therapist, I got a lot of different reactions.
You see, human beings all have fluctuating levels of anxiety. Obviously. Can you imagine if we never got anxious? We’d just tell people what we actually think of their shitty kids, act on the sudden urge to cut bangs, and wear skin-colored pants.Or walk down dark alleys, go camping in black-bear territory, and attempt stand-up comedy at open-mic nights—all dangerous feats.
A healthy amount of anxiety keeps us safe, and sometimes means we’re about to do something really brave and important. Plus, in caveman days, if you didn’t have anxiety, you died. So.
Normal levels of anxiety are good and normal and fine.
You know what’s not good, and normal and fine?
Not being able to breathe, or sleep, or relax, or just get through a day without wondering if today’s the day your body is finally going to shut down.
That sounds dramatic. It’s not. Anxiety is classified as a mental issue, but it manifests itself physically. Example! I’ve been horizontal on the couch, binge watching The Office for the billionth time with a heart beating like I just ran sprints for thirty minutes. I’ve been giving presentations at school when I’ve had to casually lean against the wall because my vision is getting blurry and I’m terrified I’m going to faint. You know when you’re driving on the highway and a car swerves in your lane, nearly causing your death, and your stomach drops into your butt and you get tingly all over and your heart starts racing, and you think “fuck, that was close as you catch your breath?” An anxiety disorder feels like that. Except, all of the time, and you never catch your breath. I’ve burst into tears from the sheer exhaustion that comes from having a body that constantly feels like I’ve had a gallon of coffee for breakfast and lungs that don’t work. Sandwich that in between a constant state of underlying worries and existential dread, and you’ve got yourself an unhealthy amount of anxiety!
When I got the ladyballs to start introducing people to my new frenemy, Anxiety, (or M, if you’re familiar) this is what I heard over and over again:
“Well, why are you anxious? Ya, but WHYYYYYYYY?”
“Just take a deep breath.”
“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“Everyone has anxiety.”
“Yeah, that’s not like, a real thing though.”
aaaand my personal favorite, “Maybe you should just drink less coffee!”
Look, I get it. People have this urge to fix things and help and give advice. Especially the people who are closest to us–because no one wants to see their loved one in pain. It’s scary. You want to fix it and in order to fix it you need answers, and you need them NOW. I know. A lot of people have never experienced panic or anxiety at excessive levels on a daily basis—if you haven’t experienced it, it seems ridiculous. It’s really hard to understand. You probably think that your loved one just isn’t great at managing stress. I can be empathetic to that. But until you have experienced this for yourself, you really don’t know and can’t understand. And whatever it is that you’re imagining an anxiety disorder to be like–yeah you’re wrong. But fear not! Because I’m here to tell you what you can do.
The most important tip I can give you, is that if someone you care about is going through this and chooses to be brave and share this with you, (which is really fucking hard and scary btw) PLEASE do not discount their feelings or try to “fix” them. Would you say, “just walk, I’m sure it’s not that bad” to someone with two broken legs?
NO, ya wouldn’t. BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE RUDE AND STUPID.
If you care about someone with an anxiety disorder, or any kind of mental health struggle, try some of these catch phrases instead:
“I haven’t experienced that before, but it sounds difficult and scary and I’m going to be here for you.”
“I know this feels scary, but I know how strong you are, and you can get through this.”
“I’m really sorry you’re dealing with this.”
“I brought you a ________ “ (insert comforting movie/activity/book etc.)
“Let’s go do __________” (insert distracting and mellow activity here)
“I noticed you’ve seemed a little __________ lately, do you want to talk through it?”**
**This is a big one for me. Without being probed, I don’t talk about my own thoughts and feelings. It’s a family tradition, and you don’t fuck with tradition. I guess I just don’t want to inconvenience anyone with my own shit? Or I know that what I’m thinking is completely irrational and I know no one will understand or know what to say, and they’ll feel weird, so I just don’t go there. I swallow it and deal with it on my own. Which now that I think about it, is probably how I developed an anxiety disorder in the first place! HA no more therapy for me, it’s been solved.
I’m really not self-aware when it comes to emotions. Half of the time, I don’t even know what’s going on with me until I start uncontrollably sobbing when my favorite hair-tie breaks. And then I’m like oooooh shit hereeeweeegooooo! and then my husband sprints out of the house with fear-filled eyes and has to mysteriously “take care of some business” for a few days.
Don’t assume that your little anxiety-ridden lovebug is doing great because they’re not bringing it up, or because they ‘seem’ fine. Cause sometimes, without someone gently forcing them to talk, they’re gonna keep swallowing that shit. So notice, and ASK. Please.
You don’t need to try and get to the bottom of their anxiety, you don’t need to fix it, and you certainly don’t need to insert your own opinion on why they’re having it. That’s for a trained professional who is sneaky enough to do all of this without the client even realizing. Not you. Cause you’re probably gonna fuck it up. It’s okay.
So just love them, hug them, validate their experiences, give them opportunities to feel heard, and just be there. No advice, no fixing, just support.
If you are someone who has an anxiety disorder and someone tells you to ‘just take a deep breath,’ you have my permission to punch them in the stomach. That way, you can both struggle to breathe together. Because after all, isn’t everything better with a friend?