So, I had a completely different idea on what my next post would be about, however, with May being Mental Health Month and me being a social worker I thought this one should come first. The other one is still coming, promise.
I wanted to speak out about my anxiety. It is not something that I tell many people that I have and I definitely don’t share the individual experiences with many people.
I want to preface all of this by saying that everyone experiences mental health symptoms differently. I hope that by sharing this it may shed some light on how a person with anxiety might feel and experience, give the loved ones of anxiety sufferers some beginning talking points, and share advice on what you can do to assist someone in the midst of an anxiety/panic attack.
I honestly cannot tell you exactly how long I have struggled with anxiety. I can only tell you about the first experience I remember. I was a freshman in college, I was walking back to my dorm room from class and my chest felt like it was caving in, I couldn’t breathe, my vision was getting blurry, I was hyperventilating, and I honestly felt as if I was going to die. As far as I can remember this was my first time experiencing anything like this and had no clue what was happening. I was scared out of my mind. After what felt like a very long time everything started to subside. Later, I remembered a friend of mine mentioning a panic attack. At that point I began to connect the dots. I did some research and determined that it must have been a panic attack that was happening. I cannot recall how long it was before the next one but it has happened countless times since that day. There was an entire semester during grad school that I could not open my computer to do homework without having a panic attack. I could not even think about my classes that semester without an attack happening. Needless to say, I did not do as well as I would have liked during that semester. Anxiety is not an easy thing to deal with and just as hard to explain to others so with this post I hope to bring some clarity to those who may not understand and support those who experience it firsthand.
Photo courtesy of www.createherstock.com
The first thing that I want to share about anxiety is
1. Anxiety impairs function
For pretty much any mental health issue to be diagnosed there has to be some kind of function impairment. For instance, when I am having an anxiety or panic attack it is very hard for me to concentrate on my work, all I want to do is sleep, and I completely lose sight of any tasks that I am supposed to be doing. Even conversations are very different during these times. I am much more irritable and easily frustrated. Everyday tasks become daunting and seem to be impossible to complete. EVERYTHING BECOMES A BIG DEAL. And everything starts to feel like it is all falling apart at one time. I can’t find my keys, my phone won’t stop ringing, I can’t find any silence, sounds are much louder, senses are heightened, I stub my toe, I get in late to work, everybody needs something. Any other time these things could probably be frustrating to say the least but when I am having anxiety it all happens at once and feels unbearable.
2. My anxiety and panic attacks are just as scary for me as they are for you
There has only been one time that a friend has been physically present during an extreme panic attack and he was so worried. I was kind of scared too but since I have had so many I able better able to identify it and deal with it a little at a time. My legs and feet were shaking uncontrollably and I couldn’t let go of this pillow that I had, and my teeth were quivering. If you witness someone going through this, please do not try to make them make you feel comfortable. What do I mean? Don’t let your fear of what is happening get in the way of them going through this process. You can’t tell them to stop because you are scared, it just doesn’t work that way. We don’t want to go through it just like you don’t want to see it happening so if we could just stop it, I believe that all of us would.
3. There is not always an identifiable reason for the anxiety
This one is probably the most important. People who do not experience anxiety for themselves often want to find a reason for what is happening. That is not always possible. People with an anxiety disorder are generally overthinkers. We put way more thought into everything that happens to or around us. So, that, of course, could cause some anxiety because our brain is trying to process too much at once and when our thoughts start to go down one path it is very easy for us to get lost on a whole ‘nother road. There are also times that not much is really going on, my body and my brain just kind of start panicking, hence the panic attacks. With that being said, it is probably not all that helpful to keep asking ‘what’s wrong?’ because the person probably cannot give you an answer, at least not at that time. I would say that 45% of the time my anxiety attacks happen with no possible explanation. Other times I know it is because of stress. For other people the unexplainable percentage can be a lot higher. And once again, it is just as frustrating for us as it is for you. Our bodies our completely out of wack and we can’t even determine the source of the problem, let alone control the problem.
So, how can you help the person that you love who is struggling with anxiety?
1. Never tell them, “just calm down”
Those three words will send me into a panic attack faster than anything else; it only makes things worse. If I could just calm down I would. Oh yeah, the related phrases of relax, chill out, or anything else similar also apply.
2. LISTEN, LINDA
Besides telling me to calm down, you not listening to what I am communicating to you is one of the worse things you can do for me in that moment. I mentioned above that during these attacks senses are heightened. If I ask you to stop touching me or to stop making a certain noise or doing a certain thing, please just honor the request. Without laughing and making a mockery of this small thing that is completely setting me off, just do it. If you really love that person the best way to help them is to listen to their request and honor it. The request may be to give some space. Don’t take offense or taunt them, just let them get some air and time to relax. If they need you to get them a warm towel, get the towel and just wait for them to communicate something else with you. The last thing we need during this time is pressure. Whatever they say take it seriously and do not dismiss it just because you do not understand it.
3. Have an open conversation
Do not, I repeat, do not try to have this conversation during an episode. It will not be productive. Pick another time, when both of you are ready, relaxed, and open and talk about the symptoms, how you can be most helpful, and what they experience. The person that has the anxiety should also be open to developing appropriate ways to communicate when early signs begin to happen. For instance, when the irritation starts let them know what is going on, or if it is easier to have a code word or phrase use that. However, I recommend being as direct as possible.
So, for the person experiencing anxiety
1. You are not alone.
Connect with others who have some of the same struggles and understand. With social media the way that it is now it makes it a little easier. I would love to connect with you.
2. You are going to be alright
In the moments that can be hard to believe but we will be fine. Trust me, during an anxiety it attack it feels like the entire world is literally crashing in on you but it won't. Breathe through it, talk to a supportive (very important) person in your life, and keep pushing.
3. Getting help is okay
This is still a journey for me. I am still learning my symptoms and the best ways to handle them. I currently use essential oils while I am at work to help me refocus. I tried to convince myself for a long time that I should not take meds for this condition, however, my anxiety episodes have been happening more often, are closer together, and are beginning to impact my life in more serious ways. So, within the next few weeks I hope to being seeing a doctor about my options as well as updating you all. Seek help from someone who shares your beliefs on coping skills and relieving methods. Particularly in the Black community, especially if you were raised in the church, we are taught to just pray about it and move on so it creates more of a stigma on getting help. I am in the process of writing a book on depression and anxiety in the black religious community and I hope that you all will support that when I finally finish.
Share your experiences with me!! Whether you are a person that experiences anxiety and panic attacks or someone who deals with a loved one that struggles with this. Your views could help someone else.