The Lost Mental Illness: Understanding and Supporting a Loved One with Anxiety Disorder

Joel Eisenberg

Asking sufferers to “relax” or insisting “we all have anxiety issues” only tends to punctuate the crippling nature of the illness.

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A Face of AnxietySydney Sims, Unsplash

The above image was selected after careful deliberation. Anxiety takes many forms; two that are commonly overlooked is a lack of self-care, and a forced smile that is only infrequently convincing.

Many of us with experience in this field of study consider anxiety a “lost” mental illness due to its perception of being a common trait from which we all momentarily suffer.

I spent ten years in the mental health and education fields as a licensed special education teacher, working primarily with severely emotionally disturbed children and adults. My minor was in Abnormal Psychology. What I have discovered as equally important to the symptoms of acute anxiety disorder is how the sufferer’s personal relations are impacted by and react to those symptoms.

For those unaware, the regularly updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a diagnostic tool published and released by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and is the standard reference in the field.

According to the DSM-5 (fifth edition) Disorder Class, anxiety disorders are characterized by the following: A) Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance).B) The person finds it difficult to control the worry. C) The anxiety and worry are associated with three or more listed symptoms.

Three types of anxiety disorders are considered most common: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, defined in the first example above, Panic Disorder, usually exhibited by sudden, extreme panic events (that do not last as long as Generalized Anxiety Disorder), and Social Anxiety (also known as Social Phobia), defined by an excessive fear of being judged.

For information on DSM-5 defined symptoms of all anxiety disorders, which also includes possible development of issues related to depression, including mood and sleep irregularities, see here.

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Some who suffer from anxiety disorders say they are only able to relax when they manage to fall asleep, which is all too frequently a tall order. Some lash out at loved ones, which can mirror symptoms of bipolar disorder.

Regardless of specific symptoms, however, it is difficult to both understand and support someone you care about who suffers from an anxiety disorder because you are not so afflicted.

Here are some actions, then, those of us who do not suffer can do, today, to better understand and support the nature of a sufferer:

  • Imagine confronting your deepest, most disturbing phobia. Snakes, heights, elevators … whatever it is that most scares you. Consider how you feel in those moments of confrontation — that sense of extreme discomfort, perhaps even dread. When you escape from that snake, you may be shaken up or you may even laugh but generally you will quickly recover. If you are horrified of heights and you drive through steep mountains, chances are you will not feel comfortable until you return to familiar ground. For those who suffer from claustrophobia, elevators can be a nightmare. But, once those doors open, all is well. For those who suffer from anxiety disorders, though, nearly every moment spent awake can equate with those moments that terrified you when confronting your phobia. If an elevator ride takes 20 seconds to return to the first floor and those doors open, imagine that same feeling of helplessness on a potentially ongoing basis with no break. By proactively considering your own responses, you can become more sensitive to the needs of the anxiety sufferer.
  • Do not ask a sufferer to “get over it,” or “stop worrying about it.” Do not tell them, “It will all work out.” The more extreme the anxiety, the more easily anxious a sufferer may become. Anxiety for those who suffer from a disorder is not a light switch; they cannot turn the symptoms on or off. You may be able to as you are not medically diagnosed. The equivalent is comparing one who suffers from clinical or chemical depression to one who gets depressed watching a sad movie and feels better once they leave the theater. The differences are night and day.
  • Never push a sufferer. The more you push, the more resentment you may experience.
  • One who has been diagnosed often has difficulty compartmentalizing tasks. Many will become what you may believe is easily overwhelmed. Once again, your perception of that ease is because you do not suffer as they do.
  • Telling a sufferer to simply “pop a pill” or “take a tranquilizer” may be judgement to a sufferer, as if you are telling them their pain is an inconvenience to you. Your words may be, in your opinion, in their best interests, but perception matters.
  • Finally, read books on anxiety. Read articles posted online. If a loved one suffers, you will most likely be appreciated if you make the effort. Then you may be able to get help together.

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I was compelled to write this piece as I have loved ones who have suffered from crippling anxiety to the point where they unhealthily preferred to stay in bed all day. It was only when others took the time to understand them, using some of these above techniques, that hope returned.

If you have a loved one who suffers, do not give up hope.

For the sufferers themselves, help can be found within this Psych Guide listing of free 24-7 helplines.

I hope this has been a productive exercise. Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA
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