A while ago I came across this brilliant Odyssey article, which was underlining some very crucial points about how ‘healthy’ people view anxiety. It argues that while everybody gets anxious, not everyone has anxiety. Now, this is a concept on which I am wholeheartedly on board, but I feel like it needs to be framed in a different way.
Mental illness is something that has only started becoming widely-accepted recently. Keywords like ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression' are regularly thrown around, without any real understanding behind the meaning. These misunderstandings cause arguments and friction between those with different viewpoints and this only inspires more prejudice.
In reality, anxiety is a relatively straightforward concept that, yes, everyone does experience. Those who go through the sort of anxiety so wonderfully described in Felicia's post, are actually suffering from a fault--or disorder--in the brain system that controls this emotional response.
What Is Anxiety?
In its simplest terms, anxiety is your fight/flight reflex. It’s a prehistoric alarm system that was built to afford you superhuman qualities when danger is around. Anxiety is what gives mothers the ability to lift cars off their babies, what takes away your need to sleep, eat, relax until the noted problem resolves.
I'm not a Doctor Who fan, but the show once had the most amazing quote, which I noted down for later.
“Fear gives your superpowers. You can do anything when you’re afraid.”
And it's true! It's clear that early man developed this intense reflex to escape from wild animals, fight warring tribes, and protect their family. Unfortunately, as time moved on, society changed and our brains developed around our Limbic System – the prehistoric part – significantly complexifying our emotional responses.
Anxiety & Modern Life
The modern world doesn’t easily tessellate with our anxiety response. Now, immediate survival is not such an imminent concept. Ensuring our safety has become more about long-term success and less about escaping from danger and fighting for our lives. Where stress was once instant and quickly resolved, it now spans over years of employment, mortgage payments, social pressures and much, much more.
While some people – we’ll call them normal people, for want of a better word – can actively shut off these stresses, others cannot. One man may come home from a stressful workday, have dinner with his family and relax for the evening; another could do the same job but worry away a sleepless night agonizing over deadlines, potential mistakes, and growing workload.
Here lies your difference.
You may be anxious about your upcoming job interview, but if that anxiety stops you from eating, sleeping and connecting with you loved ones, then this is a problem. It is the result of a brain whose fight/flight response is firing off relentlessly until the perceived problem goes away. A brain that cannot compartmentalize stresses; can't properly employ the more recently developed neuro-structures that rationalize worry.
This is what it is to have an anxiety disorder.
Mental illness is just what is says on the tin – an illness. By claiming anxiety as solely existent as part of that, it makes it easier for stigma against sufferers to be justified. ‘Normal’ people do suffer from anxiety, so if we simplify our problems to just that, then you can understand why we get responses like ‘just calm down' or ‘cheer up.' To someone with a functioning brain, it is possible to quell anxiety with a change in thinking.
An anxiety disorder, however, is a significantly different kettle of fish. It’s a normal brain function that’s gone severely awry. It shoots off when we get something wrong or make a mistake; it takes our deepest darkest insecurities and relentlessly highlights them in everything we do; we get scared leaving the house, seeing friends or even opening the curtains. It’s a disease that needs to be taken seriously and accepted for what it is.
The mental landscape is an eternally complex thing. Even this explanation is grossly simplified. It's obvious that understanding mental illness will never be black and white, but this is why it's so important to clarify terms and establish a concrete understanding where we can.
There are so many excellent posts out there about life with mental illness; now is the time to have these conversations and share our experiences. If you're an anxiety sufferer, please, please, please leave a comment below and let us know how you relate to this! The more we talk, the more we can help each other!