“You Have No Reason To Panic”: On Gratitude And Anxiety

I suffer from anxiety and panic attacks that I can only sort of control. I try and get enough sleep, do yoga, take meds, the whole thing. But still, my brain gets ahead of me and wants to do a pity spiral dance of disaster and worry and I can’t really stop it. It’s a handicap in a sense, where I want to be working or going out with friends or doing laundry but instead I’m curled up in bed with the lights off waiting for my benzos to kick in. (Pretty, pretty.)

Sometimes people tell me it will help my anxiety to “be grateful.” That’s one piece of advice I get a lot. If I were more grateful, I wouldn’t be so anxious. I’m only anxious because I lack perspective. Because I need to take the time to look outside myself and my own problems. If I were busy with things that didn’t have to do with my career or my family or my friends, I wouldn’t have time to be anxious, or to see two therapists.

And there’s something to that in the sense that helping others, or volunteering or working on something bigger than myself could help me forget about my problems for a while. Sure. But I don’t think having anxiety means I’m not a grateful person. I’m extremely thankful for everything in my life. I am lucky to be (mostly) healthy. I am lucky to be able to afford groceries. I am lucky to get paid to write. I am lucky to have some range in choices of what I want to do with my life. I am thankful that my parents are somewhat cool, that I have a good work ethic, that I have something I enjoy doing and that fulfills me.

But I still feel anxiety and worry over petty things in my life. A chemical imbalance version of #firstworldproblems. And actually, thinking about the people less fortunate than I, or volunteering, or sending money has sometimes made me feel worse — more helpless, hopeless and sad. It combines with the feeling that nothing on Earth can ever be fixed (like watching news coverage of school shootings or tsunamis or cancer or other horrors and hardships outside my control) and guilt that I even have to take medication to feel okay when some poor farmer in Africa struggles every day without ever needing to pop Zoloft.

It doesn’t make me feel better to think other people are worse off than I am. That would make me kind of terrible. Instead, it morphs into more self-hatred about my luck and how hopeless the world is and how much work it’s going to take to fix anything. About how useless any of my contributions are. Even if I write ten articles about taking mental health care more seriously or convince one person not to be homophobic or donate time and money to cancer, there will still be more and more bad multiplying like the brooms in “Fantasia.” I feel useless. I’m just a drop in the bucket. Then, I panic some more.

Obviously, this isn’t entirely right. “Gratitude journals” do help, I’ve been told. Volunteering does do some good, even if it’s small. Donating does make a dent, again even if it’s small. Being “grateful” in a sense can help, if it’s presented in the right way.

But this: “You have no reason to be upset, so it’s ridiculous that you have a panic disorder,” is not an uncommon sentiment heard by people with anxiety and panic. I didn’t choose this, and I certainly can’t magically fix my brain chemistry. I just worry about people thinking that by needing to see therapists and having an anxiety disorder, I’m not being grateful for my life. (More worry! See how that works! It’s like worry-Jenga up in here!)

I have anxiety and I am so, so grateful for where I am. And I can see that this mental health issue, or my latest magazine assignment, or my friends not getting along, or my dad’s addiction recovery, or whatever else is going on with me is minor compared to AIDS or world hunger or sex trafficking or poverty. I get that. And that adds to my panic. I wish the two (gratitude and anxiety) weren’t so connected by outsiders who tell me: “You, personally, have nothing to panic about.”

I know that. And yet, here we are. TC Mark

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