What It’s Like to Debate Politics When You Have Anxiety

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Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

There has been a lot going on in the world over the past few months. (Past few years? Is it September already? What is time??) Yes, there has always been a lot going on, but the COVID-19 pandemic and death of George Floyd seemed to spark a shift in the tone of political and human rights discussion in the United States.

I’ve never been extremely vocal about issues. For as long as I can remember I’ve tried to stay well-read about what was going on in the world but I wasn’t rushing to Facebook to share my opinion or even raising my hand in class unless I was prompted.

While I do harbor a certain amount of guilt over not adding my voice to the public discussion for many years (the reasons for which, as the topic of this piece, will be discussed soon) I finally hit a point a few months ago where I decided I couldn’t stay quiet anymore.

I haven’t turned into a human rights activist by any means, and I don’t even post on social media that frequently compared to many other people. There are a few reasons for this (including my limited knowledge of certain subjects) but the main one, by far, is my anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is a funny thing. The simplest definition is that it causes excessive worrying, which is true, but how it causes that worrying is what gives it the power to grip your entire life.

I love debating political and sociological issues. I’ve always described myself as someone who “likes knowing what’s going on” and this mindset eventually led me to a journalism degree (which I never used because of my anxiety, but that’s a different story) and a need to browse various news sites several times a day.

My entire family is similar to me in this way — we love talking about things. We don’t always agree with each other, but in recent years we’ve reached a point where we can discuss pretty much anything from any angle without disrespecting or insulting anyone who disagrees. We have some fantastic talks and I find myself thinking or saying “I never thought of that before” often, which is extremely satisfying and makes me feel like I’m growing.

I’m lucky that my anxiety has not been able to penetrate my relationship with my family yet. I’m not sure why I’ve been spared (this is definitely not the case for everyone) but I feel able to say pretty much anything I want to my family without the persistent dread and negativity my anxiety brings in almost every other environment.

I wish I could feel like that when sharing my thoughts and beliefs with other people, but that’s not the case. Sharing my thoughts about anything remotely political, whether it be an article I’ve written, a Facebook post, or the work of someone else shared to my Instagram story, feels like pulling the pin of a grenade and waiting for the inevitable destruction that will follow.

We all have at least one person on our Facebook feed who loves criticism and debate, friendly or not. They post multiple times a day, sometimes material that is fact-checked and sometimes material that isn’t, and obviously revel in the chance to have a back and forth text discussion on the issue. After they press “post,” they go about their day like nothing happened. If someone disagrees with them, they rebut the point and move on, probably not dwelling on the comments more than a few minutes or so.

I am not one of these people. When I feel strongly about an issue and have gathered enough viable information to share a small part of my belief on it, my first thought is, “what will people think of me when I post this?” There are a few people within my Facebook and Instagram community who I specifically think of, and those people, whether I consider us good friends or old acquaintances, have stopped me from posting many times in my life.

After going back and forth about posting something to social media, usually for several days, I’ll finally decide I’m going to post to social media and share my opinion. As soon as I post, my heart begins to race and I start sweating profusely. I try to put my phone down and ignore it for a while, but I can’t help but check every few minutes to see if someone replied. What would they say? Would anyone agree with me? Are they laughing as they read my text on their screen?

Most people who disagree with me aren’t rude or mean about it, but the idea of someone criticizing me is terrifying and makes me feel nauseous. (Great mindset to have for an aspiring writer, right?) When I post something and someone I know responds with some form of “I don’t agree with this,” my first reaction is, “this person thinks I’m an idiot,” or, “this person doesn’t respect me anymore.”

I know that’s silly. If I don’t agree with someone, I don’t immediately think “wow, what a loser” so why should I believe other people are thinking that about me? But hey, that’s how anxiety works.

Reading a comment from someone explaining why they think I’m wrong sends shock waves through my heart. My head pounds and I feel a heaviness settle on my chest that lasts all day. It’s the only thing I can think about for hours — I can barely concentrate on anything else that day and rarely get any work done. It makes me feel pathetic and completely dependent on the opinions of others and I begin to think I should have kept my mouth shut.

I always respond to comments and end the discussion politely when I feel like it’s going nowhere. I’ve never had friends call me to say we can’t be associated with each other anymore because of my beliefs, but I haven’t come out unscathed. I know for a fact that someone people I’ve known my entire life have lost some respect for me and I’ve had uncomfortable discussions with friends that have led to a silent departure from each other’s inner circle. That really sucks. Is being an informed and vocal member of society worth this mental torment and the very real possibility of losing friends?

I think so.

I’m not saying everyone with anxiety or any other mental illness/other hardship should feel obligated to share their entire life on social media. You do you. My feeling of obligation comes from how informed I try to be about events and my desire to share information with others. If I take the time to fact check sources and weed out the truth from all the spam I see flying down my Facebook feed, I feel like I owe it to the people who actually want the facts (and to the people who are sharing blatant lies without realizing it) to share what I know. Our country is entirely dependent on the people and the only way we can create a healthy and well-rounded society is by people sharing their voices. And as long as my anxiety lets me, I’ll try to share mine.

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