What It Means to Have ‘Deaf Anxiety’

I’m reckoning with the buildup of stress I’ve accumulated through years of stigma and inaccessibility

Illustration: Adrian Forrow

The term “deaf” is capitalized throughout this article to refer to people who identify as culturally Deaf. Some people who are Deaf use sign language to communicate.

On an early October evening, I staggered into an urgent care facility with my husband and father. Sleepless nights and days filled with anxiety had made me dysfunctional: I could barely stand, walk, eat, sleep, read, or write. I was experiencing a nervous breakdown.

The month prior was stressful. I quit a high-stress job to pursue a dream career in full-time freelance writing (another stressful occupation), and spent a lot of my time composing essays on trauma. My husband discovered a softball-sized cyst in his abdomen that we thought might be cancerous. Thankfully it was benign, but my resilience was tested.

These are just a few of the stress-inducing factors that landed me in the emergency room. But I believe the primary cause is another risk factor that does not have a name in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: “Deaf anxiety.”

I was born Deaf 30 years ago to two hearing parents, one of whom learned sign language to communicate with me. They also communicate with me in English through Cued Speech, a visual communication mode that conveys spoken language using a combination of handshapes, placements, and mouth movements that takes the guesswork out of lip-reading.

Growing up Deaf in a hearing family with three hearing siblings has been one long exam on how to adapt. I attended mainstream public schools with predominantly hearing students, and I’ve worked in mostly hearing environments during my adult life. Although these places felt inclusive, they’ve required constant communication on other people’s terms. Spoken English’s unspoken rules surrounding communication evade me, and, as a result, I have often felt alienated in social situations. For example, hearing people often talk without looking at each other. Although people say that eye contact is important, many actually find it uncomfortable and don’t do it. Avoiding eye contact is not an option for me, since I must read their mouths to understand them.

Mental illness is common among Deaf people. One 2018 study reported that 30% of Deaf people experience anxiety, compared to just 18% of people overall. Deaf people may also be more likely to commit suicide, experience physical assault, and be sexually assaulted than hearing people.

After my breakdown last month, I spent several weeks taking medication, attending therapy, and spending quality time with family and friends. I’ve regained my sense of stability and desire to live. But I’ve been forced to reckon with the buildup of stress that I’ve accumulated over time as a Deaf person. I’ve become curious about a term that resonates with me: “Deaf anxiety.” I came across it a couple weeks before my breakdown, after seeing a Deaf friend at an author reading where there were many hearing people present. The event had caused us both to be anxious, and later I began Googling the terms “deaf” and “anxiety,” and the term “Deaf anxiety” popped up in my search.

I first noticed my Deaf anxiety eight years ago… One night, while removing my new hearing aids I had started wearing, I became self-conscious after noticing the dramatic transition from sound to total silence.

The term “Deaf anxiety” was originally coined a few years ago by Deaf disability activist Artie McWilliams. Deaf anxiety “arises from years of stigma and inaccessibility” related to the experience of being Deaf, he explains in a 2017 YouTube video. “Every day when I step outside the front door, I immediately put up a wall,” he says. “I use my earphones to deflect sounds from the outside world that I wouldn’t be able to hear. The idea is, if people see that I’m wearing earphones, then they can’t get mad at me for not hearing something in my environment.”

That reverberated with me. Deaf anxiety comes not from being Deaf, but from internalized audism — or a Deaf person’s belief that Deafness is “bad.” In other words, it develops in Deaf people from a sense of uncertainty about whether they can meet the challenges posed by a hearing environment.

I constantly feel uncertain in hearing environments, whether at home or in the outside world. Reading and writing have been outlets for me to combat feelings of social isolation. But my defense mechanisms can also leave me feeling alienated.

Dr. Candace McCullough, a psychotherapist and CEO at Deaf Counseling Solutions, says that Deaf anxiety “typically occurs when someone is trying to avoid attracting attention or criticism for possibly not noticing an environmental sound or for not hearing someone’s question or comment. It can also occur when Deaf people feel insecure even in their own home environments, particularly if they don’t have a visual or tactile alert system for the doorbell, smoke/CO alarm, or even an alarm clock.”

McCullough’s definition makes sense. I first noticed my Deaf anxiety eight years ago, after I moved in with my husband, who is hearing. One night, while removing my new hearing aids I had started wearing, I became self-conscious after noticing the dramatic transition from sound to total silence. It could be because the new hearing aids gave me access to sounds I had never heard clearly before. (I can now hear what before seemed like vowel-laden noise without consonants for contours: high frequency, voiceless sounds such as “f,” “s,” “p,” “sh,” “h.”)

After getting used to wearing my hearing aids, silence suddenly took on an ominous presence in the darkness of my bedroom. Over a period of several weeks, I became increasingly anxious about not knowing what to expect from my new environment: Could I protect myself or my husband from an intruder? It disturbed my sense of connectedness to my body, caused me to hyperventilate, and prevented me from falling asleep.

While I’ve become more comfortable in my home since those early years, being in hearing-centric environments still causes me to feel on-guard. If I wasn’t so entrenched in hearing culture, stopping using my hearing aids would be a way of reducing my anxiety so I could avoid the experience of sensory transition altogether. Instead, I’m searching for ways that Deaf people like me can become more resilient in hearing environments. I asked McCullough for advice. “Conceptualizing being Deaf as a positive difference, rather than a negative liability, can help Deaf people feel less anxious about trying to turn themselves into hearing people,” she said.

Reframing Deafness as a gain can help Deaf people feel more comfortable in their skin.

As it turns out, there is a term for this concept: “Deaf gain.” Coined by Gallaudet professors of deaf studies Dirksen Bauman and Joseph J. Murray, it reconceptualizes “hearing loss” as a “gain” for society at large. In other words, through the lens of Deaf gain, Deaf people are celebrated for their unique strengths rather than pitied for not aligning with the norm of “hearing.”

Although more research is needed, studies have already shown that perceiving Deafness as a gain builds resilience in Deaf people. One study found that, when testing Deaf people’s implicit bias with The Deaf Implicit-Association Test, those who associated being Deaf with “goodness” tested at the same level of resilience as their hearing peers, while those who associated being Deaf with “badness” tested at lower levels of resilience. This evidence supports the argument that reframing Deafness as a gain can help Deaf people feel more comfortable in their skin.

There are skills I have that I consider a Deaf gain. I can read conversations from far distances. I can relay to my husband what coaches and players say during football games, since I’m an expert on human mouths. In noisy situations, I make associations regularly to compensate, using a combination of context clues and sheer creativity to fill in the gaps. Those associations sometimes range from the absurd to the poetic. Earlier this week in a crowded painting studio, I misheard a hearing friend telling me a story about her teacher, when actually, it was her sister; I was confused by the intimacy of her “so-called” relationship, which made both of us laugh. Being Deaf fosters my humor and creativity.

Since my breakdown, I’ve started spending more time with Deaf people, which has fueled my desire to develop relationships with people who make a concerted effort to communicate with me on my terms. I’ve also become more vocal about my communication needs with hearing family members and friends, some of whom have already begun to adjust by increasing their use of cued speech and sign language so that I can more effectively communicate with them. I’m finding that I feel more relaxed as a result.

On the other side of my breakdown was a breakthrough.

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