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Anxiety, panic disorders and depression are common conditions that most non-sufferers know nothing about. The mental health community has done a great job raising awareness, but unfortunately these words still carry such a stigma of weakness and fear. I’m here to share what people with anxiety want their friends to understand… but probably won’t ever tell you.
I’m gonna start with my anxiety story. Maybe you can relate, maybe you can’t…. but I truly think that telling your story takes some of the power away from the anxiety and gives it back to the person living with it, so I am proud to share my story.
My Anxiety Story
I’m an INFJ, so I am pre-wired to have anxiety and worry more than the ‘normal‘ person.
I can remember being 4-5 years old, worrying if we closed the garage door.
I remember being 7 or 8 worrying about my mom walking the dog around the neighborhood, fearful that they’d get mom-and-dog-napped.
I was such an anxious child that I even had nightmares about being eaten alive and our house being torn apart by tornadoes.
At 12, I had my first true panic attack.
We were in Kentucky visiting my mom’s family when my cousin asked if we could go to Walmart. It’s a small, rural area with nothing to do on a rainy day, so our parents saw it as a safe form of entertainment for us. They dropped us off without a worry and we all decided on a time to meet back up.
My cousin had apparently already talked her friends into picking us up so she could go smoke. I am Queen of ‘we gotta follow the rules’, so this made me freak out.
We’re in the middle of an aisle, walking to the side entrance when BOOM…. panic attack….black OUT!
I wake up laying across a stack of bagged dog food. Employees and shoppers all around me… panicking…. ‘Is she diabetic? Check her bag! Call 911. Do you need juice?!?!’
All reasonable things to do in case of a medical emergency…. however definitely not helpful during a panic attack.
Still one of the scariest days of my life. Back then, we didn’t have cell phones… so I sat in the Walmart manager’s office until my mom came back an excruciating 40 minutes later.
I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had another black-out attack since then.
In college, I learned I had anxiety and I began to manage it with natural home remedies. Essential oils, supplements, breathing exercises and meditation. I’ve also found the Law of Attraction to be an incredibly helpful tool for combating anxiety.
However, this January, I had a panic attack of epic proportions. I woke up in the middle of the night, noticed my heart rate was pretty high (probably from a bad dream)…. and allowed my brain to believe I was dying. Which then sent me into a panic attack like nothing I’ve ever felt.
Sweaty, cold chills, hot flashes, headache, tingling in my arms and legs, pain in my stomach, upset stomach, lightheadedness, light sensitivity, vertigo, nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, weakness…. yep, this confirms it…. I’m dying.
So, I go to the doctor. Get all kinds of bloodwork and tests run. Thinking anemia, thyroid disease, hashimotos…. I’m sick… something is wrong.
Doctor after doctor ran tests. ‘All within normal limits‘. (Technically, my thyroid was underperforming and I was 100% symptomatic, but they wouldn’t medicate because I wasn’t clinical…. but whatever.)
It just all really baffled me. Why now?!?
I am legitimately in the best place I’ve been in my life. I live with the man of my dreams in a gorgeous house with a ton of pets. I write full time, paint and get to do tons of creative stuff that I love. My parents live right around the corner and we see them all the time. I live in a beautiful community that I love…
So… WHY NOW?!?!
We’ve basically landed on the conclusion that it’s anxiety related to hormones.
Also, it may be ‘delayed’ anxiety or PTSD from when I was working dispatch.
Basically, I was so overworked, so overtired and overstressed that my body couldn’t comprehend it… it went into autopilot to allow me to function and survive. Now that I’m away from it all and my body has repaired and recovered, but my brain is struggling to cope with it all.
Anyways, I continue to have daily severe anxiety…. severe attacks every couple of days. I take medication daily and keep Xanax on hand for attacks.
I’m continuing my essential oils, breathing exercises, meditation…. but I’ve changed my diet, I’m working out and getting up earlier.
I’ve also started taking CBD oil a few times a day and this has been a life changer for me.
