The veil of invisibility: Understanding anxiety in Singapore

11 July 2017 - mindful living

Guest article by Alisa Maya Ravindran

Alisa Maya Ravindran is a writer. She graduated with a degree in English Literature from the National University of Singapore, where she was the Creative Desk Editor at The Ridge Magazine. She is an alumnus of Burn After Reading Singapore, a local poetry collective and was previously Head of Outreach at UNSAID. Her work has been published in several online and print publications including The Straits Times.

The Invisibility of Anxiety

When does anxiety become a mental health issue? Anxiety is an affliction that is more prevalent than we acknowledge. According to a 2016 study by the Institute of Mental Health, there are 100,000 documented cases of individuals suffering from anxiety orders. No doubt, there are numerous other unrecorded cases. In light of those figures, it is frustrating and frightening how anxiety is so quickly dismissed. Anxiety is a universal emotion, the body’s natural response to stress. That is why it’s challenging to identify when one’s anxiety has exceeded healthy levels.

The Veil of Success

Many who are plagued by overwhelming anxiety on a daily basis are deemed as successful by conventional societal standards. They are the bright, detail-oriented and hardworking students and employees who despite seeming to have it all together are always just a little bit unsettled. The traits that are commonly associated with a stellar worker may also be tell-tale signs that one is constantly nervous.

As a result, the lines between industriousness and fatigue are blurred such that anxiety is swept under the rug. An entire segment of the population hides, ashamed, behind the neat façade of conventional ideas of success, whether at work or in school. The difficulty in identifying the point at which anxiety is excessive contributes to the sense of invisibility that those plagued by the condition face. Anxiety could affect anyone—and chances are you’re not as well-equipped to identify it.

The Glamorisation of Extreme Stress

Part of the problem has to do with a cultural fixation on working hard and perseverance as prerequisites to success. There is nothing wrong with learning these values from a young age, and experiencing some degree of stress and pressure is normal and unavoidable. However, the danger arises when genuine exhaustion and anxiety are glossed over in the name of teaching children perseverance. Normalisation of extreme stress is dangerous for a number of reasons. Writing extreme stress off as a rite of passage that young people just have to “suck it up and deal with” creates the foundation for unhealthy attitudes about emotional well-being. Anxiety is the body’s natural response to perceived danger, and it should fade once the stressor has passed. It is normal and unavoidable to feel stressed sometimes, but it is not normal for one to feel “in danger” all the time. This information seems intuitive, but somehow it does not translate very well in practice, where we are taught to simply “swallow” our worries and persevere.

Students are poor identifiers of what stresses them out

So how much stress is too much? It’s hard to come up with a precise answer. That is precisely the challenge that young people face. Young people are also often hazy when it comes to identifying what gets them down. No doubt there can be a multitude of complex factors that contribute to one’s emotional setting, but even if it’s simply a bout of teenage angst, some education will go a long way to helping young people struggling with overwhelming and often contradictory feelings.

However, anxiety that seems to be part of “growing pains” can sometimes have dire consequences. Anxiety can lead to serious health issues such as insomnia, depression and even suicidal thoughts. It is harder for students to reach out for help if they feel that parental and authority figures would view their problems as illegitimate or simply an issue of “having to learn to be more resilient”.

Adults aren’t sure when or how to help

The uncertainty that adults face when interacting with anxious youth speaks volumes about how we are socialised to respond to stress. There are many reasons why bright children fail to excel in school or act out, and anxiety is only one of them. In addition, the nature of mental health issues is such that the path to healing is winding and tumultuous. It is challenging for adult mentors to determine when a child or adolescent is going through a rough patch that will pass, and when a child’s anxiety is a cry for help. A brooding teenager is unlikely to open up to a mentor as well. Ultimately, the struggle that adults and students face in communicating anxiety is the result of the social stigma surrounding mental health issues in Singapore. The reality is, it’s 2017 and we still get shifty-eyed talking about mental health issues.

Anxiety management should start in schools

I am certain that I am not the first person to be told that I “just have to be stronger” by well-meaning but ultimately misinformed adult mentors. Strength of character has little to do with how we cope with emotions if we are not taught how in the first place.

There is no cure-all, but schools remain the best platform to introduce anxiety identification and management strategies. Mental health and performance are inextricably tied to one another, so if we truly want more “productive” talents, it is time to provide students with more than a cursory overview of relaxation breathing techniques and emergency hotlines to call. Civics and health education classes are often seen as supplementary lessons that take time away from the “more important” examinable, academic subjects. We’d never expect a child to know how to solve a math problem without having been taught the right formulae to use first. How then can we expect them to know how to manage stress and emotions? If only navigating emotions were as formulaic as math equations.

Outreach talks and advising troubled students to seek counselling is a good first step, but perhaps more can be done to teach students about identifying and managing anxiety before it becomes a problem.

Parents are a child’s first point of contact, and it may seem only natural to leave social-emotional education to individual parents. However, the anxieties that youth face today are very different from their parents. Parents possibly fuel their children’s anxieties. The school is thus a reliable alternate resource in a time when young people turn to the Internet for information.

Although emotional education is taught more extensively today than in the past, there is still some way to go. One can hope that in time, emotional health will become a topic that educators, students and society at large will feel more comfortable discussing openly. Anxiety may seem invisible, but it has a very real impact felt by many, and with a shift in perception, maybe fewer people will have to suffer in silence.

Here are some resources you can turn to if you or anyone you know needs some help:

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