As a society, we think about anxiety all wrong, and that often causes us to misinterpret the warning signs of those suffering from it. Worse, we miss our opportunities to help.
Our image of anxiety is someone having a panic attack.
In reality, anxiety presents a much broader spectrum of behaviors. Certainly, fear and worry can be part of it, but there are many people, especially women, who find themselves feeling tense, snapping at their families, or harboring deep anger and rage. Many of these behaviors are rooted in a sense of fear.
Signs and Symptoms of may not look like anxiety at first blush:
- Feeling tense. Many people who experience anxiety will radiate a sense of tension, where they are never able to relax. They are not easy people to be around, nor are they easy on themselves.
- Being hypercritical, both of themselves and others. This comes from a place of fear, where they have a deep-seated need to control things that are fundamentally impossible to control. They often have unrealistic expectations of other people.
- Procrastinating. People with anxiety often put off things that are important to do. That could involve things with their children, their own self-care, or even a decision to seek treatment. A generalized sense of fear paralyzes people, increasing the amount of energy it takes to get up the gumption and get things done.
- Awful-izing, where someone immediately starts fretting about the worst-case scenario for even the most minor problem. Simple things are blown out of proportion until they suddenly become the emotional equivalent of a life-or-death situation.
- Expressing anger and rage. I’ve had women say they would become shaking with anger over things in their lives, from the end of their hair to the tips of their toes. When we dig underneath that feeling, it’s not about anger at all. Instead, it’s about anxiety and a need for perfectionism. It’s a fear of looking incompetent, of being judged by others.
- Experiencing physical symptoms. Anxiety is often expressed as a physical symptom, such as constipation and other GI issues, or headaches or neck pains. People who have experienced chronic constipation for years suddenly discover that, once they start talking about their anxieties, their GI issues start to resolve. They’ve been holding everything in emotionally and physically, literally afraid to let go.
The normalization of “Mommy Juice”
Women experience anxiety more frequently than men and are diagnosed with it more often. As noted in earlier blogs, drug overdose deaths are up 260% in women and alcohol-related fatalities among middle-aged women are at an all-time high. It can be argued that anxiety, especially in women, is a contributing factor in these rising statistics.
Anxiety takes place at a very deep level, while people are more comfortable staying at the surface.
As women, it’s easier to talk about what our kids or our spouse are doing than to say, “I’m terrified every time I send my kids off to school.” It’s easier to get angry at our spouse when we come home from work and find the homework isn’t even started than to admit our deep fear and guilt that we are somehow failing as a mother, a wife, and a professional because we are selfishly “trying to have it all.”
Add in a pervasive culture of alcohol consumption on top of this general sense of anxiety, and you have a potentially potent mixture. Our society has normalized -- even promoted -- women using alcohol to cope with everyday life. We have memes about coffee in the morning and wine at night. Every gym seems to have a monthly “yoga and mimosas” session first thing in the morning or “spin and wine” at the end of the day. You can’t have a kid’s birthday party without offering alcohol for the adults, and I can’t tell you the number of women who have told me that, every Saturday morning at soccer, all the parents had a bit of Bailey’s Irish Cream added to their coffee.
To a certain extent, alcohol was probably always involved in some of these activities, but it has become something to be expected and is given prominence of place in our everyday activities. For people who aren’t alcoholic, they might be able to do yoga and mimosas one Saturday a month. But someone who is an alcoholic is going to go home and continue to drink. Since alcoholism is a progressive disease, this constant exposure to “mommy juice" and mimosas puts many women on the path to problem drinking. We need a better way to deal with our anxiety than turning to alcohol, no matter how fun the memes and mimosas make it sound.
How women can help each other with anxiety
I think we all feel a little anxious now and then -- where we think that we’re not handling life, work, school, child-rearing as well as our “more together” friends. Social media makes those feelings even worse, as we see the beautiful and exciting posts from our friends. What we don’t know is that they are cherry-picking from the best moments of their lives, leaving out all the times they themselves were bored, worried, out-of-sorts, and feeling that they weren’t living lives as exciting as ours.
We all hesitate to admit we’re struggling because of a fear of being judged and looking less competent than other people. But the best way to overcome our anxieties is to talk about them, to face them head on. We should encourage sharing our authentic feelings, and we should adopt an empathetic tone with each other.
Even in my personal life, when one woman takes the risk to say what is really happening to her and her family, there is an immediate sigh of relief from the other women in our circle that someone else had the same feelings and that they’re not alone. If you see a woman friend struggling or expressing frustration, just reach out and tell them that you are there for them. Ask if there is anything you can do. Offer to listen. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is to really listen, and to let them know that we hear them.
We must become more thoughtful of our own judgments about other people’s circumstances. If there’s a group of women who tend to be gossipy about other women, it’s okay to take a stand and say, “I’m not willing to engage in this anymore.” If we can be more empathetic and more caring to each other, we have an incredible opportunity to normalize the experience of fear and anxiety that we all occasionally feel as adults.
And, equally important, start sharing healthy activities you can do together that don’t revolve around alcohol.