Well, that’s my story and how I got here.
I think a lot of my friends think I just turned into a ghost or never reach out to them anymore, but this is what I’ve been dealing with.
I also want to share my experience with others so maybe they can handle their conversations with their anxious friends just a little better.
Just A Quick Word For ‘Healthy People’
Like I mentioned, anxiety and panic disorders…. and depression especially… are all seen in such a negative light in today’s world.
People hear those words and just assume that the sufferer is a pitiful, weak person who can’t handle life. Wrong.
These words also cause people to become harshly judgmental of others….
They’ll look at the trophy housewife that ‘lives the perfect life and has everything she could ever want’…..and say “What does she have to be depressed or anxious about?“
If you have that mindset, I need you to stop and completely erase everything you know about anxiety and depression. Let’s get you a new understanding.
I consider myself to be a legit badass. Yeah, I’m a worrier and I hate confrontation, but I still see myself as a pretty tough woman. I was an entrepreneur at 18. I built my first house before I was 20. I’ve conquered stuff that people only dream of…. and I’m not done doing big stuff.
So…. if you’ve ever entertained the notion that anxiety or depression means a person is weak, check yourself.
That attitude and ignorance is what keeps anxiety sufferers in the dark. It keeps us from telling anyone or asking for help.
No one wants to be immediately labeled as a weak person…. but unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens the second you raise your hand and say “My brain is not at ease”.
So, if you are a ‘mentally healthy’ person reading this, please keep an open mind and be willing to learn a different perspective into the brain of an anxious person.
What We Want You To Know
There are lots of blog posts out there about how to help a friend with anxiety… and what to ask your anxious friend.
However, I have to say that 90% of their answers would make my anxiety worse. They encourage lots of questioning and open dialogue started by the friend, not the person with anxiety.
This is my interpretation of what people with anxiety want their friends to understand.
We’re All Different
As much as I would love to, I don’t speak for everyone with anxiety when I write this…. because guess what…. we’re human! We are all different!
Like I just said, I’ve read lots of ‘tips & tricks’ that would absolutely set me off. And maybe some of my tips aren’t great for someone else’s anxiety…
I know people with anxiety that have way different physical manifestations than I do. I also know people who have different triggers… and definitely different things that help ease their anxiety.
I say this so that you know that no one fully understands anxiety. Not even a person who has struggled with anxiety for a long time like myself. We all live life one day at a time and we learn every day just like anyone else with any other disorder would do.
We Can Be Guarded
If you have a friend that is open with you about their anxiety or depression, you should feel special.
Like I said, it’s hard to admit to yourself…. let alone friends, family members… or go fully public about it.
We may seem paranoid or overly cautious… but just be patient. We keep shields up to keep from being mocked, labeled as weak, told we’re over-reacting….
Sometimes, it’ll just seem like we’re being awkward or strangely distant…. or we may just disappear all together.
Try to contact us and check in…. but don’t pressure us.
Reach out with a gentle, understanding prompt like ‘Hey, I’ve noticed something seems to be bothering you. Want to meet up for a cup of coffee?” (Maybe don’t say lunch…. not coffee….. coffee tends to make some people’s anxiety worse.)
We Need A Good Laugh From Time To Time
Laughter is the best medicine for everything except a slipped rib.
So if you have an anxious friend, do what you can to make ’em laugh.
Help get them out of their own head even if it’s just for a second.
So if you’re thinking of them, send them a funny GIF. Share silly YouTube videos with them. Make the suggestion to go see the comedy movie rather than the romantic drama.
You have no idea how much laughter can impact someone on a day when their brain is in utter chaos.
A pleasant, unexpected distraction could be the thing that turns our day around.
So, send that video of the cat playing with the monkey… and send us the new stand up comedian you found. We need it!
Mental Health Humor
I can’t speak for all sufferers, but I enjoy anxiety humor.
