Anxiety disorders affect over 18% of American adults. This means that you or someone in your immediate family is likely to have anxiety or to develop it when he or she gets older. In this sense, anxiety is not something to take lightly, nor is it something to joke about. But those of us who suffer from anxiety - be it an actual disorder or frequent anxious episodes - know that anxiety can be downright laughable. If you have anxious tendencies, you've probably caught yourself getting worked up over otherwise "normal" situations.
I've personally gotten anxious over not getting to brunch on time, being without a pen or pencil, and navigating family dinners. Friends, family and peers have all had to steer my thoughts in another direction.
"Why are you so worked up?" "It's nothing to be nervous about." "Relax!"
I hear these things all the time. Now, if those of you who utter these words were in my head, you would understand that it's just more complex than that. You see, I'm not nervous about not having a pen. I'm nervous about the implications of being without one. Am I not prepared as a student? Am I unintelligent? Am I really so unprepared for life that I forget to have a pen with me? And you see, even when I'm not anxious about these things, I find myself in a circle of meta-anxiety.
Meta-anxiety doesn't actually exist in any dictionary or DSM that I've heard. To me, it's a concept I'm extremely familiar with but may have to explain to others who don't know. Meta-anxiety is the idea that when I'm not anxious, I become anxious over my lack of anxiety. Or, when I'm anxious, I get anxious that no one else is anxious. It sounds crazy, but let me break it down. Say I have a test coming up. I've read over notes, made flash cards, tested myself, and really have a firm grasp of the information I'm going to be tested on. I find myself feeling prepared and settled for the coming exam. And then, I hear my classmates completely frazzled over the test. They claim to have spent hours in the library, never really attaining any sense of the information that we're going to be tested on.
Here comes the problem. I begin to get anxious over how I'm not anxious.
"Everyone else is freaking out. I'm not freaking out. I should be freaking out."
Maybe this still doesn't make sense, but it's a phenomenon I face all too often. Maybe it's my personality. Maybe it's the fact that I go to an extremely competitive school where having anxiety and being unhealthfully stressed is the norm. At Penn, if you're not stressed, you're not doing it right. Tons of us cope with these anxieties in a variety of different ways. Most of us just keep working, easing our anxiety, only to have it return the next day when we realize we have another assignment coming up.
The best advice I can give to someone facing anxiety (or even "meta-anxiety") is to reevaluate your fears such that you recognize them as irrational and insignificant. When I find myself becoming anxious over my lack of anxiety, I remind myself that this is simply ridiculous and that I'm really just prepared for a test that other students only began studying for hours before the exam.