I have anxiety, and so do the people I care about. All of the members of my immediate family struggle with it – even our dog is on medication to help him make it through the day.
As such, my relationship with my mental health is a long and complicated story.
I’ve experienced both what it is like to be somebody with an anxiety disorder as well as what it is like to love somebody with one.
I’ve felt how frustrating it is to live with somebody with anxiety and how frustrating it is to be that person.
But it wasn’t until I found feminism that I truly began to dissect how living with an anxiety disorder intersected with other aspects of my identity.
That perhaps being a woman might change the way my mental health was perceived.
Once I started to really think about it, it quickly became apparent that mental health is yet another aspect of one’s identity that they may cause somebody to experience oppression,and it’s easy to be a party to that oppression with the way we talk to people dealing with mental illness.
Often, even the well-intentioned things we say to people are loaded with meaning packed on by a society where mental health is still a taboo topic loaded with stigma.
In a world where mental health has historically been used in sexist, misogynistic, and otherwise oppressive ways, it is important to unpack the ways our language can perpetuate these old structures.
Because we rarely talk about mental health, we rarely have conversations about how the way we talk to people dealing with mental illness is often not just incredibly hurtful, but also reinforces the stigma and oppression of those who deal with it face everyday.
Here are five things I often hear as a person living with anxiety, and why it’s so important that people stop saying them:
1. “You Just Need to Calm Down”
It is easy to lash out at somebody dealing with anxiety in the midst of an anxious episode or even just on account of their day-to-day anxious habits. To the untrained eye, somebody with an anxiety disorder may just seem overbearing, obsessive, or on-edge.
When you aren’t living through it, it is difficult to understand why somebody may get so caught up in and upset about small details that might not matter to anybody else.
But reality, for folks seeing the world through eyes of an anxiety disorder, isn’t quite so simple.
The most common response I hear to somebody viewing my anxiety from the outside is a prodding to “just calm down.” But that isn’t something I am able to do.
You see, the problem with anxiety is that you can’t just calm down. If this was a possibility, I would have absolutely opted out of this whole anxiety thing by now.
Please understand that nobody chooses to have anxiety. It is not something that can be easily controlled or turned-off when it is convenient.
It is something I will likely have to deal with for the rest of my life, and directing me to just “calm down” enforces the same kind of stigma around mental illness that makes talking about it so difficult in the first place.
Telling somebody to calm down goes hand-in-hand with calling them “crazy.”
It is a silencing tactic reinforced by a society where representation of the mentally ill in our media is either regulated to serial killers and lost causes or as a plot device that adds a dash of mystery to a story.
Hearing this is often not only hurtful, but it also encourages people not to get help when they need it for fear they’ll just be further shamed.
It shames those of us struggling with our mental health and reinforces that there is something wrong with us. So before you lash out in frustration, consider the impact of a statement like this on somebody you care about.
2. “Have You Tried (Exercising, Meditation, Eliminating Dairy, And So On)?”
Receiving these statements is one of the hardest parts about living with anxiety.
More often than not, they come from such a good place — you are likely suggesting them in honest hope that there is something out there somebody you care about has yet to try that will finally make a difference.
But the truth is there isn’t a magic cure-all for anxiety or any other mental illness.
As much as I would absolutely love to go for a jog and have all of my problems melt away, (and yes, it does help), I can’t do that on days where I’m so anxious I can hardly even make it out of bed. And more to the point, none of these things work for everybody.
When you ask somebody dealing with mental illness if they’ve tried whichever solution you heard about one time in a magazine, it can imply that they don’t know what is best for themselves and their own mental health and that their problems have a simple solution they just haven’t tried yet.
But here’s the thing: Anxiety is not caused by drinking diet soda, and it can’t be fixed by giving yoga a shot.
It was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain that I was genetically predisposed to. That means that your suggestions, while well-intentioned, miss the point.
You may think you’re helping by offering up a solution, but those suggestions can come off as belittling a life-long struggle that can’t be overcome with a simple trendy solution.
3. “Why Do You Have to Control Everything?”
Living with anxiety means going through every day feeling like like everything is out of my hands.
My life is a constant battle to regain that control.
I have to control everything because that is my coping mechanism, and it is the same way for many others living with anxiety.
You can often find me making to-do lists, updating my calendar, organizing my files, and making sure my house is in proper order because if I don’t do these things I cannot make it through the day. It is what I feel compelled to do in order to make it through the day.
That means what somebody living with anxiety needs others to understand is that they’re not trying to control everything because they’re being bossy or want to boss you around – they’re doing it because it they feel like they have to.
They’re doing it because they know it is the best way to take care of themselves.
