This is the third essay in my series on what it’s like to love someone with mental illness. Like depression, anxiety strikes millions of people across all ages. There are many different forms and disorders that relate to anxiety, but rest assured that they share one thing in common: They make life much harder for those who suffer from it.
Most people know what anxiety feels like. Everyone has probably experienced some type of stress or anxiety in life. For most people, it doesn’t feel good but it doesn’t cripple them, either. For those who suffer from clinical anxiety, anxiety that would meet the criteria of a diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-Fourth Edition is in a whole other league. Not everyone has experienced this kind of anxiety.
Two of the most common types of anxiety are Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attacks. With regard to the first, the person suffers from anxiety that is free-floating; there is no event that causes it and no particular reason why the sufferer feels anxious. It can be incredibly frustrating for the sufferer because he or she can’t understand what set it off. With regard to the second, panic attacks, the sufferer often feels as if he or she is having a heart attack and fears he or she is going to die.
These forms of anxiety are typically misunderstood by the loved ones of those who experience it. Loved ones often see the sufferer and think the symptoms are in their head and that they are being dramatic or looking for attention. Part of the difficulty with anxiety is that there is still a lot we don’t know about it. We often aren’t sure why someone suffers from it or what causes it. We can guess that there may have been an event in the past that triggered a traumatic response or that there is an underlying chemical imbalance.
For the loved ones of these sufferers, you must understand that these symptoms are not a show. For those who have severe anxiety or panic attacks, they often carry a general feeling that they wish they could crawl out of their own skin because living in their skin is so painful, at times. These are not weak or vulnerable people. They can be some of the strongest, most resilient people you know.
If a loved one of yours has this experience, think of their condition as you would someone who has extremely high blood pressure. Some bodies are wired in certain ways, and no one is at fault. For the person who has high blood pressure, they must be careful to treat their body well so they don’t push their condition over the edge and risk a heart attack. Sufferers of anxiety must similarly treat themselves well by getting exercise, eating well, and avoiding caffeine. You, as the loved ones, can do a lot to support them if you try to understand their condition and have sympathy for them.