Making other people comfortable with your anxiety

Photo courtesy of Dani Sisson, Student Publications

I’m sitting in class thinking about the presentation I have to give in an hour, a presentation for which I do not feel adequately prepared … when I hear them coming.

The cicadas swarm in and throughout my brain — everything is so loud, I can scarcely hear my own thoughts, much less the words of the professor’s lecture at the front of the room.

Everything bleeds into the same white noise, simultaneously fuzzy and sharp, and I know that I need to leave.

I can feel tears start to well up in my eyes as I turn to the TA to ask to step out, avoiding eye contact and the possibility that she will recognize what is happening.

I don’t really register her reply amidst the current circus in my brain, but I stand up to leave anyway and make a B-line to the bathroom.

In the safe embrace of the grimy tiled walls of the nearest bathroom, I let it all out.

I’ve dealt with this situation a hundred times over, but that doesn’t change the immediate experience of my brain being overcome with a panic attack, and I struggle to keep myself standing.

I’m in the middle of gasping through some positive self-reassurement that I’ve practiced with my therapist when someone else suddenly walks into the bathroom.

Our eyes meet, and immediately they recognize the situation for what it is (not many people voluntarily sit on a public bathroom floor).

We divert our eyes from one another, me still trying to figure out what a regular breathing interval feels like, them rushing into the nearest stall.

I can almost reach out and touch the implicit apology lingering in the air, although I am not sure from which one of us it is coming.

Another wave of panic rushes over me — do I leave? I’m in no condition to go anywhere, but I don’t want to make this person feel uncomfortable.

I also don’t want to cram myself into a claustrophobic stall when there is barely enough oxygen out here.

I hear the stall door unlock as I’m scraping myself off the floor and into the adjacent stall, closing the door behind me.

A few moments pass before I hear the swift close of the bathroom door, and I begin gasping again.

Over the past year and a half, I spent the majority of the pandemic at home with my family where my anxiety was on display in a way that it never had been before.

Despite not working a job and having relatively little classwork to attend to during this period, it was a time filled with an excruciating expenditure of energy.

My family and I attempted to navigate the minefield that is communicating realistically and empathetically about mental health.

My family, the people that cared about me most, wanted to do everything in their power to help me, constantly searching for concrete things they could do to ease my anxiety when it appeared.

For anyone that has ever dealt with anxiety or depression, it will be obvious that this dynamic rarely resulted in a positive outcome for anyone.

I found myself wishing my anxiety away, not for my own relief, but for those around me.

I didn’t want the people that loved me to feel helpless or be in pain, I wanted the people around me to feel comfortable — or at the very least, comfortable with my anxiety.

Unfortunately, the fact of the matter is that there is no “making” someone else feel comfortable with your anxiety, just as there is no way of someone “making” you feel any less anxious.

There are no magic words which will communicate your feelings so succinctly that everyone around you will immediately empathize with your situation, no idealized metaphor nor retrospective anecdote (even when published in a newspaper) that will alone make someone understand your pain and how best to respond to it, but that does not mean that you don’t continue to try.

Over the course of many months, my family and I fumbled through learning to communicate with each other. There was pain on all sides, and many conversations left at least one person feeling hurt and misunderstood, but we kept going in spite of this.

Eventually, we had spent enough time learning how not to speak to one another that we began to stumble upon ways of communicating that worked for us.

While not every conversation is perfect, through trial and error, my family and I have learned how to communicate about mental health in a more empathetic and productive way.

I did not know how to interact with the person in the bathroom — did not know how to absolve them of the need to check on me, how to assure them that I was going to be okay, how to make them feel comfortable with my anxiety — but I didn’t need to.

I didn’t need to make them feel comfortable, nor did I need to pretend as if I didn’t care how they felt.

All I needed to do was live through that moment to reinforce in my brain that I would be okay, both through the presence of panic and through other people’s proximity to it, so that when faced with the next uncomfortable interaction, I could try again to communicate in a way that is healthy for me.

Living to try again in that moment was, and will always be, enough. If you or anyone you know is suffering, please reach out to GT Counseling Center, GT Psychiatry, or visit the CDC’s website for mental health resources. While these resources may be imperfect, reaching out in times of need is a crucial part of taking care of your mental health.