According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older; that's 18.1% of the population every year.
That means almost 1 in 5 people has some type of anxiety disorder. That also means it is highly likely that someone we know has an anxiety disorder. As workers in the tech industry, we may not discuss our anxiety or depression at work for fear of being seen as weak or unhealthy. But mental illness is prevalent in our field. And it is important for us to know how to address it, stay healthy, and make it a practice to think about our overall wellness.
However, as the ADAA statistic shows, only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety disorders receive treatment. The numbers are more staggering when we look at underrepresented and minority groups. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), African Americans and Hispanic Americans each use mental health services at about 50% of the rate of Caucasian Americans, and Asian Americans at about 33% of the rate. In the LGBTQ community, individuals are two or more times likely to have a mental health condition. Eleven percent of transgender individuals reported being denied care by mental health clinics due to bias or discrimination.
I was one of the 63.1% who didn’t receive treatment—until about 18 months ago, when I had a panic attack and got really scared about my own wellbeing. "I need help, now."
Since then I've been trying to help myself get better. There are many panic moments and setbacks. Overall I am making progress, and I want to share my personal experience in the hope that it can help someone who is also sitting in the dark.
It is important to talk about anxiety and depression. Please remember that. It was extremely hard for me to open up because a) I am an introvert and b) I was ashamed of being mentally unwell.
It was uncomfortable and awkward to open up to my counselor for the first time. I was telling a stranger about my childhood, my adult life, and my struggles, hoping that they would understand and offer help.
The more you talk about it to a professional, to a trusted friend or to a close family member, the better you understand yourself and the causes of your anxiety. At the very least, it is a way to let out your frustration, fear, and doubts, which takes away some of your burden.
Reading and Writing
Everyone has their own ways to calm their mind down. To me, reading and writing has helped me tremendously. Writing helps me visualize my thoughts and (hopefully) understand them.
Reading helps me broaden my mind and stay grounded. I don't necessarily read one book a week or write every day, but I try to read and write as much as I can. Even if I just read two pages or write five lines a day, I am keeping the rhythm going.
This is my weak spot, compared to talking, reading and writing. I really have to make myself exercise. As unpleasant as the process is to me, movements do make me feel better afterwards.
The body carries the mind and the mind guides the body. The health of the mind is highly associated to the health of the body, and vice versa. By exercising, we are not only making our heart stronger, we are also prompting ourselves to eat and hydrate better. All these lead to a healthier body and clearer mind.
Researchers in the west started looking at meditation years ago, but it became much more popular in the ’90s. There are many types of meditation. The one I am learning is called mindfulness-based stress reduction meditation. It helps me to be aware of my current status, try not to review the past and worry about the future, pay attention to my breath, feel where my heart is, and stay present (for even just 5 seconds).
Meditation is hard. No matter what meditation method you choose to practice, bear in mind that this is extremely hard work, especially for people with a busy mind. Don’t get frustrated if you can only meditate for 30 seconds or 5 minutes today. Every second counts.
All is not lost
Anxiety has changed my perspective on life. When I didn't know exactly what my problems were, I usually waited for my bad feelings to go away. When those feelings kept coming back and eventually gave me panic attacks, I realized they were not just bad feelings. They are my anxieties.
When my anxiety is present, I will have many thoughts that I cannot control: "it will not get better anymore," "this is all your fault," or "you'll just be sad for the rest of your life.” This is what my mind does when it senses fear, insecurity and uncertainty. It is like going into a dark room where I am trapped and terrified, wanting to call for help but not able to.
I am proud of myself for trying everything I can to get better. During a visualization meditation, I was looking at this unmovable mountain in my head. I remembered that I once was a person who understood my fear but was not afraid of it, a person who fought for everything that was important, a person who was strong and resilient, and a person who knew the power of love very well.
Mental health is vital. We know that there are reasons for us to fight back. There are adventures for us to take. There are duties for us to fulfill. And there are people, including ourselves, to love.
Remember, all is not lost.
Summer Fang is an advocate for mental health and women's rights. She has been fighting anxiety for over two years, and she shares her struggles and progress with the community vocally and in writing. Summer has been living in Portland for five years and is a semi-active Twitter user (@summer_fangzhou)