Why No One Should Be Ashamed Of Anxiety Disorder

by Caitlin Flynn
Photo taken in Chon Buri, Thailand
Xphi Wat'hn Kaew Prapha / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

Like many other people who live with anxiety disorder, I can't remember a time when it wasn't a part of my daily life. As a child and high school student, I often felt so anxious at home, school, ballet class, and social gatherings that I experienced physical pain such as headaches, dizziness, and a racing heart. I was also keenly aware of the stigma surrounding mental illness — so I concealed my anxiety in every way I could, despite the fact that it permeated nearly every aspect of my life.

Thanks to therapy, medication, and the support of amazing family and friends, I'm currently in a far better place than I ever imagined I would be — but I wish that I'd been quicker to realize that no one should be ashamed of anxiety disorder, because it would have made me feel comfortable enough to seek help sooner rather than later.

When I first acknowledged that I had anxiety disorder and sought help, I was extremely careful about who I shared this information with. However, I was encouraged by the support I received and I slowly but surely began opening up to more and more people. Today, I'm an open book and eager to speak out about my own struggle with anxiety disorder — because I hope it will help others realize they're not alone and they have nothing to be ashamed of. Of course, no one is obligated to tell everyone in their lives about what they're going through — by taking recovery into our own hands, it's up to us to decide who we open up to. But it is often a not good idea to hide your illness from the people who will likely be your biggest supporters, because no one should go through the treatment process alone.

If you're struggling with anxiety disorder and feel as though it's a sign of weakness or a source of shame, here are five important things to keep in mind.

1. It's A Legitimate Illness

Let's start with the facts — although a number of factors are at play, anxiety disorder has a strong genetic component, and scientists are currently investigating seven specific genes that are linked to the illness. In short, some of us are simply more prone to anxiety disorder than others. Although life circumstances can certainly trigger and exacerbate the illness, it's a fact that genetics play a significant role. Some people's genetic makeup means they're more vulnerable to physical illnesses, while others are born with a predisposition to mental illness. None of this is in our control, and it's certainly not something we should be ashamed of.

2. It's Brave To Acknowledge Anxiety Disorder & Seek Help

Although the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly being broken down and a great deal of progress has been made, the bottom line is that there will always be people who just don't get it and are uninterested in trying to understand those of us who struggle with anxiety and other mental illnesses. The old adage "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" isn't especially helpful when you have a medical condition that interferes with your ability to fully engage with life. So, actually acknowledging to yourself and others that you have anxiety disorder and need professional help is a really brave thing to do — so give yourself credit where it's due.

3. Anxiety Disorder Doesn't Define You

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When I first "went public" by openly speaking and writing about my struggles with anxiety disorder, I feared that people would view it as my defining quality. Instead, I received emails and social media messages from casual acquaintances and former colleagues who told me that they, too, struggled with anxiety and were grateful to learn they weren't the only ones. None of us suddenly viewed each other in an entirely different light simply because we had acknowledged that we have anxiety disorder.

Of course, plenty of people who don't suffer from anxiety listened to and read my words as well — and it didn't change their perception of me. To them, I was still the feminist bookworm, writer, and dancer with a whole lot of political opinions to share, and my anxiety disorder didn't alter my identity. Yes, it's a part of my life and something I deal with on a daily basis, but it doesn't change the core of who I am— and the same applies to every single person out there who has anxiety disorder.

4. Shame Prevents People From Seeking Help

To me, the most heartbreaking aspect of the shame surrounding anxiety disorder is that it dissuades people from seeking the help they need and deserve. Anxiety is like a chronic physical illness — its symptoms won't simply "go away" on their own. I won't sugarcoat it and say that treatment cures anxiety, because it doesn't.

But it most definitely improves your quality of life and provides you with tools to handle the toughest moments. Everyone's different, but I've found that a combination of the right medication and therapy has dramatically changed my life for the better. I spent years hiding in silence because I was so ashamed of my anxiety disorder, and it resulted in a great deal of unnecessary suffering. I don't want anyone else to make the same mistake I did — we can't fix this on our own, and that's more than OK.

5. Living With Any Illness Makes You Strong — And That's Something To Be Proud Of

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Living with any chronic illness, whether it's physical or mental, means that we often need to muster up all our strength in order to fulfill our personal and professional obligations. Anxiety disorder can be debilitating — at my lowest points, simply showering and getting out the door in the morning to face the world required a herculean effort. Today, I'm fortunate enough to be in a "good place" with my anxiety disorder — but I still certainly have days when I'd rather hide under the covers than face a triggering or anxiety-inducing situation.

When we refuse to let our illness win and we face the world despite our pervasive fears, that's a sign of true strength — and it's something to be proud of. Other people may not understand or appreciate the amount of strength it takes to do this, but they haven't walked in our shoes or experienced the racing thoughts, heart palpitations, or fears that are constant companions to individuals with anxiety. So, give yourself credit where it's due — anxiety disorder can make it hard to live your life, so the act of seeking help and living your life to the fullest despite your illness makes you strong and brave.

Images: Getty Images (3); Giphy