Hey y’all! It’s Mental Health Week! Let’s #GETLOUD for mental health.
Anxiety. Mental illness. Heavy topic, huh? It doesn’t have to be. Important topic? Absolutely.
I know that mental health and mental illnesses have been getting more mainstream coverage and acceptance of late (which is good), but it’s not enough. It’s something that we still need to work hard at to normalize. This is something that is okay to talk about. It’s important to talk about. 1 in 5 Canadians have or will suffer from a mental illness in their life. That’s 20% of the population, guys.
Although there are a lot of us out there, mental illness can be incredibly isolating. But, knowledge is power, yo! Educate yourself. Know someone with anxiety? (You probably do, whether you know it or not). Here are some (a little snarky) dos and don’ts.
**Note: This is from the perspective of someone who has been diagnosed and is being treated for anxiety. If you or someone you know may have anxiety, seek help–like your doctor, or a counselor. It doesn’t mean you or they are weak. Everyone needs a little help sometimes.**
Do #1: Reach out to us.
There are different kinds of anxiety and different people with anxiety. But the main thing with anxiety is fear. You know what helps with fear? Having friends and loved ones to lean on. I have social anxiety and generalized anxiety. My social anxiety makes talking to people, making friends, and keeping friends difficult. One of the main things about social anxiety is an intense fear of judgement and rejection. If you’re the one reaching out to us, it makes us pause and think, could there actually be something likeable about me that this person wants to spend time with me/care about me? And it’s a really nice pause. (Until we go off on a crazy brain tangent and start analyzing your motivation). It also takes the pressure off us to initiate. Because that is hella scary.
Don’t #1: Pressure us.
Sure, we really appreciate when other people reach out to us, because, FRIENDSHIP, (and we don’t have to agonize over reaching out to them). But sometimes we have bad days, or just need some alone time. Or sometimes, we just really can’t believe that you really do actually want to hang out with us or something, and anxiety dictates we stay at home in our refuge/prison.
Please be patient and compassionate. Please don’t stop trying. But also, please don’t pressure us to come out with you or make us feel like a bad person/friend if we don’t. THAT HELPS NO ONE. This really is a case of It’s Not You, It’s Me. We are hypersensitive to our surroundings, become overstimulated easily, constantly monitor our inner monologue, and spend a lot of time fighting off our fight or flight reflexes. In short: having anxiety is exhausting. (Oh, and we have trouble sleeping too. It’s a great pair.) Sometimes, we just don’t have the energy. It really isn’t you. Or us, really. It’s the anxiety.
Do #2: Listen, even if you can’t relate.
I don’t know what it’s like to not understand crippling anxiety. That must be really nice. But you know what? Just because you don’t know what it’s like doesn’t mean that it’s not valid or that it doesn’t exist. I took mental health first aid. You know what the most important thing was (after making sure no one was a risk of harm)? LISTEN NON-JUDGMENTALLY. I know it can be hard when someone is experiencing something completely foreign to you. I know there is the real temptation to use, say, logic. But that’s the thing with anxiety–it’s not logical or rational. It just is. We don’t want your advice. We want your support. Try to understand. If you can’t, love us anyway.
Don’t #2: Be a judgemental asshole.
Stigma is a real thing, yo. And it sucks. I know that there is more stigma surrounding more severe mental illnesses, but there is definitely a lot still remaining around your “run of the mill” anxiety and depression. Bro, anxiety is not the same as everyday worry, and depression is not the same as sadness. Don’t tell us to snap out of it. Do you tell someone with cancer to just buck up, focus on the positive, and get over it? NO. BECAUSE IT’S CRUEL AND USELESS. Don’t act like you know what you’re talking about when you don’t. We’re regular humans with baggage, just like you. Our baggage in this case is just something we might take pills for. AND THAT’S NORMAL AND OKAY BECAUSE IT’S AN ILLNESS. WHICH IS TYPICALLY WHAT YOU TAKE PILLS FOR.
Do #3: Remember this is not something we can help.
I know that loving someone with anxiety can be hard. Seriously. We don’t always trust people, there are a lot of things we are too scared to do. We question things, feelings, and relationships constantly. Believing in ourselves can be hard, and we will probably over-analyze every single thing you ever say or do.
