“Normal anxiety” has taken on a new meaning over the past year. Mental health symptoms have been skyrocketing since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and combined with the endless economic, social, and political turmoil, stress and uncertainty feel like our new normal. “Anxiety has been a common theme among my clients [since the pandemic started],” says Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW, a therapist based in New York. “They’re very worried and don’t have high levels of trust in the government and health care system and other people to keep each other safe.”
Everyone is feeling the burnout but frontline workers, caregivers, and minority populations are particularly at risk in the burgeoning mental health crisis; in June of 2020 a CDC study found that young people and members of the Black and Latino communities are particularly showing signs of declining mental health. Suicide rates have alarmingly risen by 30%. We're in the midst of a serious mental health crisis—especially for those with anxiety disorders.
Living with an anxiety disorder
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. 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, it felt like I was the only one. Anxiety was not something people often spoke about out in the open, especially on social media.
That's all changed. In the past three and a half years, I’ve gotten my mental state to a much healthier, more manageable place thanks to therapy and medication. And 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.
We’re all stressed, especially this year, but where is the line between “normal” anxiety and an anxiety disorder that needs treatment?
What is normal anxiety vs. an anxiety disorder?
Having an anxiety disorder is the experience of severe distress that decreases your ability to perform. “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,” says Jennifer Musselman, a psychotherapist who splits her time between Los Angeles and San Francisco. “It feels overwhelming and is perceived as outside of our coping abilities.”
For people who were already dealing with anxiety disorders before the pandemic, the past 10 months have been especially challenging. “Some of my clients' symptoms from anxiety have increased significantly, not only from Generalized Anxiety Disorder but they’re also dealing with COVID anxiety, which is a separate entity in itself,” Beecroft says. “Thought patterns and cognitive distortions like black-and-white thinking and catastrophizing are at an all-time high.”
Plenty of people are also experiencing severe anxiety for the first time. “We’re living in a state of prolonged stress, and burnout is a reaction to living in that state for so long,” says Beecroft. Many of us are feeling exhausted and cynical, and have trouble getting the smallest tasks done because we are so taxed. Signs of a developing anxiety disorder can mean shutting down, entering into “a state of disassociation, hyperventilation, or paralysis in an effort to avoid the situation,” Musselman says. “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.”
Symptoms of an anxiety disorder can vary from person to person, but they’re all rooted in fear of the future—something that’s felt especially heavy this year. For people like me, it can become a way of being, like a soundtrack that keeps playing in the background on low volume.
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. “In today’s social-media-infused world, the term ‘anxiety’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people,” says Beecroft. “We’re still fighting a stigma that surrounds mental health, but using these terms in a trendy or romanticizing way can do more harm than help.” She’s seen countless memes on social media in which people exaggerate their everyday experiences and use psychotherapy terms that 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, they have ‘social anxiety.’ 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—Instagram is no replacement for therapy or medication. Overgeneralizing anxiety can make it harder for people to know when they should seek treatment.
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.
When to seek help
Whether you think you have an anxiety disorder, or are just feeling burnt out by the realities of existing right now, it’s appropriate to call in a pro. “Seeking out therapy is something people can do at any stage,” Beecroft says. “It’s just another form of self-care, and right now every single one of us needs to prioritize self-care.” Therapy can be preventive and help you develop tools to live the life they want, which might have become more challenging during the pandemic.
If you notice your anxiety is seriously impacting your lifestyle and you’re struggling with motivation or having trouble showing up in your personal or professional life, Beecroft says it’s definitely a good idea to find a therapist.
Sara Radin is a writer and editor based in New York, covering culture, identity, and mental health. Follow her @sararradin.
Originally Appeared on Glamour