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  • Nervousness or Anxiety: A Mental Health Guide for Filipino Women

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    Do you often find yourself self-predicting an accident, a clumsy move on the horizon in which both pictures include a common denominator- YOU.  Whether it’s slipping on the floor or slipping with your words, you have little confidence that the word graceful is one that describes you.

    Nervousness versus anxiety

    Am I nervous or have anxiety?

    In the Filipino culture ( & in most cultures), it’s more acceptable for women to be perceived as panic-oriented, a worrier, someone who wears their emotions on their sleeves, a fragile soul that will collapse in dust per the most recent nervous breakdown… and until the next one. 

    At times, just a subtle inflection in your voice is shrugged off as over-dramatic, or that’s just what girls do….whin & cry.

    To confuse you even more, too much crying can me met with the stern instruction of, 


    “ Itigil mo na yang iyak mo (stop your crying).”


    “Pumirmi ka nga (stay put).”

    Two conflicting messages that allow enough steam to release but not for fire to emancipate. The allowance to cry just loud enough is contingent on the tolerance of the listener, usually by the caregiver.

    Whether out of the fear of making the wrong move or the perception that anything you do is not good enough, nervousness can be brought about by a worry or an uncertainty of what is to come.

    It is the feeling of being on the edge, holding your breath, feeling a shakiness inside whether physiologically or psychologically. Nervousness is a normal reaction to situations where one expects to meet a particular standard & worried of not being able to. 

    In many cases, nervousness can be a motivation to do one’s homework diligently, as in, when preparing for a presentation. In other cases, it can activate the flight response, fleeing based on your gut-feeling that something’s just ain’t right, as in leaving a dark alley from raised hairs on your arm.

    But when does nervousness turn into anxiety?

    Filipino Nervousness 

    If you’ve ever watched slap-stick Filipino movies in the 80’s, you’ll usually find a character that is making all the wrong moves to make a movie-goer pee in their pants. 

    There is the comedy king, Dolphy, holding a stick oblivious that someone is standing behind him. He gingerly looks back hitting the person on the head, knocking him down on the floor & therefore vanished in his immediate view. He moves in the other direction, & does the same thing over & over again. Such as a scenario of pure comedic clumsiness sends guffaw to anyone watching.

    Filipino Comedy Kings

    Dolphy & Vic Sotto, comedy kings of Filipino Cinema

    This gravitation to this type of comedy is not unusual in other cultures. The difference is that in the Filipino culture, real life scenarios of extreme clumsiness, echolalia (echoing/saying the same words over & over again), hyper startle responses are simply dismissed as being mali-mali (doing the wrong thing over & over again) & magugulatin (easy to startle) as peculiar ways of dealing with certain situations but no special attention needed. 

    Ganyan lang talaga yan (she’s really just like that).

    The encouraging side to this approach is the un-pathologizing of these conditions especially when they are appropriate to the situations. I used to get really nervous doing presentations in front of a huge crowd (hint: I still do) but I have managed my nervousness through mindfulness techniques & quite frankly by just doing the very act that makes me nervous. This nervousness is appropriate to the situation.

    The downside of  culturally minimizing nervousness into “just what typical girls do” (yes, it’s possible for nervousness to evolve into anxiety) is that real anxiety when left untreated can overtake your life. 

    The Difference Between Nervousness & Anxiety

    Anxiety is an intense feeling of overwhelm and/ or fear that something bad may happen either from a known source, say being in closed spaces (agoraphobia) or from unspecified place of origin.

    Filipino and anxiety disorder

    The feeling of being closed-in, unable to escape

    Anxiety Disorder is chronic compared to nervousness.

    It may feel like an on-going battle to get over from & the pre-occupation on when to expect it next.

    Some anxious people may result in compulsions (washing hands, pulling hair) to relieve the self from this intense feeling. As you can imagine, anxiety disorder can overtake your life, consume your energy and impact those you are in close relationships with. 

    In addition, interference in your normal functioning can be in the form of missed time at work, time spent on compulsions to find a release from your anxiety and time spent on avoiding places, things & people that you perceive as a threat to your sanity.

    Anxiety can also be in the form of excessive worries of the future which can rob you of your joy as a woman, a wife or a mother.

    If you’re not sure whether your nervousness has turned into anxiety, schedule a free 15 minute consult here (must be in California).

    Panic Attacks

    There are many other subgroups under the term Anxiety Disorder, I wouldn’t want to bore you on these but in the context of the Filipino culture, I find that sharing information about panic attacks may be helpful.

