When people find out I’m a therapist, this is usually the question I get asked the most often. It almost always follows a lengthy story of a personal nature, and you can just see the stress on their faces when they ask.
The “normal” question not only comes up with people I meet on a plane or at happy hour. It also comes up in the first or second session with a huge percentage of my clients.
We all want to be “normal”. In fact, many social and psychological theories include some variation of this need so we can feel a sense of belonging. When we feel “normal," we feel like we belong.
One of the most common ways that people today feel out of the loop and abnormal is anxiety. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are 60% more likely to experience anxiety than men. Sadly, only about 1/3 of those experiencing generalized anxiety seek treatment, even though research has shown that it’s very treatable.
One of the things I’ve found that holds people back from seeking treatment is realizing they have a treatable condition and that this level of stress is NOT “normal”. So what is normal anxiety and what is anxiety that warrants treatment?
In this post, I would like to introduce you to Jane, who is experiencing symptoms that would be qualified as anxiety disorder. Can you pinpoint at which point in this story Jane should have sought help?
Jane is a 22-year-old taking her last semester of classes prior to graduation. She has a perfect grade point average. In addition to needing to pass her classes, she also needs to pass a 4-hour comprehensive exam that reflects how much she has learned throughout her college program. The test is in two weeks and Jane generally studies for ½ hour before going to bed.
Jane has noticed that when she lays down at night she has difficulty falling asleep. She lays awake wondering, “What if I don’t pass the written exam and have to do orals? What if I don’t pass orals? What if I don’t graduate? What if I have to cancel my graduation party? What if I can’t take the exam again for six months? What if I can’t find a job without my degree? What if I lose my apartment?” Jane tosses and turns. She becomes exasperated as she looks at the clock and the minutes tick away. She becomes frustrated because she knows she will be tired the next day and won’t be able to study as well.
As the days prior to the test pass, Jane also starts to notice tension in her body. Her back aches. Her shoulders are tight. Although she has lost her appetite, whenever her thoughts turn to the exam she finds herself reaching for comfort foods. Jane knows that in order to prepare herself for this exam she needs to be eating well so she can fully concentrate on exam day. She tries to eat a healthier diet, but finds she is nauseated most of the time.
Jane is becoming more irritable. She has difficulty focusing at work. All she can think about is whether or not she will pass her exam. She has miscounted her drawer at the end of her shift three times in the last couple of weeks. This is a mistake Jane has never made before. She tells herself if she can’t even count money, there is no way she will be able to pass this exam.
Rather than explain to her partner and her best friend that she is worried about her upcoming exam, she starts to avoid them. She has decided she is too annoyed by them and their reassurances that she will do fine when they can’t predict the future. They just aren’t taking her seriously. Jane feels alone.
Finally, the night before the exam, Jane does one final marathon cram session. She goes to bed early with the idea that she will get a full night of sleep. She sets two alarms just in case she sleeps through one of them. She lays down and the what if questions start to spiral. She takes a few deep breaths, visualizes herself passing the test, and is able to fall asleep. Halfway through the night she dreams she is running across campus trying to get to her classroom for the exam because she has overslept.
Jane wakes up startled and decides to stay awake. She uses the time to study for her test. She tries to eat breakfast, but is unable to stomach it. Although she makes it to class on time to complete her exam, she is tired and hungry. Halfway through the exam, she has difficulty focusing and the what if questions start to flood her mind. She tells herself she should just walk away because she isn’t smart enough to pass anyway.
When Jane began avoiding her best friend and partner, lost her appetite, and experienced insomnia, she should have found someone professional to talk to. This is not normal and seriously impacted her quality of life.
In the next post, we’ll meet Jane’s classmate Sarah. Sarah is experiencing the same situation as Jane, but handles it much differently.
If you question if you are experiencing normal worry or an anxiety disorder, contact me and we can arrange a therapy session.
Jessica is a mental health therapist who specializes in helping women free themselves from anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions. She is honored to witness the experiences of her clients and work with them toward meaningful lives.