Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.
Most people have felt anxious at one point or another in their life. It is a normal and usually expected occurrence. Overall, an individual’s perception of their environment impacts how they cope and interpret their experience. Unfortunately, a strong stigma around seeking mental health support leads to lower utilization of mental health resources, particularly within the Latinx community.
About 16 percent of the Latinx community in the U.S. experience some kind of mental health concern. Of that, about 10 percent reach out to speak to a medical professional. The common myth contributing to the stigma of mental health and underutilization of resources is that these services are only for “locos” aka individuals with a severe mental health illness.
I grew up in a Latinx household and there were no conversations about anxiety or mental health. Instead, there were conversations about “nervios,” “dolores de cabeza” and what kinds of home remedies to take when you were experiencing any of these symptoms. There were also many moments of confusion when a simple question was met with irritability or even silence. During my education and training to become a therapist, I learned that my personal experience of how anxiety presented in my household is a commonly shared experience across many Latinx households.
So what actually is anxiety? For some, it may be a cognitive experience such as worries, or ruminating thoughts. Others may experience anxiety somatically in the form of a stomach, or headache. Sometimes individuals may experience behavioral symptoms such as being restless or engaging in isolating behaviors. In the Latinx community, most individuals are more likely to endorse the somatic or behavioral symptoms because those may seem more acceptable to discuss.
In my work as a therapist, I have observed and learned about common misperceptions of mental health concerns within a Latinx household. These misperceptions, some of which are listed below, are often barriers to seeking support.
Minimization of symptoms
There is often a minimization of mental health symptoms that can lead to an experience of toxic positivity. Comments such as, “No pasa nada,” may have an intent of reassurance but may actually invalidate the experience of an individual. Imagine that you have a loved one who has a fear of spiders. When they see a spider, they become overwhelmed with fear and worries, perhaps they also experience somatic symptoms such as sweaty palms, increased heart rate, and/or tightness in their chest. In an effort to calm them, you may tell them that there is nothing to worry about, “no pasa nada” or perhaps you tell them to just “get over it.” As I mentioned before, the intent may be to help, but the impact may be that the individual feels that their fears are invalid.
This may lead them to withdraw due to feeling misunderstood and fear of seeking help. One way to offer support instead of minimizing is to acknowledge the emotion that your loved one is experiencing and asking them how you can support them. For example, consider a loved one who has been worried about losing their job in light of their company doing several layoffs. You may feel an urge to tell them that they have nothing to worry about, “no pasa nada.” Instead, try acknowledging their feelings, “The idea of potentially losing your job must be very scary for you. Would it help if I just listened or would you like some advice?” In this example, you are validating their distress and providing an opportunity for them to accept your advice or any other support you would like to offer.
Shame about expressing themselves
There is a sense of shame regarding expressing anxious thoughts and feelings with others because “Estas cosas no se hablan fuera de la casa.” This culture of silence around mental health concerns is often in response to a fear of judgment from others. This fear may be amplified by the cultural values of familismo (family is a priority), machismo (masculine & aggressive), and marianismo (feminine & submissive). An individual who values famliismo may believe that “family is everything” and may refuse to engage in any behaviors or share any information that may lead to a negative perception of the family. Someone who values machismo may be too prideful to acknowledge that they are struggling and may also believe that experiencing mental health concerns is a weakness. The fear of weakness also adds to the shame in expressing themselves. Finally, someone who values marianismo may feel that their needs are not as important as the needs of other members of the family. Although there is nothing wrong with wanting privacy, it becomes a problem when someone will not seek out professional support due to fear of being negatively perceived by others or bringing shame to their family.
Invalidation of distress
Yet another misperception is that it is impossible to experience any mental health challenges when your basic needs are met and that you should be grateful because there are others who have fewer privileges. This belief may be perpetuated by the cultural value of humility. In practice, humility is often shown by prioritizing the needs of those who have less privileges. For example, consider a loved one who has been feeling worried about how they performed on their midterm exam. You may tell them that their worries are unnecessary as there are others who are worse off. In that moment, you dismissed their worries and reinforced that they should be prioritizing the needs of those who have less privileges. You may have inadvertently caused them to feel guilt for feeling concerned about their exam. One way to offer support is to take the time to listen and acknowledge their feelings instead of immediately dismissing them.
Finally, remember that there is a difference between having a gratitude practice and feeling obligated to feel grateful. A gratitude practice is intentional, the goal of a gratitude practice is to help cope with stress whereas an obligation to be grateful can be invalidating of the distress and may lead to feeling guilty.
It is important to keep in mind that anxiety symptoms differ from a clinical diagnosis of anxiety disorder. There are many criteria used to differentiate but the main one that I highlight with my clients is the impact on their quality of life. When these symptoms impact someone’s ability to function in everyday life, it may be a clinical diagnosis. That said, please be wary of self-diagnosis and instead seek support from a mental health professional.
A quick consejo on how to cope with anxiety. I love grounding exercises. These are exercises that help you be able to focus on the present moment and manage the symptoms that arise for you in a moment of distress. One of my favorite grounding exercises is a diaphragmatic breathing exercise aka belly breathing. This is one of my favorites because it helps lower the level of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. First, you get into a comfortable position and then place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Next, you take a deep breath through your nose, focusing on filling up your “belly” with air. When you are ready, slowly exhale through your mouth with pursed lips. Imagine the stress and anxiety being released from your body. I like to pair this exercise with a relaxing song to help me stay on track.
Another strategy that I love is having a grounding object. A grounding object is an item that you carry with you that brings you comfort and is connected to a positive memory. This can be a keychain, a ring, a special note, or even a rock. It is something that you hold on to in moments of high anxiety and focus on the positive memory or emotion that the item brings.
Keep in mind that the purpose of sharing these misperceptions is to reduce the stigma and shine a spotlight on some of the beliefs that are barriers to seeking mental health support. Remember, challenging these beliefs and stigma is a complex and ongoing process. Keep learning to keep growing, and have self-compassion for the tough times. Sí se puede!