I can run 100km, but I can’t fucking do my groceries. That’s what I told a therapist last year when he reminded me that there are things I can do that others can’t. I was in tears. I was embarrassed that there are things that others do every day, without even thinking, that can cause me so much anxiety.
Of course, I was exaggerating. But, once upon a time, that was my reality. I did have a hard time going to the grocery store (or even getting out of my apartment). It’s not an issue now but, as I was explaining to him, some changes in my routine at that time meant that, my new option for groceries involved parallel parking on a busy street. I was frustrated that day because I had not been able to even try because it was bringing up too much anxiety for me. I was feeling broken.
Living with anxiety isn’t easy. People sometimes ask me how they can help someone with anxiety issues. I always tell them that it’s different for everyone and that they should always ask the person they would like to help. While I still think that’s true, I also thought I’d share some of my thoughts here.
New situations can be difficult for anxiety sufferers. They’re not always the typical situations where people experience it either, like public speaking or having to meet your new partner’s parents! For me, it can be sometimes as simple as filling up my car at a new gas station. Last time I did that, I noticed my hand was shaking badly as I put my card in the machine to pre-pay. I prayed to God no one saw. Why? Because it’s totally embarrassing to me that, as an adult, something so simple can shake me up so badly.
So please, if you see someone showing signs of nervousness or acting in a way that seems a bit strange to you (I’ve had to sit down on the ground at a Skytrain station once to prevent a panic attack), don’t laugh, don’t judge. Be compassionate and try to understand that everyone has their own struggles.
Under that same heading, if you see an adult snapping a selfie for seemingly no reason, don’t assume that they are vain. They may just be celebrating something that was hard for them to do. Yes, this is me, the first time I put air in my car tires. It may seem insignificant to most people, but I’d been stressing about having to do it for a week and it was quite an accomplishment for me. I deserved that selfie (though I was too self-conscious to take it from outside the car – haha!).
Acknowledge our strength
Sadly, there’s still a lot of stigma around mental illness. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while now, but I’ve been worried about people seeing me as weak. Unfortunately, this is something I have to live with a lot. Many people still see mental illness as a weakness. But I guess this is why it’s important to get the information out there and talk about it.
I often think about the quote that says “every day you should do something that scares you”. If that’s the definition of being brave, I can assure you that no anxiety sufferer is weak. Because we do something that scares us most days, if not every single day. When I seem to be at my weakest, I’m probably actually fighting some of my hardest battles. Not giving up requires a strength that those who don’t suffer from mental illness will luckily never know. If I let you see my fears, know that it’s because I trust you. It’s not easy for me to do. Please respond with kindness.
Anxiety is not all in our heads (well, kinda)
Many people think that anxiety is like stress. That I can just shake it off and that I should. That taking deep breaths or talking it through will make it go away. While that’s sometimes true, other times, not much seems to help. It’s not for lack of willingness. I don’t know how many times I’ve wished I could just be normal (so if I could, I would, believe me)!
Newer scientific studies actually show that there are physiological causes for it. Someone was explaining to me last year that the part of my brain that feels anxiety is likely overdeveloped (maybe as a result of early abuse). Studies also show lower heart rate variability in anxiety sufferers and mine is no exception (my numbers are way below average). So again, please be understanding, we are doing the best we can.
Don’t assume that you know what’s best for someone else. If you’re not sure how to help someone, ask. I’ve had a friend once who chose not to invite me to a party because he thought I would feel pressured to go. While I appreciate the thought and know it was coming from a good place, I ended up feeling left out instead. I heard about the party and wondered why I had not been invited. The sad thing is that I wanted to go and would have gone.
Each person is different and they will know best how you can help. They may also ask to try a few different things. If you are willing to listen and try their suggestions, it will mean a lot to them I’m sure. It certainly does to me!
And maybe sometimes there’s nothing that can be done other than just being there through the hard times. Or maybe you’re that understanding friend they can celebrate their small successes with (thank you Dawna!). Either way, your willingness to just be there will help I’m sure.
Some final thoughts
If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with anxiety, know that you are not alone. There are ups and downs. Make sure you have some supportive people that can be there for you along the way. Stay away from the people who will tell you that you don’t have what it takes to reach your dreams. Find the strength to slowly prove them wrong. Yes, some days, the anxiety will win, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Every day is a new day and an opportunity to try again. Some day, you will be able to tell that anxiety to get lost. And you will do something you never thought you could (be it running at a World Championship or parallel parking!). 😉
I hope this has helped someone. Feel free to share your thoughts. Thanks for reading. Let’s keep on fighting the stigma!