As humans, we learn about emotions from an early age. Think back to when you were young. Maybe you remember crying as a child and someone came up to you and asked why you were sad. Or maybe you couldn’t stop laughing and someone made a comment about how happy you were. In these instances, someone put language to a physical manifestation of an emotion you were having. You learned that crying equals sad and laughing equals happy.
While these associations aren’t always accurate – you can laugh because you’re stressed and cry because you’re overjoyed, for example – you began building up the foundations of what different emotions meant and looked like in your life. In other words, you learned to connect the language with the emotion and the physical side of the experience.
But anxiety is different. As a kid, you were probably taught to address the symptoms of your anxiety rather than anxiety as a whole. You likely weren’t given language for the connection between those symptoms and the associated anxiety. Therefore, you may have thought your anxiety was a normal part of life that you simply had to endure.
Unfortunately, normalizing anxiety has big implications for mental health. When you don’t understand what anxiety looks like in your life, it can feel overwhelming. Recognizing your anxiety for what it is can help you better navigate your experiences, cultivate self-compassion, and seek effective treatment.
If it took you a long time to realize you have anxiety – or if you still aren’t quite sure – you’re not alone. And there’s nothing wrong with you.
Many of us grew up normalizing our anxiety and normalizing our mental health struggles. A big reason for this is that nobody in our culture is taught how to feel and name our emotions. Your parents, caretakers, teachers, and other adults may not have known how to properly recognize their own emotions. And so they probably didn’t model it well for you.
Normalizing anxiety is so common because the physical side of anxiety is often much more complex than other emotions. Physical manifestations of anxiety include things like headaches, stomach and digestive problems, sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle tension. If you experienced these symptoms as a kid or teenager, the adults in your life were probably far more likely to address the symptoms themselves, rather than connect them to anxiety.
But these symptoms don’t just exist on their own. They’re almost always part of a larger picture – anxiety, most often, but sometimes another mental health issue.
Normalizing symptoms of anxiety can mean that people enter adulthood not realizing what anxiety looks like or how it shows up. It also means you may not fully recognize just how much you’re struggling.
Imagine you’re a kid in high school, and you’re really nervous about an upcoming test. You can’t sleep, your stomach feels like it’s tied in knots, and your heart seems to be beating faster. You can’t stop thinking about the test. Thoughts like, What if I fail? What if my friends do better than me? What if I don’t do well and then everyone gets mad at me? continually race through your mind.
These are all symptoms of anxiety. But when you go to a teacher or a parent for help, they tell you you’re just nervous, and that it’s normal to be nervous. So even though the anxiety is still there, you try to ignore it. When it builds up, you try to tamp it down rather than address or cope with it.
None of this is your fault. In our society, anxiety is often either ignored or rewarded. Anxiety often leads to things like overworking, people-pleasing, and perfectionism – all traits rewarded by our capitalist, productivity-pushing culture.
This is why it’s so common for people to have things like panic attacks and feel like they’re coming out of nowhere. The signs and symptoms were probably there as things like rapid breathing, sweating, blurred vision, or a climbing heart rate. But it’s easy to overlook those symptoms because you assume they’re normal feelings and there’s nothing you can do about them.
Anxiety varies from person to person, but common symptoms include:
If you recognize yourself in any of these symptoms, you very likely have some form of anxiety. In order to heal your anxiety, it’s helpful to become familiar with it first. The first step is to pay attention to what comes up for you when those symptoms arise. Do you stop sleeping? Do you become restless and agitated? Do you burst into tears or yell at your partner? Let yourself feel all your symptoms without trying to shove them down or ignore them.
Your anxiety doesn’t have to be a life sentence. If you feel like normalizing anxiety has led you to struggle, consider therapy. I can help you work through your challenges and come up with goal-setting strategies to work on recognizing anxiety in yourself, come up with anxiety management skills, and learn to regulate your emotions around anxiety.
During our work together, you’ll learn how to deal with difficult situations with self-compassion and awareness. We’ll come up with coping skills to deal with anxiety and help you step confidently into the world feeling powerful and capable.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.