Whenever I start to explain the part of my mental illness diagnosis that 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 the hope that it might be more relatable and help others understand.
I know the chart I made is extremely simplified – anyone struggling with anxiety can testify that it is often so much worse, but I wanted to give examples that anyone could relate to, as well as providing a build up they might be able to imagine in their own lives.
The “average” happy and “well-balanced” person starts an average day with zero 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 one or a two, but it’s nothing they can’t handle. Every now and then, there’s a three, four or five. 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 one or two again, or even enjoying one of those blessed days with zero anxiety.
People struggling with an anxiety diagnosis often never see a one or a two, let alone a day with zero anxiety. Their good days probably start around a three, their average days around a four or five. 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 often reacting and responding as if it was. And, being already frazzled, every little added thing that goes wrong can add 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 might 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 usually start off at a higher anxiety level than normal for us because our minds are probably 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 can add more anxiety to the pile for next time. All it might take 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 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 often fires off somewhere in our subconscious. We usually have no control over it. Our mind can start sending out warnings and our body responds. We often find ourselves on edge, our chests tightened, our thoughts muddled, our mouths dry, our palms sweaty. There are times we might not even be sure what we are anxious about, only that the anxiety is there.
Once our anxiety has reached a certain level, some of us 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 most cases it is our body’s way of saying 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. Someone with an anxiety disorder can use tools such as conscious breathing to help moderate their anxiety, but it may not cure them of anxiety. It is our medical diagnosis.
I know 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 usually just reacting and responding to the world around us at a heightened state. We often 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 usually needs treatment. It is not something we can always magically cure on our own.