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Why We Mask Our Anxiety

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“I’m doing fine, thanks!”

We all know this good ol’ response whenever people ask how things are going. Heck, it does the job in small talk and not everyone wants to hear about your broken microwave. But if you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, how many times you have said this and felt a pang inside? You’re not doing fine, actually. You had a panic attack in a parking lot yesterday and spent the afternoon curled up on the couch, debilitated by a sense of dread and fear. Your stomach is in a knot and every damn time you think of stuff you need to do, your heart beats in queasy thumps of unease. But hey, no one needs to know that, right? Let’s just put on the mask of “I’m fine.”

Why do we do it?

We develop all sorts of strategies to mask our anxiety and appear “normal.” To some degree, putting on a brave face is a part of life. There are times when it’s necessary, like keeping your shit together when there’s a big work deadline or being strong when people rely on you in times of need. This kind of masking is OK and it helps to get us through rough patches. The problem is when masking your feelings becomes a daily coping mechanism to shield yourself from the world.

1. It’s hard to talk about anxiety.

For me, masking anxiety is a coping strategy. Many people don’t understand what anxiety feels like unless they’ve experienced it themselves. They’re even less likely to be empathetic or understanding if they perceive you as a normal, functioning person. I’m generally pretty outgoing and chirpy — not the conventional perception of someone with anxiety. That’s why I’d rather not discuss my anxiety with most people because sometimes when I do (gulp), their reactions can range from incredulity to ridicule to misguided words of advice (however well-meaning these might be). “Pull yourself together!” “Just focus on things you can control!” “Don’t dwell on negative thoughts!” Geez, if it were all so easy, there wouldn’t be millions of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders and we’d all be surfing down rainbows in celebration of our miraculously carefree lives. When all you want is empathy or a hug and instead you get a pep talk that leaves you feeling invalidated and more anxious, it seems easier to slap on the mask and pretend like nothing is wrong.

2. Anxiety makes us feel guilty.

Another justification of mask-wearing is guilt. Anxiety makes me believe I might inconvenience or annoy other people with my feelings. The solution? Putting on a smile and going into people-pleasing overdrive. If I’m bright and perky, everyone is happy! (Except me, of course, but anxiety convinces me it’s better that way).

3. Anxiety is perceived as weakness.

Lastly, if you’re an emotionally sensitive person, the world can seem brutal and unforgiving at times. Oh lord, it’s another whiny/navel-gazing millennial. Get a grip, get on with it! The world has no time to wait! With so much pressure to perform in our careers, meet the needs of friends and families and somehow still be healthy and fit, anxiety is an unwelcome guest. Why can’t we be strong like everyone else appears to be?

The problem with hiding anxiety:

1. It’s alienating.

It can be very lonely when you are the only person who is aware of what you’re going through. It could lead to depression or an overwhelming sense of alienation. On some of my most anxious days, I’ve had people saying how good I look. The more convincing the mask is, the more dangerous it is. It might seem like a clever way to hide a problem, but it’s really a bad way to allow people to reach out to you.

2. It’s exhausting.

It takes a lot of energy to put up a brave front. Being someone you’re not takes enormous mental effort and it’s damn tiring. Trying to appear balanced and happy is physically exhausting too when you’re running on adrenaline, nerves and frenetic thoughts.

3. You lose touch with yourself.

Hiding your reactions or feelings is hard on your own sense of self. When you’re trying your darn best to conceal your anxiety from others, you might end up being dishonest with yourself and questioning the validity of your own feelings. Ultimately, this type of neglect will make it harder to acknowledge your anxiety and deal with it. Remember: if you’re going to be honest with one person, it should be yourself.

Taking off the mask.

My first step to unmasking my anxiety is to talk about it. This is hard. But, it is also wonderfully liberating. It freaks me out whenever I post something on my blog, but it also makes me feel happy and assured. Finally talking about something that’s a big part of my life is powerful — the cat’s out the bag and it’s ready to meow! You see, in discussing anxiety, we can hopefully educate those who dismiss or misunderstand it, and make everyone happier in the process. Another thing I try to remember is that changing myself just to please other people will eventually just leave me feeling empty, drained and even resentful. If someone is unwilling to understand my feelings of anxiety, do I really need them in my life? Chances are, if they really care for me, they will want to be supportive; they might just need some guidance (and that also links to communicating to people how you’re feeling). It’s one life — I want to claim it for myself. Lastly, start backing yourself. Masking anxiety is ultimately a form of avoidance, making it harder to face your fears. It takes time to learn how to cope with anxiety, but the first step is allowing yourself to accept that have anxiety, and that’s OK.

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Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Originally published: August 31, 2017
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