I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life. Sometimes I think — if I could just get rid of my anxiety, life would be perfect. While there isn’t a “cure” for anxiety, there are plenty of options that will benefit you!
The older I get, the more I realize that there is nothing embarrassing about mental health, and finding help is something to be proud of. Anxiety is just one of many mental health disorders. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so let’s break the stigma and find out what we can do for ourselves and others who struggle. Dr. John M. Hawkins, a psychiatrist with The Christ Hospital Health Network, answered some of the questions I have.
How common are mental health struggles? What can we do to spread awareness?
Dr. Hawkins broke it down, “One in five U.S. adults experience mental illness each year. Symptoms of anxiety and depression increased during the COVID-19 pandemic and are more pronounced among individuals experiencing household job loss, young adults and women.”
This means that we all know someone dealing with a mental illness (not including yourself). It’s tough to think that someone we love could be hurting inside and keeping it to themselves just because they’re ashamed. Mental illness has always been looked at in a bad light — it can feel embarrassing for some people to admit when they’re struggling.
When I first talked with my family about my anxiety, it was very uncomfortable to be so vulnerable with my feelings. I felt like a burden. I think something that pushed me to tell someone about my anxiety was when I started to see mental health awareness campaigns. It showed me that I wasn’t alone.
Dr. Hawkins gave me advice on how to spread awareness to others so that they will also feel safe enough to tell someone: “Share positive mental health stories on social media to increase awareness and reduce stigma. Take opportunities to educate friends, family and co-workers the reality of the prevalence of mental illness and that treatment is available and works.”
Why is there a bad rap for medicine that helps with mental illnesses?
One of the reasons I took so long to tell people I had anxiety is because I was TERRIFIED of being put on medicine. It had somehow gotten into my head that the minute I told people, they would force me to take pills and I would never be able to function again without anxiety medication. This sounds extreme, but there is a lot of misinformation out there that can easily be consumed by someone who is already in a bad headspace.
I asked Dr. Hawkins why there is a bad rap for medicine prescribed to people with a mental illness and he said, “The stigma of mental illness itself leads to beliefs that it is a character flaw, bad habit and not a treatable medical disorder. There is a fear that one will become addicted or dependent on antidepressant or antianxiety medication. The antidepressant medications have no addictive potential. While some medications can lead to physical and or psychological dependence, this risk can be safely managed when prescribed by a medical professional. As with any medication one starts, one can have side effects. Research has shown that the most common side effects of antidepressants are temporary and very tolerable if and when they occur. There is also genetic testing available that can help clinicians and patients predict side effect risk.” All of these factors can lead to people putting off the help they need and deserve.
What are some causes of mental illness? What can I do to help myself?
Dr. Hawkins says that nature (our biology) and nurture (our environment) are the reasons behind mental illness. I asked him to explain.
“Nature – our genetics. Research has shown that almost all mental illnesses (and substance abuse disorders) have a genetic propensity. Our genes likely influence how sensitive our brains are to changes in our environment or to what degree the emotional neurocircuitry of the brain will activate (or deactivate) more spontaneously. We cannot say for sure which genes for which illnesses quite yet, but progress is being made to further our understanding.”
“Nurture – what happens in our environment. Childhood traumas (adverse childhood events such as abandonment and abuse) have been shown to be very important in the risk of developing a mental illness. Stress life events (loss of spouse/child, witness to a trauma, divorce, loss of job) at any time may be a trigger for the development of a mental illness. Medical conditions such as a thyroid abnormality, or exposure to certain medications (steroids) can be a cause as well.”
After telling my friends and family about my anxiety, it took me YEARS to finally talk to my doctor about it. Since then, I have learned things to do for myself that go a long way in making me feel better. Dr. Hawkins recommends, “Lifestyle changes such as improving sleep habits, reducing drug/alcohol use, improving diet and increasing exercise. Look at ways to reduce stress in your life and try to spend 5 to 10 minutes a day focusing on gratitude, even if it feels difficult.” Personally, I’ve found family time, enjoying nature, and focusing on the things I’m thankful for has changed my life!
Dr. Hawkins had a great point — “Instead of a cure, consider the goal of treatment is to get the symptoms to remission. Just like we do with other medical conditions that are not necessarily cured, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.” If you are struggling, “Seek out support from friends and family who you trust and consider talking with your primary care provider.” YOU GOT THIS!