The Risks of Masking Your Anxiety

Because hiding anxiety takes a toll.

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Every year, around Halloween, as I take note of the most popular kids’ costumes of the season, I cannot help but reflect on the masks that we all wear. They can be simple – such as a change of tone or word choice when to speaking to colleagues versus friends. They can be complex – like the musk of self-conscious self-confidence worn on a first date of the aura of competence, energy, and enthusiasm worn on a job interview.

Masks can be, to a large degree, quite adaptive. The world, after all, does not expect us to act like a child at any age, or to be brutally honest about how we feel or what we think at every turn. Masks also allow us to play with different versions of ourselves, to try on ways of being in new or challenging situations until we arrive at something that feels reasonably comfortable. This helps lessen the gap, or create more consistency, between who we are and who we want to be.

Wearing a mask for too long, or when the image it creates is too discrepant from the truth, does come with a certain amount of risk. I find that this is especially true for people struggling with anxiety and depression, who grapple with unrelenting negative thoughts and feelings, but may push and pull themselves through day after day feeling lousy. For these individuals (who may suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, or other related conditions), the ‘grin-and-bear-it’ public persona that is then used to mask their real feelings and hide their real worries can have a mounting toll on  well-being.

Staying silent about anxiety can:

And of course, keeping silent about your anxiety keeps the people who care about you in the dark.

Maybe you’re not sure if the problem is ‘that bad.’ Maybe you know it is that bad, but cannot imagine that you or anyone else could get you out of a tough spot. Either way, seeking support from your supports – trusted friends, family, a physician or counselor – will help you to obtain the information you need about (1) how much you’ve changed as a function of your symptoms and (2) what kinds of treatment (including medications and talk therapies) might be helpful.

It’s a difficult conversation to start, made all the more challenging by anxiety or depression, but here are a few tips to ease the way:

  • Set a time to speak privately
  • Think of a few recent examples of circumstances that have made you feel worse and try to explain what’s happened and what this has felt like to you (Keeping a journal can help with this.)
  • To the extent that you are aware of this, also bring up examples of moments in which you’ve felt better
  • Try to answer any questions that your friend, family, physician or counselor asks honestly and non-defensively

To overcome anxiety, you will likely need to open yourself up to different ways of thinking about yourself and your symptoms. Removing your mask and revealing your truth is a brave and critical first step to wellness.

To find a qualified clinician, check out referral resources including Psychology TodayThe Association for Behavioral and Cognitive TherapiesThe Anxiety and Depression Association, or The American Psychiatric Association. Or, speak with your current physician about seeking a comprehensive evaluation with a recommended mental health provider. 

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