I’m not sure how long I’ve been having anxiety attacks — moments where I feel like I can’t breathe and, when they get bad, make me feel disconnected from everything around me — but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s been since I was 14. Everyone told me the symptoms were “in my head,” but I didn’t know to call it anxiety until last year, at 23.
Even as I’ve grown more comfortable with naming my anxiety attacks, I still do it quietly, with a text to a friend who understands or safely after I’ve started to feel better and I can share something I “learned” about them.
But then I found #TalkingAboutIt, which made me think that maybe real-time sharing about mental health issues is important.
The hashtag was started by Sammy Nickalls, who told me: “I saw a friend tweeting about her cold. It was a sort of joking-complaining tweet about how she’s laid in bed all day, and that’s all she’s planning on doing.” She wondered: Why couldn’t we do that with mental health?
“I was spending a ton of time in bed, feeling worse than I had felt in years. Yet, I was still keeping up a relatively happy face online.“ Nickalls has always supported mental health awareness, but her friend’s tweet made her realize that by keeping quiet about her own struggles, she was adding to mental health stigma. “Why is it that my friend could tweet about her cold and not worry about judgment from her followers, her friends, her employers — but that so many people around the world are afraid to open up about our mental health?”
It’s a good question. When I finally figured out what I was experiencing could be called “anxiety,” I had a whole litany of reasons I didn’t want to tell people about it: My case wasn’t that bad. I was still getting on with my life even on the hard days. I didn’t want to be labeled as someone who had anxiety, even if I was having it. I worried about what a future employer might think. I worried I was doing a disservice to people who were incapacitated by their experience by talking about mine and still being functional.
“It’s easy to get imposter syndrome — that if it doesn’t feel as debilitating as it seems for others with anxiety, that you don’t really have it,” Nickalls said. “You don’t have to have a specific reason right off the bat for why you’re not doing OK.”
Social media is often criticized for being “fake,” a curation of only our best moments, but Nickalls thinks it has the potential to be more: “I think that if we encourage others to share not only the highlights, but the dark times too, social media could actually be a massive help. That’s the goal of the hashtag, and the reason why I want people to use it not only to express when they’re struggling, but when they’re doing great as well — to help them know they’re not alone while instilling hope and love.
“If we can feel comfortable enough talking about them, we can feel comfortable enough to take the next steps we may need: going to a therapist, opening up to our friends, getting support.”
You can share your own mental health experiences using #TalkingAboutIt and follow Sammy Nickalls at @sammynickalls.