As a clinical psychologist and a researcher, I often hear patients and friends tell me how isolating it feels to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Our human nature does not prepare us to strive without deep, meaningful, and fulfilling connections to others. And yet, sometimes it feels like we can’t be part of this social net that we need so much. We would want to be seen, but we can’t seem to be able to tell others how distressed we feel.
The diffuse sense that something is wrong can indeed be difficult to describe, making it more unlikely to share our experience with those who care about us. Often, distress also distorts our view of others – they seem to be doing so well. They don’t seem to struggle with internal pain, they don’t seem to feel sad and unworthy, they can get up and go to work without feeling this tense sensation in their stomach… And sometimes, it also seems like they don’t care about how we feel. In our society which makes extended use of social media, people are even more likely to feel this way. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter everyone looks so much happier and more successful than us… It is almost as if to us, feeling symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other conditions automatically means that we cannot belong anymore.
This internalized stigma – if I have these experiences, if I feel distressed, then I can’t belong, is very isolating. And, as I said before, we humans are not meant to strive without strong connections. Isolation therefore makes us feel worse and exacerbates our distress and symptoms.
Luckily everyone can receive help. To receive it, your first step may be to share your experience with a friend or a family relative you trust. Try to choose someone who is stronger at listening than giving advice; someone who will be able to validate your experience. If you’re not sure who to talk to, you can start by sharing a small piece of what you’re going through. If the person responds in a way that makes you feel better, that brings more air to your tensed lungs, you will know that you can share more. On the contrary, if you get a reaction that increases your distress and makes you feel “stupid” or guilty for going through your hardship, then just stop and change topics.
If no friends or relatives seem to be able to help, you can call one of the mental health helplines such as the National Alliance on Mental illness (NAMI) helpline at 1800-950-6264 (available Monday through Friday 10am to 6pm EST). You will be able to unload this heavy weight that you are carrying with you without disclosing your identity. If you are open to receiving professional help, the helpline workers will also provide you with referrals to mental health professionals with whom you can consult.
Of course, you can always use the ADAA website to figure out if the distress you are experiencing has a name and whether certain forms of psychotherapy or pharmacological treatments are more recommended than others. You can also use the website to identify clinicians who are certified to help you.
And don’t forget, there are no human beings who live their life without experiencing hardships. Mental illness is much more common than you may think. Most of us go through difficult experiences and struggle with some form of distress. Your struggle makes you more human; not less.
About the author:
Sarah Bloch-Elkouby, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, a researcher, and a post-doctoral fellow at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York, where she also teaches in the residency program. She treats patients who struggle with a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders and trauma. Her clinical orientation follows a flexible mindset that integrates several evidence-based treatment approaches. She presented her clinical work at international conferences and in peer-reviewed publications. Sarah was awarded the ADAA Career Development Leadership Award (practice Track) for 2019-2020.