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Is Anxiety a Real Illness? {Pt 1}

Is Anxiety a Real Illness? {Pt 1}

"Stop worrying so much."

"Just don't think about it."

"How are you this upset over such a small thing? It's not a big deal."

"Why can't you hang out ever?"

"You've missed too many days of work."

"Other people have it so much worse and aren't this upset about it."

If you struggle, or have ever struggled with anxiety, you have probably heard most if not all of the above phrases multiple times throughout the course of your life. I'm sorry for that.

It would be fantastic if everyone could truly and deeply understand what each and every one of us that struggle with anxiety experience on a day-to-day, usually minute-to-minute basis. Unfortunately, this is simply not possible! In order to truly empathize with a sufferer, one must know what anxiety really feels like.

It is for this reason that I am relieved that most of my loved ones do not understand what I deal with--I would never in a million years wish anxiety upon anyone. 

The purpose of this post is not to try to explain what an anxiety disorder is like to someone that does not understand. While I see value in those types of posts I ultimately do not see the stigmas, misconceptions and judgements surrounding anxiety simply going away because someone read an article that describes what a panic attack is like.

I wish for those who do not understand to simply know just that--you do not understand. Since you have no valid way to compare what generalized anxiety, social anxiety, or a panic attack really feels like, you have no means to judge these experiences. You can try to compare anxiety to stress and say, "Oh, yeah, I had a lot of anxiety last night over that psych test." In reality, you are comparing an uncomfortable stressful experience to a real mental illness. You are making light of something that is debilitating and dangerous for many people...

...Which brings me to the crux of this post--is anxiety a real illness?

PHYSICAL

Usually when we think of illness we think of the flu, a cold, pneumonia, maybe even cancer. This is because illness is typically associated with physical symptoms. 

Fatigue, irritability, muscle tension/aches, trembling, twitching, being easily startled, trouble sleeping, sweating, nausea, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches... these are just a few physical manifestations of anxiety (1). Personally, I experience fatigue, irritability, sensitivity to sound, trouble sleeping, sweating, nausea, extreme stomach upset, IBS, headaches, loss of breath, shaking, feelings of impending doom, confusion, passing out, numb legs, memory lapses, and more. 

People with chronic physical illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory disorders and GI conditions (like myself) often struggle with anxiety and in many cases, the anxiety was the loaded gun to developing the chronic illness. These diseases are far more difficult to treat when the sufferer struggles with anxiety; thus, the symptoms become worse and in many cases they die sooner (2). 

By simply examining the physical symptoms of anxiety it is evident that the quality of one's life is very drastically compromised. 

MENTAL

I have been told by loved ones that I should not consider myself mentally ill because I have anxiety. (I also struggle with depression, OCD, PTSD, and I am in lifelong recovery from an eating disorder...but the anxiety, for whatever reason, means that I am not mentally ill.) 

Aside from the fact that I have no shame in saying that I struggle with mental illnesses because again, a mental illness is as real as a physical one and not any easier, the notion that anxiety disorder is not a legitimate mental illness infuriates me. 

My entire life has been shaped by my anxiety. Anxiety affects nearly every aspect of my life. All of my years of schooling were driven by perfectionism and worry and fueled by panic attacks. I've spent more hours in the bathroom dealing with GI issues than I have hours sleeping. Anxiety was the root of my eating disorder, it perpetuates my OCD behaviors and worsens my PTSD episodes. Anxiety kept me in an abusive relationship, caused me to act out in impulsive ways, and kept me up all night every night for almost two years. Anxiety has made my entire year struggling with chronic illness a living hell and has made my physical symptoms of my illness magnify tenfold. It has driven me to rock bottom and made me almost end my life on various occasions. Anxiety is the most abusive partner I could ever ask for in my life, and I cannot get rid of it. 

"There may be times when your worries don't completely consume you, but you still feel anxious even when there's no apparent reason. Your anxiety, worry or physical symptoms cause you significant distress in social, work or other areas of your life. Worries can shift from one concern to another and may change with time and age" (1). 

When someone tells me (with good intentions, I presume) that I don't have a real mental illness like schizophrenia or psychosis and that I can get through this, I feel extremely invalidated, misunderstood, and alone. Anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and all other mental illnesses are extremely crippling to live with and should never be ranked in order of "best to worst" to deal with. This is not helpful nor is it conducive to recovery. 

Generalized anxiety disorder is a complex illness. It is caused by many factors-- biological, environmental, and psychological. Personally through my work in therapy I have been able to identify the main causes of my anxiety, but I still struggle with it every single day. I am working on managing my symptoms while also trying to re-train my brain.

I'm not saying that those with anxiety disorders should look at themselves as victims and simply just give up and give in to the disorder. Absolutely not. I work every day toward recovery--meditation, journaling, therapy, mindfulness and more. There are ways to manage anxiety but it is TOUGH work and it's not a quick fix. I assume I will struggle with this for the rest of my life because I have struggled with it for 22 years now! That's okay. I'll get through it. But the point is that it is REAL.

And if you don't understand, just understand that you don't understand. Don't say things to your loved one that imply that others have it worse, they need to stop worrying, they should just get up and go, work out, eat better, etc... just don't. I think they are probably well aware that they need to stop worrying and wish they could just kick anxiety out of their brain forever. 

{Check back soon for Part 2: Is Depression a Real Illness?}

References:

(1) http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/basics/definition/con-20024562

(2) http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/anxiety_and_physical_illness

Is Depression a Real Illness? {Pt 2}

Is Depression a Real Illness? {Pt 2}

on perfectionism

on perfectionism