Many people seem to brush anxiety off, saying it’s nothing but “overreacting” or “worrying.” People treat it not as an illness, but as something for someone to just “get over.” The National Institute of Mental Health states that “Anxiety Disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year, causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty. Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by a stressful event (such as speaking in public or a first date), anxiety disorders last at least 6 months and can get worse if they are not treated. Anxiety disorders commonly occur along with other mental or physical illnesses, including alcohol or substance abuse, which may mask anxiety symptoms or make them worse.” A person with anxiety is always second-guessing, always worrying, and always fearful. Here’s how the mind of someone without anxiety works, take for instance turning the coffee pot off or wondering if you locked the door: “I’m pretty sure I locked the door, yeah I did. I just don’t remember because it’s something that’s second nature to me.” Now someone with anxiety: “Oh God, did I lock the door? What if I didn’t? Someone’s bound to notice and break in! What if they’re waiting for me there when I get home? I’d better go double check that door.” It may seem a like the person is over-reacting, but those are, in their mind, legitimate fears that could come to fruition.
I will be discussing the most common anxiety disorder: Generalized Anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health defines Generalized Anxiety Disorder as this: “People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) go through the day filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. They anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about health issues, money, family problems, or difficulties at work. Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months. People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.”
Now I know you must be thinking: “Why can’t they just tell themselves that it’s all incessant worrying and move on?” The reason is not a question of will, but a question of brain chemistry. Anxiety is natural, it works as a motivator and it acts as a warning system for danger in someone who doesn’t have a hiccup in their brain chemistry. In the 6.8 million American adults with GAD, it’s an inhibitor; the chemicals in the brain are on overdrive and high alert. It’s not something that can just be brushed aside, it needs treatment; just like someone with high blood pressure. I suffer from GAD, and it’s a constant struggle to keep my brain from going mad with worry. I do take my medication every day, but some days it isn’t enough and I need to focus on myself for a few hours. I meditate, do breathing exercises, and avoid loud or over stimulating places. This didn’t come easy; I never thought I could just focus on my breathing when I was in the grips of an anxiety attack. It took practice, and years of therapy to achieve this. I had to learn that Anxiety wasn’t who I am, but just a hiccup in my brain that couldn’t be helped, but could be treated if I wanted it to be.
Now, how can you help? When a person in the middle of an anxiety attack is suffering, the worst possible thing you can say is “Calm down.” What you should say is “What can I do?” Listen to them, even if you don’t know what to say, they need to be heard and acknowledged. Someone who has anxiety already feels silly because they know they’re worrying for nothing but can’t help it. The last thing you want to do is make them feel worse because this in turn makes their anxiety worse. A person with anxiety is just like you, they’re not some medical anomaly, after all you wouldn’t treat someone with diabetes or high blood pressure like that; so why treat someone with a mental illness like that?
I hope that this has opened your eyes to Anxiety; I hope that this has helped those with anxiety. My goal is to do just that: Promote understanding and aid. Mental Illnesses are no different from any other medical condition and should not be treated as so.