Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash
What happens when anxiety goes neglected and untreated? What happens when people belittle anxiety sufferers for being weak? In short—what's the big deal about anxiety, anyway?
Ignoring it doesn't work.
Anxiety impacts about 18% of Americans, or 40 million people, each and every year. Women are more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. While common wisdom of the past tells us to just "ignore" our feelings and push them down, this is actually very harmful advice that does not work.
Repressing emotions instead of dealing with them in a healthy way is a way of avoiding emotions. We may have learned this as children or young adults, possibly from an authority figure who is also repressing emotions.
The idea is that some feelings are "bad" and so you are bad for feeling them. Then, emotions are pushed aside, or pushed down. Emotional avoidance is a way for a person to defend themselves, but in the long-term, it is not healthy.
Eventually, the emotions we push down come out in strange ways. Anxiety is one such way. Anger is another. When we try to ignore our feelings, they do not go away...they simply remain bottled up until we find the courage to feel.
Anxiety causes a person to make bad choices because it literally impacts the brain's ability to do so. There's an old adage that you shouldn't make choices when you're happy or sad...and I would add anxious to that list.
Anxiety is a trigger of the fight-or-flight response. Usually, when we feel anxiety, all we want is the source of anxiety to go away. This can happen in many situations:
1. Avoiding a relative because of an argument.
2. Ignoring phone calls from a bill collector.
3. Refusing to go into a certain building because of a past memory.
And so on and on. Instead of thinking about how we can best solve the problem, our anxious impulse is to simply avoid the problem until it goes away. Anxiety causes us to avoid situations that trigger negative feelings, but this means we are not fully in control of our lives...fear is.
Anxiety caused me to ignore money issues and other personal issues I had with intimacy and closeness. This caused me to have more money problems later on, and to push people away who were probably actually very good for me and had my best interests at heart.
Sufferers can turn to self-medicating.
When anxiety is ignored, sufferers sometimes turn to self-medicating...like taking drugs, drinking alcohol, or abusing perscriptions. Of course, this will relieve anxiety in the short term, but can lead to dependency or even addiction, as well as overdosing and other related health problems.
However, people can also self-medicate with food or substances that are not traditionally thought of as a "drug." For example, for people with anxiety, workaholism may also be a form of coping.
When I was younger, I regularly used alcohol to unwind until I realized I was starting to drink every single day. Since then, I try hard to simply feel my feelings instead of pushing them down. I have found that sometimes emotions are helpful—I was drinking after work because it was not the job for me.
Feelings, I learned, were telling me something important about my life that did not want to be ignored.
Physical health problems.
Chronic anxiety is bad for one's heart. Anxiety can raise blood pressure and cause heart palpitations. It can also impact your muscles, breathing, and leave one feeling fatigued.
When I have an anxiety attack, the first symptom I notice is my racing heart and difficulty breathing. After it has subsided, I usually feel like I need a nap. It's a terrible cycle of ups and downs, of being on high alert, and then crashing.
A world that grows smaller and smaller.
Anxiety makes one's world smaller and smaller, until loved ones, fun activities, and adventures all disappear.
Anxiety is like a weed, a vine that just keeps growing and growing unless it is cut. Anxiety causes one to avoid certain activities, but it's never content to just limit some activities from your life. Eventually, the things that were once fine will also begin to seem scary.
People who confront this anxiety become enemies. People who tell you that you need help become the bad guys, too.
What's the big deal about anxiety? It's a hungry monster that is never, ever satisfied. If you're not pushing back on it, then it is consuming you.
It's passed down.
There is a hereditary component to anxiety in more ways than one. People can be predisposed to it, but also, if one's parents have anxiety and teach bad coping mechanisms, those coping mechanisms are also learned and passed on.
For example, I was told as a child that everyone had depression and anxiety and everyone just dealt with it and went to work. I was told I had to suck it up, and that what I was feeling was not abnormal. I just thought other people were better and stronger than I was, because they managed to do well in school and be a part of sports teams, and I was so depleted by the end of the day that I just wanted to be alone.
Getting help with anxiety does not only help yourself, but it could potentially help people who look up to you, children or no. We teach others about life, consciously or unconsciously.
When we learn how to manage our anxiety and to make the best decisions for ourselves despite having this problem, we show other people with mental health issues that there is a better way. We offer a kind of roadmap away from suffering, instead of teaching people that all of life is suffering, and they just need to "suck it up."
With the pandemic, anxiety has become a big topic. Some people feel like anxiety is "trendy" or that it's somehow "cool" to have mental health issues. But this is not merely a bid for attention—Anxiety sufferers struggle every day with tasks others would find easy. Just working and cleaning in the same day might seem completely overwhelming.
What's the big deal? Plenty. But one day at a time, it can improve.