Stress is a stranger to no one. We've all experienced worry and concern about the things that matter most to us, and sometimes the pressure leaves us exhausted. Yet no matter how stressful your life may seem at any given point, the life of someone who has an anxiety disorder is probably even more stressful. Since my battle with acute anxiety arrived in my teenage years, I've encountered a lot of people who think they understand anxiety-related mental illnesses after they've been through a particularly trying time in their life. They say things like, "Yeah I know what you mean. I almost had a panic attack when I got laid off last year." I know they mean well and they're trying to relate to me; I don't mean to diminish the devastating experience of losing your job, but it's simply not the same as having generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Eighteen percent of Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, and it's most common among young adults and women. We appreciate the fact that people are trying to understand our experiences — and we want to be understood. But if there's just one thing people with anxiety want others to know, it's this: there often isn't a rhyme or reason for our anxiety. Many times, it comes out of nowhere. The fact that our distress is unrealistic and unwarranted is the heart of an anxiety disorder. Unlike those who have been through an extremely stressful period, people suffering from illnesses like generalized anxiety disorder can live with anxiety for months on end, and it can get worse as time goes on. This interferes with their ability to do normal things, like go to work or participate in social events, which is why it's an illness — not just a phase we're going through.
Bustle spoke with Jodi Aman, a licensed psychotherapist and author of You 1, Anxiety 0 , who explains it this way: "Anxiety is divisive. It wants to isolate the sufferer so it can stay in power." It can make us feel completely alone, like we're stranded out in the middle of a treacherous sea without any chance of rescue. If our friends and family knew that, they would probably see us and our mental illness in a different light.
1. We Often Get Anxious Over The Smallest Things
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, GAD is "characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things." In other words, we wig out over the most insignificant things. For example, there are many times I lose my cool over the washing machine, and how fast and loud it spins at the end. I'm afraid it's going to spiral out of control, self-combust, and completely destroy my home and ruin my clothes. My heart races and I have to walk out of the house to catch my breath. It's totally irrational, but these are the kinds of things that plague us, and it's very different than someone staying up at night worrying about their job interview the next morning (though we do that too sometimes).
Because everyone has faced some form of anxiety at one point in their lives, Aman says this can actually help bring together people who suffer from a mental illness and those who don't. "Humans understand worry," she says. "They understand being afraid to lose someone or something precious." If someone you care about has an anxiety disorder, channel those moments, yet remember that they're amplified a thousand times for us when we think about everyday stuff.
2. Sometimes We Can't Stop Thinking Anxious Thoughts, No Matter How Much We Want To
Aman tells Bustle that it's very useful for people with anxiety to simply tell their loved ones what they're worried about, followed by, "And I can't stop thinking of it." It would help immensely if people around us understood that our anxiety is simply out of our control sometimes. Regardless of how much we want the anxious reel to stop going on in our heads, it consistently rolls onward. The worry that infests the minds of people with GAD, according to Help Guide, is excessive, persistent, and intrusive, and it can't be willed away.
Some treatments help, such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. Medication can help for some, as do holistic therapies like meditation and yoga. But there will always be times when the anxious brooding simply gets out of control, no matter how much we try to keep it contained.
3. When You Tell Us How Unreasonable Our Thoughts Are, We Only Get More Anxious
I've gotten into a few memorable arguments over the years with friends and family who tell me that I need to just slow down and stop worrying myself into the ground. Even though they're trying to lift me out of my funk, it just ends up making me angry — and more on edge than before.
Aman tells Bustle she sees a lot of people with anxiety disorders who know that their loved ones mean well with their advice, but it doesn't come across in a useful way. "People with anxiety want their loved ones to know how much they are trying," she says, and telling someone with generalized anxiety disorder to merely stop fretting overlooks how much time we've spent trying to do exactly that. Try to find another more comforting way to soothe us, like listening intently to what we have to say or cooking us a warm meal, anything that makes us feel cared for rather than scolded.
4. It Sucks To Have To Constantly Justify Where Our Anxiety Comes From
My partner, who has also suffered from anxiety for years, says his pet peeve is when someone says to him, "Why are you so nervous? What do you have to be anxious about?" Just hearing that makes him feel jittery. I've heard variations of the same questions, and it never fails to heighten the anxiety I'm already fighting. It would be great for our loved ones to remember that the cornerstone of generalized anxiety disorder is the fact that our uncontrollable worries often come from nowhere in particular. We shouldn't have to spend time trying to explain to others where the disquietude comes from, because we honestly have no idea. In fact, if we try to figure out the source, we only make ourselves feel worse, maybe even to the point of physical sickness.
5. We Often Feel Isolated From The People Closest To Us
"[Anxiety] convinces people that they are different and they present that story, so the loved ones feel helpless and assume they don't understand," Aman says. Our anxiety can make us feel isolated from those we love most. We convince ourselves we're different, which makes us remove ourselves from our friends and family, and then they feel like they can't be of any assistance. It's a horrible cycle to fall into.
So if there are people in your life who suffer from an anxiety disorder, remember that they already feel separated from you. Aman recommends you acknowledge the hard work they've already put in. Tell them you see how much they're trying. "This helps them feel connected and cared for ... builds their confidence, and encourages them to step into those skills even more actually helping them recover," she says. Above all, be patient and keep in mind that we would love to get rid of this disorder if we could.
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