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Anxiety, Panic Disorders, and Agoraphobia

And Why It's Okay to Feel However You Feel About Your Own Mental Illness

Today, I read a post wherein a prominent blogger talked about how grateful she is for her anxiety and how anxiety is a good thing and how if you feel any other way about it, your perspective is wrong and you’re not being “positive enough” about your experience and how your experience will change if you just learn to “like your anxiety.”

It started with “ANXIETY IS NOT A BAD THING, READ BELOW” (all caps, by the way) and the whole post would have been fine if she had said “anxiety is not a bad thing for me” and had gone on to discuss the ways her attitude has helped improve her experience. She didn’t. Instead, she was suggesting that her way is the only way because it will work for everyone and that if it isn’t working, it’s because you’re doing something wrong. That’s where I take issue.

It reminds me of a similar experience I had about two years ago where someone who practices Reiki told me that she could cure my non-metastasizing muscular sarcoma (a type of muscle cancer that doesn’t spread to other areas) with Reiki. She advised me to stop taking my medication, which I did not do, and then to “stop protecting my illness” when I took offense to her suggestions. That person is no longer in my life because I consider her to be a danger to my other chronically ill loved ones. People die when they’re advised by someone they trust to stop their doctor-prescribed treatments for a certain illness and decide to heed that advice. Mental illness is not an exception.

Today, when I read this potentially harmful post about anxiety, it awoke in me some of the same things I felt then. For the sake of others who might be reading her post and internalizing her words, I politely brought to her attention how dismissive and potentially hurtful her perspective is. I got a sarcastic “thank you for your input” kind of response, to which I patiently replied that being unwilling to examine how her perspective is dismissive of others can also be hurtful and frankly, that attitude is gross. I got another sarcastic “thanks for your input” response and I told her that I hope she chooses to meditate on that and grow as a person. That was the end of the conversation because you can’t talk to people who function on such an emotionally unconscious level. They either won’t hear you or they’ll hear something you didn’t say and start an argument that way. Accountability feels like an attack to someone who is not ready to acknowledge how their behaviors can harm others.

Normally, I wouldn’t even get involved even though I have a clinically diagnosed panic disorder, but this person has influence over a lot of people and I think it’s important that she, and more importantly, they know her word on this subject is not gospel simply because the words sound nice and encourage positivity. Encouraging someone to “just have a positive attitude” in lieu of necessary medical intervention is irresponsible and dangerous. She has thousands and thousands of followers, many of whom I’m sure live with anxiety, panic disorders, agoraphobia, and other related mental illnesses and encounter challenges related to their illness every day. Some of whom made that known to her in ways both more and less patiently than I, and her responses were consistently combative. Rest assured: no matter how you feel about your mental illness, some days will be good and some days will be bad. That’s just the nature of any chronic illness.

So I’ll say this once, as plainly as I can: you do not get to be dismissive of others based only upon your own experiences and also walk around like you’re enlightened or call yourself woke. You’re not a worthwhile role model when if you dismiss the struggles of others and respond with hostility when presented with an opportunity to see things through different eyes. Those perspectives cannot genuinely overlap; they are mutually exclusive.

For those of you who may have seen her post and as a result are feeling alienated, dismissed, or overlooked by her comments: I see you. I hear you. Your anxiety is not your fault and neither is the way you feel about it. Being told to have a positive attitude about your anxiety and that it’ll be solved if you can do that is simply untrue. It is harmful and unhealthy, and I hope you don’t think on it too much. I hope you don’t let her short-sighted perspective dampen your self-esteem or any feelings of progress you may have been feeling before. If you were already feeling pretty bad, I hope it didn’t make you feel worse.

Her perspective is harmful, plain and simple. One: because if a person is able to change their attitude and then they have an anxiety attack or other setbacks regardless of their attitude, which will happen, they come away from that experience feeling like a failure. The positive attitude feels like progress and when the thing we’re trying to avoid happens in spite of all our hard work, it’s hard not to feel like we failed.

Two: because some people simply can’t change how they feel about their anxiety nor can they change the ways in which anxiety impacts their lives. They simply aren’t wired to process and respond to information that way, and that doesn’t make them less worthy of help or less valid than someone who is able to reframe their perspective in a helpful way.

Some people with Agoraphobia can’t leave their houses. Changing their attitude about leaving their house is not going to cure their mental illness. The only type of anxiety having a positive attitude can possibly help is the situational anxiety everyone feels from time to time. Not the diagnosable mental illness. A positive attitude will no more cure a mental illness than it will cure a physical one. Sure it can make the situation more bearable, sometimes. But thinking good thoughts about liver cancer isn’t going to treat or cure it, just like thinking good thoughts about your anxiety or panic disorder isn’t going to treat or cure it. Your mental illness is just that: a valid illness. It is not a failure in your ability to be positive, it is not a comment on who you are as a person, and it is not an indicator that you’re doing something wrong. Your brain is an organ, and just like any other organ, it can get sick, and just like any other organ, how you feel about that illness is not going to change the fact that it’s there and requires real treatment, whatever that means for you.

Three: there is a difference — a big difference — between situational anxiety and clinical anxiety. Situational anxiety is something everyone feels before speaking in public or before a job interview. Clinical anxiety is a diagnosable mental illness that requires ongoing treatment from a mental health professional and, in some cases, medication to manage. Whatever you need to feel better and to help you grow is valid and okay as long as it doesn’t hurt you or others or infringe upon anyone’s rights. Remember that. Repeat it to yourself as much as you need. Whatever you need to do for you is valid.

Finally, I want to stress a related but off-topic point: let’s be more discerning with the people we choose to make famous at any level. This person isn’t Beyonce, but she has more of a reach than I do. This person has the power of a voice that travels great distances via social media and yet she chooses to be irresponsible with her words, alienates people who feel differently than she does, and doubles-down on that alienation when anyone tries to explain how that perspective is problematic and hurtful. Yet she operates under the guise of being an open-minded and enlightened life guide, and that’s what makes her sharing this opinion so problematic.

How many younger girls who look up to her and value her opinion came away from reading that post feeling bad about themselves and their anxiety because their experience is different? Or they just can’t feel good about themselves or their illness, no matter how hard they try, because they’re depressed too? How many people came away from that blaming themselves for something that isn’t their fault just because their experience differs from hers? Especially after she made it clear that if you don’t feel about your anxiety the way she does about hers, you must be doing something wrong. That’s grossly irresponsible. You don’t deserve fame if you don’t use that fame responsibly.

The problem doesn’t start or stop with her, and she is by no means the worst offender, but I felt the need to address this for the people who took her words to heart and are struggling with their own feelings and experiences as a result. You are valid, your feelings are valid, and there is no one right way to look at or approach a problem.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad it’s worked for her. That’s one less person dealing with crippling anxiety every day, and that’s a win in everyone’s book. She must be so relieved. But just because a simple change in her attitude is that easy and effective for her does not mean it will be so for other people nor does it mean that the people for whom it’s difficult and ineffective are doing something wrong.

Different things work for different people, and that’s okay. You don’t even have to understand it, you just have to respect it. That’s one of the first things you need to understand and weave into your worldview if you’re going to peddle the persona of the “enlightened life coach.” You can’t exhibit any of the behaviors I just talked about, and still call yourself a leader of any kind. Nothing I saw from this person today was the behavior of a leader, an empath, or even a moderately enlightened human being.

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