If you’ve read women’s interest articles lately or browsed Instagram, you’ve probably seen a post or two about struggles with anxiety. You’d be hard-pressed to find a publication without an “anxiety story” in the last year. Nearly every article I checked in the Popsugar “Mental Health and Personal Essay” category references anxiety or depression. We might be celebrating our willingness to speak about mental health issues, but are influencer anxiety posts creating conversations, or are they creating further barriers for those with more severe symptoms?
Full disclosure, I’m not a stranger to deep depression, anxiety, or panic attacks. In fact, I’ve succumbed to writing about it before. I found my way of coping with my symptoms successfully and fully recovered from a decade-old eating disorder while working through deep-seated trauma. I still find it hard to believe that my experience of anxiety can be bundled with another person’s. Is everyone debilitated by their symptoms of crippling anxiety out there? Are all these people waking up in the mornings with deep pain in the pit of their stomachs? Are they winding up in emergency rooms or with emergency responders in their living rooms from their panic attacks too?
We might be setting up a new problem of deceptive relativity that undermines symptoms interfering with daily functioning. Stephanie Woodrow, LCPC, specializes in the treatment of adults with anxiety, OCD, and other related disorders. “Creating this presumptive sameness between all anxiety and anxiety disorders is often comforting to those with less invasive and destructive symptoms, but more distressing to those with more debilitating concerns,” says Stephanie. “If a person with a debilitating anxiety disorder has someone who appears to be functioning normally despite having anxiety, the person with severe symptoms can feel misunderstood by others attempting to empathize, and isolate more.”
I’m not sure if my words “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make the event; I have deep crippling anxiety right now,” will mean the same to someone used to measuring anxiety on Instagram’s terms. The influencer behind the anxiety post has their version of anxiety. It might be a pang of anticipation or panic when something novel is about to happen in their life, or it might be hyperventilation on the bathroom floor. I’ve stopped myself many times from speaking about anxiety because mine isn’t pretty, and the literal scars I have on my arms from my younger years make people noticeably uncomfortable.
We’re opening up mental health for discussion, but at the same time, we’re creating a pretty version of events, cleaned up for aesthetic purposes, and sanitized for clicks and numbers. It’s become so commonplace to idolize mental health and mental illness in our society, that a major fashion brand like Gucci assumed it’s appropriate to send models down the runway in straitjackets. Alessandro Michele, Gucci’s creative director, indicated he “wanted to show how society today can have the ability to confine individuality and that Gucci can be the antidote.”
There might be a point where our obsession with talking about anxiety can seriously backfire. Dr. Rebecca Cowan, the owner of Anchor Counseling and Wellness and professor at Walden University, isn’t a stranger to seeing people forego much-needed help because they think they should deal with it as others do. “It isn’t ‘normal’ to have debilitating anxiety,” she says. “I actually have had patients come to therapy feeling shame because they were anxious but felt like what they were experiencing was no worse than what others are going through.”
According to NAMI, 20% of adults experience mental illness each year, while only 4% of adults experience a “serious” mental illness each year. Maybe that’s why anxiety and depression are so prevalent amongst magazines, blogs, and social media. It’s relatable and comfortable, while something like schizophrenia or stories of involuntary commitment are messy, scary, and confined to corners we don’t want to touch, like mental health institutions.
If we think a Gucci sweater, a trip to Paris, a much-needed R&R trip to the spa, or a bouquet of the freshest blooms is our cure to anxiety, then we are speaking about two different versions of mental illness, my friend. We wove a tapestry of self-care as our antidote to chemical imbalances. While I wholeheartedly agree with reducing stress and indulging in self-care to cope with symptoms, we must start integrating other stories into our discussion.
In no way do I want to minimize your experience in coping with what you have in your life. It’s probably very different from my experience. Your first order of business is ensuring you have quality care and the choices you make are personalized to you. Do not judge yourself based on someone else’s written account. Please book an appointment with your doctor and let them know exactly what you feel. They can guide you through the process better than anyone’s article or post on the internet.
And if you’ve overcome some serious challenges in your life, whether it’s trauma, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, BDP, or any other number of mental illnesses, please speak freely and without shame. My shame keeps my scars hidden away, even though they are as much part of my past as my bellybutton. I wish, as a teen, someone with their scars told me that there are other options and coping techniques. You can be the person to help the next generation cope better.