Being anxious about an upcoming deadline or date is normal. But for those suffering from a true anxiety disorder, it's not a fleeting emotion that can just be shaken off.
Everyone is guilty of using certain anxiety-driven phrases for dramatic effect: "I'm going to have a nervous breakdown!" "This is giving me a total panic attack right now." But these words have the power to do more than just offend people—they could trigger someone who is actually suffering.
I have suffered from general anxiety disorder for as long as I can remember. But I didn't truly understand it or begin to seek help until I began having panic attacks when I was 19. Therapy, medicine, family, and time have all helped me regain control over my anxiety, but now and then it hits me hard. (Related: 13 Apps That Can Help Ease Depression and Anxiety)
When I'm suffering from a tough bout of anxiousness, hearing you use the words "anxiety" or "panic attack" pains me. I want so badly to tell you that your colloquial words hold so much more meaning in my world. And that is why I feel so obliged to scream: If you don't suffer from panic attacks, stop saying you're having them! And please, stop using the term "anxiety" to describe simply feeling nervous or stressed out. Here's what you should know when it comes to the differences between fleeting feelings of stress and the kind of anxiety millions of Americans like me experience—and why you should think twice before throwing around the 'a' word.
1. Anxiety affects the brain differently than nerves.
The hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol, which are often referred to as the stress hormones, all play a part in the sympathetic nervous system and are responsible for feelings of energy, anxiety, stress, or excitement. When these hormones surge, how your body recognizes them and processes those emotions makes a big difference between casual nervousness and sheer panic. Anxiety occurs in a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is thought to affect the way your body processes emotions. The steadfastness of anxiety alerts your neurotransmitters to signal to the sympathetic nervous system hormones that you're feeling anxious, scared, or agitated. The physical reaction inside your body is known as the fight-or-flight response, during which the brain actually steals some blood flow from the internal organs, which can result in an overwhelming, dizzy, and lightheaded feeling. (This Woman Bravely Shows What a Panic Attack Looks Like.)
2. Anxiety isn't a temporary emotion or reaction.
Whether you're about to go on a job interview, dealing with a health scare, or experiencing a breakup, it's healthy and normal to feel anxious. (Hey, Plenty of People Experienced It During the Election.) After all, the anxiety definition is the body's reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations and it helps you stay alert and aware. But for some people, the nerves, stress, and worry are frequent and forceful, taking over their lives. You may assume anxiety is always fleeting—"it will pass," you tell your friend—which may be why you casually use it to describe any kind of temporary and situational nervousness or stress. But for people like myself suffering from an anxiety disorder, it's not something that can just be shaken off. Being anxious about your in-laws coming to town is not the same thing as having a diagnosed anxiety disorder. That kind of anxiety is not a temporary emotion. It's a daily struggle.
3. Anxiety is recognized as a mental health disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S. In fact, roughly 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, but only one-third seek treatment, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. If you've thought back to times when you were able to deal with and move past anxiety, it may be easy to think that anyone with an anxiety disorder is simply not trying hard enough—they're just "nervous wrecks" who need to "chill out." (After all, going for a jog around the block always works for you, right?) Being confused about the difference between garden-variety stress and a true mental disorder, but using the same words to describe both, results in some pretty unfair judgment and stigmatization.
4. Anxiety can have serious physical side effects.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder (sometimes called "social phobia"). Other mental health issues, such as depression, can commonly occur alongside anxiety disorders, as well. Those affected can have trouble sleeping, concentrating, or even leaving their house. It can feel irrational, overwhelming, and completely disproportionate to the situation even to the person experiencing it. Not to mention, these feelings of sadness, anxiousness, panic, or fear can sometimes come out of nowhere with no direct cause or situation. (These Sleep-Better Tips Could Help Prevent Night Anxiety.)
After a panic attack, I'll have a sore chest for days as a result of the ongoing muscle contractions, but other physical symptoms like trembling, headaches, and nausea can also occur. Diarrhea, constipation, cramping and bloating, or even the development of irritable bowel syndrome, can happen as a result of the constant fight-or-flight response and the stress that puts on your digestive system. Chronic anxiety can even lead to kidney and blood vessel damage due to the irregular spikes in blood sugar.
5. Anxiety is often a family struggle.
Being nervous about a situation isn't genetic, but an anxiety disorder can be. Researchers have found that anxiety disorders run in families and have a biological basis similar to allergies or diabetes. This was the case for me: My mother and her mother suffer from anxiety disorders, as does my sister. This genetic predisposition can surface at a young age, too—certain anxiety traits linked with panic disorders are apparent in kids as young as 8 years old, according to a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. (Side note: This Weird Test Could Predict Anxiety and Depression Before You Experience Symptoms.)
There are a number of misconceptions about mental illness, and using terms like "depressed," "panic attack," and "anxiety" too loosely doesn't help. It makes it harder for people to really understand what it's like to live with mental illness. But people need to know that anxiety is nothing like passing, situational nervousness. Being sensitive to the possibility that anyone may be struggling with a mental health issue, and choosing your words carefully, can help prevent people with mental health issues from feeling misunderstood and stigmatized.