Every human, at some point or another, will experience anxious thoughts or feelings. Worry, stress, dread, fear and panic are natural human responses to certain circumstances or experiences. But there’s been something I’ve heard more often lately that unsettles me…
I suffer from medically diagnosed High-Functioning Anxiety. The difference between this and Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is absolutely nothing in terms of symptoms, but rather, response to symptoms. Rather than spending most of my time in ‘fight or flight’ mode as those with GAD often do, my time is mostly spent in ‘fight’. When things get really heavy, I’ll revert to the more “typical” response of flight. As a result, unless I tell people, no one knows that I have anxiety.
It’s no secret. In fact, I’m so passionate about removing the stigma that surrounds mental health, and I’m more open about it than ever. Unfortunately, the excessive amount of explaining I find myself doing doesn’t seem to help those who have never experienced an anxiety disorder understand it any better.
Here’s the part that unsettles me:
When I tell someone, “I have anxiety”, and their immediate response is to try and “fix me”.
First of all, I’m not broken. And second of all, the only people who should be offering advice to someone suffering from a mental health issue are qualified professionals.
The reason that this is becoming so common, is that things like mindfulness and meditation are becoming mainstream. People are being taught to cope with everyday stressors using techniques that psychologists often recommend. Which is amazing, truly. But anyone who has undergone treatment for their mental health will know that there is an almost endless list of treatment options, and there is a lengthy and exhausting process of trying to find something that works for you.
It’s unintentional and well-meaning, but it’s dangerous. Because having experienced anxious thoughts or feelings is not the same as having a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
Here’s the thing. I’m really happy for you if you managed to solve your pre-meeting jitters by coming up with a way of organising yourself or grounding yourself with a to-do list or a meditation track. But that will not solve my problem, and hearing about it? That’s going to contribute to it.
Because you see, I already feel like there is something about me that needs fixing. I don’t feel normal. I wish every day that the answer to my problems was as simple as writing a list. I might even try your suggestion and then fail at it. And then have a panic attack because I failed at the thing that was supposed to help me. Because I’m not normal. If I were, this would work as easily for me as it did for you.
Someone who has been diagnosed with anxiety is actually really unlikely to offer you advice. They might share some things they tried that worked for them, but they will acknowledge that it may or may not work for you. They will encourage you to seek professional guidance, and they definitely will not attempt to “fix you”.
If you have not experienced an anxiety disorder and someone you know is suffering, resist the temptation to fix it. They need your support and acceptance as they navigate something incredibly complex. Don’t downplay what they are going through by comparing it to your everyday stressors.
Steer far away from saying things like — “I get stressed out too sometimes, I just do XYZ and that makes me feel better, you should try it”. Instead, if someone confides in you that they have anxiety, try saying something like — “I’m sorry you’re going through that, I’d love to understand more about it so I can best support you” or, if that’s too overwhelming — “Thank you for trusting me with that information, I hope you have access to a professional to support you.”
Remember, Anxiety is a diagnosed medical condition. Please, don’t trivialise it.
If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, visit https://www.beyondblue.org.au/