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More Stupid S#it People Say About Mental Illness: Anxiety Edition

I ranted about this in a video a while back. 

Yes, the mental health conversation has made strides, especially during Covid, but people have and continue to say ignorant things, like “Don’t be anxious” to people with a clinical anxiety disorder. Why do they say that, and how can we better understand anxiety and its complexities? 

Read on. 

Why Do People Say “Don’t Be Anxious”?

We don’t like to see someone we care about in pain. 

Our instinct is to jump into help or solution mode to stop the hurting. It’s well-intentioned, I know, but telling someone who’s experiencing anxiety, “Don’t be anxious,” is the most unhelpful thing you can do. 

You can take, “You’re just going to feel a little stick,” as your pediatrician prepares to tear a hole into your child’s skin with a needle and multiply it by a thousand, and you won’t even come close to the obtuseness of “Don’t be anxious.”  

If the inability to soothe an anxious person is making you feel powerless and disoriented, imagine what it’s like for them. 

I Used To Be An Offender

Funny thing is that I was in the “Don’t be anxious” camp until I understood that I couldn’t help having an anxiety disorder. 

My self-talk was a mixture of destructive messages like, “What’s wrong with you?”, “Snap out of it!”, “Man up!”, and of course, “Don’t be anxious.”

At times, I could repress it, but it would always surface somewhere else, like a game of anxiety Whac-A-Mole, except there were no commercials, and it never ended.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill, which is roughly 1.14 years. As a third degree black belt in anxiety, I have more than 210,000 hours of mastery, and I can tell you that when I’m having an anxious episode, all I want is for someone to hear and understand me.

Understanding The Scope Of Anxiety Disorders

Here’s what people need to know about anxiety disorders:

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in America
  • There are many kinds of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorders, and phobia disorders
  • The brain is our emotional processing center. It contains something called the limbic system that comprises the hippocampus, amygdala, hypothalamus, and thalamus. You’ve probably heard of one of these brain structures or two, max. People with anxiety disorders have heightened activity in these areas, which is a nice way of saying that anxiety really pulverizes your limbic system. 
  • A healthy brain has a balance of the chemicals serotonin, norepinephrine, and GABA. The anxious brain does not. 

Anyone I’ve ever spoken to about their story remembers without hesitation the moment that changed them. What all these stories have in common is that these individuals thought they knew who they were and then suddenly transformed into a different version of themselves. 

The song These Days by the Foo Fighters speaks to me. The thing about lyrics is that you can conform them to your life experience even if the song is about something else entirely. The first and second verses resonate: 

One of these days the ground will drop out from beneath your feet
One of these days you will forget to hope and learn to fear

Not everyone’s anxiety is created equally. Some people recover and restore while others experience various degrees of disruption that leaves them flailing to understand their changed brains and what it will mean for them going forward. Fortunately, I’ve reached a point where I manage mine well. 

The Brain Is Complicated

We don’t control our brains; our brains control us. 

Do you really think the hippocampus listens when you tell it not to be anxious? Or that the amygdala could be bothered? What about the hypothalamus, always too busy coordinating the autonomic nervous system and pituitary? Good luck trying to reach it. Lest you think you have a shot with the thalamus that’s constantly relaying motor and sensory signals to the cerebral cortex, you don’t. 

As I’ve previously written, it’s okay if someone doesn’t understand mental illness. But with information literally at our fingertips in the form of some online searching, it’s not okay for people to not educate themselves. 

Some knowledge and empathy can make a big difference. 

About the Author, David Telisman

I am a Writer and Content Creator, and I work with businesses to inspire their customers to buy from them. I believe that my clients deserve to feel proud of how their content marketing looks and what it says, and I deliver by providing expert copywriting and marketing solutions.

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