Having your heart race as you watch a horror movie is a totally normal physiological response. So is having trouble sleeping the night before delivering an important presentation. Not so normal is experiencing those same feelings on a near-constant basis, regardless of the circumstances.
For the 18 percent of the U.S. population with an anxiety disorder, it is oftentimes difficult for sufferers to live a normal life. In an interview with The Guardian, one young woman who was forced to drop out of college due to her panic disorder explained what her day-to-day reality was like: “I don’t enjoy sitting at home all day long,” she said, “but I physically can’t do anything else at the moment. It’s as though a pause button has been pressed on my life. I’m just…waiting.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), panic attacks are just one symptom of anxiety disorders. Others can include a feeling of impending doom, restlessness, nausea, and difficulty falling and staying asleep. Those sleep-related symptoms of anxiety can create a vicious cycle, with the lack of sleep making it harder and harder for a person to cope with their anxiety, which then makes it even harder for them to sleep—it’s a neverending cycle.
It is important to note that chronic anxiety is not a problem with one single solution. It’s a continuous presence that must often be attacked on multiple fronts.
Medications help, but at the present time, they cannot cure anxiety disorders, only treat their symptoms. For some people, the process of finding a drug that works with their body’s unique chemistry can be a source of stress all its own. According to the NAMI, some medications can take weeks to begin working and cause unwanted side effects.
As if that’s not troubling enough, getting off some anti-anxiety medications can cause withdrawal symptoms worse than those experienced prior to their usage, including seizures and even death, leaving the patient with little choice but to continue taking the medication.
And as investigative journalist Robert Whitaker notes in his book “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” in the end, the adverse effects of psychiatric medications may lend to the growing mental health epidemic. After analyzing the scientific literature that has been produced in peer review articles over the course of the last half century, Whitaker found that some psychiatric medications appear to be effective over the short term, but that these drugs ultimately increase the probability that a person will become chronically ill over the long term.
This does not mean that medication doesn’t work (it does work, and for a lot of people). Rather, what it means is that our current treatments have a number of issues and don’t work (or don’t work well) for all people. In this respect, we are making progress, but we have a lot of work that still needs to be done.
And we’re still just getting started with the issues our society faces when addressing, or trying to address, mental health issues.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is believed that only about half of those affected receive treatment. Part of the problem is the stigmas that are attached to mental health issues. Most people see mental issues as “weakness,” as something that people just need to “get over.”
Ultimately, such responses lead to a number of individuals who go without necessary treatment. This, in turn, has a significant impact on individuals’ health and livelihood. It impacts friends and loved ones. As the author of Robot Hugs notes:
Mental health is a global issue. Mental illness affects people of every race, class, and nationality. Access to mental health resources is a global crisis, and that access is affected and compromised (or facilitated) by factors from all levels of society: legislative, medical, community, employment, interpersonal, individual.
The stigma that mental illness is not real illness, or that it only affects the weak, or that it is shameful, those stigmas permeate each of those levels. This includes governments defunding mental health care, medical professionals dismissing or avoiding issues of mental illness in their patients, communities who turn their backs on their most at-risk members, and families who hide behinds walls of secrecy.
It is an issue that we cannot ignore. Overcoming ignorance is the first step, but in the meantime, there are other solutions that can help that don’t involve medication or therapy.
The Mayo Clinic has some helpful advice regarding how we can help solve our mental health crisis. First, get treatment from where ever you are comfortable and able (be that a friend, a book, or a professional), and realize that doing so is a great, good thing. As the Clinic notes, “Don’t let stigma create self-doubt and shame. Stigma doesn’t just come from others. You may mistakenly believe that your condition is a sign of personal weakness or that you should be able to control it without help. Seeking psychological counseling, educating yourself about your condition and connecting with others with mental illness can help you gain self-esteem and overcome destructive self-judgment.”
The next important thing to do is to avoid isolation, as this often exacerbates the issue. This could start with something simple, such as regularly going out for a walk or joining a community club, or involve some more dedicated work, such as joining a support group.
And of course, something that we can all do is speak out against stigma. The Clinic continues, “Consider expressing your opinions at events, in letters to the editor or on the Internet. It can help instill courage in others facing similar challenges and educate the public about mental illness.”
For those individuals who don’t yet feel comfortable seeking treatment from a professional, there are other solutions. A report by Harvard Health Publications notes that treating the sleep disorder associated with mental health issues can actually alleviate some of the symptoms of the problem, and one way to do that is through using proprioceptive input (also know as deep touch pressure (DTP)) to ground your body with a weighted blanket.
Weighted blankets use DTP to ease feelings of anxiety. The blankets are filled with poly pellets to match 10 percent of a person’s body weight. Research has shown that this kind of pressure results in a reduction in cortisol levels and an increase in serotonin production, decreasing your heart rate and blood pressure by stimulating pressure points—which causes the release of the aforementioned chemicals.
Thus, weighted blankets cause these chemical changes to naturally bring about a sense of calm and relaxation that can ease anxiety and bring on a restful slumber. What this translates to is a feeling of comfort that can help even the most over-active mind start to slow down.
While the symptoms of anxiety disorders vary greatly depending on the person and the type of disorder from which they suffer, the one unifying symptom of all anxiety disorders, according to NAMI, is that persistent feeling of excessive fear or worry in non-threatening situations. This makes restful sleep exceedingly difficult and exacerbates the issue.
Thankfully, for some individuals, a weighted blanket provide an immediate, side-effect-free way to help alleviate that symptom under any circumstances, whether it’s caused by a big life event or a chronic disorder that makes every day feel like a horror movie.
It is not a “cure-all,” but it is a way that individuals can begin to feel relief. If you, or someone that you know, is struggling (or seems to need assistance), know that you—and they— are not alone. There are many support services and treatment options that may help. You can learn more about how to seek help here.