    It’s one that Filipinos are more familiar with, at least it’s symptoms. In the Filipino culture, this may be referred to as a nervous breakdown.

    Panic attacks occur suddenly without warning & is usually accompanied with physical symptoms. The person having a panic attack feels so anxious that they cannot break free from their episode or that an impending attack is on it’s way. These thoughts can cause a panic attack to increase in intensity within a few minutes. As you can imagine, a person can feel quite exhausted after an attack and tries to avoid situations, people and places that are perceived to be a trigger of these attacks.

    Panic attacks typically include some of these signs or symptoms:

    • Sense of impending doom or danger
    • Fear of loss of control or death
    • Rapid, pounding heart rate
    • Sweating
    • Trembling or shaking
    • Shortness of breath or tightness in your throat
    • Chills
    • Hot flashes
    • Nausea
    • Abdominal cramping
    • Chest pain
    • Headache
    • Dizziness, lightheadedness or faintness
    • Numbness or tingling sensation
    • Feeling of unreality or detachment

    These symptoms serve as a guide rather than a diagnostic criteria for any anxiety disorder. Please leave the diagnosing to a trained Mental Health Professional or consult your primary care physician.

    Filipino nervousness & anxiety

    Help is available even if you feel like you can’t be helped.

    What to do

    The first thing to remember when you notice that you may be bordering between normal nervousness and anxiety disorder is to know that help is available.

    The following recommendations are not in any order of importance . Some of them may suggest you take action & others to re-frame the way you see things.

    1. Speak kindly to yourself. Forbid self-talks like “ what’s wrong with me,” or “ have I gone crazy.” Instead, acknowledge your present moment by saying, “ I’m going through a tough time right now but there is help available to me.”
    2. Write down your symptoms and schedule an appointment with your primary doctor. It’s important to rule out if your symptoms can be better explained by a medical condition. Many times, this can happen concurrently  but it’s  always a good idea to check in with your doctor. 
    3. Ask for a referral to a Psychotherapist/ Mental Health Clinician either from your doctor, a list from your insurance company or by you searching the web, calling your County Mental Health department or through other means using your own diligent researching skills. If you are interested in scheduling a 15 minute Free Consult with me, leave a message here.
    4. Inform yourself about anxiety disorders, check out our mental health links page. The more educated you are , the less scary your condition seems to be. In addition, you can make an informed-decision about your treatment & how you  wish this will look like for you.
    5. Find a support group facilitated by a trained mental health staff. You may call your County Mental Health Department for this information or your local managed care system (Kaiser, Sutter…etc) as they may hold their own groups in their vicinity.
    6. Once you’ve educated yourself enough about your condition, share this information with your support person(s). No one lives in a vacuum & as you are working to equip yourself with ways to manage your anxiety, support others to support you. This is an incredible way to build a sustainable healing environment with the bonus of improving your relationships with the ones you love.
    7. Paraphrase your language to externalize anxiety. Instead of saying, “ my anxiety is slowing down my productivity,” say,  The anxiety is slowing me down” instead. Acknowledge your anxiety but do not own it.
    8. Explore mindfulness exercises with your therapist or on your own. The antidote for anxiety, which is the condition of fearing what’s to happen (future-based) is to practice being in the moment (present).
    9. Surround yourself with energy & people that helps you find your peace. Try to limit your social media interaction from 2 hours to 30 minutes, as an example. If you’re easily triggered whenever you speak with your mom, you may choose to decrease your interaction with her, at least in the moment while you’re learning to find ways to manage your anxiety.
    10.  Tell yourself exactly what you will tell your best friend who is going through your situation. Be a cheerleader, & affirm yourself of all the steps you’ve taken, either forward or backward that has taught you valuable life lessons.

    I am rooting for you. I have seen people transform their lives by embracing the courage to step outside themselves, in therapy or otherwise. Healing takes many forms. Be patient, try new things, & trust that healing will come upon you ( work with it).

    If you’re interested in my type of therapy & you live in California, contact me here for a 15 minute consult.

    Stay Well, my friends.

    About Roanne

    Roanne has been a Psychotherapist for more than 12 years. She has frequented at least 400 Filipino homes and counting. She is the author of the Ebook: 5 Pinoy Love Languages and the creator of the presentation entitled: Filipino Core Values & Considerations in Culturally Responsive Care.

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