I have an anxiety disorder. Most of you already know this. I mention it every month or two. Sometimes I talk about it more than others. I've never been one to hide it, though. For one thing, I don't think that mental illness is something to be ashamed of. It's a part of my life, just like diabetes or any number of other conditions are a part of other people's lives. I also feel that if you're around me for very long, I can't hide it, even if I wanted to. I'd rather go ahead and tell a friend "hey, I have anxiety disorder. Sometimes I get so scared that I kind of space out for a little while, and most of the time, it happens for no reason. If I'm having a big attack, I might pinch myself or absentmindedly press my fingernail into my skin, to try to snap out of it. It's no big deal." It's better than them thinking everything's fine one minute and then all of a sudden they notice I'm scratching myself and having trouble breathing. That's a pretty severe example, but it's happened. I'm all about honesty.
And to be honest with you, some things have been bugging me lately. I know that I have been under more pressure and stress than usual, and that can affect the frequency or intensity of my panic attacks. I also know that I've had some other things going on that are affecting my biology, which in turn affects my anxiety. I recently switched one medication because my doctor realized that my hormones were out of whack- too much estrogen can cause depression, anxiety, and nausea (and nausea makes me anxious! Go figure.)
Despite the fact that I have been living with anxiety for about 20 of my 25 years on this planet, there are still people who are close to me, whether they are friends or family, who just don't get me. And that's ok. I'm not asking anyone to understand me completely. I do, however, get very frustrated and even angry at times when certain, shall we say, attitudes about anxiety and mental illness pop up. I understand that there are people in the world who do not know anyone with anxiety, depression, or some other illnesses, and therefore, in their ignorance, they may believe that the people suffering from these illnesses can overcome them by sheer force of will. They don't get it. Once you get to know me, though, and hear my side of the story....if you still believe that, then I don't know how we can be friends. Anxiety is a medical condition. It's not a myth. And for many people, it's not temporary. Sometimes it turns up later in life, but sometimes it starts in childhood. Some people wind up with an anxiety disorder because of a traumatic event (think of soldiers with PTSD, a very severe form of anxiety), but some people have it because of the way their brains are designed, or because of their genetics. It's life. They can't change it just because you think they should be able to. So I'm going to take it upon myself to be the Anxiety and Depression Mythbuster, because people like me need to know that they are not alone, and people not like me need to know the real deal.
MYTH: You can get over your anxiety if you try hard enough.
FACT: You may cope better with your anxiety if you try, and there are some things you can do to make it better, but if you have anxiety, IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT. Medications and therapy might help, and so can diet and lifestyle changes- sometimes. But if you are trying to make it go away, and it's not budging, it has nothing to do with you personally. I myself find statements like this to be tremendously offensive. I would never approach someone with a legitimate medical condition and tell them that they can overcome it if they "try." If it was that easy, don't you think they would have already done it? You are implying they're lazy, incompetent, or they just don't care enough. And since anxiety is a legitimate medical condition, people who have it shouldn't be subjected to remarks like this.
MYTH: The Bible says not to worry, so if you worry, you are a sinful person and a bad Christian.
FACT: This is crap. Yes, the Bible says not to worry. And I take a great deal of comfort in scripture- often, reading my Bible verses that I've written in a little notebook helps me calm down faster and more thoroughly than medication. But I am not in control of the chemical imbalance in my brain. I am not in control of my genetics. That has nothing to do with personal sin. Faith plays a factor because I believe I would be much worse off, if not for my faith. To imply (or say outright, as some have done to me) that I have "a complete lack of faith in God" because I have panic attacks is more offensive to me than if you were to just spit in my face. Seriously. My panic attacks are caused by biochemical reactions, that can be worsened by circumstances or other outside factors. They are not caused by sin in my life. People who have cancer didn't get it because they sinned. They may have a genetic disposition toward cancer, or they may have made choices that multiplied their chances of getting it (like smoking), but it has nothing to do with sin. And I sometimes hope that God has gives a stern talking to the people in my life who have said these things to me, when we get to heaven.
MYTH: You won't be depressed if you just think positive!
