How To Explain Anxiety To People Who Don't Get It

by JR Thorpe

If you have an anxiety disorder, know that you're not alone: the Anxiety Disorders Association Of America reports that anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in America, affecting around 18 percent of the entire population. And it's important to remember that there's a wide variety of anxiety disorders that people struggle with, from post-traumatic stress disorder to general anxiety disorder to specific phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Unfortunately, when it comes to explaining the concept of anxiety disorders to the uninitiated, that variety — and some common misunderstandings about what "anxiety" really means in its disordered state – can confuse some well-meaning but ill-informed people. If you need some guidance regarding how to let friends or family into the realities of your anxiety condition, the tips below may help.

You may not be able to communicate the details of your disorder if you don't fully understand them yourself, so the first step to educating others is to get educated. Is your particular experience common to the disorder? What treatment is available? Do you have specific anxiety triggers, and if so, do you know what they are?

Of course, you may not feel like being the information bureau about this particular issue for your friends and family, which is a wholly legitimate and understandable way to feel. If that's the case, you may want to direct them to some sources of information that can explain it further. The mental health organization Mind and the National Institute of Mental Health both have good resources that get into the nitty-gritty in intelligible ways.

But if you do want to try to help the people in your life who do not have anxiety disorders to try to better understand your experience, here are a few tips for explaining anxiety to people without much experience of it as a serious problem. Good luck, my friend.

1. It's Not Just About "Worrying"

"Anxiety" seems like a rather benign word on its own; people can say they're anxious about job interviews, flying, a second date, or other innocuous situations, and what they mean is that they're anticipating difficulty and fearful of certain consequences, but likely prepared to go through with it anyway. A little of that kind of anxiety is a natural part of life.

But an anxiety disorder is very different, as it's as if those basic impulses mushroom out of the realm of rational worry into something more complicated and uncontrollable.

People with an acute form of anxiety (like, say, acute social anxiety — a disorder where every social interaction is fraught with fear of disaster and the potential for paralytic terror) often come up against the idea that anxiety is just "worry;" in other words, that it's something that could be controlled if they would just "calm down" and "stop working yourself up." The thing to emphasize when explaining your experience is that, generally, anxiety is not a choice. Experiencing anxiety can feel like a tripwire in your brain has gone off, leaving you without access to certain calmer ways of reacting to a problem. The highway has no turn-offs.

2. Just Because A Worry Is "Irrational" Doesn't Mean It Does Not Hold Power

One of the most difficult things to explain about certain types of mental health disorders, like anxiety, is that even though the mental processes behind them are not rational, that doesn't reduce the power of the thoughts they create in any way at all. A thought process that definitely has no basis in reality (for instance, the idea that if you don't close your door three times, terrible things will happen to those you love, or that somebody hates you because you said "you too" when they wished you a happy birthday) still holds power, even if you rationally understand that it shouldn't.

A good way to explain this can be to divide your brain into two parts: the rational bit and the primitive, lizard bit — this latter bit is the part that triggers primal panic responses. The rational brain may very well understand that the concept or situation you're dealing with isn't actually terrifying; but the lizard brain isn't listening, and will take a lot of convincing before it stops shouting through a megaphone and deafening the rational brain with its power.

3. A Panic Attack Feels Dangerous, Even If It Isn't

The feeling of a panic attack can be quite spectacularly difficult to explain to anybody who hasn't experienced one. You could try to focus on explaining the physical aspects, if the mental bit is tricky or upsetting for you to get into: the paralytic muscles, the racing heart, the feeling of possible death. It's a serious experience and should be taken seriously. Emily McClure over at SimpleMost describes the feeling of normal anxiety as "running a race without ever leaving your seat," and that's a good place to start; but the overwhelming nature of paralytic fear can be trickier to communicate. Relating it to their most extreme fears or phobias may be a good way to try to reach some kind of common ground.

4. PTSD Is Not Only For Soldiers

A common misconception about post-traumatic stress disorder: that it's only really a "thing" for people who've seen action in combat. PTSD is actually a disorder that can occur in reaction to a huge range of traumas, from sexual assault to abuse, and it can have many varied ways of showing itself.

Many people will make assumptions about a PTSD sufferer, so it's important to keep that in mind while explaining the condition: everybody's triggers are different, and when they're set off, it's rather like a firework in your head that can't possibly be shut off or kept quiet, even if your reactions are minute or very short-lived. I react very badly to loud noises; another friend with the condition can't deal with enclosed spaces. The notion of "slipping back" — of a piece of stimulus putting your body back into the situation of trauma just for a second like a terrible time machine — might help make it clearer to the person that you're speaking with.

5. It Can Feel Like You're Anticipating Danger All The Time

Anxiety disorders typically involve a disordered view of threats in the world. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, it may feel like threats to your physical and mental safety are frequently present but you may not be able to see them right away; you may not know when they're going to turn up, and feel like you have no mechanism for predicting them. It's like being in a hair-trigger environment. The adrenal fight or flight response is, in this situation, always close to the surface, and the mind truly believes it's the safest way to protect itself.

The feeling that there is looming danger that we're not readily prepared to handle is the unifying theme in anxiety disorders. Obsessive compulsive sufferers may develop particular rituals and patterns to "protect against" or "neutralize" these threats; people may experience panic attacks or serious terror in reaction to them; others may feel constant levels of anxiety all the time; and still others will associate certain innocuous events with deeply troubling things and want to escape them immediately. But no matter what your particular situation is, this feeling of danger remains a theme across anxiety disorder: some part of the brain of the anxiety disorder sufferer is convinced (possibly because of past events) that particular situations are hugely, horribly threatening — and that part of the brain begins strategizing about how to stay safe, even when its ideas of safety and danger don't necessarily square with the reality of what is going on around you.

Though you may not want to explain life with an anxiety disorder as a giant game of Call of Duty, many people who have never dealt with anxiety disorder don't understand that it is about a sense of danger that feels very real, even if it isn't. Letting them into this reality — even just a bit — may help them better support you.

Images: Stocksy, Gemeentearchief Amsterdam, Wellcome Trust, All Detective Magazine, John Hamilton Mortimer, Nationaal Archief Netherlands/Wikimedia Commons