Mental Health and Transitions


By T. Jaden Ozwell

This is a series about the impact personality disorders, depression, and anxiety have on the life transitions of twenty-somethings and beyond. The fourth and final article will address how mental illness has affected me spiritually.

Part 1: Introduction and Personality Discorders
Part 2: Depression
Part 4: The Church

Anxiety is like one of those unearthly beasts in the book of Daniel: it has many heads and faces and horns and you're definitely not sure what to do with it.

In more technical terms, anxiety disorders are made up of fear and panic and a lot of living between the two. I personally have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or GAD, and "Anxiety NOS (Not Otherwise Specified)" which basically means I have anxiety symptoms that fall outside of GAD but not enough to qualify me for any other recognized disorders. For instance, I sometimes have panic attacks, but not frequently enough to have a Panic Disorder.

GAD gives my body the feeling that something might jump out and eat me, but I'm not actually afraid of that happening. You get the sensation and emotion of fear without the reason. At my worst anxiety, right before I enter a true panic attack, my entire body's muscles are clenched, I feel nauseated, have trouble breathing, and want nothing more than to curl up under a blanket and stay in my bed forever. That desire to "get/run away" is so strong that it has made me leave work, church, and social events on many occasions. I also have trouble leaving my bed or apartment because of the fear, and occasionally it takes me an hour or three to convince myself to leave for the day's activities. It is a pointless terror that defies explanation.

However, for me a more normal day consists of feeling on edge most of the time, some muscle tension, and being adverse to physical touch — especially unexpected touch. Adding new people, new places, or unexpected activities to a day makes those feelings more prevalent, slowly increasing until I hit a breaking point. Most days I never hit that breaking point, but when day, after day, after day presents all those things? Something is bound to happen.

So, when a person with anxiety starts a new job, they're in a new office, with new people (who all want to shake hands / hug depending on your home state), and unknown expectations — for days to weeks. Moving means meeting new neighbors; finding a new church means tons of new people all in one new place (and more hugging). And the interview process that got the anxious person the new job and city and apartment and church? That was something that would make anyone nervous anyway, so they already started the whole process of transitioning on the wrong foot. So they end up having a panic attack in the middle of a church service that asked them to greet (read: hug) everyone around them, and they just can't take one more thing.

I am only describing my own experience of anxiety. I know others who get anxious about other things at other times. But the basic experience of fear that just shouldn't be there? That is true across the board. And it wreaks havoc with all the things that need done when you are in transition.

Unfortunately, anxiety happens in the midst of normal, required daily life. You can't avoid large groups of people forever, and you can't not shake the boss's hand.

However, there are things family and friends can do to help someone with anxiety:

1. Ask the person, when they are not in the midst of a panic attack, what triggers their anxiety. Is it people? Places? Do they not know for sure? Then do your best to at least let them know when those triggers are going to be present at events you host or invite them to. It is also helpful to know what helps the person come down from high anxiety or a panic attack. They may need dark, light, silence, a big blanket, or stepping outside into an open space.

2. Be understanding. If the anxious person has to get up and leave, they really do have to. If you being late has them in a state of near-panic, know that it firstly isn't about you, and also that they are honestly in distress. Ask what you can do, or what they need to do.

3. Finally, be careful not to shame the person. It is embarrassing to have to leave a church service or party — the anxious person already knows that it isn't usually socially acceptable. While it may seem natural to ask things like "couldn't you have just held on another 10 minutes," the reality is that the anxious person has probably already held on much longer than they thought they could in an attempt to be socially acceptable.

Anxiety, in its various forms, makes day-to-day activities difficult, and multiplies the effects that transitions have upon everyone's equilibrium. Church settings can be especially difficult because of the mass of people, noise, and expected social niceties. This leads us directly into the fourth and final article of this series: how mental illness can affect spirituality.

Image Credit: Alessandra; "panic anxiety 036"; Creative Commons

TagsChristian-Life  | Depression  | Hardships  | Health-Wellness  | Personal-Life  | Personal-Relationships

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Published on 4-27-15