Long before I learned I had an anxiety disorder, there was a nasty voice inside my head that made me believe no matter what I did, I would never be enough. From my career to my personal life, the voice dictated my every move, convincing me that I constantly needed to do more or be a better version of myself in order to be worthy of the attention and acceptance of others. Often, this meant acting a certain way—submissive, diligent yet easy going—to keep others happy. I was so afraid that if I ever behaved out of character, I’d fail or end up alone. Measuring my happiness based on a projection of what I thought others expected of me, I swallowed my needs all in the name of a shrill cry I now recognize as my anxiety.
One time I described the experience to my therapist as a well with no bottom. With every so-called life achievement, I’d feel high off the euphoria of being in control of what people thought of me—successful, attractive, put together—but it was only so long before the anxiety reared its ugly head again.
When I was 27, I had a mental breakdown. Following a summer of traumatic events (surgery, a dog attack, and the loss of a family member), my mental illness was no longer something I could ignore—I was regularly experiencing anxiety attacks at work, and on the subway. So I finally sought out treatment for my mental health, slowly peeling back the layers of shame and fear that had helped me cope and exist for as long as I can remember.
In the process, I learned that I had generalized anxiety disorder, something 6.8 million people experience according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But in 2017, when I was first diagnosed, if felt like I was the only one. Anxiety was not something people often spoke about out in the open, especially on social media.
But that's all changed.
In the past two and a half years, I’ve gotten my mental state to a much healthier, more manageable place thanks to therapy and medication. At the same time, anxiety has suddenly become a cool subject to talk about. “I have anxiety” almost feels like the new “I’m so busy”—a one-size-fits-all way to describe stress. It feels like “anxiety” is everywhere—on sparkly hair pins and necklaces, in tweets, and in celebrity interviews—and social media has helped the term spread like wildfire.
"Butterflies in your stomach are the new panic attack.”
Some of these things have helped me feel seen in my experience, and therefore, less alone and less afraid to talk about getting treatment. But sometimes I think we’ve gone too far. “We’re still fighting a stigma that surrounds mental health, but using these terms in a trendy or romanticizing way it can do more harm than help,” says Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW, a therapist based in New York. We’re all busy and stressed, but that’s not the same as having a mental illness that needs treatment.
So, What Is a Normal Level of Anxiety?
A certain level of stress is normal. We all feel anxious about big work deadlines and getting in fights with people we love. But having an anxiety disorder is the experience of severe distress that decreases your ability to perform. “It feels overwhelming and is perceived as outside of our coping abilities,” says Jennifer Musselman, a psychotherapist who splits her time between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “Our bodies may fail us and psychological faculties paralyze us either momentarily or longer term.” Think burnout so severe you can’t go into the office. Panic attacks. Avoidance of certain situations or an inability to get on with your regular social life. Anxiety as a disorder can cause you to shut down. “It may move you into a state of disassociation, hyperventilation, or paralysis in an effort to avoid the situation,” Musselman says.
“The difference between normal anxiety and not normal anxiety is the excessive, difficult-to-control feelings of worry that interfere with day-to-day activities.”
Symptoms of anxiety can vary from person to person but they’re all are rooted in fear of the future. “It feels uncontrollable and likely causes shortness of breath, a racing heart, restlessness, inability to sleep and racing thoughts, nightmares, difficulty focusing or excessively worrying,” she says. “It may be triggered by an event or feel like it came out of nowhere.” For people like me living with an anxiety disorder, it can become a way of being, like a soundtrack that keeps playing in the background on low volume.
Normal levels of anxiety, on the other hand, look something like this: When you're under a lot of pressure it’s normal to teeter between stress and realistic concerns about the circumstances. But the key is that you’re still able to make rational choices and get through it. “You're not living in a constant state of fear or panic or restlessness,” says Musselman. “The difference between normal anxiety and not normal anxiety,” Musselman explains, “is the excessive, difficult-to-control feelings of worry that interfere with day-to-day activities.”
The Anxiety Zeitgeist
As much as social media has played a part in normalizing mental health language, it’s also led to rampant misuse of the mental health terminology. “To me this is like people going into the dictionary and finding a word they don’t know the proper definition of and using it in a sentence where it might not make the most sense,” Beecroft says. “In today’s social media infused world, the term ‘anxiety’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.” She’s seen countless memes on social media in which people exaggerate their everyday experiences and use psychotherapy terms where they aren’t always appropriate. “People often equate having nerves about an upcoming test with ‘having bad anxiety,” she says. “Or when they’re going to a party where they don’t know anyone at they have ‘social anxiety.’ Butterflies in your stomach are the new panic attack.”
With the explosion of self-diagnosis, there’s simultaneously been a rise in online “therapy” accounts (including some run or moderated by actual practitioners and some that are meant to be inspirational). Normalizing treatment for mental health issues is amazing—but Instagram is no replacement for therapy or medication. Overgeneralizing anxiety can make it harder for people who really do have a mental health issue to know when they should seek treatment. “Using the terms interchangeably creates more chaos; people start generalizing their own experiences and suggesting treatments that aren't appropriate for everyone suffering from one form of anxiety that may not be suitable for another,” explains Musselman.
For me, seeing so many people talk about their mental health issues and treatment has been powerful—a welcome reminder I’m not alone. But when I see posts about “anxiety” from people who might not actually have a mental health disorder, sometimes it makes me feel like my condition isn’t being taken seriously. “It’s really important that people use the term ‘anxiety’ with the understanding of what it means,” says Beecroft. That way, we can really further the conversation on mental health—a new “normal” we can all get behind.
Sara Radin is a writer and editor based in New York, covering culture, identity, and mental health. Follow her at @sararradin.
Originally Appeared on Glamour