I’ve noticed a common theme in advice & support I get when I’m struggling with my mental illness, and it’s something I see other people receive a lot too, so I wanted to address it.
Caveat: as with all things in life, how the following affects me depends on a variety of other factors, most notably the beliefs that have informed the comment.
During a panic attack
- “It’s only a panic attack”
- “You’re not going to die”
In the midst of a depressive episode
- “This too shall pass”
- “You’ve got through this before”
- “Depression lies”
During a heightened state of anxiety
- “You’re overthinking”
- “That’s never going to happen”
And what is the common theme? They’re all well meaning statements, facts even, but I find them especially unhelpful because I already know!
I have lived with mental illness long enough that I know, all too well, that depression lies, that a panic attack wont kill me, and that I overthink, but (I hope you’re sitting down for this!) it doesn’t change how I feel!
When I am having a panic attack, I know that I am not going to die. Knowing that does not stop me feeling like I am going to die. Knowing that it’s ‘only a panic attack’ does not make it easier to breathe, or calm my racing heart. When you tell me, “you’re not going to die,” I hear, “it’s not a big deal, stop panicking and get on with it.” I can’t.
My knowing that depression lies does not stop it doing so. It doesn’t stop it feeding on my insecurities and filling my head with awful thoughts. It doesn’t stop me feeling hopeless and empty. My knowing it, in many cases, makes me feel worse because it is a reminder that I have no control over it. When you tell me that “depression lies,” I often hear “and therefore you should be able to ignore it and get on with things.” I can’t.
When my anxiety is especially heightened, knowing that I am overthinking does not stop me feeling their effects. It does not stop the racing thoughts. When you tell me, “you’re overthinking,” I hear, “so just stop thinking about it and get on with life.” I can’t.
If you are shivering and someone says, “you’re just cold,” does that stop you feeling cold? No, of course not, because what we know may inform how we feel, but they are still two distinct things. Thoughts and feelings are intertwined, but also work independently of each other.
My feelings are valid
My feelings are valid, whether I feel them because of a mental illness or because of an external factor. I still feel them, whether I know why or not.
For me one of the most important things I’ve learned from living with mental illness is that supporting someone doesn’t mean you need fix their problem. The best support I have received has been people saying:
- “I get it”
- “Me too”
- “You’re not alone”
- “Yes, this sucks on every possible level”
- “I agree, it’s so unfair”
- “It’s ok”
Sometimes support is commiserating with someone, admitting that it’s a godawful situation, and just being with them as they are and having that be ok.
I don’t want you to save me, I want you to stand by my side as I save myself