What Do I Mean When I Say Anxiety?

Yesterday, I made a Facebook post that included the word anxiety. When I made it, I was dealing with a fairly strong anxiety attack, and I mentioned my frustration at coping skills that weren’t working. A few people commented and joked or just treated it like I was talking about having too much energy. It wasn’t a big deal, but it did rub me the wrong way as I was trying to be open about something that was a fairly crappy experience for me and a lot of people completely misunderstood what I was saying.

A lot of the time, people don’t understand why mental illness advocates suggest that they don’t use words like “OCD”, “anorexia” or “depression” to mean things other than the actual diagnosable illnesses. This seems to me to be a good example. We have lots of words for things that aren’t clinical level anxiety: worry, fear, nervousness, a sense of impending doom. But we don’t really have any other words for the feeling of anxiety that comes with an anxiety disorder. So when I try to express that feeling, I have no way to say it except with a word that will inevitably be misunderstood by at least some of the people I’m speaking to.

That’s actually incredibly frustrating and can feel quite invalidating. If you had a broken leg and tried to tell someone, and their response was more along the lines of what you’d say to a stubbed toe, you’d be a little miffed. That’s what it feels like to try to talk about mental illness and get advice that applies to neurotypical brains. There’s fairly good evidence that invalidation is really bad for a person’s mental health, as it makes it hard for them to trust their own emotions. So while no one was intending to fuck with me last night, it certainly felt as though I was trying to ask for help or comfort or recognition, and instead got people completely ignoring what I was saying.

These are the kinds of small experiences that add up. If you have a mental illness you get them all the time, which means that you have to spend extra time and energy deciding how you want to explain yourself and your feelings to other people. It also means always feeling as if you have to convince other people of the seriousness of a given emotion or problem. When I say anxiety, I don’t mean I’m worried about something. I mean that my whole body feels like it’s going to rip apart, that I have so much energy I can’t keep still, that I alternately cry and do pushups, that my brain will not and cannot turn off, that I am desperate to escape whatever situation is bothering me. These differences are important. We need a word to talk about the intense anxiety. It’s hard enough to talk about it without having the language itself obscure your meaning.

For those who don’t have to learn how to express their emotions in a language separate from the one everyone else does, it might seem like no big deal. But if you’re trying to be honest and open with others and not seem overly dramatic, it’s really important to be able to use the accurate terms without them being misunderstood.

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