If you didn't already know, May is Mental Health Awareness Month! This is a month where many of us who are dealing with mental health issues are sharing our experiences to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. Today we're sharing a wonderful post from Catherine from Embracing Kindness about what it she goes through when she experiences anxiety.
Ever since I was in fifth grade, I’ve suffered from moderate anxiety and depression. (Interestingly, the National Institute of Mental Health notes that the average age at which people begin to suffer from anxiety is eleven years old.) In my case, the depression usually follows an episode of high anxiety.
In this post, I’m going to delve into my own struggles and explain why I (and others) think it’s worthwhile to talk about them. I’ve noticed that there’s been a movement lately to get people talking about mental illnesses, to bring individual experiences out into the light in an effort to remove the stigma. I think that sharing our internal struggles with others is a kindness to ourselves, but is also a kindness to those who may feel alone.
Openness—with a catch
I have found that speaking about my anxieties with my husband, parents, closest friends, and—of course—my therapist is a form of self-care that took me a long, long time to be really okay with. Because these are the people closest to me, I’ve always been fairly open about my issues… but I’ve also always felt embarrassed. The things I worry about are irrational, and I know that. In the rational part of my brain, I understand that the chances of these things happening are incredibly small. I feel embarrassed because I think that “normal” people only listen to the rational part, and I tend to give the irrational part a lot of airtime.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I have to admit that I don’t think even those people listed above truly know the extent of what goes through my head on a daily basis (my fault for not sharing, not their fault at all). As I explained to my therapist, it actually doesn’t really affect my daily life or my relationships externally. I am lucky in that I don’t experience panic attacks and I have not (generally) let my anxieties prevent me from doing the things I enjoy. I’d say that about 95% of my anxiety happens internally and never manifests itself where others can see it.
**Interesting side note: I was visiting one of my closest friends the other day, and the topic of anxiety/depression came up. After we talked for a bit, she—without prompting from me—told me that she knows I go through these things, but until I bring it up, she never thinks of me as someone who suffers from them. This is all after I wrote the above paragraph.
How could talking about my anxiety help anyone else?
I believe that when people open up about their mental struggles, it’s a kindness to others. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% of American adults have suffered with some form of anxiety for at least twelve months. That’s a pretty high percentage! There are a lot of us out there, and I think most of us feel like we’re the only ones suffering in the particular way that we suffer (if that makes any sense). When one of us opens up, the rest of us begin to feel like we’re not so weird after all. Recently, a close friend of mine described some pretty serious anxieties that she deals with quite frequently. Her willingness to discuss this with me helped me to realize that I’m not alone in some of the awful thoughts that run through my own head.
In their report about self-disclosure of mental illness, the US Department of Health and Human Services (2008) emphasized the positive impact that sharing one’s story can have on others suffering similar conditions. They noted, “The more contact and openness on the topic of mental health in our society, the more people who receive mental health services will be able to avoid the stigma and discrimination” (37). The National Alliance on Mental Illness supports this idea as well: “When more people share stories of recovery, struggle or hope, it lets all of us know that we’re not alone.”
My parents recently opened up about my dad’s struggle with depression and related suicide attempts, as they have so many times over the years (my dad survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985—it’s been a lot of years now). They explained that they hope that, by sharing his story, they might help others with similar struggles. I know for an absolute fact that when they shared his story back in the 80s, at least one life was saved. This is only anecdotal, but it’s a powerful piece of evidence that sharing our stories is a kindness to others.
Of course, everyone’s experience is different. I am absolutely not advocating that everyone shouts their issues from the rooftops, because some people are uncomfortable with this and some people could actually put themselves at risk by doing so.
While I am nervous about those who know me but don’t know this about me learning this part, I don’t feel that I am putting myself in any real risk by sharing my story, so I will put it out there into the universe. I’m going to share with all of you my personal brand of anxiety. Maybe it will help someone else feel less alone.
So, what’s going on in my head?
Test anxiety was always a big problem for me in school, even though I generally did pretty well on them. This now manifests itself as a general anxiety about the quality of my work, no matter what job I’m doing. It’s the same deal—I get super anxious about having done a crappy job, and then (usually) find out later that I actually did a good job… but when the next project starts, the cycle starts all over again. I never feel confident and I always feel like I’m doing a bad job. No matter what.
