Anxiety Awareness for Mental Illness Awareness Week
Anxiety awareness is important all the time, but during Mental Illness Awareness Week, a special spotlight shines on mental illness, including anxiety disorders. Such a spotlight brings light and warmth to anxiety, which is so often swept away into dark corners. Read on for information that can help increase awareness of anxiety and anxiety disorders and lessen some of the frustrations that come with a lack of understanding.
Why Do We Need Increased Anxiety Awareness?
There's a need for increased anxiety awareness. Uttered frequently and in frustration, this lament is common among people living with anxiety: "How can I get others to understand?" Often, well-meaning friends and family attempt to curb someone's anxiety with such grand proclamations as
- It's all in your head.
- Just don't think about it so much.
- Why can't you just do X, Y, or Z without making such a big deal out of it.
- Everyone is nervous sometimes. You'll get over it.
Facing naïve statements can make anxiety worse. Comments like these are unhelpful in many ways: they minimize someone's very real experience with anxiety; they can make someone feel guilty, incompetent, and increasingly isolated; and they keep someone stuck rather than moving forward. Increasing anxiety awareness will help change well-meaning but unhelpful comments (Stop Minimizing Mental Illness: Worst Things to Say).
Anxiety Awareness: Why is Anxiety a Mental Illness?
The term mental illness can be an intimidating one. (A a major reason we have Mental Illness Awareness Week is to remove the stigma surrounding the word, concept, and people, and to allow for conversation and understanding.) Mental illness often conjures horribly stereotypical and incorrect images. Certainly anxiety isn't a mental illness, right?
Anxiety can absolutely be classified as a mental illness. Anxiety, with it's accompanying fear and worry, is a normal part of the human experience, and everybody experiences anxiety from time to time. Anxiety itself is not a mental illness.
However, when anxiety reaches extreme levels, it becomes classified as an anxiety disorder and is considered a mental illness. According to the American Psychiatric Association's official guide to mental illnesses, the DSM-5, anxiety disorders involve levels of anxiety that are
- excessive, out of proportion with what is a culturally appropriate response to a situation;
- persistent, lasting at least six months (and sometimes for years);
- pervasive, impacting all areas of life: thoughts, emotions, actions, and more.1
So when someone asks if you're making too big a deal out of something, you can calmly respond that yes, you are, because that's what anxiety disorders do and that because you're working on reducing anxiety, it won't always control your reactions.
Anxiety Awareness Reminds You That You're Not Alone
When you live with anxiety, it can feel like there's something wrong with you, that you're the only one who struggles with anxiety. One of the goals of increasing anxiety awareness during Mental Illness Awareness Week is to let everyone see that no one is alone.
Together, anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses; 18 percent of adults in the US, approximately 20 million people, live with at least one anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetime. 2
If you're human, you can experience anxiety disorders. People of all ages, ethnicities, nationalities, genders, and socioeconomic classes can and do live with anxiety disorders. That said, some groups are more prone to developing anxiety disorders than others.
- Women are 50-60 percent more likely than men to have an anxiety disorder.1,2
- Caucasians are more likely than African-Americans and Latino/as to have an anxiety disorder.2
Anxiety Awareness: What IS Anxiety, Really?
The DSM-5 defines anxiety disorders as "...disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances" (p. 189).1 While of course accurate, it falls a bit short in its ability to increase awareness of anxiety. The more people are aware of what it’s like to live with anxiety, the more they’ll be able to truly empathize and support.
- the bully who beats you up and makes you hurt inside and out;
- the overprotective parent who incites fear and extraordinary measures of caution and avoidance;
- the insecure, envious classmate who belittles you and tells you you’re never good enough;
- the boss who threatens to fire you for being you;
- the toxic partner who won’t let you think and act for yourself.
Mental Illness Awareness Week exists to enlighten us all and create deeper understanding and empathy. When anxiety awareness increases, so does the type of support that leads to healing.
1 American Psychiatric Association. (2013). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
NCC, T. (2016, October 6). Anxiety Awareness for Mental Illness Awareness Week, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 23 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/10/anxiety-awareness-for-mental-illness-awareness-week
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Thank you so much for your comment. I think that when so many individuals work toward removing stigma (and there are a lot of us -- no one is alone!), powerful change can happen. I'm happy we're in this together!
Substance use is not uncommon among people with any mental illness, including anxiety disorders. Often, it's used as a coping mechanism. Having help replacing this with something more effective and safer is important. Thank you for the resource and link to No More 12 Step. org. HealthyPlace doesn't recommend one type of program over another because what is effective for some may not be for others. I've included this link to information about 12-Step programs so people are free to check out both and see what suits them: http://www.nomore12step.org/