Sharing – Why Is It So Hard to Explain Mental Illness?

This is a fairly old article but for whatever reason, it popped up in some of my reading today, and I wanted to highlight this quote because I think we see something very similar happening now:

We have good words for describing physical pain: radiating, hot, throbbing, sharp, achy and so on. But when it comes to emotional pain we’re “sad.” The same word applies when you drop your ice cream cone on the ground as when you’re so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s not surprising that people don’t get what we’re talking about.

In 2022 we could say the same thing about “sad” but I would argue that we see the same thing even more so with the word “anxious” or “having anxiety”.

Of course, with a war going on in Ukraine, two years’ worth of pandemic, political turmoil, and everything else we see when we tune into whatever news source we follow, almost everyone would consider themselves anxious, so how do we differentiate between being anxious about the state of the world, and the kind of anxiety where we are consistently dealing with panic attacks at the very thought of leaving the house?

We don’t have a different word for that. We only have anxiety, or panic, which again, just seem like normal reactions to what is going on around us.

On top of that, when I try and describe my anxiety to someone, even if I can get them to understand that it’s something more than just watching the news and feeling a bit nervous, I can’t really describe it. I don’t understand it. If I did, I might be able to just fix it and be better, but I don’t.

I don’t have a word other than anxiety to describe the tightness in my chest that I get thinking about going somewhere new, or the racing thoughts that keep me up at night and only quiet if I can immerse myself in some other activity to occupy my brain. I also don’t know why those thoughts exist, or how to stop them. I can’t explain to someone who’s never had them just how loud they can be, and how exhausting it is to be hyper-vigilant all of the time because of them.

We haven’t created words for this, and when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to even understand what is happening enough to explain it to someone.

This is our challenge. How can you make it easier? Just listen and be there. Even if you don’t understand it you can sit with someone while they talk about it. Even if your understanding isn’t enough to “fix” our anxiety, you can listen. You can accept that the word “anxious” doesn’t fit, and allow us to be where we are without trying to diminish it.

Just because we use the same word to describe being nervous about a test or a date as we do to describe a heart-racing panic that comes upon us for no obvious reason, doesn’t mean they are the same or should be treated the same. Just understanding that helps us.


Anxiety” by amenclinics_photos is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

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