Being an extrovert with generalized anxiety and panic disorders is a weird deal. Most people associate anxiety with social anxiety – which is a totally valid and prevalent symptom! It just happens to be one I do not have.
On the contrary, I thrive off of the majority of social situations. They cheer me up, calm me down, and are generally pretty essential to my overall wellbeing.
This can be a weird thing to explain to people. I’ve been in social situations where I’m anxious or starting to panic and don’t know what to do, so I tell the person I’m with. Generally their (totally well meaning!) response is: it’s okay if you need to go home.
Unfortunately, that’s probably the worst thing you could say to me when I’m starting to panic. If I wasn’t losing my shit to begin with, I sure as hell am now.
One of my biggest anxiety triggers is feeling like I’m unwanted. Being told that it’s okay if I need to leave typically comes across as —
I don’t want you here. No one does. Stop ruining this for everyone else and just get out.
Typically, this results in a bit of silence, a whole lot of crying, possible screaming, and cruel words on my end in an horribly misguided effort to defend myself and show that I am not okay and I know you’re trying to help but you are making it worse.
Similarly, people don’t always get that not having social interaction can set off my anxiety as badly as too much of it can with someone dealing with social anxiety.
If you have social anxiety, imagine what it’s like when you’re thrust into an unfamiliar social situation for which you had zero preparation that you are not allowed to get out of.
That’s how it feels for me when I don’t have the option of being around people and have to be alone when I just don’t have the capacity to do so.
Like most mental illness, my specific brand of anxiety has pretty frequent and visible effects on the people in close with.
It isn’t always easy on them. In fact, I know it’s pretty frequently rough. And I appreciate what they do for me more than I’ll ever be able to express.
Obviously, it’s irrational to expect anyone to be aware of every individual’s anxiety triggers and how they each need to be treated in panic situations. That’s not what I’m looking to accomplish here.
All I’m saying is, if you love someone with anxiety, panic disorder, or any other mental illness, talk to them about what they need. Even if you have previous experience with mental illness.
Well-meaning people who automatically think they know what’s best for you hurt in an indefinable but very real way.
Ask what helps your loved one when they’re struggling, find out if they’re comfortable with telling you what triggers them so you can avoid it, or help if there’s a situation where a trigger comes up.
See what there is you can do to help. And preferably, talk about it when your loved one isn’t already on high alert.
From experience, few things are more stressful than being expected to tell someone how to fix whatever is going on with you when you already feel out of control.
Talk to the people you love, friends, partners, family — I promise that the effort will not only give you valuable tools in dealing with crisis situations, it will help show your loved one that you care, and often more importantly, that you respect their agency and ability to know what is best for their personal situation.
Love and respect, people. It goes a long way.