I’ve suffered from panic attacks and anxiety since I was about 8 years old. I was a smart, well-behaved child whom teachers loved, but I had an irrational fear that I would get accused of something—something I didn’t even do. Did someone play tic-tac-toe in pencil on the wall? I was sure I would be blamed. “No trading Garbage Pail Kids at recess!” the recess teacher screeched, and I was sure someone would think I was trading them because I was standing next to a crowd of kids who were.
As a teen, I developed phobias. I was afraid of flying for a while. I was afraid of crowded spaces, and the possibility of mass shootings. In my 20s, I went to cognitive behavioral therapy, took up exercise, meditation, and yoga. The phobias eventually faded out, but as the years passed, they would be replaced by other fears, obsessive thoughts, and plain old terror.
Since I became a mom, my anxiety has shown up in different ways than it used to. I’m not so much afraid of my children getting hurt (though I know a lot of anxiety sufferers do have a heightened fear of this when they have kids), but I have fears about handling the overwhelming task of mothering them. I get anxiety attacks in the morning when my kids are late for school. I get anxious when I am not feeling well and I don’t know how I’ll get through the day and take care of my kids. I get anxious about having enough money for their needs. I get anxious about my own anxiety, which is a common experience of anxiety sufferers.
Anxiety runs in my family. Yes, there were probably circumstances in my childhood that exacerbated it in me, but I also believe I am just wired that way. I am wired to be intense, perfectionistic and obsessive. Sometimes these traits can make me an awesome, productive, creative person, but sometimes they make me feel like the world is closing in on me and I’m going to die.
On the outside, I come across as calm, collected, articulate and successful, but many of us who suffer from anxiety seem this way. We are not all nervous on the outside. Many of us are functional members of society—people you might admire. But here’s the thing: Every day we are faced with the possibility of being flooded with the most intense fear, our hearts beating out of our chest, a sickness in our gut, and the feeling like something awful is going to happen.
I think part of what makes anxiety hard to live with is the invisibility of the disease. Much of it is spinning thoughts trapped inside your head, and it’s hard for others to understand what that’s really like. When so many of the worries are irrational, it seems easy and logical just to present an anxious person with the truth of their fears, and expect them to move on. But in the middle of an anxiety episode, that is the last thing you want to hear. You may know it’s irrational, but anxiety is a full-body experience. You are flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones, and it’s nearly impossible to wish it all away. Still, those who suffer from anxiety need real support, and so often what we get instead is judgment and misunderstanding.
So here are some things to avoid saying to someone who suffers from anxiety (followed by some real suggestions for how to help):
1. ‘But you don’t seem anxious.’
Like I said, many of us anxiety suffers come across as well put together—sometimes excessively so. But our anxiety feels tremendous, so if we are sharing it with you, please don’t minimize it.
2. ‘That’s not really something to be afraid of.’
Many of our anxieties have a basis in reality, but our anxiety blows them up so big they becoming terrifying. We almost always know they are irrational. There’s no need to underline that.
3. ‘This medication, meditation, exercise, etc., is the answer for you.’
There is almost always something out there that can help an anxiety sufferer, but there is no one-size-fits-all cure for everyone. Some people do really well with medication; others don’t (and which medication works for an individual sufferer varies greatly). Some find meditation, exercise and deep breathing helpful. For others, that doesn’t help at all.
4. ‘Just snap out of it.’
If it were that easy, we would do it in a heartbeat. No one likes feeling anxious, but when you are in it, you can’t just snap out of it. It can take days and weeks for the flood of anxious hormones to get out of someone’s body after an attack. Telling someone to “snap out of it” is downright insulting.
5. ‘I understand. I worry sometimes too.’
There is worry, and then there is anxiety. Common worries and stress are not the same as anxiety attacks, which are full-body, psychological experiences.
6. ‘But you have so much to be grateful for.’
Yes, we do. And yes, our worries could be categorized as First World problems, but they are real, and they can make us feel less present in our lives than we want to be. We know that. We don’t need more guilt.
If you have a loved one in your life who suffers from anxiety, here’s what you can do: listen and love. That’s all. True listening means suspending your judgments as much as possible. It means talking less, putting down your phone, sitting in a quiet room, looking your loved one in the eyes, and just taking it all in. At first, don’t offer advice. Just be there. Placing a hand on an anxious person’s shoulder (with permission) can help stabilize him or her. But mostly, having a loving, safe place to spill one’s fears is worth its weight in gold.
If you are an anxiety sufferer like me, seek out those who will listen that way. If anyone makes you feel more anxious, or guilty for being anxious, walk away. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to seek out more peaceful and comfortable environments. Anxiety doesn’t just go away on its own, but it’s possible to shape your life in a way where you are nurtured through it. It’s possible to find a way to manage it—whether it’s through therapy, medication, exercise, meditation, breathing or a combination of treatments.
Most of all, you are worth the time and care it takes to feel better, and you are not alone.