‘Stop telling me to relax!’ Mental illness has come to the forefront of discussion in recent years, but many misconceptions still thrive. Historically speaking, people with severe mental disorders were labeled as ‘insane’ and were often isolated. They were believed to have been possessed by evil spirits. The idea that mental illnesses could have the pathology as physical illnesses came in the 18th century, when medicine was holistic and often incorporated psychological elements into treatment.
Even when mental disorders were acknowledged to be like medical ones, the treatments involved induced vomiting and other bizarre tactics. Mental asylums became popular, and in the beginning of the 20th century, as did electric shock therapy and lobotomies. Overall, these patients had lost their human rights and many were worse off after their ‘treatments.’
Fortunately, the medical field has progressed past this point, with many asylums closing in the past few decades.  Still, many people misunderstand mental illness. They assume that people with severe disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disease are “unhinged” and “dangerous,” while people suffering from depression are “just sad” and “are not trying to feel better.”
Case Study: Anxiety Disorder
Andreia Esteves is all too familiar with being misunderstood.
In her post on PopSugar about her struggles with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), she writes, “Despite the progress I’ve made in managing my anxiety since childhood, I still encounter a lot of misconceptions in my everyday life. The most common one is that everyone has anxiety — that it’s simply a by-product of living a full life — and there’s no need for me to ‘make a fuss’ about it.”
Esteves recalls the first time someone noticed her anxiety. She was sitting in sixth-grade math class next to a friend Theresa. Esteves watched the teacher write an equation on the blackboard and began stressing because she had a feeling she’d be called on to solve it. Theresa noticed her sweaty hands and labored breathing, and looked concerned. “Why are you always so worried about everything?”
At the time, Esteves had no answer. “At school, I was known as the quiet kid, though under the surface I constantly feared I’d do something wrong, say something inappropriate, or hurt someone’s feelings. My mind was racing all the time, but to that point, only Theresa had seemed to suspect that something was wrong.”
She was relieved to receive her diagnosis of GAD and learn that she wasn’t alone in her struggles.
“Before I was diagnosed with GAD, whenever I tried to explain to someone what it was like to live inside my head, I’d hear something along the lines of, “That’s normal. Everyone gets anxious. Just relax.’”
This advice is less helpful than telling a shy person to stop being shy or sad person to stop being sad.
“It’s like when your laptop isn’t working and someone asks you if you’ve tried turning it off and then on again,” writes Esteves. “Of course, you’ve tried, but it didn’t solve the problem.” 
Related: Effects of Anxiety on the Body
The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and an Anxiety Disorder
Everyone gets anxious from time to time, whether from a job interview, a dash through the airport, or meeting a partner’s family for the first time. These anxious feelings are good; it’s a biological mechanism that is working as it should, giving the body a faster heart rate, quicker breathing, sweaty hands, etc.
“Some anxiety is helpful and necessary to motivate us to act; for example, if you need to start an assignment that is due tomorrow or if you are in the woods and see a bear,” said Holly Valerio, M.D., clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
People with anxiety disorders, however, experience these symptoms for everyday issues that most people can cope with more easily. A way to measure if anxious feelings are normal or not is by assessing the situation causing the stress. If the anxiety is proportional to the situation, it’s probably normal.
Esteves describes it as, “Stress is a normal response to an external pressure. But anxiety is different. It isn’t a temporary fear, and it doesn’t go away. It can interfere with your day-to-day life and negatively affect your mood.”
Also, many healthy people can quell some of their worries with self-assurance. People with anxiety disorders generally cannot tame their anxiety or racing stressful thoughts, even if the “threat” is insignificant. That’s what makes day-to-day life difficult for those suffering from this issue. Things you like to do or are required to do, like seeing a movie with a group of friends or finishing an assignment for work, become laborious.
“The bottom line is how anxiety is affecting your life,” said Franklin Schneier, M.D., special lecturer at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and a principal researcher at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at New York State Psychiatric Institute. “If you think it may be interfering, it probably is.” 
Esteves is now working to raise awareness about mental illnesses, to fight the misunderstanding, “so no other 11-year-old girl will ever have to feel as anxious, worried, or alone as I once did.”
Seeking Help for an Anxiety Disorder
If you suspect you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, see a medical professional for an evaluation. Anxiety is very often treatable through medication and therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy. (See some tips for affordable therapy here.) 
Keep in mind that treatment is often trial and error. There’s no-size-fits-all medicine for anxiety, and no therapist is suited for everyone. Every body and mind is different and responds to treatment methods differently.
Above all, know that there’s no shame in finding help for a mental disorder, because there is no shame in seeking a better quality of life.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.
- Lynne Malcolm and Clare Blumer. Madness and insanity: A history of mental illness from evil spirits to modern medicine. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/health/2016-08-02/mental-illness-and-insanity-a-short-cultural-history/7677906 August 2, 2016
- Andreia Esteves. I Have an Anxiety Disorder, and I’m Begging You: Please Stop Telling Me to Relax. PopSugar. https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/why-you-shouldnt-tell-someone-with-anxiety-to-relax-46746727 November 12, 2019
- Natasha Lavender. This is the Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having an Anxiety Disorder. Self. https://www.self.com/story/anxious-feelings-vs-anxiety-disorders May 16, 2019
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