“Normal” stress and anxiety: how we should be helping our friends

“Get over it,” is the common response to someone who speaks out about their school or work-related stress. In a place such as Hong Kong, where grades all but determine one’s future, there is a tendency for people to label feelings of distress as a sign of one’s infirmity or inability to cope with the twists and turns expected of an ordinary life. But while academic pressures might be common enough to be considered “normal”, it is important to acknowledge the feelings of those who are genuinely having a hard time.

There are two main ways through which we intentionally or unintentionally make people feel invalidated: first is the type described above, where people wilfully dismiss feelings of depression as weakness. The second is where we attempt to comfort other people by saying that their concerns are widely held, but since everyone else is doing fine, they must actually be fine too.

While it is fortunate that few people actually intend on doing the first, the second, more benign approach can still be quite damaging. Rather than addressing the crux of the problem, the effect of telling someone that they “should be fine” is to label their feelings as abnormal. The result, as I have seen in some of my peers, is that they become more likely to internalise society’s view of depression as a disorder and are hence less likely to seek the support they need. It is not constructive to tell people that their problems are trivial when their feelings of distress are genuine.

Validation is important when we talk to people about their feelings. Although every person is constantly under stress in the hyper-competitive society of Hong Kong, people experience stress in different ways and to varying degrees. While I find myself to be a relatively resilient person and am not overly concerned about academics, I understand that the stress I am facing now might affect me differently if I were at a different point in my life or if I grew up in a different household. We tell people that their feelings are valid not because we want everything to be “politically correct”, but because only they can decide which of their own feelings are genuine.

Of course, the idea that constant stress is something that we deem as “normal” in Hong Kong should be a matter worth addressing per se. In an ideal world, we would be doing more to encourage people to take academic performance or career advancement less seriously, but alas there is still a long way to go on this front. In the meantime, we should work to make our peers feel more comfortable in voicing their insecurities and let them know that it is okay to be not okay.

Editor’s note: Know more about how to help your friends here, learn more about the signs and symptoms of anxiety here.