At 13 years old, I was afraid to touch floors, door knobs, bus seats or even walk into a room without feeling contaminated and having to compulsively wash my hands until I felt the fear had rinsed off. Anxiety has always been a major part of my existence, and although it’s not something I take pride in announcing, it usually speaks for itself. “You need to relax; just don’t think about it,” would be easier to hear if it were that easy. But neurochemically, I can’t. From the obsessive counting, worrying, muscle tics, the double, triple and then quadruple checking, anyone with an anxiety disorder can promise you: We honestly can’t just “calm down.”
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting nearly 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, which is about 18 percent of the population. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a type of anxiety disorder that is also considered its own condition, occurs in about 2.2 million in the U.S., equating to about 1 percent of the population. On the most basic neurological level, the amygdala, a brain structure associated with triggering our fear reactions, plays a central role in anxiety disorders. Those who tend to be more anxious have been observed to have larger than average amygdalae.
For people with anxiety disorders, the anxiety manifests as an itch we need to scratch, and maybe if we scratch it, it’ll go away. The problem is that it never does. For OCD, there are quirks, but then there are compulsions. Sometimes I won’t realize I’m ripping my hair unless someone who’s been watching me do it for the past 20 minutes points it out.
Typically, when others hear about obsessions they think about lining up colored pencils and not the reality of “If I don’t close this door seven times then my dog will die” ranging to “I’m afraid that I’m going to accidentally kill my dog.” It’s desperately seeking control of your own life by letting your anxiety control it for you.
The “anxiety” buzzword has been diluted down to a catchphrase. The moment I bring up my excessive worrying everyone else has already ordered a season pass to join the OCD club because, hey, everyone has anxiety, right? Empty reminders to just “chill out” and “stop worrying so much” are tossed around as passive-aggressive punchlines because others fail to realize my anxiety doesn’t take vacations.
Telling someone “It’s all in your head” is only stating the obvious. Of course it’s in my head; where else would it be? I’m fully aware that checking, and re-checking, and re-checking and … checking again to see if my coffee cup is across the room from my laptop because if not my room will set fire isn’t rational thinking, but there’s no use in reminding me that. No one who performs ritualistic compulsions will be miraculously cured when you remind them of how silly it is. The problem is that we already know.
I don’t expect others to put up with what I have to, and that’s why I understand that when I have to repeat “I’m sorry” 11 times until it sounds right, most people stop listening. “Calm down” is simply an empty phrase that comes from mouths that don’t speak the language of anxiety. I’ll never know how it feels to live without generalized anxiety, but I can live without the constant reminders from others about how to deal with it.