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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Mental Illness: Dealing with a Mind that has a Mind of its Own

My lovely friend, Annie, being a great model for me and struggles with mental illness herself.

We've all had moments in our lives that make us feel nervous, upset, angry, or frustrated.  Having emotions and feelings as reactions to circumstances is a normal part of life that every person experiences from the time they're a little toddler all the way through adulthood.  However, what some of us haven't gotten around to understand quite yet is what it is like to have those emotional reactions when there is nothing happening or when it doesn't make any sense, and that is mostly because the topic in general has just recently been brought up.  Most of the general public doesn't quite have a grip on understanding mental illnesses, and it isn't entirely their fault, so today I would like to shed some light on the topic since I have one myself to help others be more educated and have a better understanding about what is happening to people around them.

Mental illnesses very recently have become confused with regular emotions mostly because those who don't have them can't completely understand, so they try to relate to it by comparing everyday emotions to a mental illness.  Countless times I have heard, "well everyone gets depressed sometimes," and "oh, I have anxiety too."  And those who say it aren't trying to knock down the mental illness necessarily.  They just don't understand.  But here is what is very frustrating for someone with a mental illness like myself: unless you have an actual mental illness, you can't begin to understand what is happening to those who do.  Depression is not feeling sad.  Anxiety is not being nervous or worried. You don't have OCD because you like your things to be organized.  Those are not synonyms, even though most people use them as if they are.

I suffer from Panic Disorder which according to is, "different from the normal fear and anxiety reactions to stressful events [and] is a serious condition that strikes without reason or warning."  What that means is that absolutely nothing stressful or upsetting could be going on, and I could go into a panic attack without any warning.  It means that I could be eating ice cream (one of the best food groups in my opinion) and laughing with my friends, and all the sudden feel an incredible amount of panic or fear for absolutely no reason.  Having anxiety or panic disorder is not like being scared for a test or applying for college or being nervous for a particular reason.  The difference is, I don't know when it's coming and I don't know why it's happening to me.  It is incredibly scary especially when you aren't diagnosed yet, and explaining how you feel to someone is almost impossible.  

Depression, OCD, General Anxiety Disorder, etc., work the same way as Panic Disorder does in the sense that the person who has it has no control over what is happening to them.  This is so important for those without a mental illness to understand because we aren't crazy and we aren't being over dramatic.  Trust me, we would much rather not go through the panic attacks or episodes. But here's the good news.  If you do have a mental illness, you can get treatment.  Medicine can help reduce the number of panic attacks you have (although they don't completely get rid of them).  You can write or listen to calming music to help calm down.  Fresh air works or drawing in a coloring book.  Getting away from people and the situation is usually a big help, and for me personally, I know prayer helps me calm down a lot faster.

A big misconception I have come across is that I have been told that I need to just breathe because "it's all okay" or that prayer will somehow magically make it better.  Here's my issue with that: like I said in the previous paragraph, prayer helps significantly calm me down, but it does not get rid of my panic disorder.  If someone had diabetes, you wouldn't tell them to just pray and it will go away.  That isn't how it works.  Mental illnesses are still illnesses, and no matter how much I pray, my panic attacks aren't going to go away completely, as much as I wish they would.  Sometimes God gives you difficult things (like mental illness) to grow closer to Him, which is the case for me.  

Now I don't have the other mental illnesses to be able to tell you what it would feel like to have one, but maybe you're wondering what it's like to go through a panic attack.  Here's just a little insight into what that might feel like:Imagine feeling the blood going to through all of your veins and feeling your heartbeat.  Imagine the walls looking and feeling like they are closing in on you and everything in the room coming towards you while everyone else in the room seems to be ignoring the fact that the entire room is rapidly getting smaller.  Imagine feeling like there's a cloud over your brain and the things people are saying to you not really processing because you're so nervous and scared that something (even though you don't know what that something is) is posing real danger to you.  When you have a panic attack, it's like your body isn't yours and your mind is completely separated from it.  You can be completely aware that everything is totally fine and that you are having a panic attack, but you are unable to calm down and switch your brain off.  Your breathing can escalate very quickly and you can get chills and hot flashes.  Sometimes you shake or feel dizzy.  It's a little bit different for everyone who has them, but overall, it's one of the scariest things you'll ever experience.

Another misconception is that meditation or having an overall positive attitude gets rid of a mental illness. I have been to many a yoga class and tried meditation routinely several times throughout my life, and most people I am around would describe me as a positive person. I am extremely optimistic and I go through life with the mind set that everything happens for a reason and it will all work itself out as long as I am patient. So although both things things may help lesson the amount of panic attacks that I have, it still is not going to get rid of them completely. If that is how it worked, trust me, I would have been cured an awful long time ago.

If you do not have a mental illness, and someone you know does, here is what you should do if they are having an episode (whether that be depression, a panic attack, etc):1. Ask them what you can do. If they say they don't need anything or they don't respond leave them alone. The situation could be really overwhelming for them, and sometimes that means they need to be on their own.2. If they ask you to do something, do exactly what they ask. They want you to hold them? Hold them. They want you to get you water? Grab a water glass and hurry back with it. They want you to just sit there? Just sit there then. Don't talk unless they ask. Don't ask what you can do every 5 seconds. Yes, they will be fine. Yes, they are aware that they are okay and that everything is fine. Yes, they know you just want to help them, but just do exactly what they ask with no questions asked. Trust me, if you do what they say, they will calm down a lot faster.3. Don't treat them like a hurt puppy. People who have a mental illness already aren't happy about having it, and I can almost guarantee you that they are probably embarrassed about it. How would you like it if you knew you were overreacting and causing a huge scene and there was nothing you could do?  You probably wouldn't like that at all.  Chances are, they already feel awful for worrying you, and if they have asked you to stay with them, they probably feel like a burden to you.  They really are fine, they just need a minute...or two...or twenty.  But the point is, they already feel terrible, so please do not treat them any differently than you normally would.  

What I want everyone who doesn't have a mental illness to understand and take away from this is that this is not a choice for the person who has it. This is not a way to get attention and it really is a disease. The chemicals in a person who has a mental illness's brain is sending signals to the rest of their body at inappropriate times, so his/her brain is not functioning properly. There is not a cure (at least yet. Let's get started on one though) and you can't just wish it away as much as I wish you could. It's something you have to struggle with every day, and you are always worried that something might go wrong. You learn how to cope with it and identifies signals (if there are any). You learn what calms you down the fastest, and you learn who you can trust to help you calm down or understand the situation. It isn't easy, and it is not an emotion. So the next time you say you feel "depressed," "anxious," or "are being soooo OCD right now" because you want your room clean, maybe choose a different set of words, because all of us with mental illnesses would truly appreciate it. Emotion is not a mental illness.

If you have a mental illness, please feel free to share your stories down in the comments below so we can support each other and help each other learn better ways to deal with it as well as for those who don't have mental illnesses so they can grab a more vivid understanding.  And if you don't have a mental illness and have questions, please ask them in the comments as well.  The first step to understanding is becoming properly educated on a topic, and I, as well as others with mental illness, would be more than happy to help clear up any questions you might have!Thank you so much for reading and share this to help others learn more about what is happening to them or how to help someone around them!  Be kind and understanding towards each other!

Bree x

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