WHEN a person is feeling completely out of control – body, senses, perceptions, thoughts – especially if those symptoms seem to have no direct cause, it is a crucial time for that person to be loved and cared for so they don’t feel alone in addition to the confusion. Sometimes, however, helping those who are dealing with “invisible illness” can be somewhat of a mystery. Although anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in America, that is still only 18% of the population. Therefore, most people have not dealt with such a high level of pain that has no apparent source, that is so seemingly disconnected from circumstances and logic. America is beginning to wake up to the fact that mental illness should be treated like any other physical illness, but we are struggling to bridge the gap of what that looks like in real time. There seems to be a lot of confusion and even fear surrounding mental illness. So the question lingers: how can family, friends, and Church effectively love people who are going through incredible psychological pain?
As I was suffering through a series of panic attacks earlier this year, the people around me did the best they could to love me. There were select people who did a fantastic job and without them, all of it would have been so much harder! I am forever grateful for those God put in my life to help me carry on. But the common thread was that these were people who had, in some way, experienced some level of what I was experiencing. When it came to rest of my community, I was always keenly aware of the gap between my reality and what others perceived as my reality. I received prayers, kind words, hugs, well wishes, but often I saw in the eyes of my friends and acquaintances a general confusion, a slight furrow of the brow as they tried to understand, helplessness as they felt at a loss for what to do. As I did my best to act “normal,” people treated me like all was normal. While I was often grateful for that, the truth was that I was sick. I was struggling immensely, just to sit there and have a normal, casual conversation.
People were incredibly kind, and I am not in any way writing this to tell people how they should have loved me better through that time. I am writing this because maybe you know someone who struggles with one of these common issues, and maybe you don’t know how to love them or help them. Maybe they are like me and are good real-life actors, so you get confused when they confide in you that they are still struggling. Maybe you wish someone would just tell you, give you some guidelines so you can stop second-guessing how you should be treating them. That is why I am writing today.
My struggles with mental illness (I will persist in calling it that so that maybe someday this type of illness will not carry such a connotation of shame!) – my struggles with mental illness are not over. To my frustration, it will take quite some time to fully heal. As my counselor explained to me the other day, it is as if I was in a car accident and shattered both of my legs, and then I’m at the doctor asking if I will be able to walk tomorrow! You may wonder, what do you mean “fully heal”? Isn’t mental illness an ongoing, lifelong struggle? Isn’t it genetic? The answer is yes and no. Because of what I have been learning in counseling and the books I have reading about mental illness, I believe I will be healed completely — with long, hard work and lots of discipline. But that is a topic for a later blog post. For now, it’s just good to know that loving people who are healing from/working through extreme panic, anxiety, and depression is similar to loving someone who shattered both of their legs in a car accident. They may be on the couch for several weeks or even months, and you wouldn’t expect them to live normally during that time. Then, someday, they are able to get around with leg braces and crutches. They still need your help and support, but they are on their way to healing. Eventually, by enduring lots of pain and diligent physical therapy, they will walk and run again unhindered.
My perspectives and opinions are only the result of one life and one specific experience, so I took the liberty of reaching out to a few friends who have also suffered from panic, anxiety, and/or depression.* I asked a few simple questions, and I would like to share some of their answers with you (names have been changed). These are strong, wonderful, God-loving people from varying age groups, and many of you would probably not guess that they were working through these issues if you saw the way they love and serve in their communities. I truly am inspired by each of them, and I hope their words bring you clarity.†
Jordan: What is the best way to love you when you are having a panic attack?
Amy: During a panic attack, your brain sends a signal to your body telling it that you are in immediate danger, and that you will die if you don’t escape the situation. As a result, your body’s “fight or flight” response gets triggered. Your heart begins to race, your muscles clench up, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow. It sounds dramatic, but it literally feels like you are dying. When I am having a panic attack, this feeling makes me feel extremely isolated, shameful, and alone. What helps me most is just having someone I care about sit with me and talk to me. Just having someone present in all the craziness makes really helps with the intense anxiety and feelings of loneliness that come along with panic attacks.
Sean: The best way to love me is just to be there and remind me to breathe. I started suffering from tremors and intense shaking for about a year and a half when my anxiety/depression were at their peak and I will occasionally have them today if I get super anxious. It’s been very helpful for someone close to me just to remind me to breathe and do it slowly to get the heart rate down and to calm down.
Amy: It is helpful if the person sitting with me reminds me to breathe, that I am not alone, and that I am safe. Focusing on those three things is often what helps to bring me out of a state of extreme panic. Sometimes, feeling something soft (like a stuffed animal/blanket) or smelling something strong (essential oils or lotion) will also help to calm me down.
Mike: Loved ones should realize during a panic attack, although there may not be anything literally going on to cause us distress, but what we are feeling is truly uncontrollable fear. There is no amount of comforting that is too much you can give until the attack subsides and then to continue to reassure us that we’ll be okay and we have your support afterwards since, for me anyway, my confidence would be really rattled.
Nicole: To simply be there and not try to fix everything. Hugs are magical and prayer is miraculous. I love it when people will sit there and listen if I want to talk or if I’m crying uncontrollably, just hug me and be there. Don’t be constantly checking a phone or being distracted. This can be hard if it’s one of those moments when I’m a mess, but can’t talk, and yet I need someone there. I don’t want someone constantly telling me how to change, either, or to just get over it (which has happened before). Also, sometimes I really don’t feel like going out, so people assume that I don’t want to see them, but that’s not true. Sometimes I just rather have 1 person or 2 for a quiet night of comfort since going out in large crowds can increase anxiety because of the fear of having an attack in public.
