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Seeing the light on mental illness

Dispelling the stigmas and stereotypes of anxiety disorders

by Luqmaan Rawat
Anxiety is already enough deal with. It is time we removed the stereotypes, so people get help Photo Pexels

South Africa – All of us have suffered from anxiety at one point in our life. Whether it is public speaking or even making an appointment. It happens to almost everyone. In 2022 the World Health Organisation estimated that almost one billion people suffered from anxiety. They estimate that Covid-19 triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression cases around the world.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), anxiety can be classified as a mental health condition. Those who suffer from it have intense excessive feelings of worry, overwhelm and fear of daily situations. These feelings can come to such a point that it cripples a person. Stopping them from living their lives as they should. Their symptoms can include fatigue, difficulty concentrating and muscle tension amongst others.

The most common types of anxiety disorders

There are different types of anxiety disorders. The most common one, according to registered counsellor, Zakiyah Hoosen, is what is known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). A person who has GAD can be consistently worrying or even have restlessness throughout their day.

“This is severe anxiety that occurs due to excessive overwhelm and emotional distress, and typically interferes with an individual’s daily functioning.”

The second most common one is Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). This typically occurs in a social setting. One who has SAD can experience a fear of being in a situation where they may be judged or being in a social setting for too long, explained Hoosen.

“This occurs when a person experiences intense fear due to social interactions. The individual commonly experiences bouts of withdrawal, panic or stress when having to face a large crowd. They may experience it if they are out in public for extended periods of time.”

The third increasingly common type of anxiety disorder is separation anxiety. This typically occurs in children but can also apply to adults, said Hoosen. Children may refuse to do activities that require them to be separated, have physical illness, or even have emotional temper tantrums.

“It occurs when an individual is separated from their caregiver, or a trusted person. Individuals experiencing separation anxiety experience fear or severe anxious thoughts, panic, and apprehension.”

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Not all anxiety disorders stem from trauma

There is a misconception that one must have a traumatic experience to suffer from anxiety. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs from this. Anxiety is just our body responding to the unknown. A big, terrible thing doesn’t have to happen to struggle with anxiety, said Hoosen.

“While this notion (anxiety stems from trauma) may be true for some disorders, and anxiety disorders included, it is not necessarily the case. A person may experience anxiety after a traumatic event, but anxiety may also be a learned or inherited behaviour from parents and family environments, or in responses to a combination of factors mentioned above.”

Sometimes the cause of anxiety can be something from the past or it can be something from the present. Uncovering the underlying triggers can help to better manage it.

Triggers are not universal

“Trigger factors typically differ among individuals but there could be some common triggers that are shared among a group or cluster of individuals if they have been exposed to a similar anxiety-provoking event,” Hoosen said.

Covid-19 is a perfect example of this. Before a bottle sanitizer and a mask might have just been that but now it can be a trigger for a person. Different events can lead one to having different triggers.

“Many people might have become highly phobic to germs or open spaces without masks, whereas others may be experiencing social anxiety due to the prolonged lockdown periods and lack of social interaction with the outside world. Although, some individuals may experience certain things as being a trigger – a person who developed GAD throughout the covid period may be triggered specifically by seeing masks and sanitiser bottles, for example.”

At the same time, it is important to note that the same things will not trigger someone all the time. Just like how masks and sanitisers didn’t trigger someone before, but they may now, triggers can change over time. This change is often discovered through exposure, part of exposure and response prevention (ERP). Just as one can develop a new trigger, they can also learn to cope and eventually get rid of an old trigger.

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Introverts are not the only ones affected

It is often the case that most people believe that only introverts suffer from anxiety. I was the ‘class clown’ in high school but I suffered from a horrible case of anxiety. The point being that not everyone who has anxiety is an introvert and not every introvert has anxiety. Hoosen agreed that anxiety can affect an introvert or an extrovert.

“No mental health condition is assigned to a certain cluster of individuals. Individuals may experience anxiety, or any other mental health condition, whether they appear to be introverts or extroverts.”

There are other options besides medicine and therapy

For some, medication works, for others therapy helps, and sometimes a combination of both is needed. Unfortunately, there are others that neither will work for. There are other methods for people who don’t respond well to medicine or therapy, assured Hoosen.

“Research has indicated that practising holistic forms of healing such as acupuncture, cupping or homoeopathy therapies may also provide some relief. It is suggested that a person should seek expert advice from a medical or mental health practitioner in order to determine the best treatment for them, since a combination of treatments may also be helpful.”

Sometimes a person may experience what is called a panic attack. In simple terms, a panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that occurs due to a perceived or actual threat of any nature, explained Hoosen.

“Panic attacks are intense and can occur with or without a trigger, and physical symptoms include shallow breathing, crippling fear, crying, and a sense of distress. One of the most effective ways to alleviate a panic attack is to focus on grounding and breathing.”

One of the easiest ones to do is called the five – four – three – two – one method.

“By engaging and activating your five senses, while counting and taking slow deep breaths, an individual is able to harmonise their nervous system and determine how to process the anxiety event.”

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Having anxiety does not make you weak

Oftentimes it is seen as a weak man’s illness. People who have it are often told to get over it or are mocked for it. This, according to Hoosen, is a social stigma built around it because of how it impacts people.

“A person experiencing anxiety is often crippled with fear, distress, panic and is sometimes unable to control these factors. The physiological presentations of anxiety vary including palpitations, sweating, withdrawal etc. These may be seen as “weak”. A realistic and flexible state of mind may assist a person to confront and process their anxiety better.”

There are other stereotypes that exist. These often are used to downplay the severity of one’s anxiety and does little to help a person.

“Some common stigmas and misconceptions about anxiety are:

  • ‘Anxiety is not real, and you should stop overthinking it’ – this is a limiting and negative concept of anxiety, as it is a classified mental health disorder, and telling someone to stop overthinking it may be damaging to their ability to process anxiety.
  • ‘Just breathe and forget about it’ – while proper breathing techniques may help an individual, anxiety symptoms may still linger and trying to forget about it may only worsen the experience.
  • ‘There’s no reason to panic/be scared/overreact’ – these are damaging misconceptions since individuals may experience different responses to events that are distressing or overwhelming.”

What can we do to remove the stereotypes

It is because of these stereotypes that people are afraid to open up. To seek help and better their lives. They see it as a sign of weakness, and no one wants to appear weak. The only way to challenge and remove these stereotypes is by educating ourselves and those around us, stressed Hoosen.

“Combatting these stereotypes may be challenging, but once we have a greater understanding and awareness of anxiety and other mental health disorders, we will be able to engage with others in a compassionate way. It is also important to be aware that many mental health and psychological disorders are seen as “not real” because there are few physical symptoms, and the mind is not like the brain that is physically located somewhere in our body. It is a mental state. Additionally, by educating ourselves and others, we can break down these stigmas.”

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