I have a diagnosed generalised anxiety disorder. Once my brother asked me what that’s like? I don’t know what prompted the question, but I wanted him to understand. ‘It’s this constant fear of everything even when there is nothing. Like my mind is waiting, looking to find something to worry about.’
I remember pausing to pull some examples from my daily life. ‘It’s me spending the 10-minute drive to school going over and over on how exactly I am going to scan my card once there. It’s the constant shaking of my legs during class because the next question might just be directed at me. It’s skipping lunch every day because I am too afraid to talk to the cashier.’
My brother like many others is one of the people who want to understand more about mental health disorders. With the increased acceptance and decreased stigma associated with mental health disorders now, it is easier for people to come out and ask for help. Indeed, research has found that stigma inhibits optimal treatment for mental disorders.
It also found that destigmatisation leads to the increased seeking of professional help. People have now not only become more understanding and empathetic they have started learning more. Educating themselves on what these disorders are and how to help their friends and family cope. It is commendable and as someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder, take my word for it when I say support goes a long way.
But where destigmatisation has paved the road towards acceptance, normalisation seems to be doing the opposite. Some mental illnesses, like anxiety disorders, can seem invisible. More so, it can be misjudged to be considered a normal facet of life. How many of us have heard something similar from friends and family: ‘Nonsense. Everyone gets anxious sometimes. It’s normal.’ It’s not normal. Especially not when you find yourself struggling to do everyday tasks, unlike others.
Would people tell a diabetic to forego their shot of insulin? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? It’s the same for mental health disorders. Why should anyone diminish someone else’s feelings or symptoms? There are numerous reasons why someone can be mentally ill. For some it’s biological; a result of unstable neurochemicals in the brain. Mental illness is real and has severe physical and mental consequences. By reducing it to something everyone experiences, you are insulting the struggles of those who have to deal with every single day. It’s an uphill battle and a constant fight that should not be downplayed.
Such normalisation also shows a reluctance to accept. Because anxiety disorders are not merely ‘shyness’ or ‘introverted-ness’. They are painful, difficult, and constant. Like the blade of a guillotine coming down at you centimetre by centimetre. It can also lead people to hesitate in seeking help. It did, in my case at least. When I shared how immobilising my anxiety was getting to a friend she said, ‘It’s not just you. College makes everyone nervous.’ She meant no harm, but it made me feel like I was over-reacting. Two years later, when I was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer doctors ruled the primary cause to be anxiety.
Normalisation threatens to undo all destigmatisation has managed to accomplish. It’s necessary that people understand the difference between anxiety and anxiety disorders. The former is a part of life, the latter is a crippling disorder. A conscious effort needs to be made also to reduce the careless use of psychological terminology. There is a difference between saying you are ‘sad’ and saying you are ‘depressed.’
It is important that we actively ensure that we are not contributing to the normalisation of anxiety or any other mental illness for that matter. Today people’s willingness to learn and change gives me hope, however. Hopefully, one day we will overcome this hurdle as well.
Tahreem Munir is a freelance writer, content marketer, and blogger. Tahreem studied psychology in college and is currently majoring in English Literature and Language in university.