Hi, do you have anxiety? No? Wow, OK, first of all, lucky you. Second of all, there’s a pretty good chance someone you know and love does have anxiety, which means it would be really cool if you took a little bit of time to try to understand what it means and doesn’t mean. And who better to learn from than, well, people with anxiety. We checked in with some anxious friends, family members and colleagues for this list of ten things people with anxiety wish you knew.
1. Anxiety Looks Totally Different from Person to Person
Like pretty much any illness, mental or physical, anxiety is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Amanda M. compares it to “The sisterhood of the traveling mental disorder,” which I have already added to my lexicon. She adds, “My mom and I were both diagnosed with [generalized anxiety disorder], but her anxiety comes from knowledge, while mine comes from lack of knowledge. She covers her ears and yells to avoid triggering anxiety, while I’m doing intense deep dives and learning about everything I can so I’m not surprised or scared in the long run.” Anxiety is caused by lots of different things and manifests in lots of different ways, and understanding that is crucial when it comes to supporting your loved ones.
2. We Can’t Just “Not Be Anxious”
Ask any person who struggles with anxiety and I’m willing to bet they would stop being anxious if they could. Says Ali B., “As someone who has struggled with anxiety my whole life and been on medication for it since I was 21, I wish people would stop telling me to just ‘not be anxious’ when I express how I'm feeling. Sometimes expressing the feeling is a way of acknowledging it and getting over it, but when someone thinks it’s as easy as just stopping, it's frustrating. It can feel so consuming and out of your control, like a dementor in Harry Potter swooping in and filling you with worry and doubt.”
3. There’s a Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Anxiety
Everyone (or at least I think everyone) feels anxious sometimes. When you have a big presentation at work or you’re moving into a new apartment or you’re breaking up with the person you’ve been dating, it’s totally normal to feel a little anxious. That is not the same thing as having GAD or any number of diagnosable types of anxiety. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks).” In the past, I’ve opened up to people about my anxiety, only for them to tell me about a time they were anxious (emphasis on ‘time’ versus all the time, which is more in line with my reality). I know they’re likely just trying to commiserate, but comparing the occasional anxious feeling to a mental illness that’s treated with medication and therapy is false equivalence. While you probably mean no harm (and are actually trying to make me feel better or more “normal”), a safer route is just to listen if someone opens up to you and provide feedback if asked.
4. Just Because You Can’t See Someone’s Anxiety Doesn’t Mean It’s Not There
Having anxiety doesn’t mean constantly hyperventilating into a paper bag. While people with anxiety often do have to deal with the occasional panic attack (which is more outwardly visible), anxiety can also be invisible to the outside world. “Understand what it means to be high-functioning,” notes Rachel G. “I think most people assume that someone with anxiety only portrays outward signs, and that’s not the case. For instance, I’m high-functioning and my anxiety is (mostly) internal. I’ve pretty much mastered how to seem ‘normal’ on the outside. What people don’t see is that I’m constantly obsessing and worrying over every single situation or conversation that has happened, is happening and will happen. It’s mentally and physically exhausting.” When it comes to anxiety, it’s important to understand that just because someone isn’t obviously struggling doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting internally. Like Rachel and a lot of people I know who have anxiety, I work extremely hard to appear calm, cool and collected around other people at all times. That doesn’t mean my anxiety is any “better” than someone you wouldn’t necessarily describe as “chill.”
5. There’s a Ton of Guilt That Comes Along with Anxiety
“The biggest thing I wish people could understand about anxiety is the guilt that comes along with it,” Taylor P. laments. “It makes it harder to deal with because most of the time, there’s no specific thing I can blame my anxiety on.” I often talk to my own therapist about this type of thing (I’ve even written about anxiety guilt as it pertains to COVID). I’m a privileged person who has (and always has had) a fantastic support system, so who am I to complain about anxiety? Something I’ve worked on a lot with my therapist is acceptance. Not only acceptance of myself, but acceptance of my thoughts and my anxieties. I often have to gently force myself to believe that my anxiety is valid, normal and OK. Whenever I start to get down on myself about being anxious because I “don’t deserve” to be anxious, I remind myself that my feelings are legitimate, and not something to be ashamed of or beat myself up over.
6. Random Things Can Trigger Anxiety
“Triggers are 100 percent a real thing,” Rachel stresses. “Remember that simple, everyday tasks might seem like a no-brainer to you, but for someone with anxiety, it can be a lot to deal with. Try your best not to discount their feelings even if it’s something that appears silly to you, like if they get anxious about filling up their tank at the gas station or they have to parallel park on a busy street. (And yes, for the record those are some of my triggers.)” Adds Chris W., “Please don’t argue against the reason for my anxiety (especially if the reason is ‘I don’t know why I’m anxious’).
7. But Sometimes Anxiety Comes on Completely Out of the Blue
Speaking of not knowing why you’re anxious, while triggers absolutely exist, they’re not a prerequisite for anxiety. “I don’t have any control over when it shows up or what sparks it, and because I can’t control that, I also don’t know how to turn it off,” says Amanda. “Sometimes I’ll just have a foreign feeling that later on I identify as anxiety. So if you’re trying to help someone with anxiety, offer solutions that are productive, don’t shut people down or try to empathize. Just ask how you can help!”
8. Pointing Out Someone’s Anxiety Will Likely Make It Worse
Would you make a comment on a physical illness or disability? No? Cool, please don’t do that with anxiety either. “It’s a nasty vicious cycle, and it doesn’t like to have a light shined on it,” Amanda explains. “When you point out my anxiety, it just makes me more anxious and causes the spiral to increase.” When I’m feeling particularly anxious, I want nothing more than to become invisible to the world. This is doubly true when I feel a panic attack coming on. I start sweating, my breath becomes shallower and my eyes either dart around or remain affixed on a single point, trance-like. If I’m alone or around people who don’t seem to be noticing, I’m sometimes able to coach myself through it. If I notice people watching me or if someone asks if I’m OK (which I know is just a kind gesture, but still), I’m way more likely to spiral into a full-on attack. Beyond pointing out someone else’s anxiety, Chris adds, “Don’t tell me my anxiety is making you anxious.” Anxiety comes with enough guilt as it is; please don’t put this on us.
9. Please Respond if Someone Reaches Out for Help
As we’ve established, anxiety looks different in every person. Some of us (*sheepishly raises hand*) deal with anxiety by isolating ourselves from the world and our loved ones. Other people find it helpful to open up to friends and family. If someone does reach out to you, even if you’re in the middle of something and can’t talk at that exact moment, make it clear that you’re there for them. Dena S. tells me, “If I reach out to a friend in the midst of an anxiety spiral, it's super hurtful and can cause more anxiety when they don't respond. Obviously, I understand that they're busy and *not* my therapist, but even a simple ‘I’m so sorry, I'm in the middle of something, give me 30 minutes and we can chat” would do wonders!”
10. Whatever You Do, Don’t Ask If We’ve Tried Meditation
Believe me, if all of my mental health issues could be solved by meditating every morning, I would be a different person. I know you’re just trying to help by recommending something you saw online as a way to feel calmer, but it can come off as a bit flippant or dismissive to suggest that a legitimate imbalance of brain chemicals can be fixed by, say, spending more time outside. Adds Chris, “Please don’t try to help me if I haven’t asked for help.”