If you follow my Instagram, you’ll notice that most of my letter boards are jokes about anxiety and my crazy brain.
Anxiety humor and memes make me feel a little more normal. Like, someone felt that way, made that meme and it got shared. So, obviously other people feel this way. I’m not so alone.
Mental health is either 100% ignored…. or people talk about it so clinically and technically that it sounds scary.
I hate that!
It’s not just a setting on an iPad you can change if you click the right buttons…. and it sure as hell isn’t something that will go away if you just act like it doesn’t exist!
So why not bring a little lightness to the topic? Let it be something that people don’t feel shame or fear of sharing it….
One of my friends knew I was having a rough anxiety week and she sent me this quote (I thought it was so funny that I put it on a letter board).
I’m not saying you should send a meme about depression to your friend who recently disclosed to you that they’re being treated for depression…..
You really need to check with your common sense before sending anything like this to anyone. Do you know them well enough to send them something like this? Are you sure this isn’t upsetting? Always air on the side of caution if you’re not 100% sure they will receive it in a positive way.
However, I love em… send them all my way!
Sometimes We Detach
In certain situations, I will detach myself from reality.
Basically, I continue to function, participate and engage in whatever is going on…. but it’s almost as if someone else takes control of my body temporarily.
I remember very few (if any) details of what happened or what was said.
You really, really have to know me to figure out when I have detached…. it’s super subtle. Mainly you’ll only be able to tell because my eyes aren’t ‘present’…… if that makes sense.
Sometimes I can draw myself back in to reality… sometimes I can’t.
Detachment can happen during the most random times- it’s not just high-stress times. I’ve detached for a movie before… zero reason why. My brain just needed to go into hiding.
So, try not to make too much of a ‘thing’ about it if we can’t remember. It’s pretty embarrassing and awkward.
We Decline Invites & Cancel Plans
It’s not because we’re boring…. or a fuddy duddy… or rude, lame, lazy, anti-social….
Whatever you think we’re being, we’re not.
We’re declining or canceling because we just can’t.
Trust me, we are more annoyed/frustrated/upset/disappointed than you are that we canceled…
I have friends say “a night out would be good for you“.
But, what they don’t understand is that my anxiety isn’t something you just ‘shake off’ by having a good time and being distracted. It’s not like I was dumped or had a bad day at the office… This is something I live with day in and day out.
Most days, it’s too much to say ‘hey’ to they neighbors when I get my mail…. so please be understanding that the declined invite or canceled plan is nothing personal. It just might be a day when I ‘can’t even’.
We Are Exhausted
Imagine being in a fight with your significant other every waking second of the day.
Not giving them the silent treatment, but actively, passionately arguing basically 24/7.
That’s how a person with anxiety feels.
But, we’re fighting with ourselves.
We’re busy convincing ourselves that everyone we know hates us while simultaneously telling ourselves that we’re over reacting to a Facebook post. We’re worrying that we have a terminal heart condition while also telling ourselves that if we’d just calm the F down, our heart rate would chill out.
It is constantly being ‘worst case scenario’ and a realist (or even my case, an optimist).
The struggle is real.
I may look calm and collected, but I’m fighting myself about something I said 5 years ago…. and I’m losing the fight… to myself.
Please don’t say…..
Friends, family, strangers…. they will all have things to say and questions to ask. Some of them are 100% innocent. Trying to be helpful, but just not understanding what to say and not to say.
But here are a few things that I’ve been told that really just don’t sit well with me…
“Get over it” or “Just Chill Out”
Go kick rocks if you talk to anyone this way…. but I had to include this. It’s an incredibly common response to a person with anxiety.
If we could just ‘get over it’….. don’t you think we would?
It’s like telling someone who’s crying “STOP CRYING!”….. it usually makes it worse.
“It can’t be that bad”
I’ve heard this about my triggers and about the anxiety itself.
I am a pro at ‘self healing’ (AKA: not going to the doctor unless it’s life or death).
