Women and Anxiety – Overcoming the Stigma to Heal
Anxiety is the most common mental disorder, but it is often misunderstood or underestimated.
Anxiety disorders affect 1 in 5 Americans, and women are twice as likely as men to be affected.
After the birth of my son Kade at age 42, I was blindsided by postpartum anxiety. As a health care provider, I am aware of the myths surrounding the topic of anxiety. Wanting to project a confident image, however, had me experiencing feelings similar to others suffering with anxiety, feelings of embarrassment and shame. I was uncomfortable confiding in anyone, especially my patients.
In my profession as an adult nurse practitioner, my role is to treat the whole patient – mind and body. I work hard to create an environment of trust and reliability with my patients and feared my anxiety would undermine my credibility. I worried about how it would impact my work. Would patients even want to receive care from a provider who was struggling with a condition of their own?
On top of my own self-criticism as a provider with anxiety, I was also aware of the myths and stigmas surrounding anxiety, depression, and similar disorders. A 2018 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine Research surveyed over a thousand participants and found that more than 30% held the belief that a weak personality caused these disorders.
There are many other myths associated with anxiety, and it is important to know the facts to avoid falling prey to stigmas.
Common Myths About Anxiety
- Anxiety is not a real illness
- Anxiety is something people can “snap out of” if they want and it will go away on its own
- It’s obvious someone has an anxiety disorder
- People with anxiety should avoid stressful situations
Anxiety is not a weakness. It is a real behavioral health condition characterized by excessive worry, nervousness, or unease about real or perceived stress. If anxiety increases to a level that interferes with daily activities, it can lead to an anxiety disorder. This anxiety can also escalate into dread or terror without a real threat, leading to behaviors like avoiding talking to people, not leaving the house, or becoming more isolated in general.
Anxiety can often feel like it comes from nowhere, and it may include physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, trembling, breathlessness, and shallow breathing. Other symptoms may not be physically noticeable by others, like headaches, fatigue, muscle soreness, irritability, and feeling “on edge.” These symptoms can also be overlooked or dismissed by friends, loved ones, and even health care providers. If left untreated, long-term effects can include heartburn, sleep disturbances, poor digestion, and panic attacks and can be a contributing factor in developing heart disease.
The stigma of rejection or fear of being judged keeps many women from asking for help. However, the benefits of seeking help and healing far outweigh the challenge of acknowledging anxiety. Reaching out, whether to a friend, loved one, or medical professional, is one of the first steps to wellness.
Managing anxiety is a process, and a holistic approach includes several important steps. Take the time to build a solid foundation with a health care provider you feel comfortable talking to. Treatment typically consists of a combination of medication, therapy, or counseling, along with lifestyle modifications. Medication can help tremendously, and counseling can help provide a safe place to talk and develop new thought patterns, strategies, and routines that help you manage triggers and find what works for your life.
Although it may seem helpful to avoid stressful situations, this is extremely difficult to maintain. Stressful situations are a fact of life, and a critical part of managing anxiety is learning effective coping strategies to manage anxiety during times of stress.
Another important step is to create a healthy routine. A wellness routine and healthy lifestyle includes proper nutrition and fluid intake, adequate sleep, purposeful movement and activity, exposure to sunlight, and developing strategies to manage stress like mindfulness, yoga, prayer, or meditation to help calm worrying thoughts.
It takes time to determine what works for you and what steps to take first. Try not to do too much too fast. For example, a first step may be a call to your provider or a conversation about your anxiety with someone you trust. Take small steps and build over time. Also, remember you’re on your own journey and aim not to fall prey to the pressure and comparison of others. Finding what works also means giving yourself grace if you fall off track. Life happens, and getting off a routine is normal, but getting back to habits that help you feel better is the main focus.
Learn to develop a support system by sharing your story with family and friends and find people who want to help. It can also be very helpful to ask people to check on you when you’re having a tough time.
The process of healing and managing anxiety is a journey, but feeling better and learning to empower yourself is definitely worth the time and effort. In my own journey with postpartum anxiety, I decided to ask for help. Thankfully, I have a solid foundation with my own health care provider and was able to start treatment, including medication. My son is now five years old, and I feel empowered to take care of myself even if I get off track at times. I have a wellness routine that works in my life with a strong support system I can depend on when life gets tough.
This journey also helped me find a passion in helping other women in my own medical practice. Rather than continuing to view my anxiety negatively, I began to see it as a blessing. Who better to treat women with anxiety than a provider who has been through the same struggle? I earned a functional medicine certification to help women in a more holistic way and continue to encourage women to manage their health, while pulling from my own experience to relate to them and express empathy.
We can overcome the myths and stigmas and learn to manage anxiety effectively through education, treatment, and finding support. With healing, we can learn to empower ourselves and other women to feel better and live our fullest, healthiest lives.
Deana Freeman is an adult nurse practitioner with a clinical focus on treating people from adolescents through adult age and into advanced age. She provides care for residents of Florence County and the surrounding areas at the HopeHealth Medical Plaza in Florence.