If you are used to reading this blog, you’ve seen me discuss it before: 1 in 5 Americans suffer from some form of mental illness during a twelve month period. That number is extraordinarily high, and it means that over sixty million Americans suffer from mental illness’ grasp during any given year. This is shockingly high and exceptionally tragic.
That being said, here’s a different way of looking at this statistic, one that can be a little but of a head trip for advocates like me who can sometimes drown in the mental health universe: 4 in 5 Americans don’t suffer from mental illness over a one year period. While the world health organization says that 1 in 4 people will suffer from mental illness over the course of their lifetime, that still leaves an exceptionally high number of people who don’t know what it’s like, thank goodness.
Many people understand what mental illness is like. When I first started talking about my own struggles, I was blown away by how many people said, “Me, too,” or confided that a beloved family member or friend knew exactly what this pain was like. Even so, describing mental illness can sometimes be a challenge, so allow me to try.
As my life has gone on, I’ve often suffered from some combination of a generalized anxiety disorder, periodic anxiety attacks and a major depressive disorder. I’d actually make the argument that the anxiety is more dehabilitating than the depression. That’s because of this simply metaphor: Living with anxiety is like living in a box. A box that slowly closes.
Allow me to explain. The kicker about anxiety attacks is that they are often unexpected. While some triggers can make them occur, or can spike a general sense of unease and anxiety, many anxiety attacks occur out of nowhere, for no real reason. For many – and this was certainly the case for me – there is only one place they don’t occur (without a very good reason): Home. Home is the safe place. It’s the place where nothing can go wrong.
So, you’re out at the mall, and bam, anxiety attack. Or you are out with friends at a party. Someone gives some backhanded insult, and there you go, down the rabbit hole of anxiety, with no end in sight. Suddenly, you are miserable. Stomach churning. Palms sweating. Heart rate accelerating. Breathing difficult. Hoping no one notices, you retreat to the bathroom, thinking, I need to get out of here. And you do. You make up some lame excuse – you’re tired, you have an upset stomach – and out you go. You’re home.
And then the next time you get invited to a party, you remember. Remember the pain, the anxiety, and like any normal human, you want to avoid it. So you don’t go.
So take that situation. Multiply it by every variable you can think of: The grocery store. The mall. School. Work. And that’s how anxiety traps you in a box. It cuts off your life by making sure you engage in avoidance behavior, slowly chopping away joy and vital connections from your world.
Unfortunately, this is all to common among people with anxiety. They become socially withdrawn, and at it’s most severe, it can lead to agoraphobia, which is when you avoid public situations altogether.
The best way to stop this? It’s also the hardest: Face your fear and break out of the box. This is different for everyone, and often best done with the help of a therapist. For me, when I was at my worst, I almost had to retrain myself to engage in social situations – go places by myself, where I was free of judgement, and just relax. It worked, eventually, but largely because I followed a pretty regimented approach that was set up by my therapist.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts below. Did I get the metaphor right? Any better, more accurate one that you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments!