“Oh, that’s just my OCD kicking in.” “I just had a panic attack!” “Deciding what to wear Saturday night is giving me anxiety.” “I have such a phobia of talking on the phone.”
Ever hear comments like these? All of the statements could be accurate, yet sometimes they are not. The speaker may be exaggerating in hopes their emotions and stress will be taken seriously, or they might be genuinely misguided in what these words mean. Either way, our misuse of terminology has created a culture in which anxiety disorders are misunderstood and at times even glorified.
The Impact of Misuse: Trivializing and Misunderstanding Anxiety
What’s the big deal? I can think of at least three reasons.
- When we don’t use these words correctly, we trivialize the challenges of those who do live with anxiety disorders. By making light of their experiences, we hurt them and even force them into silence and shame.
- We deny ourselves the opportunity to understand mental health conditions and show compassion for those who experience them, including ourselves.
- Children observe us and grow up not understanding the normal, healthy range of emotions or having the vocabulary to express and manage their feelings. For example, children may learn that feeling scared is a phobia, feeling stressed is an anxiety disorder, or crying hard is a panic attack. They then believe something is “wrong” with them rather than knowing how to utilize emotional regulation skills.
Promoting Understanding: Education and Compassion
Each of these consequences causes unnecessary pain, which I know we all want to avoid. What is the solution? While one person can’t change the widespread misuse of language, all of us can start by educating ourselves. Join me in a short series of articles to explore anxiety and its various manifestations in different individuals and across ages and cultures.