Kim: The only panic attack I’ve had, I did not let anyone know because I did not want to inconvenience anyone. Sit with me and tell me that things are going to be okay, that I’m no going to die, that life is good and that Jesus loves me.
Jordan: What about when you are experiencing depression or anxiety?
Mike: Now depression was equally debilitating, however, just on a different level. Panic/anxiety relies more on reassurances where as depression relies heavily on a unconditional love until the loved ones’ depression begins to subside. I found by speaking with people who have have gone though this themselves, especially people I was close with, really helped me in the worst of times. Having some understanding of the disorder is a huge help. Knowing a little about what I’m going through makes it easier to understand how I feel and empathize with me.
Kim: Check in, check in, check in. See if I am doing okay. With depression, I will sleep a lot. Not leave my room. Miss out on fun things, and if you see me do that, something is wrong because I am very extroverted. I never feel suicidal, I just feel that nothing matters and I just want to sleep. So if I’m in my room a lot, talk to me.
Nicole: I’d say to never tell me I’m a downer. One of my biggest fears is that I will be bringing everyone down and ruining their fun because of an attack or depression hitting harder that day. I’m very aware of my mood and how it can swing downhill fast. I don’t need others reminding me of it. Just recently a good friend of mine saw me breaking down about something and asked if I wanted to talk. I simply nodded my head and we went somewhere private to talk. He waited patiently for a good 10 minutes before I even started talking. Then I talked about it for maybe only 10 minutes and we just sat there for an hour after saying only a few sentences here and there. He didn’t look annoyed, wasn’t looking around seeming bored, and just comforted me the whole time. I’d say that’s a perfect example of how to help me through a rough moment.
Sean: Yeah, the best way to love me during depressive times is to ask questions and start conversation about the issues, and for a friend to listen and not just provide quick answers; depression is complicated, as you know, and can’t be fixed with a quick verse and the like.
Jordan: What is the best way to love you in RELATION to panic/anxiety/depression (when discussing it with you, or assumptions people make that aren’t true, etc.)?
Kim: Understand that it’s not a thing to shrug off. That this is a real issue that many people face. I learned in abnormal psych that four out of five people qualify for some level neurotic disorder and are considered “not normal” and I feel that we need to redefine what normal is. We also need to stop treating mental illness as taboo. Our brains are organs and if they get sick, we need to treat them as well as any other.
Amy: As mentioned previously, there is a lot of heavy shame and isolation that comes along with panic attacks. I have this crippling fear that if people knew what was really going on in my life (panic attacks, anxiety, depression) they would abandon me. Because of this, I have only opened up about my struggle with panic to a handful of people. I have received a variety of responses, some of which were very helpful and some of which were extremely hurtful. What made me feel the most loved were the people who listened non-judgmentally, sought to understand, and spoke words of encouragement and acceptance over some of the darkest corners of my heart and mind.
Mike: This is probably just as hard for the patient suffering from the disorder to discuss as it is for the loved ones to discuss it. First thing to remember with anxiety or depression, there isn’t a “magic switch” we could just switch off and on. This is very real! If loved ones really wanted to help me or others with their anxiety/depression I think a great way would be to engage with us in conversation about it. Truly try to understand how we are feeling.
Jordan: Anything else you want people to know about panic/anxiety/depression?
Mike: Yes! Over the years I have learned so much about panic attacks. I have suffered more than I can even count, most of which occurred from a sound sleep in the middle of the night! With many, the root cause was the very treatment my Dr. gave me to prevent them. SSRIs. A common medicine used to treat anxiety/depression. Many people have bodies that are just extremely sensitive to what goes into them. If you suffer panic attacks, anxiety, depression…be wary of things like caffeine, anti-histamine, and alcohol.
Kim: When I have a panic attack, I can’t move. I stay in one place, and I cry. My hands get tingly and I feel that I’m going to die. My brain knows that I am not going to die, but every fiber of my being is telling me otherwise. Please don’t brush off panic attacks. If more people understood what they were like, (without experiencing them hopefully) then I feel that knowledge of how to handle them would increase.
Sean: These are conditions that the modern church has an issue addressing, which is odd since it is likely that more than half the people in a given congregation in the Church will have struggled with anxiety or depression in their lives. Some Christians see it as a sin issue and attribute these illnesses as a result of someone’s sin, which is a mindset that I believe makes it more difficult to address depression and anxiety. I think depression and anxiety can be caused by a myriad of things, some of them our own mistakes and choices that cause guilt and pain, but many times being caused by factors that are out of our control like biological factors.
Mike: Lastly, panic attacks are totally controllable, if not even capable of eliminating them all together. Talk with your doctor, find a support group/partner. I beat it…so can you!
Thank you so much to my interviewees, for answering my questions in such a courageous way. If you are reading this and you were impacted or helped by their stories, please don’t hesitate to comment or send a message so that they know their vulnerability is being used to comfort others!
† These are individual opinions, and a very small sampling. While they were curated by me, they are not my personal opinions or thoughts. These statements also reflect no absolute truth or scientific research about mental illness.
*Note: Because of the reading I’ve been doing lately, I am so very aware that panic, anxiety and depression are the flu and common colds of mental illness. Although they severely impair people’s lives when they try and live with these issues, they are actually on the low end of intensity when it comes to mental illness. However, they are the only things I have had experience with, so they are what I will write about. I am hoping that as more people come to understand the “common” issues, we can reach into the darkness of more serious mental illness and dare to love those who have intensely life-controlling, disabling conditions.