How The Atlantic totally got anxiety management wrong

I’ve been super excited lately about how often well-known folks like Kristen Bell and others are being forthright and straightforward about their struggles with mental health. That is so freaking awesome. I love that we live in a world where people talking about being vulnerable, where people admit that they don’t actually have their shit together all the time.

And then, The Atlantic published this.

Excuse me. I feel like I need to preemptively apologize here because there may or may not be more swearing than normal and I may or may not spend this entire post ranting(spoiler alert: I do).

First of all, yes, “trying to calm down during a bout of anxiety is futile”. Anyone who deals with anxiety knows that you’ve really only got two things you can do when it hits: breathe, and wait. That’s it. Those are your options. Anything you do to help yourself – positive self talk, meditation, etc – is awesome, but let’s be clear: they are techniques to assist you in breathing and waiting. When you get right down to it, those are the fundamental things that need to happen in order for you to start to feel less anxious. And to be honest, I need a little help breathing and waiting. I suck at it, especially because I ruminate and that gets me all kinds of worked up. So if meditation or filling out a panic diary or coloring are going to help me do breathe and wait it out, I’m in.

Second of all, I’m sorry – no, actually, I’m not sorry, but that’s how I talk – but I’m not fucking fooling anyone by telling myself “I’m excited”. No. If I’m experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, I’m not fucking excited. I’m terrified. I’m literally scared for my life. My brain thinks that a sabre-tooth tiger or some shit is coming to kill me because heightened anxiety reflexes are a remnant of our evolutional history. We needed them to survive, but evolution hasn’t caught up with the fact that we live in enclosed spaces and that, you know, automatic weapons are available (don’t get me started. It’s been such a shitty year for America on that front). No amount of self-talk is going to convince the part of my brain that thinks it’s about to die that it’s actually really excited about whatever is about to happen. Nope. Nope nope nope.

Thirdly, this article makes it seem like we all only ever feel anxiety in tiny, controllable bouts with clear, identifiable, immediate triggers (like giving a speech). Hell. No. Anxiety flops all over the place, make a huge mess, and you have no idea when it’s going to stop. And all you want is for it to stop. Basically anxiety is like a two-year-old who pooped their diaper and got poop in their hair and won’t let you change them because they’re having a meltdown because they’re tired and over-stimulated and you just keep thinking oh my god, when will this end?!. (PS I love this analogy and I’m going to use it forever.) And that’s not even getting to why, which is a whole other thing.

Fourth, and this is my biggest problem, the title of this article (“How to Turn Anxiety Into Excitement”) is a prime example of everything that’s wrong with the way our culture thinks about and addresses mental illness. They’re not talking about anxiety. They’re talking about nervousness or jitters. When people use words like “anxiety”, “panic attack”, and “depressed” to mean that they felt nervous/scared/sad for like five minutes, I want to strangle them. Using those words – words that indicate sometimes severe and extremely difficult mental health issues – to represent anything other than those conditions is demeaning. It’s negligent. It’s demonstrative of a huge lack of empathy. And it’s incorrect.

Shit like this really pisses me off. I’m as hyperbolic as they come, and I know that there are definitely some things I say in the same way that people throw around “depressed”, and I recognize that, and I’m working on that. This feels particularly egregious to me not because I deal with mental health issues – though that’s part of it – but because the implication here is that we can control anxiety. That we should be able to control anxiety. And it is exactly that type of thinking that is so wrong. We can’t control it. We shouldn’t control it. Trying to control anxiety and panic creates tension, and that exacerbates them. And the idea that we can control anxiety or panic reinforces the belief that anxiety is a personality flaw, and not a biological trait. This one headline – let alone the rest of the fucking article – makes me feel that if I was a competent person, or a capable person, or really anyone who’s not clinically insane, I wouldn’t have had to do all of the work I’ve done over the last two years and that the anxiety I feel is a)not a big deal and b)my own fault. It makes me feel like I should have been able to snap my fingers and “get better” or “get over it”. Um, no. That is not how it works. And even though I know that’s not how it works, this article makes me feel like I’m a failure because I couldn’t I Dream Of Jeannie that shit (blink and make it go away). It makes me feel like something is wrong with me. It makes me feel weak and less than and damaged. And I am not. those. things.

But I will say one thing: there are so many people who commented on the article saying basically what I just said, but more succinctly and with less swearing. And I love that. I love that I’m part of a community that speaks up when something is wrong. I love that we speak up to educate. To advocate. To strengthen ourselves and each other. To make things better. It’s the only way we’re going to make things better.

 

 

Note: It has been a shitty, shitty week for America. Well, 2016 has been pretty shit on a nation-wide scale so far, but last week takes the cake. I am so sad. And so frustrated. The fact that this post is not about that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about what happened and how I can help. If you haven’t figured out yet how to help your community address police brutality, this is a good place to start.

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2 thoughts on “How The Atlantic totally got anxiety management wrong”

  1. Thanks for posting this. The Atlantic piece definitely misses the mark by conflating anxiety with a bit of nerves. I could see the idea working if someone has some butterflies in their stomach before a speech, but does not seem like a reasonable solution to true anxiety.

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