Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses in the U.S.. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that some 40 million U.S. adults deal with anxiety disorders every year — but that only about 37 percent of those suffering receive treatment. Part of the problem is that there is still lots of stigma around talking about and seeking help for mental health problems.
Not everyone experiences an anxiety disorder the same way, of course. And many people can be incredibly high-functioning while constantly struggling on the inside. I’m one of those people. It’s sometimes hard to explain to loved ones that I can look like I have it together professionally while at the same time, the simplest things in my personal life can make me feel terribly uneasy. A huge part of breaking down stigma, though, is finding the words to describe our experiences. Here are seven things high-functioning people with anxiety want loved ones to understand.
1. We’re able to compartmentalize.
Being high-functioning with anxiety can be confusing to friends and loved ones. You may see us enjoying professional success, and it can even look like we “have it all together.” In our personal lives, things are usually much more complicated. I find it very easy to compartmentalize when it comes to my work: When I sit down at my computer, my feelings mostly shut off, and I’m very present and ready to go. But when I’m done for the day, I may be exhausted, anxious, and completely lack the drive that helped me function during the workday. This can be confusing for those without anxiety, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
2. Cancelling plans doesn’t mean we don’t value our relationships.
We may say yes to plans with every intention of going, but when the actual event comes up, feel too overwhelmed to go through with it. Don’t assume that we don’t want to see you or that we don’t value your time: This has way less to do with our relationships with you than with what’s going on internally. Sometimes, I feel like my anxiety will be so obvious when I show up to something that it’ll make it uncomfortable for everyone else. That alone leads me to think I should stay home. Whether or not people would, in fact, feel uncomfortable, the feeling is still there (and valid).
It can seem like folks with anxiety are flaky, or like we always have the energy for some things but not others. The truth is that while it’s easy for me to work or see a few very close friends who understand my anxiety, it’s much more difficult to put myself in unfamiliar social situations.
3. It’s important that you not point to anxiety to explain all our feelings.
Like much of this list, this goes for your relationships with those who deal with any type of anxiety. When we react to something in a certain way or open up about a concern to you, it hurts if you assume it’s only our disorder talking. Yes, the anxiety is there and it can intensify our emotions, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other root feelings beneath it. Take the time to talk to your friends and loved ones and figure out what’s going on before shrugging something off as “just” another anxious episode.
4. Our anxiety can sometimes be a mystery, even if we’ve lived with it for years.
Sometimes, we may know why we’re anxious; other times, we may not. When something specific triggers my anxiety, I often know exactly what’s going on. The other day, though, I had a feeling of dread all day: It felt like something was sitting on my chest, though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. There was no culprit to pinpoint other than my disorder. It’s often harder when that feeling comes out of nowhere because it can feel like some sort of premonition — like something bad is on the horizon, just out of view.
5. Anxiety isn’t rational.
And intellectually, we understand this. But that doesn’t mean anxiety isn’t difficult. When we’re anxious and confide in you, don’t tell us it’s not a big deal. It might seem like downplaying things would be helpful, but instead, it feels like you’re not taking our experiences seriously — which can push us away. It’s more helpful to listen to what we have to say and remember that while our emotions may seem out of proportion to you, that doesn’t mean they’re not real.
6. There are things you can do to help.
Asking what we need is more helpful than you know. It lets us know you care but also gets us thinking about what might help us in the moment of our anxiety. Active listening is great, and so is helping us establish coping techniques that might make things easier in the future. Having a plan in place in case of a panic attack, for example, might do wonders. Read up on what to do if you or someone you know is experiencing a panic attack here.
__ 7. There may be more than anxiety at play.__
Anxiety disorders (like generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD) often occur alongside other mental health issues. Depression and anxiety, for instance, frequently go hand in hand. While not everyone who deals with anxiety is also suffering from depression or another mental health disorder, it’s important to consider that someone who’s dealing with anxiety might have other things going on, even if they don’t divulge everything to you all at once.
While everyone with anxiety is different and no list is one-size-fits-all, these are good starting points when it comes to relating to those in your life who have an anxiety disorder. Ask them about their experiences, how you can help them, and what they wish people knew about their anxiety. You may be surprised by what you find.
More on mental health:
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