You're not helping — even if you think you are.
I have panic disorder. I manage chronic anxiety every single day. I had my first panic attack when I was 15 years old and, at the time, I had no idea what was going on. I thought I might be having a heart attack. It seemed like a physical problem at first.
I had an uncontrollable racing heart followed by sweating and shaking. But then I quickly realized that nervous thoughts were accompanying my physical symptoms.
Thankfully, I wasn't alone. Anxiety and depression run in my family and my mother knew exactly what was going on and how to help me. I started seeing a therapist and learned coping techniques to deal with anxiety. However, the techniques I learned weren't enough. From age 15 to 18, I still suffered from severe panic attacks that made it incredibly difficult for me to function.
For the most part, I suffered in silence. The only people who knew about my struggle with panic were my parents, my brother and my best friend, who didn't attend the performing arts high school where I studied theater.
I was an excellent actress — but not in the way you might think. I was well adept at hiding my mental illness from my peers.
After three years of covering up my suffering, I was mentally and physically exhausted. In 1998, when I was 18 years old, I made the decision to see a psychiatrist and I started taking medication. My whole life changed after that. I didn't suffer from intrusive thoughts anymore, I was able to breathe and was able to function like a normal human being. I thought to myself, Oh, this is what normal people must feel like.
I went on to attend NYU and graduate with a decent GPA. I couldn't have done this without the help of antidepressants.
Since college, the only time I've been off of antidepressants was when I was pregnant with my children or breastfeeding them. Other than that, I recognize that taking antidepressants helps me to keep anxiety at bay.
In addition to taking antidepressants, I also eat mostly organic, take herbal supplements, see an acupuncturist and meditate daily. But these things aren't enough. At this point in my life, I still need to take antidepressants to manage panic attacks.
As a person managing chronic anxiety, I've heard a lot of unhelpful advice from people who don't understand mental illness. Here are some common things people have said to me:
1. "Antidepressants are just a Band-Aid covering up the problem. Why don't you stop taking them and try to deal with your anxiety?"
This is analogous to telling a diabetic to stop taking their insulin and see what happens. Mental illness is a real condition that can be debilitating if left untreated.
2. "You're being dramatic. You think too much. Why don't you just stop obsessing?"
There's a chemical imbalance in my brain. My brain doesn't produce enough serotonin; therefore, the result is that I have chronic intrusive thoughts, depression and anxiety. Unless you would like to talk to the neurotransmitters inside my head and tell them to stop firing, I think we're done here.
3. "You're lazy."
Quite the opposite, actually. I have to work twice as hard to do the things "normal people" do, such as wake up, get dressed and leave the house. I'm constantly battling the thoughts in my head. I would call myself a warrior.
Whether you're dealing with anxiety, depression, ADHD, or any other mental illness, you're fighting a battle. To those around you, it may look like an invisible war, but it's happening. You're working hard to be able to function.
Mental illness is real. We need to be just as empathetic and sensitive to those who are managing depression as we are to people that are dealing with physical ailments or diseases.
If your friend tells you she's having a panic attack, ask her what you can do to help. I promise you, she's not being lazy; she's trying to survive.
This article was originally published at The Huffington Post. Reprinted with permission from the author.