When I have an anxiety attack, I do not feel mildly lightheaded, like the Kardashians did from their “panic attacks” a plane. It starts with all my muscles clenching up, especially my chest. I must get a look on my face, something strange, because my husband always knows and begins to lower-case-p-panic himself. “Breathe,” he says. “Breathe, honey.”
But I can’t breathe. My breath begins to hitch. Then it jerks. The jerks turn to desperate gasps for air and I feel like I am going to die even though I know intellectually that I am not dying; I am having an anxiety attack.
I am a caged animal beating against the walls of my own body. These attacks are so severe sometimes that we considered a service dog at one time until regular medication got them under control. They take so much out of me that I usually need to sleep afterwards.
I am diagnosed — signed, sealed and stamped by the best psychiatrist in the state — with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Before the meds, putting my clothes on could provoke a mental breakdown. I thought I had no friends, because my social anxiety was so bad I assumed they were constantly judging me. I was often unable to maintain meaningful relationships; school was a hell of crippling inadequacy despite my top grades. I’d been freaking out since I was eight. Eight. While GAD looks different for everyone, my case is a common one.
So I am pissed off when our culture throws the word “anxiety” around in such a cavalier manner. Everyone’s anxious these days. As the UK’s Metro says, “At times, it can feel like there’s a seemingly endless discussion around anxiety and depression going on; is it too far-fetched to suggest that that might have a sort of gaslighting effect on otherwise healthy people?”
Which means, basically, that the more people jabber about their “anxiety,” the more people with legit anxiety suffer. As Vice’s Tonic column puts it, “the colloquial use of anxiety terminology is a slap in the face to those who are truly suffering, those who wish their feelings were just butterflies—hearing people throw these terms around so casually trivializes the all-encompassing panic they actually feel, making anxiety less likely to be taken seriously by others.”
Because when most people talk about their anxiety, they are not talking about the debilitating, life-destroying effects of GAD. They mean worries about the everyday slings and arrows: bills that need paid, screaming toddlers, burned dinners, a house that disintegrates into chaos.
“Anxiety in itself is just a normal experience,” Shanthi Mogali, director of psychiatry at Mountainside Treatment Center in Connecticut, told Vice. “What creates abnormal anxiety is when experiences of nervousness and worry start to take over your daily life—people can find [themselves] worrying about mundane things, things that normal people can kind of push out of their mind. [It] starts to consume their life.”
Like when you can’t decide what to wear because you have to make exactly the right impression to random strangers in Target; your bedroom ends up littered in outfits and you end up crumpled in tears. You worry about wrecking your car, tiny shoes scattered on the median. You worry obsessively that your spouse will die on their way home from work. You worry that you are totally fucking up this parenting thing and your kids will grow up to hate you and never speak to you again and you will die old and alone and lonely. You worry about nuclear war. You have contingency plans for nuclear war. You jolt awake mid-panic attack about those plans for nuclear war.
Gina, 26, tells UK’s Metro that, “There’s a huge difference between feeling anxious and suffering from anxiety. It’s so regular and common to let life’s stresses get you down but those stresses are often temporary and can be easily dealt with or rectified. Suffering from anxiety becomes an almost physical illness that can take a lifetime to deal with. Suffering from anxiety is an all-encompassing, debilitating illness that has the potential to destroy somebody if not managed well.” Ain’t that the truth?
We need to start using words with care, to differentiate “worry” and “anxiety,” to remember that being upset about something doesn’t necessarily mean a psychological condition.
While there are different degrees of anxiety, my GAD is so severe I need two Klonopin to roll myself out of bed in the morning — every morning. It’s not optimal, but functioning like an actual human adult is, and that’s what those drugs enable. I still get nervous: will my dog will look like a dumbass in obedience class, or do my kids have enough friends, or do the friends I have actually like me. But these are normal forms of nervousness. Normal worries. To the extent that “normal” can even be defined, that is. After all, we’re all different with different tolerance levels.
Most worries? Unless they’re obsessive and crippling, they fall into the “normal” category. They count as nervous. They range in the normal spectrum of human emotion. It’s only when they drop off into debilitating, crippling, something that takes over a life, that they become an anxiety disorder.
We need to know the difference. We need to acknowledge the difference. Because to do otherwise negates the very real suffering of people with GAD, with social anxiety disorder, with OCD. And it can also keep people from getting the diagnosis and help that they need too.