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Anxiety, Nerves, and Fear in the Family

The color of anxiety in families of color.

Many of us have often heard our parents exclaim, "you get on my nerves," or "my nerves are bad." These statements made by many Black folks (and folks in rural areas) place the location or emphasis of anxiety to a physical ailment (e.g., my "nerves"), due to the stigma that has been historically associated with expressing a "mental" problem in Black culture. Over time, we have come to realize that nerves are a much more common and detailed process that affects more Americans than any other mental health difficulty. In fact, a recent paper that I have written indicates that anxiety in African Americans families are experienced at the same rates as White American families. Even more interesting is that anxiety is not just simply a way we feel or think, but rather a detailed process that we all experience when in certain situations. Along these lines, the purpose of this post is twofold. First, to remove the veil about nerves in which we will refer to here as anxiety and to describe how we experience anxiety. Within this discussion, I will also make the distinction between anxiety and fear, which is not necessarily the same process, but closely related to many anxiety disorders (more later). Second, the purpose of this article is to set the stage for the disorders we experience when anxiety becomes chronic and to describe what performance anxiety may look like in your child.

How Is Anxiety a Process?

When we experience anxiety, we always experience anxiety as a process involving multiple aspects of the self. Although many of the processes involved in the experience of anxiety are much more detailed, I will describe the main components here that are easier to identify in your own life. First, anxiety involves thoughts about future events or situations that we perceive as possibly "uncontrollable and unpredictable." Although many of us describe anxiety and fear the same way, anxiety and fear differ in a very important way.

To illustrate the difference: Fear is experienced by all humans and our bodies respond with fear when we encounter a real and present danger. For example, if a vicious attack dog is standing in front of us, growling and slobbering, most people would react with fear, which could result in any of the following symptoms: fast beating heart, smothering sensations, tingling, shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, freezing, running, or attacking. Anxiety, on the other hand, is experienced when we think: "What if a vicious dog were in front of me?" As a result, we may experience similar symptoms of fear, however, anxiety is always directed toward future events rather than present, realistic danger. In fact, panic or panic attacks is the same thing as the fear response.

Second, anxiety is experienced as a negative emotion. When we become anxious, it is a process that we usually want to be rid of. This is why chronic anxiety and feelings of depression are so closely related because they both share this negative feeling in common. Third, anxiety causes our behavior to change. When we are anxious about an event or situation, our tendency is to do one of two things. First, we avoid either the thoughts and feelings associated with the feared object or situation, or avoid the object or situation itself where possible.

To use our previous example, we can temporarily prevent experiencing anxiety about dogs (although not the best way to deal with this situation) by avoiding situations that involve dogs. Ironically, we can be slick about our anxiety, since many of us report: "I can go to so and so's house just fine, as long as they put their dog away when I come over." Ironically, avoidance maintains our anxiety about dogs because we never directly deal with the problem. Second, we attempt to cope with anxiety by worrying (another form of avoidance, believe it or not, because we are really avoiding the emotion related to what we are really worrying about). Worry is equally seductive because if we magically think "what if" long enough and the anxiety-provoking object or situation doesn't happen, this worry process usually compels us to worry even more.

Ironically, the situation we worry about rarely happens. Such as: What if my son doesn't make it to school? Uncontrollable worry can also become an anxiety disorder when left unchecked. Finally, anxiety involves physiological arousal, which is similar to our previous description of fear. In our dog example, our blood begins to circulate in our arms and legs, heart begins to race, we sweat, and so on, for possible preparation to deal with an object or situation that we are anxious about. In this case, we would react as if a dog were present when in fact the dog isn't. To put our arousal into words using our dog example, we would say: "A dog isn't here, but I need to prepare myself just in case." This brings me to an important point about the process of anxiety; we all experience anxiety in a variety of situations-giving a speech, a new situation, sports performance, school, confrontation-and anxiety can boost our performance in most any situation when under control. However, when anxiety as a process becomes chronic, anxiety disorders can develop as a result. What is extremely clear is that the color of anxiety is the same across different groups, but cultural factors cause the shades to significantly differ.