Social anxiety was and still is a pretty big part of my life. It’s the only one that has really prevented me from doing things I might otherwise enjoy.
Due in large part to something that took place in middle school (see below), I have a hard time believing that people genuinely want to be friends with me. It makes making friends very, very difficult. I am riddled with anxiety in even the smallest interactions, second-guessing everything I say and hoping against hope that I didn’t offend someone. I try hard to be a good friend, but I never feel like it’s good enough. I feel like, if we’re just beginning a friendship, it’ll never get past the surface level, and if we’ve been friends forever, I’m going to either do something to mess it up or not do enough to keep the person around. This is so exhausting and has caused me to avoid certain situations. Specifically, at my last job, I avoided parties because I just couldn’t deal with the social interaction and the stress that went into it.
And then there’s the weird one, the big baddie. I have this problem where I think about a real-life situation that is going to take place, or maybe something that has already happened, and I play through all the ways it could go horribly wrong. I convince myself that this worst-case scenario is actually what is really going to happen. Because, if my feeling about it is so strong, how could it not be a premonition?
Here are some things that have actually run through my mind, some of which run through my mind on a fairly regular basis. They range from sort of minor to really, really disturbing and upsetting. They also range from sort of possible to highly, highly unlikely:
- Z hasn’t had any veggies all weekend because we’ve been going out for lunch and dinner. He’s going to get diabetes and be huge and unhealthy and he’s always going to hate vegetables for the rest of his life.
- I need to be doing more with my life. I’m trying so hard to find a job, but it’s not happening. If I don’t get a job soon, we are going to lose everything. We will eat up our savings, we won’t be able to afford college for Z or his future sibling, we are going to lose our house, I will be out of the market for so long that nobody will want to hire me, etc.
- My friend hasn’t texted me back yet/seemed weird in her message to me. She must be mad at me. I wonder what I did. What could it have been? Will she be mad at me for a long time? Will she ever forgive me? I bet she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.
- Let me be elaborate on this one, because it’s a bit different. This, unlike the others, has clear origins. In seventh grade, the group of girls I’d been friends with randomly and abruptly told me not to hang out with them anymore. I never found out why. It was awful and embarrassing, and obviously deeply scarring. Preteen girls can be so cruel.
- Our phone call was disconnected. What happened to her? Did she get into an accident? Did someone try to mug her? Is she hurt? Oh my gosh, I’d better keep calling back until I reach her again. The phone is going straight to voicemail. She is seriously injured.
- We got really lucky to get pregnant again when we wanted to. That’s not the way these things happen. Something is going to go wrong. I know it. The genetic screening is going to come back as super high risk of something life-threatening and we’re going to lose this baby.
- My husband is on his way home from work and I hear sirens going down our street. He must have been in an accident. The sirens are coming closer. It’s the police coming here to tell me my husband is dead.
- This canker sore in my mouth hurts. A lot. How long has that been there? Over a week? Oh my God. It’s mouth cancer. I know it. Too much Diet Pepsi and too much sugar-free gum, and now I have mouth cancer.
Now it’s all out there. I feel a little sick about it, to be honest. It’s hard to see all that stuff written out and know that I am going to make it public. But I also feel a little free. I don’t know if anyone can relate to any of this, but hopefully this, in combination with the many other stories of anxiety and depression that are beginning to gain traction online, help you to see that others struggle, too. And you probably don’t even know it.
If you are struggling, seeking help is critical. Though, as I admitted above, my network may not always know the full depth of my anxieties, having a safe space to discuss what I am comfortable sharing has been absolutely essential. And for the more troubling, “embarrassing” aspects of my anxiety, I lean on a professional therapist. Please don’t feel alone and please try to find that safe space for yourself!
Catherine is a former teacher and social-emotional curriculum writer, and a current mom, wife, and blogger. She is an advocate of social and emotional development, both in our children and in our own lives, and write about ways we can be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and each other. Having struggled with anxiety and depression her whole life, she knows how important it is to feel less alone in the daily battle to keep it all together. Catherine believes that speaking up about mental health struggles can help us feel more free, help others feel less alone, and help to reduce the stigma that unfortunately surrounds mental illness. Follow her on her blog at EmbracingKindness.com