“I never shared my anxiety with any of my friends, not even the closest ones. This was mostly because it was so exhausting trying to explain something so inexplicable to those who I knew would not be able to understand.”
Solome Tibebu, founder of a mental health help site for youth, Anxiety In Teens, explained her troubles with anxiety disorder in a November 2012 TEDxTC talk. She stated she felt misunderstood because the few times that she did try to reveal her anxiety to her friends, it turned into a group discussion about their panic attacks of the week. One reason for the supposed panic attacks was when one of her friend’s ice-cream scoop fell onto the sidewalk. Due to the misconstrued ideas about what a panic attack was, Solome felt like her friends couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of her anxiety.
Anxiety disorders, as described by DSM-V, “include disorders that share features of excessive fear, anxiety and related behavioral disturbances.” The difference between the fear or distress that most people experience and anxiety disorders is that while the former is caused by “real or perceived imminent threats,” the latter is usually a result of “anticipation or overestimation of a future threat.”
A similar incident to Salome’s happened in my life a few months before I had been formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I told a friend about my persistent anxious thoughts and received the reply of, “We all get anxious. School is hard. You’re normal.”
Solome Tibebu’s situation is not uncommon–anxiety disorders are often underestimated and considered an exaggeration of commonplace anxiety. A study conducted by the Australian National University on perceived stigmas revealed that 56% of people felt that most people do not consider anxiety disorders real medical illnesses. Moreover, 52.7% of people felt that most people think an anxiety disorder is a sign of personal weakness and 55.3% believed that most people think that people with an anxiety disorder could “snap out of it” if they wanted to.
This unawareness about the difference between anxiety disorders and regular anxiety could leave people with anxiety feeling misunderstood and disconnected from the world. “I was completely alone in my thoughts,” Solome Tibebu said, expressing that neither her dad, nor her friends could gauge the nature of her feelings. Trivialization rarely eludes anxiety disorders. However, internalizations of such erroneous underestimations can lead to self-stigma in people who have anxiety disorders. Self-stigma is defined as the “incorporation of others’ prejudices and stereotypes into beliefs about oneself” (Lucksted and Drapalski).
In November 2016, Ashley J. shared her story of self-stigma with the Humanology Project. “At seven years of age I had my first anxiety attack and that’s when I started to wonder if I was a broken, sick child. The emergency room doctor told my parents I was a hypochondriac and to this day his words still haunt my mind. This made me discredit my emotions and anxiety attacks for years. Growing up was perhaps one of the hardest hurdles I had to face: questioning myself, hating myself, and being so angry that I was not normal.”
The negative consequences of self-stigma are more prevalent in people who have anxiety disorders, according to a study conducted by Activitas Nervosa Superior Rediviva, an international peer-reviewed journal. People with anxiety disorders often have a lower self-esteem and a more sensitive temperament; thus when they hear misguided theories discrediting their disorder, they may internalize them more easily than others–just like Ashley did. Feelings of shame and anger may follow, leading to a delay in treatment and chronification of the disorder (Ociskova, Prasko and Sedlackova).
From personal experience backed by scientific research, I would like to encourage the people who have anxiety disorders to try to disengage with these stigmas of them. What you feel and experience every day is your reality, other’s may not be aware of it. Just because your feelings don’t align with another persons’, or are more intense, doesn’t imply that they’re not real. On the other hand, while your emotions and experiences may not be nonpareil, they are nothing to be ashamed of. The certainty you have about the existence of your emotions should be not be affected by seemingly ignorant opinions other people have of them.
Ociskova, Marie, Jan Prasko, and Zuzana Sedlackova. “Stigma And Self-Stigma In Patients With Anxiety Disorders”. Activitas Nervosa Superior Rediviva. N.p., 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.
(2012, November 30). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PcdRyB8YJY
Director, C. (2016, September 21). Generalised Anxiety Stigma Scale (GASS). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://cmhr.anu.edu.au/mental-health-measures/generalised-anxiety-stigma-scale-gass#field-cmhr-scale-resource-tab-0
Lucksted, A., & Drapalski, A. L. (2015). Self-Stigma Regarding Mental Illness: Definition, Impact, and Relationship to Societal Stigma. Retrieved March 28, 2017, from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/features/prj-prj0000152.pdf
Ashley J. (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.humanologyproject.org/stories//ashley-j