When somebody you care about has anxiety, its easy to feel like they’re actions are purposeful or because of you, but its important to remember that more often than not, it’s the anxiety disorder at the wheel.
Suggesting that their efforts to take care of themselves and manage their anxiety is anything other than that is ableist – it implies that they don’t know what’s best for themselves.
And for women, there are sexist implications at play, too. Often, men are praised for exhibiting these same traits that women are criticized for displaying.
Being in control, organized, and in charge of one’s life is frequently turned to attack women as “bitchy” or “bossy,” when men are rewarded for acting in the same same manner.
Instead of posing an accusatory question about why they’re so controlling, instead ask how you can help or what the bigger issue afoot is. Talking out the root of the anxiety will go a lot farther than charging somebody you care about with controlling out of spite.
4. “Your Fear of ____ Is Totally Irrational”
As Kady Morrison explained in an article for Vox, anxiety doesn’t listen to reason.
“This is one of the most frustrating things about having an anxiety disorder,” she wrote, “knowing as you’re freaking out that there’s no reason to be freaked out, but lacking the ability to shut the emotion down.”
The truth about anxiety is that it is all about getting caught up in minute little details and scenarios that are completely irrational.
You often know that there is no real rhyme or reason to what is rolling through your mind, but you can’t stop yourself from going (and getting stuck) there.
For me, this often looks like getting caught up in a random scenario that happened to me twelve years ago and nobody remembers but me.
I can obsess over something that happened to me as a child, wondering, What if that person still remembers that one time I spilled chocolate milk all over them at school on accident? What would I do if I saw that person on the street? What if they interview me for my next job?
These thoughts keep me up at night. Regularly. And yes, I do know they don’t make sense and there is nothing to them, but I can’t turn them off. Telling somebody they aren’t being rational won’t do anything but make them more upset.
For women, statements such as these pack a double-whammy because they’re often also loaded with sexism.
The fears, anxieties, and even run-of-the-mill opinions of women have historically been dismissed as “crazy” or “irrational” – society even made up a mental illness (hysteria) as an excuse to control them.
And as Maddie McCloluskey explained for Everyday Feminism, that has had a lasting impact on the intersections of misogyny and mental health today:
“Our culture has accepted this idea that all women are crazy. This discredits women in general and silences the lived experiences of mental illness in both women and men.”
Making statements to women with anxiety disorders dismissing their legitimate experiences not only silences them, but also perpetuates the misogynistic notion that all women are just “crazy.”
5. “I’ve Got Anxiety, Too – I Totally Had an Anxiety Attack During Yesterday’s Episode of Scandal”
Dealing with an anxiety disorder isn’t the same as occasionally feeling stressed out or having little pangs of nervousness following the plot line of your favorite shows.
Likewise, mental illnesses aren’t adjectives and figures of speech you throw around to discuss an everyday experience.
Trying to find a way to relate to somebody with a mental illness is understandable, and even admirable, but when you do it in this way, it trivializes the very real day-to-day struggle of people dealing with mental illness.
Even if you’re attempting to empathize with somebody with anxiety, this is still underplaying a serious mental health problem, and saying it is probably doing more harm than good.
There are a couple components to this that are especially problematic. First, what you are dealing with really isn’t anything like living with a mental illness and all the pieces that come with it.
Having anxiety means you can struggle with panic attacks, stress headaches, stomach problems, and a host of other medical issues.
It is a lot more than feeling stressed time-to-time. That isn’t to say that the daily stress every person deals with isn’t important or noteworthy. It is just to say that it is an entirely different ball game.
The second thing to consider here is that mental illness is not a feeling, it is an illness. Using mental disorders as adjectives is ableist because it effectively silences those actually living with them.
“The more the names of mental illnesses occur in our conversations as facetious self-diagnoses and misappropriated adjectives,” explains Rebecca Fucco for the Huffington Post, “the more difficult we make it for those with clinical diagnoses to speak out and be heard.”
The way we talk about mental illness and the way we talk to people who deal with them can have a major impact on how our culture and society treat mental health.
Often, what we say to people dealing with these issues is well-meaning and coming from a place of love, but they can also be hurtful to the people we care about. And that is exactly why it is so important to unpack these statements before we continue to use them.
Ally Boguhn is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a feminist activist and media researcher living and working in Washington, DC. She completed both her B.A. in Communications and Art History as well as her M.S. in Professional Communications at Clark University, where she researched abortion debate rhetoric. Ally is also the founder and editor of Because I am a Woman, a blog devoted to intersectional feminism and reproductive justice. You can follow Ally on Twitter @AllyBoguhn. Read her articles.
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