Opinion: Why it’s hard to understand the consequences of mental health until you’ve battled your own

I got my first panic attack in months this week.

It was more of a bummer for me than anything else. It had been so long since I had one that I thought I might not have to worry about them anymore, as unrealistic as that may be.

But in a way, I’m also happy it happened. The fact I knew exactly what it was, and what to do reminded me how far I’ve come since I first started getting regular panic attacks last year.

It also reminded me why it was so difficult for me to fully understand the impact of these mental health crises until I encountered them firsthand.

I was in and out of doctors offices last year when they started for me, looking for a solution to, what I thought, was a physical problem. Time and time again, everything checked out. My heart was fine, my lungs were fine. There was nothing medical to explain the physical sensations I was experiencing daily: a racing heart, chest pain, constant shortness of breath, and dizziness.

It was almost insulting when my doctor suggested that these intense physical symptoms might have been a result of my mental health.

“When we are diagnosed with a medical condition, there’s kind of an easy answer,” Harford County (MD) Health Department Director of Behavioral Health Bureau Andrea Pappas said. “I may take a medication, I may change my diet, I may have a procedure done. Sometimes with mental health, what’s the solution to that? It causes us to look inwardly. That’s uncomfortable.”

I was craving a medical fix to a physical problem, completely disregarding the possibility of my own mental health being the culprit.

In my defense, I didn’t know any better. I was living in ignorance for so long, blissfully unaware that something as seemingly benign and common as anxiety or panic attacks could be so debilitating on my body.

“A lot of it has to do with our mind-body duality,” says Andrew Hogrogian, psychiatry resident at Temple University. “Our thoughts are our thoughts; our body is our body — oftentimes people think they are two separate things.”

Of course, this isn’t the case. Mental health disorders can cause a vast array of very real physical symptoms, such as migraines, muscle soreness, digestive issues, sleep interruption, and more.

What makes this even more challenging is the fact that these physical symptoms can vary intensely from person-to-person. We know what to look for with diabetes or high blood pressure. But anxiety, for example, can affect everybody differently.

“There’s a full range of symptoms that a person might experience if they have depression or anxiety,” said Tara Gill, clinical psychologist at Lurie Children’s Hospital. “Typically, people don’t present all of the symptoms.”

Because of this, it can be difficult for a layperson to associate physical issues with their mental health. When I’d describe my symptoms to family and friends, they, like me, thought they were indicative of a more serious medical condition.

It wasn’t until I talked to a mental health professional that I realized what had been happening to me. The moment was bittersweet; as happy as I was that I was medically healthy, I knew that feeling better would be a more complicated process. It’s a process I’m still undergoing to this day.

Had I not experienced this myself, I still don’t think I’d understand the severity of some of the world’s most common mental health conditions.

“If you had firsthand experience, either with yourself or a family member… then it becomes humanized in a way that it can’t be from a textbook or from a stranger,” Gill said.

But mental health isn’t as stigmatized as it used to be. People are becoming more comfortable talking about their mental illness, and less reluctant to seek help. COVID-19 caused a 25 percent increase in anxiety and depression worldwide, meaning more people are battling these issues than ever.

“Celebrities are now open about their mental health struggles, their addiction struggles,” Pappas said. “Things like that I think are hopefully ending the stigma. It still exists, not as much, but it still exists.”

According to Gill, public schools are stepping up, too.

“I am hopeful by what I see happening in schools,” she said. “There’s something called SEL instruction, which is young people being taught about social and emotional learning, how to develop skills for coping with stress and how to engage and help-seeking behaviors.”

These strides should hopefully make it easier for those of us who don’t experience these challenges to empathize with those who do.

But for all the reasons I described, it’s still going to be hard. Mental health affects so many people in so many different ways. Until you encounter it, yourself, it can be impossible to comprehend.