Opening up about anxiety’s “invisible” influence on your psyche can leave you feeling exposed and vulnerable–but it can also be a vital part of self-acceptance.
It is often said that depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges are “invisible” conditions. True. But so are most other health disorders. How would you know the stranger sitting next to you on the bus has diabetes or heart disease any more than if she had depression?
Invisible is invisible. So why the double standard for mental health
A few years ago, when I asked my GP if the heart palpitations I was experiencing could be caused by an anxiety disorder, she said “I don’t think so,” and offered a prescription to calm my racing heart. Clearly, I did not look like someone with anxiety. I seemed so relaxed and congenial. I have a family and a job, and function well in high-stress situations—how could I be struggling with a mental health condition?
The irony is that while mental health conditions remain invisible, many people think they know what they look like: the homeless person under the bridge talking to the voices in her head or the shut-in who is so depressed he literally can’t get out of bed. There is no shame in either of those situations. But they are not the only, or even the most typical, faces of mental health.
The other faces belong to people like me. I work and have a family, pay my taxes, and engage with my community. Many people are surprised, sometimes even dismissive, to discover that my life is seriously impacted by anxiety.
One of the strange things about my anxiety is how transparent it feels to me. I wish I could walk into any social situation, confident in the belief that my symptoms were invisible. It’s part of what makes me anxious—the irrational belief that people will be able to read my thoughts and know I have a problem. I worry they will see my “tells”—the way my jaw clenches when I enter a roomful of strangers or how my voice cracks when I’m stressed.
Most people I tell about my anxiety have an open mind about it. Some even say, “I have it too!” This is an indication of how far we have come as a society. But traces of the old negative attitudes and stereotypes remain.
For a long time, I wrote about mental health and worked in the field without ever sharing my own experiences. Feelings of shame and legitimate fears of discrimination made me glad my anxiety was “invisible.” But after a point, it felt wrong to be writing about other people’s mental health with never a word about my own. In hiding my anxiety from other people’s eyes, I was actually hiding a part of my true self.
I don’t feel I have to share all the details about my diagnoses. Those who are close to me know that I don’t like big social gatherings, that I hate going into stores, and that the thought of sitting in a waiting room without a book to read throws me into panic. All those things are tied to my anxiety. But they don’t define me anymore than the anxiety itself.
Opening up about my mental health leaves me feeling exposed and vulnerable. That’s the last thing I want with my anxiety. On the other hand, it has opened up new doors for me. It helps me to get out of my comfort zone and people are usually more accepting than I think they will be.
Being honest and open about my mental health is part of self-acceptance—accepting who I am and living with those parts of me. Between the feelings of avoidance and exposure, there’s a healthy balance. And if bringing visibility to my own struggles with mental health can help someone else, I’m grateful for the chance to share that light.
Printed as “Viewpoint: Becoming Visible,” Spring 2019
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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