Please stop responding to my anxiety with, “stress isn’t good for you, you know.”
I do know, because I can’t tell you how much money has been spent on profesional help and medication, or even the physical illnesses that never seem to end, as the distress my body experiences is a result of my anxiety.
“You’re really stressed out, you really need to learn how to calm down.”
I would be rich enough to afford therapy more often if I had a cent for every time I’ve heard that in my life. I’m nervous, jumpy, and always clouded with an agitated sense of urgency; I worry a lot, and make small things seem big. Before exams, I’m panicking, and when something goes wrong, I freak out. I have split ends, I bite my nails, I’m not good at relaxing, and I have a generalized anxiety disorder.
For those of us who struggle with anxiety, it’s a mixture of intense frustration and hurt when someone throws used, dusty, fridge-magnet wisdom about stress at us when we express our anxiety, because it’s insulting to tell us our disorder is the same as feeling under pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, stress is quite literally a killer (disclaimer, don’t read that if you’re anxious about health…) It’s a mental health concern that is a modern pandemic, and it’s a valid and serious problem for many people. But it is not the same as anxiety, and it hurts us deeply when you treat them as interchangeable terms for a biological response to demands.
To all those out there who haven’t suffered from anxiety: When I try to talk about how anxiety is causing me distress and hindering me in something, understand that it was challenging for me to begin talking about my anxiety to begin with. To be met with invalidation and ignorance in the form of, “wow, man, you’re quite the stress-ball! You should try-“ makes me cry when I go home and begin my nighttime routine of sedatives and countless other steps in my precarious mental health regimen that allows me to make it through another day.
So, when someone says, “I’m feeling anxious about-“ or, “Yeah, I know it’s fine, I’m just having anxiety over -“ here are some options to substitute anything along the lines of “don’t stress,”:
“Would you like to talk about why you’re feeling anxious, or are you not sure?”
“What are you anxious about? Here are all the reasons why those worries are irrational to help you realize that too.”
“List all your ‘what if-‘ scenarios and lets debunk them as you go.”
I’m tired of defending my mental illness, and I’m tired of trying to convince people to legitimize my suffering. I shouldn’t have to prove that my “stressed out personality” is more serious than that and that I need space, support and respect when I’m not ok.
It’s the small things that make people feel like they can open up about their mental health challenges, and not unintentionally invalidating anxiety is a great way to let the people you care about know that you see them, you hear them, and that they don’t have to struggle alone.
And for my fellow anxiety-sufferers: I know it’s not our job to educate the world, but when it comes to the people directly in our space, we need to care enough about ourselves to speak up when presented with situations like having your anxiety invalidated by people who think that saying, “just calm down, it’s not that big of a deal” is good advice. Next time, say it – say, “Thanks, but, although it’s something I don’t like talking about, I have an anxiety disorder, and it’s a little more challenging to work around it than that.”
I promise that people aren’t as unsupportive of your mental health as you think. They just don’t know, and they often don’t understand. Being open about our challenges – to whatever degree we feel comfortable, but at least a little bit – is part of breaking apart that crafty stigma that makes our issues even more difficult, and it’s part of raising awareness for how the world needs to get on board with us even when we aren’t on board with ourselves. A society that normalizes talking about, validating and helping with mental illness is one we need.
I know it’s scary to think about admitting to mental health struggles (at least for me, anyway, it’s the stuff of nightmares), but on the occasions I actually found the courage to voice why I missed the meeting, lecture, event or phone call (because I was having panic attacks and I can’t always afford medication), it was met with support, empathy, and a response that actually massively eased the weight of my anxiety.
So next time, take the leap!