Author: Emily White
Mental health, mental illness, mental wellness, emotional wellbeing, self-care, grounding, CBT, words I now hear almost every day.
It’s incredible, the ever- increasing conversation and awareness around this topic. What’s NOT so amazing? The lack of distinguishing between the peaks and troughs of every human's mental health, and the darkest ‘trough’ of struggling with a long term mental illness. We all have ‘days’: happy, sad days, days where you feel the whole world is against you or can’t find anything about yourself you love. Where your relationship with food is not quite ‘balanced’, you ‘do a stupid’* or feel particularly glum for no real reason. However friends, feeling glum for no real reason, even if it is for a week, does not mean you have depression. Feeling nauseous, on edge, snappy the entire week before an exam, or month before a show, does not mean you ‘have anxiety’.
Well, perhaps it does. You experience anxiety. You experience depression. But you do not have an anxiety or depression disorder. I don’t believe we have enough language on the topic of mental health. We should not have to use the same term to discuss a temporary reaction, often to stress, and a chronic illness. Whilst the symptoms of lung cancer and a nasty cough are very similar, we have different words for them, and different treatments. Similarly, ‘anxiety’ and ‘anxiety disorder’ need different treatments, different coping strategies, and really, should not have such similar/ the same name. As someone who has an anxiety disorder, I cannot tell you how sick I am of being asked if I ‘do yoga and meditation?’, or ‘maybe you should try to live more in the present?’ FRIEND, I AM THE MOST ‘LIVING IN THE PRESENT PERSON’ EVER, often to a detrimental level meaning I am positively SHOCKING at planning anything in advance, and have the worst memory of past events.
I am not an anxious person, but I have an anxiety disorder.
Yes, I would highly recommend yoga, breathing exercises, mediation and ‘living in the present’ to someone who is having an anxious period due to difficult life circumstances or an external stressor. These are all exceptional tools to heal a brain reacting to a stressful, anxiety causing situation.
However, struggling with an anxiety disorder is a whole other ball game.
It is not uncommon for me to be overly restless, have a racing heart, sweating palms, unable to regulate my temperature, feel like I’m about to be attacked by… well, nothing. And that’s exactly it. Living with an anxiety disorder can mean waking up in ‘flight’ mode, experiencing all the things you would feel if a giant grizzly bear was standing in front of you, except, there’s no bear. No exam, performance, interview. Sometimes, a day of what should be delightful life experiences can be flipped upside down due to an anxiety disorder.
I am grateful that since receiving a diagnosis, I have received treatment, learnt coping strategies, triggers and my limitations. I am one of the fortunate ones.
Yet it still never fails to infuriate me when I hear you squeal ‘OMG I’m having a panic attack’ when you get your results back or have to board a busy bus. Because, dear friend, generally, if you are having a panic attack, often cannot form a logical sentence. Don’t tell everyone about your ‘debilitating anxiety’ you had the week before a deadline without stating the deadline existed. Without reassuring your friends you were overwhelmed because of said stressor. Though perhaps a slight OVERreaction, you were reacting, to a very logical stressor. Because chances are, there is someone listening who may have GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), all the symptoms that come with racing adrenalin** right there and then, hiding it behind red lipstick and a smile surrounded by friends letting their hair down at the local pub after work. Chances are, they are fully aware it’s irrational. Fully aware there is nothing to ‘worry about’. Living completely in the present and infuriated that they cannot listen or engage properly because their body, much beyond their control, is in ‘flight’ mode.
I am fortunate not to have experienced a depression disorder. But I have had days where I have felt lower than low, suicidal at times. I have felt depressed. I do not have depression.
I will not write for those who have experience of depression disorder, but I can imagine they feel the same.
Let’s keep talking. Keep listening. But learn. Learn the difference between emotional reactions and mental illnesses/disorders. Both are valid, but vastly different.
Speak up. Listen up. Learn.
*my personal way of referring to a time my mental health caused me to act illogically/irrationally, usually making a decision that causes harm to myself
**fast heart rate, sweaty hands, inability to concentrate or listen, difficulty forming sentences, regulating breathing and body temperature, amongst a variety of other symptoms that can vary from person to person
‘Stressor’- a stimulus that causes stress. A life situation, change of circumstance, difficult relationship etc
‘Anxiety disorder’- a form of mental illness
‘Anxiety’- a bodily/psychological reaction preparing the body to escape danger
‘Flight mode’ - a form of anxiety response. Often the body responds in ‘fight or flight mode’- physiological preparation to fight the stressor, or run away from it.