According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders fall along an entire spectrum. One of the most common is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is the closest to what I deal with, but you can also suffer from panic disorders that cause sudden and repeated panic attacks, or social anxiety disorders that tend to crop up when dealing with other people.
Mental health problems don’t come in neat, self-contained packages like other illnesses. When you get a cold, you know what the symptoms are and how to treat it. While anxiety disorders can sometimes occur on their own, they can also develop as part of a broader health problem. As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) points out, anxiety disorders can tag along with a number of physical or mental health problems, including eating disorders, sleep disorders, ADHD, chronic pain, and yes — even prolonged stress.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, your least favourite words are probably some variation of “calm down.” You can’t just calm down — that’s the whole point. If I could just make the bad feelings go away by thinking about it, I wouldn’t have an anxiety disorder. Sound familiar?
I’d heard this so many times that the words started to make me angry on principle. Back when I was just starting out as a professional writer, I encountered the worst thing that could ever happen to a person: someone left me a mean comment on the internet. It’s normal to take these things a little personally, but I let it eat away at me so much that I walked into the kitchen, passed my roommate without saying hi, and started crying over the edge of the sink.
He asked if I needed to go somewhere to calm down, and my response was exactly as measured and reasonable as you’d expect. I yelled about how I can’t calm down. I told him that he can’t possibly know how painful it is to be so stressed all the time (which is obviously crap, but I felt it at the time). I bemoaned how awful I was as a writer, and I should just give up now. I screamed about how everything is terrible and nothing will ever get better. Eventually, I broke down into a sobbing mess on the floor. My friend, again to his credit, stayed with me until I could breathe normally again.
In my own experience, I found that even though “calm down” isn’t something I can make myself do on command, it was still a good cue that I was having an attack and needed to do something. Anxiety has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you when you least expect it. When I got to a point where I was starting to overreact or panic, if someone tells me to calm down (or some variant), that’s a good sign that I need to take my own action. Sure, counting to ten doesn’t help me, but walking away from the situation until the anxiety fades might help me come at it again later from a place of strength. I also found that the more I practiced relaxing in my free time, the easier it was to recognise the difference when I had an anxiety flare up.
If you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, don’t hesitate to seek help. There are tons of hotlines and groups you can call if you’re not sure where to turn. Your health insurance plan may have some guidance for covered mental health programs If you can’t afford therapy, there are low- or no-cost options also available. No matter how you choose to get help, the most important thing is that you take action. If you have someone in your life that can support you, try to reach out. It’s a long, difficult process to get better, but it is possible.
If depression is affecting you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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