FACT: Well, yeah, you'll probably feel worse if you surround yourself with super sad things, but just thinking about feeling better does not necessarily make you feel better. If you have a stomach virus, you probably really want to stop puking, and wouldn't sit down to eat a really greasy, nasty meal while watching gross-out videos on youtube. But even if you're doing all the right things- resting, drinking ginger ale, and nibbling saltines- you might still puke. Willpower may help in some situations, but won't solve any of your long term problems if you are medically, clinically depressed.
MYTH: Having anxiety or depression means you are weak.
FACT: Illness, physical or mental, can hit anyone. It doesn't discriminate. And just because you have an illness doesn't mean you are weak. You may struggle to cope with situations more than some other people would, but that doesn't mean you're weak. My friend can't handle gluten. Not only can't she eat it, but if a shampoo or lotion has something like oatmeal in it, she can have a reaction to that. That doesn't mean she's weak, it's just the way her body works. Anyone who says that anxiety or depression means you're weak could probably be called a wimp because of some aspect of their life, if we look hard enough.
MYTH: Depression is not a big deal- everyone gets a little down sometimes.
FACT: Depression is a very big deal. For one thing, it's not the same thing as feeling a little down. When you are a little sad, doing happy things can make you feel better. When you are clinically depressed, a nice lunch with a friend or a funny movie is not enough to make the problem go away. Clinical depression affects every aspect of a person's life- from your relationships with your family and friends, to your productivity and effectiveness in your job, to your physical health. Sometimes depression manifests itself as literal, physical pain. And if you aren't getting help, it can seriously alter your life- or even convince you that ending that life is the only way to solve your problems. If you think you may be struggling with depression, talk to a doctor as soon as possible, even if it's just at an urgent care clinic. They can help you get the help and care you need.
MYTH: Depression is something that only happens to women.
FACT: So, so false. Ugh. First of all, that leads back to the whole idea that men shouldn't have emotions or feelings because that's weak and womanly. And I hate that attitude. Everyone has feelings, and having sad feelings doesn't make you less of a man. Men are less likely to seek help for their depression, and that makes me sad. If you're a man and you're depressed, please seek help. Your depression hurts not only you, but it hurts the people you love. If they're decent people, they care about you and want you to be better. Men suffering from depression tend to disconnect from their family and friends and internalize all the bad feelings that come along with depression. Hiding your feelings away in a corner somewhere doesn't really make them go away.
MYTH: The only real way to treat these problems is with bottles and bottles of pills.
FACT: Prescription medications don't work the same way for everyone, they may not be a long term solution, and some people may not respond well to medication at all. The best thing to do is to find a good doctor who will actually listen to what's going on with your mind and body- and that means you have to open up a little bit. Then, your doctor can help you find the solution that works for you. It may mean sometimes medication, or every day medication, or both. It may be therapy or counseling, or practicing biofeedback to learn to pay attention to signals from your mind and body. Some people, like me, also find a lot of comfort and strength in faith or spiritual practices. Don't hesitate to admit that you're struggling with depression or anxiety just because you are afraid of or concerned about antidepressants. They aren't the be all and end all for treatment.
MYTH: Depression or anxiety are things that you are going to suffer from for the rest of your life.
FACT: If you're diagnosed with depression or anxiety, you will probably not "suffer" from it for the rest of your life. But it will always be there, in many cases. There are a few important things to consider. One is that depression or anxiety that are strongly linked with circumstances (such as a trauma) can be "overcome." Those folks whose depression or anxiety is caused by biology, though, can't necessarily overcome biology. That being said, there is hope. You may not always struggle with the difficult aspects of these illnesses. I myself went about five years with no medication and no major issues- I could probably count on one hand the number of panic attacks I had annually during those years, and they weren't anything really major. But then the pendulum swings the other way, and I wound up in a place where I did suffer, and where I did need both daily medication and "as needed" medication. Though I have never struggled with an addiction, I think that depression and anxiety can be similar in some ways: each day is a battle. A recovering addict will never refer to himself as a "former addict", because it's just something that sticks with you. Someone who has a true addiction could go twenty years without using, but that condition is always there. Each day is a new battle, but it can also be a new victory!
I hope that you found this helpful, whether you know someone with depression or anxiety, or if you struggle with it yourself.