My motto is: “Slap some essential oils and coconut oil on it and it’ll be AOK”
But I have almost gone to the hospital 9 times for anxiety attacks this year. My heart rate stayed at 165 for over an hour. I thought I was dying. So, yes…. it is that bad.
“Think happy thoughts”
This is a quick way to send them into a second attack for sure…. just out of sheer frustration.
Anxiety, depression & panic attacks aren’t just about ‘being sad’ or being stressed.
No matter how hard I try to calm it down or ‘think positive’, my brain lives in a constant state of impending doom.
I live my life by the Law of Attraction. Positivity, gratitude, intentional spirituality. Yes, even someone who lives, sleeps and breathes positivity can be overwhelmed and consumed with anxiety.
Thinking about a puppy or sitting on a beach cannot change the chemical reaction that is going on in my brain.
“What caused your anxiety?”
Lord almighty, if someone doesn’t ask this every time I have an attack or say “my anxiety is bad today”.
Most of us don’t know!
I don’t have a freaking clue what causes my anxiety sometimes.
I know driving on the highway and large crowds of people will cause an attack, but I can also wake up anxious AF before I even had a second to think!
So, please don’t ask.
Then we feel the need to search our minds for what we were thinking the exact moment that our attack began and then question “oh damn…. is pizza a new anxiety trigger for me?!?!“
This is something that loved ones tend to ask a lot. We get it, you’re concerned and you want to help keep us away from whatever triggered an attack.
However, if you’re close enough to us to know about our disorder, we will usually disclose if we know what caused the attack. If we don’t tell you, chances are, we don’t know either!
“But you seemed so happy a minute ago…”
Again, it’s not a happy thing. It’s chemical.
And yes, a minute… even a second is long enough for things to change.
My worst attack to date happened while we were eating dinner and watching Ridiculousness at my parents’ house.
I was laughing and eating my favorite food at the same time.
Only to end up on the sofa in a heated blanket in tears.
It happens…. don’t act like we’re being dramatic. It’s not like we want it to happen either. It’s scary!
Please don’t try to cure us
When people hear you have anxiety, everyone wants to cure you.
My absolute favorite example is a message from a fitness influencer on Instagram. She saw my post about anxiety and felt it ‘important’ to message me with her advice.
“When you feel an attack coming on, stand up and do as many jumping jacks as you can. It’ll keep your brain from focusing on being sad and worried.”
I responded back “Thank you for the advice, do you have anxiety issues too?“
“No…. but my cousin does” (2 days of silence) “How has your anxiety been doing? Would you be interested in joining my workout accountability group? It might help your anxiety“
I hate I’m using this example because I’m not 100% sure it’s ignorance…. something in that message cried ‘predatory jerk’…. but still.
While most people’s intentions are pure with trying to ‘help’ us, it is miserable to have a conversation about how a tablespoon of honey and ginger every day should help….. or ‘maybe you don’t drink enough water’.
I’m not trying to be rude, but I will only ever take anxiety advice from another person with anxiety.
Think of it this way, it would be irresponsible and dangerous for a person with arthritis to take medical advice from someone who does’t know a thing about arthritis. Same thing here… it’s just harder because our disorder is invisible.
Don’t Surprise Us
I don’t know a single person with anxiety that enjoys surprises (if you are one of those people that does, KUDOS TO YOU! The week of my birthday is always touch-and-go.)
I hate large crowds and driving on Hwy 85…. so the worst thing anyone could do is surprise me with a trip to Atlanta to go to a concert or something….
Not saying I won’t go…. but I need advanced warning.
I need to mentally prep myself, medicate and hype myself up.
We’re not recluses, but please don’t expect us to agree to go on a big adventure on a whim.
I am awful with my phone. Like…. awful, awful.
Calls, texts, social media…. some days I just can’t!
But, everyone sees I wear an Apple Watch and they immediately think “why does it take her hours to respond?!?! I KNOW my message went right to her wrist.”