Furthermore, if we have a specific phobia, I promise you it feels like life or death. Bugs, for example. I am really afraid of bugs. I know, yes, bugs are gross but mostly can’t hurt you, blah blah blah. But you telling me that, or telling yourself that, is not going to help. Especially when it comes to spiders. When I say I would rather die than have one on my body, I am not exaggerating. I know that can be frustrating if say, you want to go in the forest, or sit on the grass, or just be outside in summer. I’m not trying to be difficult. I literally can’t help it.
Don’t #3: Tell us not to worry.
Oh, just don’t worry? You’ve cured me! All this time I could have just not been worrying? I’d never thought of that! Thank you for taking your time to impart this timeless wisdom upon me. What would I do without you?
Give me a break.
Obviously if we could just not worry, we would. You’re just reminding us that we can’t control this feeling, and we hate feeling out of control. You’re pointing out that we’re not normal, that there is something we can’t do, and by making it sound so easy, you’re minimizing our feelings and struggles. I know, you just (probably… hopefully) innocently wanted to reassure us. Welp, I’m sorry but IT’S NOT HELPING. Maybe try, “It will be okay.” Or, don’t say anything. It’s not your job to fix us. Just be there for us.
Do #4: Be patient.
Anxiety makes us a little weird (but all the best people are weird anyway, right?). There are some “typical” anxieties people have, but we all deal (or not deal) with them in our own ways–and some of those ways might seem weird to you. They might also annoy the shit out of you. But please guys, be patient with us. Let us do our weird little thing. Make the decision when we start into an anxiety spiral of indecisiveness. Be the one to phone whoever needs to be called. Don’t talk to us when we’re focused on something. Text us back promptly (when possible) or be ready for the panic spiral. Reassure us, even if it’s about the same thing, for the 1000th time. Be patient.
Don’t #4: Get Frustrated.
I know how easy it is to get frustrated. I am a pretty easily frustrated person. I’m sure sometimes people who know me want to shake me and tell me I’m not being rational, that I should just do the thing, or stop doing the thing, or whatever. But I can’t help it, bro. It’s part of me. If you want to be in my life, you need to understand that. Know that I am working on it. But also know that it’s there, it’s not my fault, and it’s not going to change anytime soon.
Do #5: If you want our friendship/whatever to go anywhere, be there for us.
Like I’ve mentioned already, trusting people can be hard. Trusting in relationships can be really hard. But if you keep showing up for us, we’ll really appreciate it and be very loyal. We might have trouble asking for help or friendship when we need it. But if you’re there for us (understanding that we might not always appear to reciprocate friendship in the same way), it will go a long way.
Don’t #5: Talk about anxiety to us a lot. But don’t be afraid of it, either.
The thing is, talking about anxiety can actually cause anxiety. Weird, right? But honestly, a lot of us have anxiety about having anxiety. We will talk about it though–it’s important to. Just let us come to you. We’ll talk to you about it when we are ready. Or, if your friend’s anything like me, they’ll awkwardly insert it into conversations all the time in an effort to exert control it. What can I say? We’re a complex and mysterious breed *flips hair.*
Don’t #6: Pity us or coddle us.
We are not broken. We are not delicate little flowers. We can handle a lot of shit, man. We’re just different than you and have different needs sometimes.
Do #6: Remember we’re people–just like you.
We are not our anxiety. It’s a part of us, yes, and it’s always going to be there. But we are more than that. We are still us. We have our own personalities, experiences, talents, interests. Don’t be afraid of us, and don’t pigeonhole us.
The key is that knowledge is power (cliche, I know, but it’s true!). Know your friend, but also take the time to learn about anxiety and how your good intentions might lead to more harm than good. We get that not everyone understands us. But if you want to be our friend (and we want you to!), please take the time.
This Mental Health Week, take the time to learn about this stuff and talk about it.
Beth O’Brien is a library assistant and book blogger. Born and raised in Atlantic Canada, she lives in picturesque Nova Scotia with her cat Edith. You can often find her rocking double denim with her nose in a book and a craft beer in her hand. Follow her on Twitter @fuelldbyfiction.