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We all have feelings of panic and stress, but what makes a mental health issue different?

It’s important to know the difference between a feeling and mental illness so that you can understand the effect on others.

You are about to leave your house and are looking around for your keys. You check your pockets, the kitchen, and upstairs in your bedroom. You’re already late for work and your coworker is waiting in his car impatiently. To your relief, you find them on your table and run out of the house. You greet him with a smile and quickly say, “Sorry it took so long. I thought I lost my keys and almost had a panic attack.”

People often experience feelings of stress, panic, and sadness. These feelings are common in every human as we try to navigate through life, but it can be easy to wrongfully refer to them as mental illnesses. All the time, we hear phrases like “I’m so OCD,” and “Ugh, this class makes me want to kill myself.” Most people who say these phrases so casually don’t actually experience the same major, daily struggles as those who have been actually, clinically diagnosed. Stress can be mislabeled as anxiety, fear as panic attacks, perfectionism labeled as OCD, and sadness as depression. We, as the general public, may not know much about these mental health issues beyond the stereotypes we see in pop culture.

When we talk about our passing feelings as if they are mental illnesses, it can greatly affect the way people that have these health issues feel. I’ve heard other people say to my friends who have actual anxiety disorders, “I get anxiety all the time whenever I have to take tests.” This has made them feel like their anxiety is being minimized and diminished, as though it is “not a big deal” and easy to deal with. This could open up the possibility for self doubt and more anxiety.

In order to avoid misusing the language of mental illness in ways that diminish the experiences of those who suffer from these problems, it can be helpful to educate ourselves on what actual mental illness is like. That way we can be more precise in our speech and avoid resorting to potentially harmful metaphors.

Experiencing panic attacks is one of the most stressful parts of having anxiety, not only for the person experiencing them but also for the people around them. I have seen close friends and family have panic attacks when I was with them. They hyperventilate, leading them to start shaking and looking around rapidly. It is usually easy to see the difference between people who are experiencing a feeling of panic and people who are having an attack. If you experience a panic attack you may not be able to come out of it without the help of others.

People who experience anxiety disorder can feel excessively apprehensive, jumpy, restless, and irritable. It is unwanted and interferes with the person’s daily life. There are different types of anxiety disorders which have different characteristics: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. While most people can feel a bit anxious in stressful situations, people with anxiety disorders can have excessive feelings and thoughts that interfere with their relationships, social lives, and work performance. General physical signs that come with anxiety include shortness of breath, sweating, an upset stomach, headaches, fatigue, and insomnia.

Some people feel the need to be perfect in the things that they do, but that doesn’t mean that they have OCD. Someone who has OCD will try to reduce their extreme anxiety by engaging in repetitive mannerisms and mental compulsions. They have to do these things to ease their mind. OCD is often downplayed to describe simpler things like perfectionism. I like all of my shoes to face the same way, I like all of my lines to be practically straight when I’m cutting paper, and I like all of my pencil crayons to be in the same order they came in. However, that does not mean I have OCD. I am simply a perfectionist. Most of us have specific places that we put our things, and if they were to be moved, you might try to change it back. However, if it were to be irreversible or even just too difficult to change back, you would probably just get used to it and move on with your daily life. Someone who has this disorder won’t move on quickly, if they are able to at all. It might be all they think about. Other obsessions and compulsions include constantly checking the fridge to make sure every piece of food bought is in the right place, or excessively washing their hands even to the point where they are raw and bleeding. They might count how many times they chew their food to make sure that the number is “correct”. Superstitions also contribute to the need to organize and arrange. If a child has this compulsion, they may think that if their shoes are not lined up and colour coded, then harm may come to their family. There are many other traits that add up to this disorder including the fear of contamination, constant second guessing, compulsive tapping, and mental rituals. All told, these behaviors can significantly interfere with the sufferer’s life and health.

Depression is a common but serious disorder that negatively affects the way you feel and think. It can come up for the smallest of reasons and can last for a long time. People who experience depression may feel worthless, hopeless, unreasonably guilty, and uninterested. When a person is depressed they will often feel sad about everything. Some people isolate themselves and don’t enjoy the activities that they used to. One may have issues sleeping, eating, and finding energy within themselves. For someone to be diagnosed with depression the symptoms must last for at least two weeks. Many people who have feelings of sadness don’t experience symptoms of depression that last for over two weeks.

When we are more educated about mental illnesses, we can make subtle changes in our daily language that are more accurate to how we are actually feeling. We can use other phrases such as “this class is so hard, it makes me frustrated,” “I’m feeling really sad today,” “I feel discouraged right now,” “I’m such a perfectionist,” or “It makes me so happy when my paper is cut perfectly straight.” Speaking this way not only avoids minimizing the experience of people with mental disorders, it’s more precise, too.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a form of anxiety or depression you should seek professional help. For immediate help you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. For other important local phone numbers regarding suicide prevention and overall mental health help, you can visit HealthLinkBC.

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