"Oh great," you say, as you scroll along the newsfeed and see another annoying post about anxiety and "raising awareness." It's just a bunch of millennials who are wet behind the ears right? Everyone's jumping on the mental health bandwagon these days. It's trendy to have anxiety. Why can't they just get over it?
That's why we need to raise awareness. People with anxiety can't just "get over it." In fact, telling them to do so will just compound the problem and invalidate their emotions.
Anxiety does not define a person, nor is it a core aspect of their character. It is a symptom of an overactive fight or flight response. It is basic instinct version 2.0.
Think back to a time where you were genuinely terrified of something. Your heart races, you may feel nausea or even shake. You become pumped full of adrenaline and feel the urge to run or punch someone in the face.
Now imagine if someone came running at you with a gun. How would you feel? You are alone, unarmed, and this person is bigger than you. Put yourself in that scenario right now. Really think about it. If you aren't scared of people with guns try imagining yourself alone in the ocean with a shark underneath you, your puny legs dangling in the water as this agile predator with a mouth full of knives circles below you.
This is how anxiety feels. Except the fears are not rational or even existent in most cases, yet the fight or flight response acts EXACTLY THE SAME as if that person were in REAL DANGER. Imagine going about your day feeling as if a shark was circling below you. Try casually sitting in the office, eating your lunch, boarding a train.
The fundamental fear that contributed to the development of panic has been lost amongst the illogical. It is masked by one thousand trivial worries. A person may develop an irrational phobia of buttons that causes them to panic. The button has the same potency as the shark in the water. Often the focus of the fear is simply a manifestation of something residual within a person's psyche; the danger itself is often insignificant yet develops a false importance. It is a symbol. This may be related to a significant life event, but as the memory is often buried, the unresolved fear resurfaces. The panic can transfer to any object/scenario. Some fears may sound absolutely hilarious, and even the person suffering can even see the funny side themselves. Yet when in the throes of an attack, all rationality is lost (thanks, adrenal gland).
Anxiety studies show that causes are often environmental and in some cases biological. Usually related to some form of trauma where the fight or flight response became exaggerated and out of control. For one person, it may be the time they wet themselves in class. For another, it may have been caused by spending time in Afghanistan in a war zone. Whatever the cause is, a singular or cumulative event or events has laid the foundation. The very same neurological reaction designed to keep you alive is actually keeping you in a cage. A person with anxiety can run and hide or lash out in anger and fight. In the case of full blown panic attacks the fear itself simply takes over and causes the body to somewhat implode. Sometimes a person can feel it coming, sometimes it will happen suddenly.
Every day with anxiety is a fight.The choice sufferers have is to be a victim to it or make a conscious effort to channel it in effective ways. Adrenaline can serve a person, fear can fuel success. Alternatively it can cripple an individual and begin to erode their true personality. How we deal with our problems ultimately determines our character, not the problems themselves.
Anxiety can be beaten; it is not a life sentence. But to learn how to live with anxiety is to learn how to fight of a predator with your own bare hands and win. It's taking a gun from someone bigger than you and turning it on them.
Compassion and understanding from others is vital when dealing with panic attacks. Too many people are quick to dismiss it as "attention seeking" or "needy." Yes, anxieties can make a person somewhat self-absorbed. Yes, fears can cause a person to act like a lunatic. It must not be forgotten that at the heart of fear is an animal's deepest instinct. The preservation of self. Somewhere along the line that person had to protect themselves from a REAL danger and they haven't stopped since. The selfishness that comes with anxiety is not malicious, it is natural. It is something innate in every human being on earth, amplified. Some people are lucky enough to have perfect lives. Ninety-nine percent of us are not that lucky, and a huge proportion of that 99 percent are living with the fallout of one trauma or another every single day.
For example, you have a cute little dog that you adopted from a shelter. The dog lived its life in a household where it was kicked and neglected. Understandably, the dog flinches and cowers when you move in a certain way or go to pet it. You don't tell the dog to "man up." You are well aware that this pre-programmed reaction is not personal to you, and with time the dog will learn that you aren't going to hurt it. Why can't people show the same understanding and compassion with their fellow humans? In fact, not once in my life have I ever heard "God, that dog, you know, he needs to get over it. He's being so irrational. I think he's crazy. Logically he should know I'm not going to kick him because I'm different from his last owner. Jesus, he should know that."
The majority of anxiety sufferers (if not all) will tell you that they do not enjoy the process and cycle of panic and loss of self. They want to beat it to the ground. They do not want to live the rest of their lives not recognising real danger and imagined. This is not a cool bag sticker or a meme, it's something that people are ashamed of. Notice I barely use the word disorder when talking about anxiety. I don't like that word. It implies finality, a tattoo on the forehead. A disorder is too clinical. It's as trapping as the state of mind it defines. Strip it down to the bare essentials and it can be managed. It's just fear, and fear decided to go to the gym one day and pump some iron. Then he took some steroids for good measure. That is something a person can beat eventually with the correct mindset and support.
Other empty but well meaning phrases such as "don't worry" or "you'll be fine" or "there's nothing to worry about, is there?" contain the same lack of understanding. It's the equivalent of driving past someone about to be pounced by a lion and rolling down the window to shout, "Don't worry! You'll be fine!" I mean, you could first acknowledge that the lion exists. "Shit! A lion!" is a good place to start. Then, if you care about the person, you proceed to help them. Phrases such as "I know this doesn't feel safe for you right now, but I'm here for you" can go a long way. Actual ACKNOWLEDGEMENT that a person's fear is not irrational or extreme can help them overcome it. Making someone feel stupid or small only deepens the feeling of being absolutely alone in their suffering. In fact, it is the opposite of what someone with anxiety should feel if they ever hope to see recovery.
So the next time you feel like telling someone to "get over it," think back to that shark. Scroll up and look at the picture, feel yourself in the water, feel helpless, imagine that fucker coming at you with its mouth wide open. Next time you are in the sea, try and imagine it. Listen to how your body reacts. Keep thinking about it and see how fast your adrenal gland will tell you to get out of the water. Can you get over it? Do you FEEL like getting a grip? Can you simply switch off the fear and calmly lie on the water as it surfaces to take a bite of your leg? No, I didn't think so either.