The Problematic Perceptions of Anxiety

I’ve had an anxiety disorder all my life. When I was little, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) surrounding cleanliness left me with mountains of laundry from constantly changing clothes and alligator arms up to my elbows from constantly washing my hands, wrists, and forearms. Though I don’t remember much of this, it was bad enough that it led my mother to buy books on how to break these compulsions — and they worked.

Now my OCD affects me less in a physical, obvious way. I still have compulsions, but they’re not as noticeable. I still deal with obsessive and intrusive thoughts, but I’m glad to say that my OCD is now manageable. I don’t control it, but it doesn’t control me either.

My experience with General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) has been a different story. In many ways, it does control me. But that excessive worry, fear, and panic have been with me for as long as I can remember. To be honest, I can’t tell where my personality ends and my anxiety disorder begins. Anxiety is something that I have to work to manage everyday, but it’s become easier, at least in the emotional sense, just by accepting that I need more support than the “average” person — and that’s okay. I do what I need to do to be healthy.

One of the features that comes with GAD is the necessity to overthink. As a result, I’ve done a lot of thinking and analyzing about the way anxiety disorders are perceived and dealt with in our society. I know that my opinion isn’t law, but I’ve noticed some particularly frustrating things about the way that people interact with anxiety disorders and mental health as a whole.

What I’ve noticed, especially with people in our generation, is the inauthentic acceptance of mental illness. Acceptance and normalization are good, but I’ve found this normalization to have reached the point of desensitization. Mental health has, like most things these days, become a joke. I’m aware that jokes are great ways of dealing with heavy issues, but this is concerning. I constantly hear people joking about “my crippling anxiety” or “I’m so OCD” and while I’m in no way, shape, or form here to invalidate or belittle anyone’s experiences, I almost feel like having anxiety has become a trend of sorts. Maybe people are confusing stress, which the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) defines as “a response to a threat in a situation,” and anxiety, which is defined as “a reaction to stress,” with anxiety disorders. Stress and anxiety are things that everyone experiences, but when they get out of hand, are no longer appropriate in intensity, and affect your daily life, they cross the line into disorder territory.

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So I’m left to wonder: does everyone have an anxiety disorder?

This question is interesting to explore because the word “disorder” implies that it is unorderly and not normal, yet it seems like every person under 25 has some experience with anxiety. This makes me wonder what mental health issues really are. I used to think of anxiety disorders as a long-term illness, like pneumonia — but lasting years. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe anxiety is less like an illness and more like an allergy. Our brains are reacting to the conditions of the social and cultural environments we find ourselves in.

I may never know the answers to my questions, but I do know how I feel. I feel like people making jokes about being “so OCD” or assuming they have an anxiety disorder because they feel stressed about an assignment desensitizes people to the seriousness of these issues and can cause people actually experiencing them to doubt that anything is wrong. I know that people deserve to express themselves, but I feel like we need new language to describe how we feel, to differentiate normal stress and feelings that aren’t happy from actual health problems. Compared to the rest of the body, we know very little about mental health, but we do know that these issues can be scary. They can lead people to act unlike themselves, to be potentially violent toward themselves or others. The stakes are high when it comes to mental illness, which is why I don’t think they should be written off like the common cold.

If you feel like you’re experiencing a mental illness, or even just a particularly rough patch of life, I encourage you to reach out. And I don’t just mean to reach out to your friends and family. It’s great to have their support, but at the end of the day, a mental health issue is a health issue and the person you should be talking to is your doctor. Through them, you can often get connected to a therapist or psychiatrist to engage in talk therapy or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) as well as take the other appropriate measures to really tackle your issue from all sides.

I would strongly recommend (and hopefully your doctor would, too) getting a blood test because low levels of vitamins B or D can cause a slip in your mental health. I can personally attest to this, as I’ve recently gone through a very tough period in dealing with my anxiety, and it turns out I have a vitamin deficiency. Getting prescribed a high dose vitamin to fix your deficiency could make a world of a difference. But there’s also the possibility that it’s not, or that it’s more than, a vitamin deficiency and you need to explore psychiatric medication. Antidepressants can be used to treat anxiety disorders, and there are even medicines that can be taken to stop a panic attack in its tracks — this can be especially helpful if you’re a student who would otherwise have to miss class because of a panic attack. There are plenty of medication and non-medication based treatments that can potentially help. There isn’t just one solution, and finding what works for you is part of the path to feeling better.

Please, if you take anything from this article, know that the first step toward feeling better is to reach out to someone who can help you. Even if everyone around you is making jokes about mental illness, or if your friends or family somehow try to invalidate you for what you’re going through, all that matters is how you feel. If you’re seriously dealing with persistent feelings of sadness, worry, panic, or anything else that hinders your day-to-day life, it is up to you to take responsibility for your health and get the help you deserve.

And I think it’s also important to know that you can have an anxiety disorder and still be super successful and happy with your life. A mental illness isn’t an end-all-be-all sentence. It’s an obstacle, sure, but one that you can clear with the right tools and support.