Blog: Coming Out of the Anxiety Closet

Coming out of the anxiety closet, so to speak….

Humans have always been scared of the unknown. We were scared to sail too far over the ocean for fear of falling off the edge of the Earth. We have been scared of peoples that look different than us or have different customs. Many people were scared of the automobile when it first hit the carriage path. Even now in the 21st century, many of us (the smart ones) are still scared of flying because, let’s face it, how can they possibly make a tin can soar through the air. We are always afraid of the people, places, and phenomena that we don’t understand.

Mental health issues are no exception. Until very recently, little was known about how the brain works and even less about how it can misfire. It is no wonder that we often get squeamish witnessing or even talking about mental health issues like anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and others. Surely a social stigma exists against people struggling with these issues because of how little we know about those issues. And unfortunately, I suspect that stigma prevents people who are struggling with their mental health from seeking or receiving the best possible care.

However, with recent technologies and new understandings about how the brain works, we are at the cusp of finally beginning to understand and “treat” mental health issues more effectively. Specialized equipment, like MRI machines, are allowing us to identify which parts of the brain are responsible for certain thoughts, emotions, and physical responses. Those observations are in turn allowing us to develop new frameworks for how we understand the brain and its malfunctions. (If you’re a science nerd like me and you have an afternoon to kill, try googling “neuroplasticity and anxiety” – you won’t be disappointed.) These new technologies and understandings will reinvent how we approach anxiety and other mental health issues in the next decade. That is a guarantee.

So for those of us that are struggling, silently and in shame, under the stigma of mental health issues, it is more important than ever to become vocal about our experience. We are on the cusp of dramatic change in brain science and mental health treatment. Speaking out about our experiences with anxiety, depression, OCD, etc. will drive that process forward, and more importantly, allow others struggling with those same issues to feel safe enough to seek out help. So be a champion for mental health awareness. Let the people who are close to you know about your experience, if not for you, then for those others being crushed by the stigma against mental health issues.  Come out of the anxiety closet. It may be scary. You may experience self-shame and doubt. You may meet some resistance, not everyone will understand or care. However, in 10-20 years when the mental health stigma is nearly extinct, the boys and girls, men and women, struggling with mental health issues of their own will stand on your shoulders and your courage. What a wonderful legacy to leave behind.

If you decide that you are ready to come out of the anxiety closet, here are a few things to keep in mind as you come out to your family and friends:

-Use a light approach, even some humor;
-Let them know you’re not telling them because you expect anything but because hiding it from others is weighing you down and you’re just sharing to liberate yourself;
-Let them know you know that it is hard to understand; perhaps you didn’t understand it at first either;
-Reassure them that you’re still available as a friend/family member, so they should still feel open to communicating with you and/or confiding in you;
-If they have any questions, feel free to ask and you will answer as best you can
-Being vulnerable is scary but it also invites intimacy and closeness, most people respond with compassion but if they don’t…
    -Don’t take it personally; it’s a reflection on them and their beliefs about mental health issues
    -Remind them that nobody would chose to live this way, remind them of how you were pre-anxiety and how you’d like nothing more to be anxiety-free again but you’re struggling 
    -If they are still judgmental or aggressive, they probably aren’t the kind of person you want playing a large role in your life anyway, they will only influence your mood negatively – why hang on?