My passion for assisting those with Anxiety disorders “get the message out” about what those with anxiety experience began almost three years ago. My son was having severe difficulty attending school, as well as experiencing many physical symptoms that did not come from a physical illness.
I suspected he was experiencing symptoms of anxiety, because back when I was in college, I experienced much of the same thing. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, the most treatable, and the most misunderstood of all the mental illnesses.
In my junior year of college, I started experiencing anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder(OCD), Also panic attacks were something I became very familiar with. I experienced multiple attacks throughout the day. Often with OCD individuals have a number for which they must repeat tasks or check things. I was a “checker” and my number was five. This meant that I had to check door knobs five times to make sure they were locked when leaving. I had to check my bag for my car keys, books or anything five times, before the tension in my body and shortness of breath would subside.
Trust me when I tell you this was not fun. It was internal torture. I did not know why, but I had the feeling if I did not check things something tragic would happen. Most people around me, did not know I was experiencing anxiety.
Anxiety is not visible. Often, those who are experiencing it are experts at hiding any outward signs of their internal struggle. In addition, they are fighting so hard “to keep it together,” that they appear perfectly fine.
Those in my life who knew of my struggle would tell me “You are doing it to yourself. You just need to stop the nonsense.” I always wanted to scream at them, “I am not doing this to myself, this is hell. Who would purposely torture themselves this way? I wish I could make it stop, but I cannot.”
My passion for getting the message about anxiety and how it affects one’s life out intensified when my son began to experience it. In the beginning we both heard many of the same myths about anxiety that I had heard, but this time in relationship to him. This killed me.
His anxiety and the way it affected his ability to function was being misinterpreted by many, including his educators, as a behavioral issue. I would hear things like, “he behaves this way, because we allow him too.” “He gets too many choices, and gets to do what he wants.”
I cannot tell you how mad I would get. Smoke would be coming out my ears. If I allowed my son to do whatever he wanted he would choose to never go to school, eat healthy, and many other things.
Anxiety does not have “one look.” While there might be similarities in its effects, it can and does manifest differently in different people. My son for instance is an avoider. If something is making him anxious he tries to avoid going places and/or dealing with the people that make him anxious. In addition, if he had a situation that made him anxious he can become consumed by thoughts about those situations or others it makes him recall. When this occurs, he is unable to go about his day. This is one of the reasons he misses school as much as he does. Even if the stressful event occurred outside of school, his thoughts become all consuming in an almost paralyzing way.
People who avoid situations are often mistaken for depressed because they isolate themselves, and/or sleep a lot. The reason they do that is because they feel miserable, and anxious feelings are not fun. So sleeping and or isolating themselves allows them to escape their misery.
People assume that anxiety has a “look.” This is one of the most frustrating things to hear. My sons teachers constantly tell me “he is fine when he is here, we don’t see any anxiety. He never looks anxious.” I want to scream, “What does anxiety look like, so I can teach him to outwardly look anxious so you will get it.”
People also need to understand that anxiety permeates every aspect of a person’s life and experience. It cannot be compartmentalized. Often, those who experience anxiety truly do not know what is making them anxious. It is frustrating when people get mad at my son, because he cannot tell them what is causing his anxious feelings. In addition, people with anxiety need those around them to validate their feelings, not dismiss them.
There is no magic formula for “fixing” anxiety. If there were, many would have bought it already. You don’t have to know what to do or say. Support the person. Ask them what they need. If they say I don’t know, be okay with that. Tell them you are here for whatever and whenever they need.
The good news is that there are many effective strategies for coping with anxiety, and it can be managed, and sometimes overcome completely. However, take it from me, even though I have overcome my OCD and panic attacks, anxious tendencies still exist. The difference is that when I feel anxiety coming over me, It is mild and I can talk myself through it very quickly. I use many strategies that I learned in the past and it does not impact my day or functioning in a negative way. I am able to go about my day.
Let’s support those who experience anxiety, not judge. If you don’t understand it, that is really okay. Remember: Just because you may not understand something, doesn’t mean it is real. You do not have to understand something that someone else is going through in order to support them through it.