Sometimes it’s on ‘Do Not Disturb’ cause I can’t handle texts and calls while I work. Sometimes I see it and mean to reply…. I reply in my brain but don’t ever type. Sometimes, I type it and just never press send…..
All of us have different things that we’re weird about…. just be patient and understanding.
Being rude or calling us a ‘bad friend’ sure doesn’t help. Because you know deep down inside… if you really needed us, we’d be there.
If you know our triggers, try to be mindful of them.
Lately, my biggest trigger has been…. drama.
So…. please don’t text me “did you hear that so-and-so got fired from her job and now she’s gonna lose her house?“….. it really makes me want to respond “Listen Karen, IDGAF what Linda did…. I’m trying to make a PB&J sandwich without crying and then I need to fold the laundry without a mental breakdown. Take your shit elsewhere.”
But again…. INFJ with social anxiety. I’ll just take that text on as another thing I have to carry… and I’ll continue to spiral downward. I will never speak up, I will just add it to weight already on my back.
So, if you know something really ramps up our anxiety…. try to steer clear from it. Doing so will make you our refuge from the chaos.
Anxiety Is Not A Synonym For Stress
I think the first non-political argument I ever got into was about a friend misunderstanding the word ‘anxiety’.
Truthfully, what people with anxiety want their friends to understand: stress and anxiety are not the same thing.
You are stressed that the electric bill is due. You are stressed because you’re sitting in traffic. You are stressed that you have a term paper due.
It is annoying to see someone compare their daily minor stressor to anxiety.
Example: A Facebook Post “Ugh. So over Atlanta traffic” with a meme about ‘when your anxiety kicks in’.
I know this person and know that they meant nothing by it…. but that post was wrong.
The world is stressful, we live with stress. But stress and anxiety are different. Anxiety is also different from a phobia, nervousness, or worries.
Yes, stress can lead to anxiety and can worsen mental health conditions…. but make sure you know the difference.
Belittling anxiety and acting like everyone experiences it is misleading. It’s also very insulting to people who really suffer from it.
Plenty of people can experience intense amounts of stress and pressure but never experience anxiety.
And vice versa, a person with anxiety can experience very little pressure or stress but still have an anxiety attack.
We Want To Be Understood, Not Pitied
Me: “I might have to skip the grocery today. My anxiety is really bad today”
Friend: “Awww… I am so sorry. Can I do anything to help?”
Again, 100% kind and innocent in nature… but this response usually makes me feel like I’m about the size of a pea.
I battle anxiety every day like a G-D warrior princess…. please don’t pity me.
It’s just a struggle. Everyone has struggles.
Ask any person in a wheelchair. I bet they say that they would rather someone help them with a door than for someone to say “oh, I am so sorry you’re bound to a life in a chair.”
I know that someone from the ‘outside’ reading this will think ‘God! This is sad!”. Please don’t! I write this in hopes that it helps you to understand your friend with anxiety, not to pity them or feel like their life is sad.
Just cause we have anxiety doesn’t mean we love our lives any less or that they’re miserable! You can have anxiety and love your life and feel 100% blessed. I know I sure do!
My Final Tip: What People With Anxiety Want Their Friends To Understand
My final piece of advice is this: if we’re in the middle of an attack, ask “Do you need your space or would you like me to stay and keep you company?“
Sometimes I want to be alone so I can medicate, meditate and work things out…. sometimes I’m worried that if I’m alone, I’ll die.
From here, you’ll be able to make a judgement about what your friend needs from you to help them make it through their attack and into a more peaceful mindset.
Having anxiety is hard and it feels like you’re up against the world. Having a friend who understand anxiety can be like having a white knight that comes to save you when you feel like you’re cornered.
Well, I hope my take on things may be helpful to someone who is struggling with anxiety…. and their friends too.
If you have anxiety, what’s something you wish your friends understood?
If you’re friends with someone who has anxiety, what is something that helped you understand how they felt?