Greetings from Anxietyland. Or as some might know it, graduate school.

I’ve got just a few weeks left of teaching and taking classes before the semester ends. You might see that as hectic yet manageable. It’s not exactly fun, but it’s only temporary.

Logically, I can see that too. Yet somehow, I can’t convince my brain of it.

I’ve never suffered from anxiety before now. I’ve known friends and loved ones who’ve grappled with it, but I couldn’t relate to their struggles in the past.

Now that I’ve seen both sides, I’ve got a few things I’d like to share with the healthy, anxiety-free segment of the population.

One Monday, I went to class carrying a completed assignment that was due that day. I knew it would probably get an A. I had to present my findings to the class, and I’m great at public speaking. I even enjoy it. Truly, there was nothing to worry about.

For some reason, I was about ready to throw up.

I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I can’t control it. Maybe in the future I’ll get a grip. I’m doing everything I can to improve my health, and I’m just not there yet.

Why would anyone in their right mind fear turning in a completed homework assignment so much they nearly get sick over it?

Panic and Anxiety

khumana/Flickr

Well, that’s the thing. I’m not in my right mind. Anxiety is an illness, just like diabetes.

The difference is that nobody tells a diabetic to just buck up and produce more insulin.

Nobody says to a diabetic, “Well, you look fine!” That’s what one professor said to me when I shared with him what I’m struggling with.

If you don’t have an anxiety problem yourself, you might feel an overwhelming urge to help someone who suffers from it get a grip on reality.

Public speaking won’t kill you, you might say. If you don’t enjoy the party, you can go home. If you study enough for your math test, you’ll ace it. Maybe you could get a tutor.

Yes, we know that. But inside our bodies, we feel like we’re walking on a wire over the Grand Canyon. One wrong step will send us careening into the abyss.

In my case, even after I presented my paper and it was received well by my class, I still felt sick to my stomach. I can’t explain why.

I know how it feels to be on the other side. I’ve been there.

But just as you can’t always help someone suffering with alcoholism by listing the benefits of drinking in moderation, it’s not always possible to help someone with anxiety by describing “reality.”

If you know people with anxiety, the best thing you can do for them is to listen. Without judging. Accept that you might not understand what they’re going through. You don’t have to understand it or fix it.

Just listen. And, to the extent that you can, empathize.

Even if you don’t see how turning in a homework assignment can make somebody nauseated, you can probably imagine how hard it would be to go to class while struggling to keep your breakfast down.

It’s enough to connect with that, and to say something like, “That sounds hard.” It will probably help.

If you know of resources like therapists or support groups, recommend them if it seems appropriate to do so. But don’t push if the person isn’t ready to seek those out.

Most of all, don’t judge. People struggling with anxiety need hugs and empathy, not your judgment.

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Jill Richardson

OtherWords columnist Jill Richardson is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix ItOtherWords.org.