Here’s the thing. People with anxiety are not paper dolls. They won’t snap in half if you even so much as breathe in their direction – so why are people with anxiety still treated as though there’s something wrong with them?
I’ve had an anxiety disorder since I was 14 years old, and still I find that people treat me differently than they used to. I experience anxiety in two forms, as panic attacks, which are terrifying experiences, albeit very brief. The panic attacks feel like a massive woosh of fear and worries swirling round my head. During my panic attacks, I experience physical symptoms of shaking, hyperventilating, dizziness, and nausea. The other form of anxiety I experience is underlying anxiety. It's subtle, but constant. I feel like people are always laughing at me, like none of my friends genuinely like me, I overanalyse every single thing I say. My anxiety is definitely a part of me, but what some people fail to understand is that I am not defined solely by my mental health disorder.
I started to notice a change in the way that people treated me once they found out about my anxiety, whether I told them, or whether they saw me experiencing a panic attack. Teachers, friends, and fellow students started to talk to me in soft, hushed tones. People started to touch me gently as though I was a fragile ornament, as though something too abrasive would tip me over the edge. People stopped sharing information with me, for fear of overloading me. And don’t get me wrong – I love that people care. I LOVE that people are trying to accommodate anxiety. What I don’t love is that when people treat me like a breakable object, it makes me feel weak.
Treating me differently actually makes me more worried, because it makes my irrational brain think that they don’t like me, that they’re only putting up with me because they have to – I can practically taste their exasperation. Sometimes, their gentleness is warranted, on days where my anxiety is particularly flared up, when I’m feeling emotionally fragile. Sometimes I need reassurance that my friends don’t hate me. Sometimes I need my teachers to talk me through my essays over and over to convince me I’m not completely useless. But there’s a difference between supporting me, and making me feel weak and incompetent. Sometimes I do need help, but sometimes I just want to feel normal again.
I understand that it’s difficult to separate the person from the disorder, but people with anxiety disorders are really just people – I promise! When you see a friend or a relative experiencing anxiety, it’s strange and frightening. (It’s frightening for us as well!) Try to remember that they are still the same person. I have anxiety, but I’m not just anxious, I’m also childish, introspective, (sometimes!) funny, opinionated, sarcastic, clever, and brave. I’m grateful for your support, and for your kindness, but please try to remember – I am still Caitlin.